For a true appreciation of what Gallipoli was about we must take a brief step back in time. In the early years of the twentieth century the Secret Elite in London saw Germany as a rapidly growing economic, industrial and imperial threat to the British Empire, and began planning a European war to destroy her. However, Britain could never destroy Germany on her own in a continental war and had to create alliances with France and Russia. [1]


The Entente Cordiale between England and France, signed on 8 April 1904, marked the end of an era of conflict between the two that had lasted nearly a thousand years. But it was much more important than that. The Entente included secret clauses hidden from the British Cabinet and parliament that grew into a commitment to support each other in a war against Germany, [2] a war in which France would regain her ‘lost provinces’ of Alsace-Lorraine. Russia, already tied to France by an alliance, was Britain’s next target. Both were at loggerheads over Persia and Afghanistan, and for centuries Britain had opposed Russian expansion towards Constantinople.

In 1908, however, the Russians were duped and drawn in with an astonishing, but empty, promise. Britain would no longer object to Russia seising Constantinople, capital city of the Ottoman Empire and the ‘Holy Grail’ of Russian foreign policy. [3] The French had also given clear assurances in 1908 that they would support Russian policy in the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. [4] From the time of Catherine the Great, Russia’s obsession with a warm water port on the Black Sea with unrestricted year-round access to the Mediterranean, was predicated on seizing Constantinople. We are asked to believe that Russia went to war in support of Serbia, but the evidence shows no genuine Russian concern for the Serbs. That was an excuse. In truth, they harboured a ‘widespread obsession, bordering on panic’ about Constantinople and the Straits. [5]

While Constantinople was seen as the glittering prize, other choice pickings would be on offer after the Ottoman Empire was purposefully driven into an alliance with Germany and destroyed. The Russians believed that the sacrifice of millions of men in a war against Germany and Turkey would be rewarded with Constantinople and a share of the spoils in oil rich Persia and Iraq. They were sadly deluded. Britain ‘had no mind to share anything’. [6] While it was a promise the Secret Elite never intended to keep, every aspect of their plan for war depended on Russia remaining convinced that Constantinople would be hers. Had they realised the promise was a deception, Russia would most likely have signed a peace treaty with Germany. As Kaiser Wilhelm correctly advised his cousin Czar Nicholas, Britain was simply using Russia as a ‘cats-paw.’ (tool) [7] And he was right.

Committee of Union and Progress -  Ottoman Empire - Young Turks - Peter Crawford

Britain and France had long been deeply involved with the Ottoman Empire and bled it dry. Indebted to them for massive loans, Sultan Abdul Hamid 11 had granted extraordinary concessions and permitted them to gain a stranglehold on the financial and economic life of the nation by the grossest form of corruption. In 1908 an uprising of young Turkish army officers rocked the Empire. The dramatic and virtually bloodless success of the so-called Young Turks ended the 33 year autocracy of Abdul Hamid, and introduced constitutional rule. A number of the Young Turks had been educated in Western European universities and were staunch admirers of French and English institutions.

Over the next five years their political fortunes fluctuated, but on 26 January 1913 the Young Turks assumed complete control of the Ottoman Empire through a brutal coup d’etat. A triumvirate of Pashas (a high rank similar to a British peerage or knighthood), named Enver, Taalat and Djemal, pledged reforms but did not hesitate to employ the odious tactics of the old regime. [8] Their liberal dream withered into dictatorship. Financially, the new government remained bankrupt; morally it reverted to Abdul Hamid’s old system of coercion and corruption. [9]

Foreign specialists were appointed to modernise their outdated and incompetent army, navy and police forces. British Admiral Sir Arthur Limpus arrived in Constantinople in 1912 to take charge of the Ottoman Navy. He persuaded the Turks to refurbish and upgrade their decaying port and naval facilities and the contracts were promptly awarded to British armaments giants, Armstrong-Whitworth, and Vickers. When Britain and France declined to enrol Turkish officers in their military academies, the Young Turks turned to Berlin. [10]

General Liman von Sanders

In 1913 the German General, Liman von Sanders, was invited to to reorganise the Turkish army which had been soundly defeated the previous year by the Balkan League forces. Since the French were asked to take charge of the Turkish gendarmerie, the three most senior military and civilian commanders were drawn from the European powers. Von Sanders’ appointment was not a specific demonstration of pro-German sympathies as some suggest. A German had been chosen as Inspector General of the army, but the Young Turks made it clear that ‘all else, in finance, administration, navy, and reforms’ would be under English guidance. [11]

The Young Turks steadfastly wanted to remain on good terms with the British. Britain and Turkey were traditional allies and the disaster of Gallipoli should never have arisen. [12] The Turks generally disliked the Germans and their growing influence, [13] and made three separate attempts to sign an alliance with Britain, but were rebuffed on each occasion. [14] In July 1914, Djemal pleaded with the French Foreign Minister to accept the Ottoman government into the Triple Entente, [15] ‘and at the same time protect us against Russia’. [16] Poor fools. A crucial feature of the Entente was the alliance with Russia at the expense of the Turks, not an alliance with the Turks to protect them from Russia. Despite trying to find common ground with France and Britain, and even with their old enemy, Russia, all the overtures made by the Young Turks were dismissed. Turkey could have been a useful ally to the Entente since the Straits would have remained open to them. The American historian, Ron Bobroff concluded that a formal agreement with Turkey would have greatly improved the Triple Entente’s capacity to contain Germany, [17] but Britain and France had other plans and Russia expected to take the prize of Constantinople. This scenario could only take place once the old empire was destroyed along with Germany, and for that very reason the Young Turks were deliberately pushed into the German camp.

