On 31 July, the day after Russia demanded seizure of the two Turkish dreadnoughts, the British Cabinet, with its attention drawn to the crisis in Serbia, accepted that they should be retained by the Royal Navy. Churchill later said he requisitioned the ships on 28 July. His memory, though suspect, always ensured that he took all the credit.

sultan osman 1914

British sailors boarded Sultan Osman 1 that same day and the Ottoman ambassador was informed that the warship was being detained for the time being. [1] Buoyed by the seizure of the Turkish dreadnoughts, and confirmation by telegram from France that the government there was in ‘hearty high spirits’ and ‘firmly decided on war,’ [2] Russia continued full speed with the general mobilisation of her armies on Germany’s eastern border. At 4 pm on 1 August, the French also ordered general mobilisation. There was no turning back. It meant war. [3] Over the previous two days the Kaiser had repeatedly pleaded in vain with the Czar to withdraw his armies as Germany would be left with no option but to retaliate. Faced with invasion from both east and west, the Kaiser was the last to order general mobilisation. As the Secret Elite had planned, Germany was provoked into a retaliatory war. In St Petersburg at 6 pm on 1 August the German ambassador Count Pourtales handed over Germany’s declaration of war on Russia and broke down in tears. [4] Unlike the French, he was most definitely not in ‘hearty high spirits’ at the prospect.

In Constantinople that same day, 1 August, Enver Pasha, Minister of War, informed the other Young Turks to their bitter disappointment that their two warships had been seized by the British. [5] Within 24 hours a ‘secret’ alliance was signed between Turkey and Germany. Directed against Russia, it did not commit Turkey to war. [6] Despite the bitter disappointment and provocation, there was no wish for war. The Grand Vizier and majority of the Young Turks did not want to join in the fighting at all, and hoped that Turkey would not be dragged into the conflict. Article 4 of the treaty stated: ‘Germany obligates itself, by force of arms if need be, to defend Ottoman territory in case it should be threatened.’ The Ottoman Empire in turn undertook to observe strict neutrality in the European conflict. [7] Germany committed itself to defend Turkey from a Russian attack, though Turkey still remained nominally neutral. Her involvement in the war was not yet a done deal.

Enver-Pasha

It is no exaggeration to state that Enver was the driving force behind the Turkish alliance with Germany. He signed the secret pact without the knowledge, permission or approval of the majority of his own cabinet. Sir Louis Mallet, British Ambassador at Constantinople, stated that the pro-German Enver was ‘dominated by a quasi-Napoleonic ideal’, while ‘the Sultan, the Heir Apparent, the Grand Vizier, Djavid Bey, a majority of the Ministry, and a considerable section of the CUP were opposed to so desperate an adventure as war with the Allies.’ [8] Enver was headstrong and bold. He ordered the general mobilisation of the Turkish army and the immediate closure and mining of the southern end of the Dardanelles, though a small passage in both the Bosphorous and Dardanelles was kept open to admit friendly vessels. [9] Reeling from Britain’s seizure of her two warships, and acutely aware of the threat that Russia’s Black Sea fleet posed to the defenceless Constantinople, an alternative proposal was put forward. According to the dispatch sent to Berlin on 2 August 1914 by the German Ambassador at Constantinople, Baron von Wangenheim, Enver Pasha formally asked Germany to send her two Mediterranean warships to Constantinople. [10] Germany agreed. [11] It was a like for like replacement; for Sultan Osman and Reshadieh, read Goeben and Breslau.

The battle-cruiser Goeben and its close escort, the light cruiser Breslau, had been in the Mediterranean since 1912, and, from October 1913, sailed under the command of the energetic and imaginative Rear-Admiral Wilhelm Souchon. Goodwill visits were regularly made to cities and ports throughout the Mediterranean and Aegean, including Constantinople. The Royal Navy kept them under close watch and continually updated the Admiralty in London as to their whereabouts.

Goeben at Constantinople

Goeben, a powerful and impressive warship, had been commissioned in 1912. She was slightly smaller than a battleship with a displacement of 22,640 tons, and ten 11-inch guns. The Breslau was much smaller at 4,570 tons, and armed with 4.1-inch guns. Goeben had a nominal full speed of 26-27 knots, but was plagued with problems. Faults in her coal-fired boilers caused a loss of power and she spent July in  dock at Pola, the Austrian naval base at the head of the Adriatic. The boiler re-fit was incomplete when war broke out and, though unable to achieve a sustained speed more than 18 knots, she took to sea. [12] This should be borne in mind when considering why the Royal Navy failed to catch the Goeben on the open sea.

