Once the immediate German threat to Paris had passed, and the Western Front stuck fast in what would become a four year-long stalemate of miserable trench warfare, London was faced with a serious problem. The Russians had been badly beaten on the Eastern Front. They had invaded Germany’s eastern borders but were driven back by the German defensive-offensive at the Battle of Tannenberg and the first Battle of the Masurian Lakes. Despite outnumbering the German Eighth Army under von Hindenberg and Ludendorf by almost two to one, the Russians had lost some 300,000 men by the middle of September 1914. Rather than face the wrath of the Czar, General Alexander Samsonov shot himself.

Russian morale plummeted. Such heavy and unexpected losses only six weeks into the war drained their enthusiasm. With the way to Constantinople blocked by the Goeben, some of the Czar’s advisors began to consider an armistice with Germany. [1] If Russia threw in the towel, Britain and France faced disaster. This was not part of the grand strategy envisaged by the Secret Elite. The possibility of a victorious German army switching from the Eastern to the Western Front sent shivers down the spine of Whitehall. London became preoccupied with the need to support an increasingly reluctant Russia to hold fast to the war. Make no mistake, Russia was in this war and prepared to sacrifice her young men for one reason, the acquisition of Constantinople and the Straits. How were the Secret Elite to deal with this? Russia’s ambitions cut across British and French post-war imperial intentions and could never be genuinely countenanced.

Russian control of Constantinople made no long term strategic sense. Indeed, two centuries of relentless insistence that Russia had to be kept out of Constantinople underpinned the fact that in truth, ‘the Allies would try anything to stop Russia gaining Istanbul and the Bosphorus.’ [2] The French wanted Syria; Britain wanted Persia and just about everywhere else. Dozens of schemes took shape in the corridors of power in London and Paris which were bound to be obstructed if Constantinople was in Russian hands.

Poincare with Czar Nicholas

French fears were later expressed by President Poincare in a letter to his Ambassador in Petrograd: ‘Possession of Constantinople and its vicinity would not only give Russia a sort of privilege in the inheritance of the Ottoman Empire. It would introduce her, via the Mediterranean, into the concert of western nations and this would give her, via the open sea, the chance to become a great naval power. Everything would thus be changed in the European equilibrium…’ Poincare’s great fear was that once Germany had been defeated, Russia would have little reason to adhere to the Franco-Russian Alliance, and as a result, its naval expansion would not serve French interests. [3]

The annual Guildhall Banquet which the City of London lavished on its political leaders on Monday 9 November reached truly iconic status in terms of British duplicity. Churchill promised that a blockade would bring Germany to her knees in six, nine or twelve months, and promptly failed to take the action required. Kitchener announced that ‘the men are responding splendidly…but I shall want more’, but Prime Minister Asquith told the greatest lie. He claimed that, despite all his government’s efforts to safeguard Turkish neutrality, ‘it is they and not we who have wrung the death-knell of Ottoman dominion, not only in Europe, but also in Asia. The Turkish Empire has committed suicide and dug its grave with its own hand.’ [4] No Russian Imperialist could have said it better. The Ottoman empire was scheduled for demolition. [5] It would be torn apart under the guise of suicide.

Count_BenckendorffIn November 1914 Russian Foreign Secretary Sazonov notified Count Benckendorff, his Ambassador in London, that Russian troops operating against Turkey would be compelled to violate Persian neutrality. Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey immediately issued a ‘hands off’ dictum stating that a Russian incursion into the neutral Moslem country would provoke anti-Entente ferment among the Mohammedans of the East. Just two days later Britain landed her own troops at the head of the Persian Gulf. They occupied the oilfields near Ahwaz, and advanced on the Turkish town of Basra, capturing it on 22 November. [6] Apparently a Russian invasion of Persia would excite religious tensions among Muslims, but a British attack was perfectly acceptable. The hypocrisy was stunning.

Benckendorff cabled Petrograd that, entirely unprompted, King George V had told him that ‘as concerns Constantinople, it is clear that it must be yours.’  The ruse worked a treat. The Czar was elated. [7] Sazonov abandoned his designs on Persia. He had the King-Emperor’s word, [8] but the British government immediately pursued its interests further. Although the prizes were supposedly predicated on a German defeat, Britain informed Sazonov that they intended to annex Egypt, still nominally inside the Ottoman Empire, and replace the pro-Turkish Khedive with a sympathetic figure-head. The Russians agreed to the British takeover of Egypt in the belief that this was a step towards their inevitable march to Constantinople. Czar Nicholas thought it ‘excellent’. [9] In terms of grand geopolitical scheming and diplomatic double dealing the Czar was utterly naïve. He had been cajoled into continuing in the war, but the burning question was, for how long?

