A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, January 14, 2011

Weekend Historical Video: The Bizarre Career of SMS Goeben/TCG Yavuz

This week's Weekend Historical Video is more a slideshow than a video, but it tells the story of a ship whose career was, to say the least, bizarre. Crucial to the start of World War I, it became the flagship of the Turkish Navy through another World War and was only scrapped in the 1970s: SMS Goeben when in the German fleet., TCG Yavuz as the flagship of the fleet of the Turkish Republic. It's a good way to get your mind off Tunisia, Lebanon, and such for the weekend. And accordingly, it needs a lengthy introduction. But so you don't get bored with my narrative, you may want to watch the video before I tell the tale:

For a lot of modern English speakers, the First World War in the Middle East is a set of images from the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Gallipoli. But it was a lot more complex than that. The death throes of the Ottoman Empire created a lot of strange stories. For example, the three men who constituted the ruling triumvirate of the Committee of Union and Progress (the "Young Turks" ruling the Ottoman Empire when the First World War broke out) all had curious ends.
Enver Pasha, Talat Pasha and Cemal Pasha all died within a few years of the end of the war: Talat to an Armenian assassin in Germany in 1921, Cemal to an Armenian assassin in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1922, and Enver, perhaps, had the strangest and most romantic end of all. Still a Turkish nationalist, he was unwelcome in Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk)'s new republic, and after flirting with Lenin over a role in Turkic Central Asia, he joined the Basmachi revolt against the Bolsheviks in Central Asia. In 1922 he died in a cavalry charge against the Bolsheviks near Dushanbe, Tajikistan, or soon after it, depending on the account.

All that is just to remind that the end of the Ottoman era had some curious sidelights, though Enver at least is a major player in the story I'm about to tell. It's been told many times (Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August tells it very well), but unless you follow World War I navies, it's probably not that well known to Americans, and its Turkish aftermath rarely gets attention.

Goeben, a battle cruiser, and the light cruiser Breslau had been dispatched to the Mediterranean during the First and Second Balkan Wars (1912-1913) to project Imperial German Power (this was the era of Mahan's sea power theories and imperial projection) and remained there until the outbreak of war in August 1914. On August 3, when Germany and France declared war, the two ships headed for Algeria and bombarded Algerian ports, attempting to prevent the movement of French troops from North Africa to the mainland. The ships were then secretly ordered to Constantinople.

Heading for Messina in Sicily to recoal, the two ships encountered two British warships, but at this point Britain and Germany were not at war, so the British ships sought to shadow the Germans, expecting a declaration at any moment. The Germans put into Messina, but had to leave quickly due to Italian neutrality. Meanwhile, Britain entered the war and its Mediterranean fleet was ordered to intercept Goeben and Breslau.

The whole story is complex and later led to courts martial, but the British vessels expected the Germans to head for the Austro-Hungarian port of Pola (today Pula, Croatia) and were watching the Adriatic. Only four old British cruisers could approach the Germans, and they fell back feeling they could not engage a superior force. Goeben and Breslau. On August 10 they entered the Dardanelles.

Turkey was technically neutral, though War Minister Enver Pasha sought to bring it into the war on the side of the Central Powers. So to preserve neutrality, Germany transferred the ships to the Ottoman Navy. (This was also popular since Turkey was outraged that ships they had paid for and were building in a British shipyard had been seized by Britain for the war effort.)

Admiral Souchon, the German Commander, was named head of the Turkish fleet, and his men donned Turkish uniforms, complete with fezzes. Goeben was renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim and Breslau, Midilli.

As part of Enver's effort to bring Turkey into the war, in late October, though Turkey was still neutral, Yavuz bombarded Sevastopol, provoking war with Russia and thus with the whole Entente. She spent the rest of the war operating against the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

The Treaty of Sevres called for the Yavuz to be turned over to the British, but the Treaty of Lausanne, with the new Turkish Republic, allowed it to remain in Turkish service. Renovated several times, her name shortened to just Yavuz, she transported Ataturk's body when he died in 1938, and remained in service through World War II. She remained on the Navy register until 1954 (decommissioned in 1950) and finally scrapped in the 1970s.

The pursuit across the Mediterranean remains a great tale, but her Turkish afterlife is rarely remembered.

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