Monday, 20 April 2015

Q: So why were Britain and NZ at war with Turkey at all?

Dave Mann commented on an earlier post, “the times were a muddle of friends becoming foes and vice versa. Nobody could keep up with it.” True enough.

[A]another interesting fact about how Turkey entered the war [says Dave] is the Ottoman Empire was initially no great enemy of Britain and in fact they had contracted to buy two battleships from them before the war. When war broke out [Churchill unilaterally] reneged on the deal saying "sorry chaps but we need them more than you do now." Germany responded by sailing a battleship squadron up the Straits on a state visit and then proceeding into the Black Sea where they shelled some Russian naval installations while falsely flying an Ottoman flag. The flag story might be apocryphal, but the result was that Turkey was drawn into the war on the German side and when the squadron returned to Constantinople the Germans handed over their two battleships to the Sultan saying "Here ya go mate. This will compensate you for the two battleships that the Brits withheld from you!"

The story is not entirely apocryphal, only a little more complicated.

The Kaiser would have liked the gift to have been accepted that way, but for the Turks bore no ill will towards Churchill's seizing of the two battleships under construction; but (under German command) the Goeben and Breslau did bombard the Russian coast in an attempt to draw Turkey into the war, after which the Turkish Cabinet issued a note of apology to Russia.

The reforming Young Turks had replaced the Ottoman monarch and taken control of Turkey in the name of constitutional reform -- placing them closer to British constitutional arrangements than to Cazerist Russia's -- and were in no mind to join either Germany or any alliance that included a Russia with grand designs on Constantinople and former Ottoman territories in the Balkans and Persia.  They wanted to stay out, so much so that at one stage the Goeben and Breslau (sent by the Kaiser as a bribe he hoped would get them on side) were stuck at the Dardanelles between British warships and Turkish forts, not knowing which direction (if any) might offer them safe harbour - and Liman Von Sanders, sent to Turkey as "military adviser" to marshal Turkish troops on Germany's behalf, was sending telegrams home that the anti-German atmosphere in Constantinople made it "almost unbearable for German officer to continue their service there."[1]

The Turks only admitted the two German ships after extracting severe concessions from Germany, the transfer of the ships into Turkish ownership ), and no promise at all to join the war on their side or any other -- prompting Sanders to sling threats of going home, and of duelling with Young Turk leader Enver Pasha.

The Turks expected Goeben and Breslau to stay in port.  The bombardment of the Russian coast Goeben and Breslau was ordered by their disgruntled German commander, forced to fly a Turkish flag after ownership was transferred, under which German sailors were now enlisted in the small Turkish navy under German naval officers wearing fezzes. It happened without casualty, without Russian retaliation, and without Turkish permission.

What swayed Turkey in the end towards Germany was not either battleships or bombardment but, first, the fear (justified in the end) that if the Allies won they would forcibly partition the Ottoman empire and deliver Constantinople to Russia, whereas German wouldn't; and, second, a man called Winston Churchill.

Without reference to his Cabinet, without any declaration of war, and in response to the bombardment which German sailors had carried out and for which the Young Turks had already apologised, Churchill ordered the Royal Navy on the afternoon of 31 October 1914 to "commence hostilities at once against Turkey".[2]

It was by that action and no other that Turkey recognised that they had joined the war against the Allies -- not by any action of their own, but because one Allied politician had decided they should.

But it gets worse.

The place Churchill ordered the British squadron to attack was the Dardanelles -- which as far back as August 1914 Churchill had wanted to force on behalf of Russia.[3]

The cost of the premature attack far outweighed whatever advantages Churchill hoped to gain by it -- , and as an indirect result Anzac forces were sent to die on Turkish beaches that had been signalled by Churchill as needing defence.

Because not only was Turkey now in the war against the British Empire when if had never desired any such thing, but "the Turks and their German military advisers [had now been put] on the alert. From that moment there was no possibility of surprise, and the Turks began to pay special attention to the defence of the Straits" that later on would cost so many lives to abortively try to force. [4]

It was an abortion wrapped in a clusterfuck rolled up in a complete bloody shambles.

