A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, July 28, 2014

July 28, 1914: As Europe Descends into War, Winston Churchill and Enver Pasha Separately Push Turkey Towards a German Alliance

One hundred years ago today, Austria declared war on Serbia, lighting the fuse that within a week would transform what Bismarck had called the Balkan powder keg into a Europe-wide explosion. It was one month exactly since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

On the same day, July 28, two men on opposite sides of Europe would take actions that would lead to the Ottoman Empire joining the German side. In London, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill initiated the idea of confiscating two Turkish battleships being built in  British shipyards, one already complete and the other nearing completion, and adding them to the Royal Navy. Meanwhile on the same day in Constantinople, the most pro-German member of the Ottoman Cabinet, War Minister Enver Pasha, was proposing an alliance to the German Ambassador. Over the coming days Churchill's move inadvertently would provoke  popular outrage in Turkey, helping push reluctant members of the Cabinet into Enver's pro-German camp.

As most other media are focusing on the centennial of the opening moves of the Great War, this blog will concentrate on the series of events that brought Turkey into the war on the side of the Central Powers, setting in motion the events from which the modern Middle East emerged.

At the moment Austria declared war on Serbia, Britain was still trying to avoid a war; in fact the British Cabinet, preoccupied with events in Ireland, had not even discussed the European crisis until July 27.

Churchill, with responsibility for the Royal Navy, was astute enough to realize that the tangle of European alliances was dragging Britain towards war,  and he was determined to make sure the Royal Navy was prepared to meet its only serious challenger, the German High Seas Fleet.

Churchill in 1914
He had taken his first precaution a week before. The fleet had had a regular mobilization maneuver in early July, ending with a Grand Review. Normally after that, the elements of the fleet would disperse to their home ports to allow heir crews shore leave. The First Fleet at Portland was scheduled to disperse on Monday, July 27, and on July 26 Churchill approved the recommendation of the First Sea Lord (senior uniformed commander in the Navy), Prince Louis of Battenberg, to keep the fleet together. Commander of the Home Fleet Admiral Sir George Callaghan was accordingly ordered not to disperse the fleet. (Within a few weeks of the war breaking out, Churchill replaced Battenberg as First Sea Lord with Admiral Sir John Fisher and the aging Callaghan as Fleet Commander with Admiral John Jellicoe). (During the war the German name Battenberg name was Anglicized as Mountbatten, and Prince Louis' son Louis would become famous in the next war as Lord Mountbatten of Burma.)

The decision not to disperse had been made in response to the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia. Now, on Tuesday, July 28, Churchill still moving ahead of a reluctant Cabinet (whose reluctance helped convince Germany that Britain would not go to war), unilaterally another huge step: he ordered the Fleet to move from its home ports to its War Station at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys north of Scotland, where it would be in position to intercept the High Seas Fleet in the North Sea if it came out.

These moves were widely praised at the time and since by naval historians who recognize Churchill's prescience about the impending war. But July 28 seems to have also marked the genesis of another idea whose impact Churchill had not entirely foreseen: the seizure of the Turkish battleships.

Under the long reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II the Ottoman Empire more than earned its reputation as the "Sick Man of Europe." Both the Army and the Navy had been neglected, to the point that the navy had no modern warships. But with the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, Turkey had embarked on a major military modernization program. For advice and training of its Army, it turned to Germany, and the famous military mission of Liman von Sanders. For the Navy, it turned to Britain, even proposing an alliance to Britain in 1911. (It was declined. Even Churchill, considered more pro-Turkish than most in the British government, was opposed. Disdain for Turkish military capabilities would persist in Britain, at least until Gallipoli and Kut.) (To balance things further, the French were training the police.)

Ex-Reshadiyeh (as HMS Erin)
As part of the buildup of its Navy, Turkey ordered the first of a new class of battleship based on the British Dreadnought, the lead ship to be named Reshadiyeh (Reşadiye in Modern Turkish). She was laid down by Vickers in 1911, launched in September 1913, and was ready for delivery by August 1914. She remained in Britain to await completion of a second battleship and preparation of proper docking facilities back home..

Meanwhile, in the interim, an even larger warship became available. Brazil, engaged in a naval arms race in 1911, had ordered a Dreadnought-class battleship named Rio de Janeiro from the Armstrong-Whitworth shipyard at Newcastle upon Tyne, designed with heavier gunnery than previous ships. When rubber prices declined and relations with Argentina improved, Brazil decided it could no longer afford payments on the ship. In December 1913,  she was sold to Turkey, and the Rio de Janeiro became the Sultan Osman I. (Perhaps setting some sort of record, within less than a year she would become HMS Agincourt.)

Ex-Sultan Osman I (as HMS Agincourt) in 1915
The cost of these two ships for an Ottoman economy struggling to pay its bills was enormous. At least in popular Turkish tradition schoolchildren had contributed their small-change paras and kuruş to fundraising efforts at schools, women reportedly selling their hair, and, of course, both higher taxes and popular subscription efforts. The ships had become symbols of national pride.

