A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, August 11, 2014

Goeben and Breslau, Part II: The Chase to Constantinople, While Turkey Bargains: "The Terrible 'If's' Accumulate"

I'm on vacation. As I have done each year, I have prepared a number of posts on historical and cultural subjects unlikely to be overtaken by events, with at least one appearing daily. This is the second of four posts on the escape across the Mediterranean of the German warships Goeben and Breslau to Constantinople in August, 1914, a century ago. Part I appeared last week and introduiced the main players and the ships. This post deals with the chase itself and the rapid negotiations between Germany and Turkey during the course of their flight. The third part will deal with the idea of transferring the ships to Turkey, and the fourth with their reception in the Turkish capital.
Wikimedia Commons (Creator Attribution: MartinD)
By 6 o’clock therefore on the morning of August 7 the Goeben, already the fastest capital unit in the Mediterranean, was steaming on an unobstructed course for the Dardanelles, carrying with her for the peoples of the East and Middle East more slaughter, more misery and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship.
—Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, Volume I, Chapter XI
Churchill always had a way with words, and in his discussion of the Goeben affair in the same chapter quoted above, he delivers another passage that opens with an often-quoted line:
The terrible ‘If’s’ accumulate. If my first thoughts on 27 July of sending the New Zealand to the Mediterranean had materialized; if we could have opened fire on the Goeben during the afternoon of August 4; if we had been less solicitous for Italian neutrality; if Sir Berkeley Milne had sent the Indomitable to coal at Malta instead of Biserta; if the Admiralty had sent him direct instructions when on the night of the 5th they learned where the Goeben was; if Rear-Admiral Troubridge in the small hours of the 7th had not changed his mind; if the Dublin and her two destroyers had intercepted the enemy during the night of the 6th-7th — the story of the Goeben would have ended here.
This is in part self-justification and rationalization; as Churchill acknowledges, it occurred to none of the British actors in the comedy that Admiral Souchon might be heading for Constantinople or that Turkey was on the verge of entering the war. They assumed he would either head west or into the Adriatic. The tactical failure was greatly compounded by a fundamental intelligence failure.

At the end of Part i, we left the Goeben and Breslau in Messina, with Admiral Milne and two battle cruisers 0ff the northern exit to the strait, but with only the light cruiser HMS Gloucester watching the southern exit. Despite Berlin's having rescinded an earlier order to proceed to Constantinople (because Turkey's cabinet was unready to make its treaty of alliance signed August 3 public until Ottoman mobilization was complete and Bulgaria's intentions became clear), Souchon decided to head there anyway; leaving Berlin and German Ambassador Wangenheim scrambling to cut a deal with the Turks before the ships could arrive, and the Ottoman Cabinet seeking to demand every concession possible in the same time frame. As Souchon raced to outrun his British pursuers, Berlin and Constantinople raced to cut a deal.

Souchon, in Messina, had been forced by the declaration of Italian neutrality to coal his ships from German merchant vessels in  the harbor, and had been ordered to leave within 24 hours.

Milne still expected Souchon to head west, but was also ordered to make sure he could not enter the Adriatic and join the Austrian fleet at Pola. Vice Admiral Troubridge's squadron of heavy cruisers were already on station there. Now Milne sent the light cruiser HMS Dublin and two destroyers to join him. As I noted in Part I, the Dublin's captain was John Kelly, brother of the Howard Kelly who was captain of the Gloucester, watching the southern exit.

HMS Gloucester
Souchon left Messina on the afternoon of August 6 and as soon as it exited Italian territorial waters, he was spotted by Gloucester. Gloucester and Breslau were comparable, but the much bigger Goeben outgunned and outranged the British ship and so could destroy her from outside the range of her guns. So she kept the two ships in sight but pursued them out of gunnery range.

