The entry of Goeben and Breslau to the Dardanelles, barely a week into Britain’s war with Germany, was a significant achievement. It felt like a defeat; it was anything but.

The Royal Navy suffered a widely felt embarrassment at the incapacity of its Mediterranean fleet to destroy two relatively easy targets. In the eyes of fellow senior officers, the failure to engage the enemy was seen as a shameful episode, contrary to the finest traditions of the navy. The commanders of the British cruiser squadrons, Rear-Admiral Milne and Vice-Admiral Troubridge, were recalled to London in response to widespread public criticism. These senior officers had to be held to account to placate the Russians who might have asked even more awkward questions about the Goeben’s escape. They protested that they did no wrong. Milne insisted that he had given ‘unquestioning obedience’ to Admiralty orders and was able to demonstrate that in his pursuit of the Goeben, he had carried them out to the letter. [1] He stated that he had successfully prevented the Germans from carrying out their primary aim to attack French troops crossing from Africa, and was publicly vindicated. Milne did obey orders, but it is unlikely that we shall ever know what his true orders were.

Vice-Admiral Troubridge

Vice-Admiral Troubridge was subjected to a Court of Inquiry which considered that his failure to engage the Goeben, after she left Messina on 6 August, was deplorable. [2] He was then tried by Court Martial on a charge of negligence for failing to pursue the Goeben under section three of the Naval Discipline Act, [3] but his conduct was vindicated. [4] It was political posturing. The Admiralty went through the motions of a strictly private court martial whose proceedings were barred to the press. The Rear Admiral had followed orders from London, but had not been party to all the information available. [5] It must be remembered that the Admiralty knew precisely where the Goeben was headed, but did not share this with Troubridge. Such information could not have been made public for the damage it would have caused to British-Russian relations would have been terminal. Milne and Troubridge had to carry the can for the entire episode and neither commanded at sea again.

No-one at the time considered that the Goeben and Breslau’s escape to Constantinople had been carefully orchestrated by the Foreign Office in London in conjunction with the Admiralty, to stop Russia seizing the city, [6] but that was certainly the immediate effect. It also demonstrated the over-reaching power exercised by Enver Pasha in granting permission to the German warships to make their spectacular entry into the Bosphorus without consulting either the Grand Vizier or any other member of the Turkish government. Anchored in the Golden Horn, the cruisers were never asylum seekers. They were game-changing defenders of the Ottoman Empire, though they posed an awkward question in terms of international law. Since Turkey was still a neutral country ( her secret agreement with Germany of 2 August did not commit her to war ) why did she provide a safe haven for the German warships? As has already been noted [7] Enver Pasha, acting on his own initiative, had asked the German Ambassador to send both cruisers through the Dardanelles to replace the dreadnoughts which Britain had so deviously commandeered. [8] In order to maintain Ottoman neutrality, Goeben and Breslau were hastily incorporated into the Sultan’s navy. [9]

Admiral Souchon (centre) and officers, now wearing the  Fez

The famous names of Goeben and Breslau were replaced by Sultan Jawuz Selim, and Midilli. The German crews exchanged their floppy dark-blue sailors’ caps for red fezzes, and raised the Turkish flag, but nothing else changed. They were German ships, controlled by a German Admiral and crewed by German sailors who took their orders from Berlin. Churchill was apoplectic in public since it reflected so badly on the Royal Navy and the British fleet received orders to proceed immediately to blockade the entrance to the Dardanelles. [10] According to Herbert Asquith, Churchill wanted to send a torpedo flotilla through the Dardanelles ‘to sink the Goeben and her consort’, [11] but it was all posturing. Britain asked that the German crews be removed, but ‘were reluctant to pressure the Turks to send the German vessels away.’ [12] Reluctant? Indeed, they were more than reluctant. Having gone to extraordinary lengths to shepherd them into the pen, Churchill and the Foreign Office had no intention of driving them out.

Their safe arrival rendered a Russian amphibious operation to seize Constantinople well-nigh impossible. [13] Although Sazonov protested furiously, London attempted to rationalise the situation. It was better, they suggested, to have the warships in the Sea of Marmara as part of the Turkish navy than in the Mediterranean as German combatants. Russia had been kept out of Constantinople, but the Secret Elite now faced the considerable problem of keeping her focused on the eastern front. How enthusiastic would they be to continue the war if they were not to gain the great prize of Constantinople? It required a delicate balance of assurances and timing, and in this the elites were magnificently served by a most trusted agent, Sir Louis Mallet, Ambassador at Constantinople. Mallet’s critical role at the start of the war was to keep Turkey neutral until it suited Britain to shunt her into the war on Germany’s side.

Described by the Turkish Minister, Djamal Pasha, as ‘a particularly fine man, thoroughly honest and very kind’, [14] Mallet’s appointment in 1913 raised eyebrows in diplomatic circles. He had been head of the Eastern Department in the Foreign Office since 1907, not a court diplomat, and trusted completely by Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey and Sir Arthur Nicolson, his permanent secretary. Mallet was close to the inner circle of the Secret Elite and had worked for years on the development of British policies in Egypt, Persia, and India. He understood the geopolitics of the Middle East, and was totally conversant with British interests and long term aims in the region. Mallet was sent to Constantinople as the embodiment of British sympathy for the Young Turks who considered his appointment an act of friendship. His role was to keep the Porte ( the name for the Ottoman administration ) neutral in order to buy time for the British Empire in the troubled early months of the war. Mallet was well able to match the Ottomans at their own game of flawless duplicity.