On July 7, the head of the British Naval Mission in Constantinople had embarked for Britain for the handover of the ships, as had the Sultan Osman's captain; preparations were under way to welcome the ships in the Dardanelles. On July 28, Churchill asked Prince Louis and his Third Sea Lord, who was in charge of procurement, if the ships could be seized. Churchill may have thought of the idea previously, but the paper trail starts on the 28th. Turkey was a friendly power with a valid contract, and Churchill was advised that there was no legal ground for seizing the ships since Britain was not at war; the contract allowed Britain to purchase the ships in case of necessity, but not to seize them without compensation.

On the 29th, there were reports that Sultan Osman (which had its Turkish crew for training) was fueling, despite not being completed. Churchill ordered security aboard the ship to prevent it from sailing or from raising the Turkish flag. On the 30th the Attorney General advised the move would be illegal but might be justified under the exigencies of ear, while the Foreign Office decided to let the Admiralty deal with Navy issues. I don't see much evidence in the histories of the event that anyone was discussing what the Turkish reaction might be. It just wasn't part of the equation. On July 31 the Cabinet approved the decision, and on August 1 the two shipyards, Vickers and Armstrong-Whitworth, were informed that the ships were to be detained.

It was not until August 3 (the day Britain issued its ultimatum to Germany in response to the violation of Belgian neutrality, and the day before Britain declared war) that the British Government officially notified the Ottoman Government that the ships would not be delivered, and that the British were prepared to give "all due consideration" to the financial loss to Turkey: not exactly a promise of full compensation.

August 3 is often given as the date of the decision, but clearly it had been under active discussion for a week. In fact, the fueling of the Osman on July 29 shows the Turks suspected what was happening, and certainly the Turkish crews in Britain knew they were barred from leaving; David Fromkin in A Peace to End All Peace notes that evidence discovered long after the war shows Enver discussed it with the other Young Turk leadership on August 1, suggesting the Government knew before the official notification on August 3. And that beings us to what was going on on the other side of Europe.

Meanwhile, in Constantinople . . .

Said Halim Pasha
The official head of the Ottoman Government in August 1914 was Said Halim Pasha, the Grand Vizier or Prime Minister. He was, ironically, a grandson of Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha of Egypt, born in Cairo and collateral kinsman of the Khedive; his villa in central Cairo still stands, though decaying; but he and his wife, also a collateral of the Khedivial family, preferred their villa on the Bosporus.

Said Halim Pasha, however, was not a member of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, the "Young Turks"), who had led the Revolution of 1908 and taken effective control of the Cabinet in 1913. Despite being the nominal head of the government, the Cabinet was dominated by the CUP "triumvirate" consisting of the  by the War Minister, Enver Pasha, the CUP Secretary-General and Interior Minister, Talaat (Talat) Pasha (who would succeed Said Halim as Grand Vizier), and the Minister of Marine and later commander of the Fourth Army against Britain, Djemal (Jemal, Cemal) Pasha.

Enver Pasha
Of the three, Enver had long been pro-German, and wore a turned-up mustache not unlike the Kaiser's. Talaat had started by favoring an alliance with the Entente powers, but became disillusioned. Djemal Pasha also was a reluctant convert and in fact was excluded by Enver and Talat from negotiations on the German treaty. By July 1914 the triumvirate were leaning towards a German alliance. Unfortunately, Germany wasn't buying.

Germany spent parts of 1913 and 1914 trying to push Germany into an alliance with Greece (even today you may guess how that was received) or Bulgaria (its recent Balkan War adversary. These went nowhere.

Talaat Pasha
Enver had sought to sound out Germany about an alliance for some time. Turkey's main concern was Russia, whose navy dominated the Black Sea and whose armies bordered Turkey in the Caucasus, not to mention the historic Russian desire to control the Straits.

Djemal Pasha
The only powers that could help clearly did not include Greece and Bulgaria, and France and Britain, though friendly, were allies with Russia in the Triple Entente. Austria-Hungary was militarily weak, and a historic enemy of the Ottomans, though Constantinople was pursuing overtures with Vienna as well. Germany was the only obvious candidate.

But neither the German Government nor General Staff initially saw much value in a Turkish alliance. The presence of Liman von Sanders' military mission meant that they knew that the Turkish Army would take some time to prepare for war, and the assumption in Beflin that July was still that Britain would stay out, France would be quickly defeated, then the Army would turn to Russia,nd be home before winter. (The Chief of the German General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke the younger, apparently forgot his uncle and much more famous namesake Moltke the elder's maxim that "war plans never survive contact with the enemy." Moltke the Elder got to Paris in 1870-71; his nephew never did.)