Said Halim Pasha
Meanwhile, in Constantinople, the Grand Vizier, the Egyptian-born Prime Minister Said Halim Pasha, had held a post-midnight meeting with the German Ambassador. As I have noted before, Said Halim was not a member of the Committee or Union and Progress (CUP, the "Young Turks"),and even though he had been a signatory to the German alliance, had been reluctant about announcing it publicly until Turkey was ready.

Baron von Wangenheim
Now, at around 1 am on August 6, the day Souchon would be leaving Messina, Halim met with Wangenheim, who was being pressured by Berlin to win passage for Goeben and Breslau through the Dardanelles. Said Halim offered several conditions. Germany must agree to support an end to the system of "capitulations," under which foreign nationals had extraterritorial rights in the Ottoman realm; it must guarantee Ottoman territorial integrity; restoration of Rhodes and the Dodecanese islands, taken by Italy in 1912, to Turkey; "a rectification of the eastern frontier," presumably meaning territory from Russua; and reparations. Though some accounts imply Germany accepted these conditions, in fact Berlin seems to have rejected them for several days while Goeben and Breslau were drawing nearer. The bargaining continued.

Meanwhile, Gloucester was still pursuing Goeben and Breslau, out of gunnery range and keeping them in sight though the moonlight. Souchon had feinted a northeasterly course which the British assumed meant he was headed for the Adriatic. But he had to shift to a southeasterly course to meet his coalers in the Aegean, and Gloucester signaled the turn. Milne, finally aware that Souchon was headed east, headed for Malta, while Troubridge, at the mouth of the Adriatic, started looking for Goeben.

Troubridge ordered Dublin, en route from Malta with two destroyers, to intercept Goeben, while he ordered his own heavy cruisers to head south in pursuit.

Troubridge's actions on the night of August 6-7 have been much studied; they were the subject of a Court if Inquiry and  subsequent Court Martial, and though Troubridge was found innocent of any wrongdoing, the events ended his naval career. In Part I we noted Churchill's early order to the Mediterranean fleet, including the line, "Do not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces, except in combination with the French, as part of a general battle."

HMS Defence, Troubridge's Ship
Churchill would explain that those words were intended to refer to engaging the Austrian Navy, which had battleships, except in conjunction with the French, but Troubridge, expecting Milne to send the battle cruisers his way, interpreted it as meaning his four cruisers should not take on Goeben alone, since Goeben, though outnumbered, had greater range and could stand off and sink each of his ships in turn; hence, for Troubridge, she constituted a "superior force." When he had not found the German by 4 am, he decided that he could not risk a meeting in full daylight, and fell back. He soon sailed into port on the Greek island of Zante (Zakynthos). HMS Dublin also failed to locate the German ships.

So by daylight on August 7, only Gloucester was still in contact with Goeben and Breslau. Milne ordered Gloucesteri to fall back at 5:30 am but Kelly continued to shadow the Germans. At one point Breslau fell back to challenge him. Kelly, intent on delaying Goeben until help arrived (though no help arrived (though no help was imminent), exchanged fire with Breslau, forcing Goeben to turn and defend the smaller ship. The exchange of fire, which was inconclusive, was witnessed by an Italian passenger vessel en route to Constantinople, which happened to be carrying the daughter of US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, so the news would soon reach Constantinople.

Milne, who had returned to Malta for fuel, ordered Gloucester not to pass Cape Matapan in Greece, and Kelly broke off pursuit. Milne left Malta only early on August 8, in a leisurely pursuit since he thought he had the Germans "bottled up" in the Aegean, still unaware that they had no intention of coming back out.

There would be one more blunder in the British comedy of errors. The Admiralty sent out an erroneous report that Austria had declared war on Britain, and so Milne and Troubridge changed course to block the Adriatic. By the time the error was discovered, Milne knew only that Souchon was somewhere in the Aegean, and felt he had neutralized the threat. Souchon, of course, was right where he wanted to be; now all he needed was permission to enter the Straits.

But that is a tale for Part III.

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