This post is part of NOT PC’s #CountdownToAnzacDay. Other posts in the series:

[1] Trumpener, Ottoman Empire, p. 33
[2] Gilbert, Churchill: The Challenge of War, p. 216
[3] "Churchill was very keen on attacking the Dardanelles from a very early stage ... he was very keen to get to Constantinople somehow." Director of Military Operations Calwell, 'Dardanelles Commission: Evidence,' Q.3665. 
[4] See Marder,’s From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol II, pp. 83-5, and Robert Rhodes James’s, Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900-1939, pp. 63-77


  1. Chris Trotter has an article today that comes to similar conclusions, but interestingly places the British prime objective as not handing Constantinople over to Russia (this was secondary), but securing the Middle East oil supply from German expansion. The Royal Navy had just converted their ships from coal to oil, and there were apparently increasing economic and military ties between the Germans and Ottomans leading up to the war that made German control of the Middle East oil supply possible.

    It's rather ironic that something written by Trotter has me questioning what is on Not PC. Whilst Trotter is just as condemnatory of that motive, it does at face value sound like more of a justification for going to war with the Ottoman Empire. The Turks may well have been turning away from the Ottoman regime and going in a more peaceful direction in the final years, but whether they would succeed wouldn't have been clear back then, and it's much easier to say that with the benefit of hindsight.

    I don't know a lot about this period of history, but it's much easier for me to believe that securing oil for the British Navy to defend itself was Churchill's main motive, not handing territory to the Russians (which if comments he made during WW2 are any guide, he never trusted)

    It's become fashionable in recent decades to place moral equivalence on all the European powers of the time, because they were all imperialist - but I can't accept that the same German culture that voted in Hitler and unleashed the horror of WW2 arose in a vacuum, and that 25 years prior to that they were no more warlike than Britain or France.

    If we are to judge these decisions with the benefit of hindsight, we need to take into account not just the diplomatic manoeuvrings immediately preceding the commencement of war, but the wider geo-political context in the years and decades leading to that point. Did Germany have expansion plans, and was there good reason to believe the Ottoman Empire was (or would be) their ally?

    If we don't consider that wider context, and appreciate that we are looking at it now with the benefit of hindsight - we can come to erroneous conclusions. If for instance Chamberlain had rejected Hitler's offer of "peace" with the Munich Agreement in 1938, and instead declared war, Germany would have almost certainly been defeated more quickly. If that had happened however, I can well imagine revisionist historians would have sat in judgement of him decades later and blamed the outbreak of WW2 on Chamberlain.

  2. Yep there were wider issues. Richard Pipes (The Russian Revolution) has written that had the Dardanelles campaign been successful (as visioned by the planners) then the whole of 20th century would have been different. (for the much better)

    The campaign was that important but it isnt dwell upon in that respect as it was a failure.

  3. @Mark: You describe Trotter as saying "the British prime objective ... [in the Dardanelles campaign was] securing the Middle East oil supply from German expansion." Aside from the traditional socialist rant against Imperialism, Trotter's is a somewhat, ahem, unique view.

    It's true that the Royal Navy converted to oil in 1913, largely at the behest of Jacky Fisher and Churchill, and on the back of the illusory "security" of Anglo-Iranian oil wells in difficult-to-defend Persia rather than coal mines in Newcastle and Wales.

    But even at the war's height, the Royal Navy consumed less than 100,000 barrels of fuel oil a month, all of it from Alglo-Persian's production of little more, whereas the total British monthly fuel oil consumption was 70 *million* barrels a month, 6% from Mexico and 85% from the U.S.

    With fuel oil for the Royal Navy a high priority, 100k barrels looks like a small splash compared to the 70 million, and certainly not enough to start a war over. Or a very, very, risky battle.