Sir Louis Mallet

Louis Mallet absented himself from Turkey in the summer of 1914, and was ‘on leave’ when Enver Pasha signed the secret alliance with Germany on 2 August. It is hard to imagine that during these days of unprecedented international crisis, Mallet was simply on vacation. At the moment when the Foreign Office and the Admiralty were deciding on the fate of the Turkish dreadnoughts, when Sazonov and the Russians were ranting about the need to keep these massive warships from the Turks, when the Goeben and Breslau were making good their escape, it beggar’s belief that the British Ambassador was not deeply involved, giving advice and making recommendations. For six years he had served Sir Edward Grey as Under-Secretary of State in charge of Near and Middle Eastern affairs. Mallet was one of the most knowledgeable men in the country in matters concerning the Ottoman Empire, yet we are asked to accept that unfortunately he was on leave and could not be disturbed. It gave the Secret Elite the perfect excuse to distance him from all that had happened. He was on holiday, hence out of the firing line, when the Turkish warships were seized by Churchill. Thus his close relationship with the Young Turks was untainted by the hostility which was associated with Britain’s action. How very fortunate.

In fact Mallet became the main instrument in the charm offensive devised to soothe the anxious Turks and keep them neutral until Britain was ready and the time was right. He returned to Constantinople on 16 August with promises to make good the financial loss incurred by the commandeering of the dreadnoughts, and pursued a determined line that Ottoman neutrality was in the best interests of everyone. Asquith noted his satisfaction on 19 August, ‘ Happily, Louis Mallet is back in Constantinople,’ and relationships ‘will be further improved if we offer to return their two seized battleships at the end of the war.’ [15] The Foreign Office’s only stipulation was that the German crews had to be sent home, a condition they knew could never be met. Note what was specifically implied here. Britain was not asking Turkey to surrender the warships, or promise not to use them. Keep the warships; defend Constantinople, but remove the Germans. It was as well that Asquith’s letters did not reach Sazonov.

Mallet and the British Foreign Office knew about the ‘secret’ Turkish alliance with Germany long before his return to Constantinople. The British Ambassador was fully aware that Enver Pasha was the principal decision-maker inside the Turkish Cabinet and Mallet could literally watch the Goeben and Breslau from his residence at Therapia as they sailed past every other day, their guns ready for action. [16] He knew exactly what was going on behind the scenes but pretended ignorance. Neither Mallet nor the Foreign Office were fooled by soft words or vague promises, but they played the game of duplicity in order to buy valuable time and keep Turkey neutral for as long as possible.


There were two imperatives. The first was to keep Russia in the war. The second was to keep the Muslim world on-side; to prepare India and Arabia for the certainty that if war broke out with Turkey, the Holy Places would be protected. Since 1517 the Ottoman Sultan had been recognised as a Caliph, the religious and political successor to the Prophet Muhammad. The Ottoman Caliph was held to be the leader of the worldwide Muslim community and defender of the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. Moslems might forgive Britain for going to war against the only significant independent Islamic power, but not the disruption of pilgrimages to the Holy Places of Arabia [17]

In those early days of the Secret Elite’s war, the Foreign Office and the War Office had to ensure that everything was in place to deal with any religious uprisings when the Ottomans entered the war. Kitchener and prime minister Asquith agreed that, ‘…in the interests of the Moslems in India and Egypt’, Britain must not do anything which could be interpreted as taking the initiative in a war against the Ottomans. She ought to ‘be compelled to strike the first blow…’ [18] Two weeks earlier they had ‘compelled’ Germany ‘to strike the first blow,’ then heaped the blame on her for starting the war. It was the mantra repeated so often before Britain went to war. Sir Edward Grey later reminded Ambassador Mallet that ‘I do not see how war can be avoided, but we shall not take the first step.’ [19]. That said it all. Perfidious Albion dressed herself in apparent innocence before ‘being compelled’ to go to war. It was an oft repeated hypocrisy. [20]

[1] Arthur J Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow Vol. II, p.32.
[2] PRO/National Archives, ADM/156/76
[3] Ibid.
[4] The Times, 13 Nov, 1914, p. 5.
[5] Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, vol II, pp. 32-39.
[6] WW Gottlieb, Studies in Secret Diplomacy during the First World War pp. 47ff and passim.
[7] See Blog Gallipoli 3
[8] Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War. p. 106.
[9] Ulrich Trumpener, The Escape of the Goeben and Breslau, Canadian Journal of History, September 1971,Canadian Journal of History) p. 171.
[10] Martin Gilbert, Winston S Churchill, vol III, p. 194.
[11] Michael and Eleanor Brock, HH Asquith, Letters,to Venetia Stanley, p. 171.
[12] McMeekin, The Russian Origins, pp. 99-100.
[13] Ibid., pp. 105-106.
[14] Djamal Pasha, Memories of a Turkish Statesman. memoriesofturkis00ahmeuoft
[15] Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p. 179.
[16] Joseph Heller, Sir Louis Mallet and the Ottoman Empire, The Road to War, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol.12, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), p. 36.
[17] David Fromkin, A Peace to end all Peace, p. 101.
[18] Brock, HH Asquith, Letters, p. 171.
[19] Joseph Heller, Sir Louis Mallet and the Ottoman Empire, The Road to War, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol.12, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), p. 36.
[20] For example, when Sir Alfred Milner decided that war with the Boers was unavoidable he deliberately ‘bounced’ Kruger into making the first move. (Docherty and Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the First World War, p. 40.)