Baron von Wangenheim
Among the nay-sayers was the German Ambassador to the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman Government), Hans Freiherr (Baron) von Wangenheim. Ambassador since 1912, Wangenheim considered that an alliance would be more of a burden than a boon. He called it a "liability," but all
German parties agreed that Turkey must be kept from an alliance with the Entente (unlikely since Russia was seen as the major threat). Nevertheless, Enver strongly hinted that an alliance with Russia and France was favored by some in the Cabinet, and on July 22 explicitly said the Grand Vizier, he, and Talaat were unwilling to become "vassals of Russia." (Quoted from Luigi Albertini, The Origins of the War of 1914, Volume III, as is much else about the treaty negotiations in this section.)

But as the July crisis deepened, Berlin began to feel need for allies as war with Russia loomed, and on July 24, the day after Austria's ultimatum to Serbia, the Kaiser himself overruled Wangenheim and ordered his envoy to reopen discussions with Enver. On the 27th, Wangenheim signaled willingness to discuss the alliance.

Generalleutnant Otto Liman von Sanders
And that brings us to July 28, the day of Austria's declaration of war and of Churchill's first move against the Turkish battleships. Early in the morning the grand Vizier (presumably as a mouthpiece for Enver and Talaat) dispatched Turkey's proposal of an alliance. Turkey only sought protection against Russia. In return it would offer supreme direction of the Turkish Army and even direct command of a quarter of that Army to the German Military mission under Liman von Sanders. later the same day, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg replied in the Kaiser's name that Germany accepted the proposal with four specifications: 1) for the moment, both parties would remain neutral in the Austria-Serbia dispute; 2) if Russia intervened against Serbia, Germany would respond and that would be a casus foederis (legal cause for invoking the alliance) for Germany to bring in Turkey; 3) the German Military Mission will remain in Turkey and exercise supreme command; it will guarantee Turkey's territorial integrity against Russia; 4) the treaty to be valid for the present crisis and the conflicts emerging from it.

The Ottomans preferred that the treaty run at least to 1918, when the Liman von Sanders mission was due to conclude. By July 31, the day Russia mobilized, both Wangenheim and Sanders were expressing doubts to Berlin that Turkey was going to sign. Later that day, after Germany had declared a Kriegsgefahrstand or probability of imminent war, Chancellor Bethman-Hollweg agreed to the condition and urged Wangenheim to pursue imminent conclusion of the tresty, but with a caveat (again from Albertini):
. . . it must, however, first be ascertained whether in the present war turkey can and will undertake some action worthy of mention against Russia. In negative case alliance would obviously be useless and not to be signed.
At 4 pm on August 2, the treaty was signed. The negotiators were th Grand Vizier, Enver and Talaat on the Turkish side and Wangenheim and Liman von Sanders on the German. What exactly transpired in the negotiations on August 1 is still unclear a century later. David Fromkin, cited earlier, notes a report discovered much later that indicates that Enver already knew the British were seizing the Turkish battleships in English shipyards, and another indicating that he offered the Germans those two battleships. if both statements are true, he was offering something he already knew or suspected was not his to give. But perhaps, Fromkin suggests, that is what met Bethmann-Hollweg's condition.

That may never be known for certain. Talaat and the grand Vizier were assassinated by Armenians soon after the war and Enver died in an improbable cavalry charge in Russian Central Asia during the Russian Civil War.

Germany hoped (and Enver claimed to agree) that Turkey would declare war on Russia immediately on August 3 and announce the alliance. But in fact the treaty had been negotiated without consulting the rest of the Cabinet, and Bulgaria's continuing neutrality was an awkward geographic obstacle to the alliance.. And Turkey was nowhere near ready for war. Instead, on August 3 Turkey ordered mobilization, and declared its armed neutrality (siding with neither alliance but prepared to defend itself against either). on August 3, the day Germany declared war on France and violated Belgian neutrality, and Britain issued its ultimatum to Germany. It was also the day Britain officially informed Turkey it had seized the battleships.

Though Turkey had already committed itself to Germany, this was not known to the allies or to the Ottoman citizenry, so the parallel events leading to Churchill's seizures of the ships handed Enver a fine propaganda lever for turning the Turkish populace against the Entente. Churchill, unintentionally to be sure, had helped Enver push the Ottoman Empire to Germany's side.

Epilogue and Teaser

On that same August 1, in the midst of the treaty negotiations, Enver held a private meeting with Wangenheim and Liman von Sanders at the German Embassy.  Having on the same day offered Germany the warships being built in England (which he knew were being seized, but Germany did not), he asked for German naval support against Russia in the Black Sea. On August 3, Germany ordered the commander of its Mediterranean Division, Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, who was attacking French transports carrying troops from Algeria to metropolitan France, to proceed to Constantinople. Turkey was still publicly neutral and the following day Britain, with a dominant force in the Mediterranean, entered the war. Souchon's force was to lead the British Navy on an epic chase, push Turkey more openly towards war (and ultimately ignite it), and at the same time redress the loss of the two battleships.

But Souchon had only two ships: the battle cruiser SMS Goeben and the cruiser SMS Breslau. The Goeben and Breslau were about to become two of the most famous vessels in all of naval history.

But that is a tale for the first week of August.

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