The strange behaviour of all the warring monarchs on the eve of and during the First World War was at the instigation of London. Blatant blackmail and deception, so “virtuosically” brought to life by Great Britain’s Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, both had their place when it came to the Germans. The English also carried out such pushing on the Russian side of the barricades and after a short break, it was Turkey’s turn.
The time has now come for us to talk a little about Istanbul’s entry into the war. The mystery is no clearer at this point than during the whole murky history of this period. Russia entered the world war simply to defend. It is a strong motivation, but the Russian government must have had another more mercenary motive. Otherwise, if the German’s had offered peace, Russia might have agreed to it. Some kind of tasty bait was needed and for St. Petersburg, this was the Turkish Straits. However, the “allies” would have been unable to offer Russia the much longed-for Dardenelles without Turkey’s participation in the world conflict. And indeed, the English themselves would only have been able to take part of Turkey’s territory if Istanbul entered the war against the powers of the Entente. From this came the following logic behind the tactics of British diplomacy: to try with all their might to provoke Turkey into supporting Germany. There is no need to be surprised at the apparent absurdity of England’s behaviour, only unorthodox moves and brave decisions could have enabled them to accomplish the Herculean task of conducting a world war which followed their own script. And then later, after destroying Turkey during the war, the British would gloriously divide up its territory. Only Russia would get absolutely nothing. For her, Sir Grey was planning a Civil War, chaos and a loss of territory.
At some point it turned out that the diplomatic efforts of Russia and Great Britain were moving in opposite directions. Russian diplomacy was trying to get Turkey on their side or convince them to remain neutral. St. Petersburg certainly did not need another adversary. To this end, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sazonov offered to guarantee Turkey’s security and return to her the Lemnos Islands. English diplomacy responded to this agreement by only guaranteeing Turkey’s security during the length of the war. With regard to the Islands, London issued a flat-out refusal. England provoked the Turkish almost overtly, clearly “conceding” in amenability terms to the Germans, who were ready to comply with any conditions the Turkish state might have.
As well as the diplomatic games that were going on, there were also offensive and hostile attacks being made towards Turkey. As the world’s leading shipbuilding power, Great Britain had received orders from many states to build new, cutting-edge ships. A few years before the start of the war, Brazil had ordered its third battleship in succession from England – a dreadnought armed with 14 all-powerful 305mm guns. However, the country of coffee and carnivals had not quite considered its financial capabilities and was already getting ready to retract its order when Turkey arrived on the scene. Not only did Turkey repurchase the Brazilian ship, but the country also paid for the construction of one more ship of the same type. By the summer of 1914, these should have been handed over to the customer. However, the English firms started to use every excuse in the book to delay handing over the ships and on 28 July 1914 (the day that Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia), Great Britain requisitioned both of the Turkish dreadnoughts and included them as part of their own fleet under the names “HMS Agincourt” and “HMS Erin”.
While Sir Grey was using every effort to “fight for peace”, Britain’s War Department was putting the finishing touches to its preparations for war. The thought of a world war had not occurred to anybody at that point except, perhaps, the British government. Which is why the Turkish government found the requisition of their ships so offensive, such a public slap in the face. Interesting logic: Austria declared war on Serbia, so England took ships away from Turkey. Such actions caused an explosion of indignation in Istanbul, since the construction of the warships had partly been financed by public subscription. The unexpected deficit to the tune of two top-rank ships sapped the defensive power of the Turkish fleet. It was England that was responsible, but Turkey’s hatred spread to the whole of the Entente, of which the nearest member geographically was… Russia.
The German Military Command decided to take advantage of the developing situation without delay and secretly suggested to the Turkish government that they acquire two new German warships, which since 1912 had been located in the Mediterranean. These were the battle cruiser “SMS Goeben” and the light cruiser “SMS Breslau”. As often happens in politics, the daring actions of the German Command in getting Turkey on their side fit in completely with the interests of the English, which is why “SMS Goeben” and “SMS Breslau” reached Istanbul safe and sound. This story is of such interest that we will take a look at it in a bit more detail.
“SMS Goeben” and “SMS Breslau” were to be found in the sea at the culminating moment of the start of the world war, while England and Germany were to become enemies at any moment. Destroying both German ships would not have been difficult for the British fleet, which was the best in the world. The English navy were close on their heals, but… allowed the German cruisers to slip through their fingers. When the English once again caught up with the ships in Istanbul, the situation had already changed radically. The Turkish government had announced it had purchased “SMS Goeben” and “SMS Breslau” from Germany. Henceforth, they were no longer German but Turkish ships named “Sultan Yavuz Selim” and “Midilli”. Command of the ships remained German, they simply exchanged the German caps for Turkish fezzes.
The “carelessness” of the British had grave consequences. On 29 October, 1914, German Admiral Souchon, having accepted the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Ottoman navy, led his fleet out to sea, allegedly for training exercises. And he did what the leaders of the German government had been longing for him to do and not just the German government, but also the… British reconnaissance. “SMS Goeben” opened fire on Sevastapol, “SMS Breslau” on Novorossiysk and the cruiser “Hamidiye” on Odessa. The following morning, the Russian embassy in Constantinople requested passports and, contrary to Russia’s wishes, Turkey turned out to be Russia’s next adversary and Berlin’s new ally. As a result, the navigable waterways of the Black Sea, along which Russia could be supplied with everything they needed, were blockaded. And what’s more, the main flow of Russian exports moved through those Straits: on the eve of the First World War, between 60 and 70% of all Russian grain exports passed through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, while the total number of Russian goods exports using that exact route made up almost 34% of total trade. Russia now had a problem selling its goods and receiving the materials it needed. The shortages in the first few years of the war can in many ways be explained by that tragic “accident” when two German ships “tricked” the British fleet.
ORIENTAL REVIEW publishes exclusive translations from the book by the Russian historian Nikolay Starikov “Who Killed the Russian Empire?” (Moscow, 2006).