    Certainly the Berlin-Baghdad railway was a factor in the war's origins, partly because it put Germany in the Mediteranean and Suez, through Britain had always needed to defend its route to India, but it's a long bow and an arquebus to make it a factor in the decision to deal to the Dardanelles, and nothing at all appears in cabinet or War Committee discussions along those lines.

    Daniel Yergin's 'The Prize,' which is pretty much the authoritative history of oil (and also a highly-recommended read), argues persuasively that oil explains much of last century's history, and even starts the book with the story of the Royal Navy's conversion to oil and its effect on the war's beginnings. It is exactly the book in which one would expect to find such a story.

    It's not there.

  4. @Mark, You also say, "'s much easier for me to believe that securing oil for the British Navy to defend itself was Churchill's main motive, not handing territory to the Russians."

    Handing Constantinople to the Russians was not Churchill's main motive. But that was the result. That aim was Sir Edward Grey's. But *getting* to Constantinople *was* his aim, and using Grey et al in that goal was okay by him. Churchill's aim quite simply was to get the war out of the mud by attacking the "soft underbelly," which might (he thought) take Turkey out of the war thereby depriving German of an ally and, perhaps, achieve a little bit of glory for himself. Except, it all worked in reverse.

    You say, "It's become fashionable in recent decades to place moral equivalence on all the European powers of the time, because they were all imperialist - but I can't accept that the same German culture that voted in Hitler and unleashed the horror of WW2 arose in a vacuum, and that 25 years prior to that they were no more warlike than Britain or France."

    But I don't say that.

    You ask, "Did Germany have expansion plans...?"

    Yes, of course they did. Bismarck had spent years fighting expansionary wars so that Prussia could unify Germany. And, once it was all digested, the new Germany soon talked about needing "their place in the sun." And with all of Africa almost gone now that Germany was ready to begin colonising now that the newly-unified Germany was fully digested), the collapsing Ottoman Empire looked like a ripe target. Hence the Berlin-Baghdad railway.

    The railway itself was primarily about colonisation, not about finding an ally. (Germany already had two disfunctional allies, Austria-Hungary and Italy, weighing it down; it hardly needed another.)

    But there is a strong argument too that Germany itself recognised that as a military power it was still too weak compared to the Entente powers, by whose machinations it felt encircled, and by whose increasing power it felt threatened.

  5. @Mark, you might appreciate the relevant discussion in James Joll's 'The Origins of the First World War,' including the comments: "Oil was not yet a significant strategic commodity; in fact it was investors and entrepreneurs who tried to convince strategists of its value, rather than strategists who tried to persuade businesses and governments to secure these vital interestes for the future.... Oil was about to become a strategic as well as a commercial product, though the implications were only just beginning to be realized."

    In other words, it would be, but it wasn't yet.

    Also relevant is his discussion of the Berlin-Baghdad railway on pages 238-241, often raised as one reason for war, but which by 1910 had already diminished as a casus belli:

    ** Russia had plans to link with the railway from Tehran and north Persia, financed by the Rothschilds and the Nobels;

    **the British government accepted German involvement in the region, primarily because it diminished Russia's, and decided in the end to help complete the railway in order to "preserve their own interests in Turkey and prevent either the Germans or the Russians having too much influence, even if it meant giving up their claims to an exclusive economic position in Mesopotamia." (Contrary to Rosa Luxemburg, J.A. Hobson et al, "whereas 'imperial' interests might have dictated that the British government should compete with the expansion of German interests whereer these appeared, 'commercial' ones inclined the British to cooperate with the Germans to protect their investment.")

    ** For their part, "the Germans accepted the fact that they lacked sufficient capital to build the railway on their own, and that they were in no position to overcome the well-established British interests in Mesopotamia."

    So oil as a reason for the war itself? Barely even that. But at least there's discussion about it.
    But, sure, I haven't read everything, but I've never seen any source, anywhere, ever, citing oil as a reason for the Dardanelles campaign -- or anyone even talking about someone who has.

    Sources? What does Trotter care for sources?

  6. Thanks for all that PC. Your knowledge on the history of this period certainly surpasses mine.


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