On the declaration of war Goeben and Breslau, were ordered to the coast of Algeria to disrupt the embarkation of the French X1X Corps bound for Marseilles and onward to deployment on the Western Front. [13] It would be no easy task. A combined British and French fleet of seventy-three warships was ranged against the only two enemy craft in the Mediterranean, for the Austrian fleet remained in port. France had sixteen battleships, (one of which was a modern dreadnought) six armoured cruisers and twenty four destroyers. The British fleet, based on Malta, comprised three battle cruisers, four armoured cruisers, four light cruisers, and sixteen destroyers. [ 14 ] The three battle cruisers displaced 18,000 tons, were capable of around 23 knots, and carried an armament of eight 12-inch guns. It was David against Goliath. Two warships, one wounded, against a veritable armada.

The British fleet was divided into two squadrons. The first, under Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne, comprised the three powerful battle cruisers. The second, with eight smaller cruisers and sixteen destroyers, was commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge. Admiral Milne, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet ‘was an officer of inferior calibre, utterly lacking in vigour and imagination,’ and his appointment had been largely due to ‘Court influence.’ [15] Previously posted as Flag Officer, Royal Yachts, Milne was a close friend of the royal family and former groom in waiting to King Edward VII. When Churchill appointed him to the post, Admiral John Fisher, First-Sea-Lord, was outraged. He labelled Milne ‘an utterly useless’ commander, a ‘backstairs cad’ and a ‘serpent of the lowest type.’ [16] Was this the template for everyone in command at Gallipoli?

Admiral Souchon

At midnight on 2 August Goeben and Breslau separately made their way west from Messina on the north east tip of Sicily for a rendezvous point south of Sardinia. Around 3.30 am on 4 August, as he neared the Algerian coast, Admiral Souchon received the following order from Berlin; ‘Alliance concluded with Turkey. Goeben and Breslau proceed at once to Constantinople.’ Having come so far, Souchon decided to bombard the French embarkation ports of Philippeville (now Skidda) and Bone (now Annaba), before heading east to Constantinople. Goeben and Breslau ‘crossed the path of the bulk of the French fleet, and were detected, not once but at least twice, during their run to and from North Africa. French Admiral Lapeyrere was reputedly ordered to set sail and stop them, but remained in port. [17] It was left to the Royal Navy to take action. What was going on?

The French Navy had by agreement in 1912 with Winston Churchill, assumed a major role in the Mediterranean, leaving the Royal Navy free to concentrate on the North Atlantic, the Channel and the North Sea. The target for the two German warships lay between the North African coast and Marseilles. The entire French navy was at liberty to seek out and destroy Goeben and Breslau yet, despite sighting the enemy, made no attempt to chase and destroy them. Why? Why was it so important that the task was left to the Royal Navy rather than the French? What was the real agenda?

[1] David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, p. 57.
[2] Sidney B, Fay, Origins of the World War, vol 11, p. 531.
[3] Harry Elmer Barnes, The Genesis of the World War, p. 534. Kennan, Fateful Alliance, p. 161. Marc Trachtenberg, The Meaning of Mobilization in 1914, International Security, vol 15, issue 3.
[4] Fay, Origins of the World War, vol 11, p. 532.
[5] Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, p. 61.
[6] Alan Moorhead, Gallipoli, pp. 25-26.
[7] Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, p. 59.
[8] J S Ewart, The Roots and Cause of the Wars (1914-1918), p. 207.
[9] Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War, p. 103.
[10] Ibid., p. 106.
[11] Moorehead, Gallipoli, p. 26.
[12] Arthur J Mader, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, vol II, pp., 20-21.
[13] Peter Hart, Gallipoli, p. 9.
[14] C.R.M.F. Crutwell, A History of the Great War, 1914-1918.
[15] Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, p. 21.
[16] Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, pp. 141-47.
[17] Dan Van der Vat, The Dardanelles Disaster, p. 32.