Sazonov was not so readily reassured. He felt that the time had finally come to  resolve the question of the Straits. It was now or never. Like many others in Petrograd he was unwilling to wait until the end of the war for complete Russian control of Constantinople, including both sides of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara.  [10] The great dream was to take both European and Asian banks of the Dardanelles which would be the springboard to even greater imperial acquisitions. This and this alone justified the terrible sacrifices which were being made on the Eastern Front.

On 21 December Sazonov wrote to his Chief of Staff, General Yanushkevich, that it was imperative that Russia took the Straits, and that it could ‘not be achieved by diplomatic action alone.’ He wanted to know ‘what military operations had been decided upon for the actual penetration and seizure of the Narrows and their environs.?’ The answer was not what he wanted. The Black Sea Fleet, short of dreadnoughts, fast mine-layers and modern submarines, was barely on a par with the Turkish Navy, and the loss of one or two vessels would upset the precarious balance. Above all, the Russian generals were bound by long-standing agreement to concentrate efforts on the Eastern Front. Yanushkevich answered Sazonov on 25 December: ‘In the present circumstances … the question of allocating special forces for taking possession of the Straits cannot be raised until we have achieved a decisive success over our Western enemies’ . [11]

Czar and Grand DukeSazonov was faced with the stark reality; Russia was currently unable to take Constantinople. His expectations had been totally unrealistic, but the Secret Elite were, as ever, much better informed. The British Military Attache at Petrograd, Colonel Alfred Knox was an astute observer and by December 1914 his reports worried Kitchener. While the Grand Duke Nicholas, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army, and the Minister of War, remained outwardly confident (Churchill described it as blind or guilty optimism) [12] Knox spoke of the criticisms he heard from Russian commanders who believed that the delayed French offensive was caused by the ‘diabolical cunning’ of the other allied governments who wanted Russia to ‘waste her strength so that she may not emerge too strong from the war.’ [13] Lack of guns and ammunition and disorganised communication left the Russian army incapable of a serious offensive. [14] and the 6th Army at Petrograd trained new recruits with only one rifle to three men.[15] There was an almost suicidal culture in Russian military circles of representing situations in a falsely favourable light but increasingly, the need to make peace with the Germans was voiced by high-ranking Generals. [16] Accusations were made that the burden of the war was being borne unequally by Russia; that Britain was not committing sufficient men to the front. [17]

The British government began to have ‘grave forebodings’ that the Russian armies, hamstrung and paralysed by the lack of munitions, might collapse entirely and ‘be forced into a separate peace.’ Churchill believed that such a disaster could be averted if Britain and France encouraged Russia ‘to dwell upon the prizes of victory.’ [18] He knew, as did every member of the Secret Elite, that the ‘prizes of victory’, namely control of Constantinople and the Straits, were prizes Russia could never be allowed to win. What was said was not what was intended.

This was the background to Gallipoli; the appearance of supportive action which could never be allowed to deliver the stated objective, Constantinople. By the end of 1914 Russia had lost over 1,350,000 killed, wounded or missing, and the arms shortage was beginning to paralyse her operations on the Eastern Front. Only the prospect of seizing Constantinople could keep the mouzhik [peasants] in the trenches. As long as Russia believed that her allies were fully engaged in a battle to take the Straits for them, their war effort had purpose.

The Secret Elite had to conjure an initiative which gave the illusion of support and promised glittering success so that Russia would continue the struggle.

[1] Harvey Broadbent, Gallipoli, One Great Deception?
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ronald P Bobroff, Roads to Glory, Late Imperial Russia and the Straits, p. 122.
[4] The Times, 10 November 1914, p. 9.
[5] Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of The First World War, p. 123.
[6] Martin Gilbert, Winston S Churchill, p. 221.
[7] McMeekin, The Russian Origins, p. 123.
[8] W.W. Gottlieb, Studies in Secret Diplomacy, pp. 68–70.
[9]  Ibid., pp 74-75.
[10] Bobroff, Roads to Glory, pp. 120-121.
[11] Gottlieb, Studies, p. 75.
[12] Winston Churchill,World Crisis, p. 296.
[13] Sir Alfred Knox, With the Russian Army, 1914-1917, 1 December 1914, p. 193.
[14] Ibid., p. 213.
[15] Ibid., p. 217.
[16] Ibid., p. 220.
[17] Ibid., pp. 352-3.
[18] Winston S Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, vol. 1., pp. 296-298