War fever and the prospect of taking Constantinople consumed St Petersburg. In February 1914, six full months before the First World War began, the Russian high command was planning to seize the city with an amphibious landing of 127,500 troops and heavy artillery from Odessa. Unfortunately for the Russians, one monumental problem lay ahead. The Naval staff expressed grave alarm at the prospect of the arrival in Constantinople of two battleships which were being built in Britain for the Turkish Navy. These state of the art Dreadnoughts would prevent the landings and the Black Sea fleet would have been entirely at their mercy. [18] The reason Russia was going to war was clearly and absolutely underpinned by the British and French promise of Constantinople, yet Britain was on the point of delivering two new warships which would prevent it. What was going on?

Sultan Osman I  built for Turkey  in 1914 but taken by the Royal Navy

Russia made several unsuccessful requests to foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey in May and June 1914 to have the Turkish contract cancelled. By late July over 500 Turkish sailors had arrived on the Tyne in north-east England to take the first of the mighty warships to Constantinople. The Sultan Osman I and her sister ship, Reshadieh, itself almost completed, had been fully paid for, in part by generous subscriptions from the ordinary people of the Ottoman Empire. Naval regattas and street parties were planned and widespread public excitement anticipated their arrival.

By 30 July the matter became extremely urgent for the Russians. Foreign Secretary, Sergei Sazonov, warned Britain that it was a matter of ‘the highest degree of importance’ that the Turkish ships stayed in England. [19] It appears likely that the thinly veiled threat implied that, if the ships were released, the Czar would not be willing to go to war. He was not to be double-crossed over Constantinople.

Days before this, President Poincare of France had visited St Petersburg to keep the Czar on course for war. Poincare reminded him that, like the British, the French government had no objection to Russia’s taking Constantinople. [20] Within twenty-four hours of Poincare’s departure, Russia mobilised 1,100,000 men together with both the Baltic and Black Sea fleets. [21] It is extremely unlikely that she would have continued the race to war had the prize of Constantinople been denied her.

First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, ordered armed troops in Newcastle to prevent Turkish sailors boarding Sultan Osman I, and specifically instructed that the Turkish flag should not be raised over the ship. The response throughout the Ottoman Empire was of utter outrage. Churchill explained that the warships were vital to Britain, and ‘with a margin of only seven dreadnoughts we could not afford to do without these two fine ships,’ [22] but the truth ran much deeper. The Turkish warships were retained at the eleventh hour for fear of Russian reaction and last-minute rejection of war.

The retention of the Turkish warships served two important functions for the Secret Elite: It kept the Czar on track and it steered the angry Turks towards the enemy camp. As late as July 1914 the majority of the Turkish cabinet had been ‘friendly disposed’ towards Britain, [23] but the act that drove them away from the Entente was the British government’s seizure of the two dreadnoughts. As an essay in provocation, it was breathtaking. [24] ‘If Britain wanted deliberately to incense the Turks and drive them into the Kaiser’s arms she could not have chosen more effective means.’ [25]

For the Secret Elite, two positive outcomes accrued from withholding the ships, but in consequence, a shadow was cast over their long term plan for the Middle East. Russia had been placated and her mobilisation continued towards its inevitable outcome, war. As was always intended, Turkey’s overtures were spurned and she was relentlessly pushed into the German camp. But without the two Turkish Dreadnoughts, what was to stop the Russians sailing into Constantinople when the opportunity presented itself. The answer was already cruising in the Mediterranean.

[1] Pat Walsh, Remembering Gallipoli, p. 11.
[2] Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the First World War, p. 70.
[3] David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, p. 138; Niall Ferguson, The Pity Of War, p. 61.
[4] Friedrich Stieve, Izvolsky and the World War, p. 44.
[5] Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War, p. 28.
[6] Walsh, Remembering Gallipoli, p 15.
[7] Willy-Nicky Letters, 22 August 1905 and Sidney B. Fay, Origins of the World War, Vol. 1, p. 175.
[8] Encyclopaedia Britannica, These Eventful Years, Vol. 2, pp. 130-132.
[9] Alan Moorhead, Gallipoli, pp. 11-12.
[10] J Laffin, The Agony of Gallipoli. p. 4.
[11] Geoffrey Miller, Straits, Ch.X1
[12] Laffin, The Agony of Gallipoli, p3.
[13] Robert Rhodes James, Gallipoli, p. 8.
[14] Hew Strachan, The First World War, p. 102.
[15] Stieve, Isvolsky and the World War, p. 177.
[16] W W Gottlieb, Studies in Secret Diplomacy, p. 34.
[17] Ronald P Bobroff, Roads to Glory, Late Imperial Russia and the Straits, p. 93.
[18] McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War, pp. 30-34.
[19] Ibid., p. 102.
[20] Gottlieb, Studies in Secret Diplomacy, p. 67.
[21] Immanuel Geiss, July 1914, p. 190.
[22] W S Churchill, The World Crisis, pp. 221-2.
[23] Dan Van Der Vat, The Dardanelles Disaster, p. 28.
[24] L A Carlyon, Gallipoli, p. 42.
[25] Gottlieb, Studies in Secret Diplomacy, p. 42.