A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Goeben and Breslau Part III: Entering the Straits

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. Part II yesterday with the chase itself and the rapid negotiations between Germany and Turkey during the course of their flight. This third part will deal with the idea of transferring the ships to Turkey and their entry into the Straits, and the fourth with their reception in the Turkish capital.

When we left our story yesterday, Admiral Souchon had escaped into the Aegean after the British pursuit was called off after Admiral Milne ordered Captain Kelly in HMS Gloucester not to proceed beyond Cape Matapan at the southern tip of Greece. But Souchon needed to coal and also had no idea whether he would be allowed to enter Constantinople or might have to force the issue. His collier Bogadir was waiting off Greece disguised under a Greek flag. They proceeded to a more obscure island, Denusa, away from international sea lanes, where the Germans could coal undetected on August 8 and 9. The German Embassy in Athens had persuaded Prime Minister Venizelos not to consider this a violation of Greek neutrality as long as it was not done with Greek coal in a Greek port.

Souchon still was uncertain if he would be welcomed in Constantinople. Though he had shaken off Greek pursuit any radio signal that could reach the German Embassy in Constantinople might be detected by the British as well. He had asked another German vessel to contact the Embassy by land from Smyrna on the Anatolian coast.

Meanwhile the divided counsels of the Turkish Cabinet continued in Constantinople. The Turkish Admiralty Chief at the time, Djemal (Jemal, Cemal) Pasha, takes up the story in his Memories of a Turkish Statesman (New York: Doran, 1922, online versions here)
Djemal Pasha
On August 8th, 1914, Captain Hamann, Naval Attache to the German Embassy, came to the Ministry. He informed me that the German Mediterranean squadron, pursued by the English, was withdrawing in the direction of the Dardanelles, and as, to judge by his reports, the Goeben had practically no more coal, they were compelled to send some from Constantinople. But as there was  no English coal available he asked me to lend him five or six thousand tons from our naval depots. I immediately telephoned to the Grand Vizier, Enver Pasha [Minister of War], and Talaat Bey to ascertain their opinion.
They replied that I should agree. I ordered that the required quantity of coal should be supplied from the Derindji depots, and also sent a naval labour section to assist with the loading of the vessel. It was loaded within a few hours, and then set out for the Aegean Sea.
Back in the Aegean, Souchon on the early morning of August 10, heard transmissions from the British ships to his south and received a strangely imprecise message from his earlier inquiry: Enter. Demand surrender of forts. Capture pilot." Did this mean he was to force his way through, or was it a ruse to maintain Turkish neutrality? In any event, he proceeded towards the Dardanelles.

Enver Pasha
Meanwhile, independently of the Cabinet,  Enver Pasha had been meeting with the German Ambassador and German Military Mission about the Goeben and Breslau question. As the German ships arrived within range of the fortress of Chanak (Çanakkale), the Germans insisted Enver must delay no longer in giving them an answer: would the ships be allowed to enter the Dardanelles? After another attempt to say he must consult the Cabinet first, the Germans insisted they were out of time with the British in pursuit. Finally Enver said yes. If the British followed them through, the Germans wanted to know, would the Turkish forts fire on them? Yes, they were told. Enver had not consulted the rest of the Cabinet.

Since the Dardanelles was mined, Souchon had signaled for a pilot to guide the ships through, Still uncertain if he would be welcomed, the pilot boat came out and signaled "follow me." At 9 pm on August 10, Goeben and Breslau entered the Dardanelles. It was still unclear how Turkey could continue to claim to be neutral.

Djemal Pasha explains how the other Young Turk leaders learned of it the next day, as the German ships made their way the 250 miles to the capital:
As usual, the evening of August 11th found us assembled in council at dinner at the Prince's [Grand Vizier Prince Said Halim] house. [Interior Minister] Talaat, [Finance Minister] Djavid, and I had been the first to arrive. Enver Pasha, who came in later, remarked with that quiet smile which was peculiar to him "Unto us a son is born!" Of course we did not know what he meant. To put an end to our feverish impatience he continued: "The Goeben and the Breslau appeared off the Dardanelles this morning, and as they were being followed by the English fleet, they asked that they should be allowed to pass through the Narrows. I granted the permission, as I did not wish to condemn the ships of an allied State to certain destruction, and by now the ships are in the Dardanelles under the protection of the forts of the Narrows. The sequel is that we are faced with a political problem. We shall have to come to a decision about it this evening!"
It was certainly a very ticklish question. Two ships of one of the combatants had fled into Turkish waters.
According to the rules of neutrality, we were bound either to make them leave our waters within twenty-four hours or to disarm and intern them in one of our harbours.
As Germany's ally we could not for a moment consider the first alternative, as it would have been equivalent to handing the ships over. Besides, such a course conflicted as much with our interests as our duty.
Yet, as regards the second alternative, it was certain that the Germans would never consent. Looked at from that point of view, the Allies were entitled to consider our action a casus belli and declare war upon us. Of course that was bound to happen sooner or later, and we should be forced to intervene in the war. Yet the state of our army compelled us to postpone that intervention for as long as possible.
At this point the French and English Ambassadors called on the Grand Vizier in a state of great excitement to protest against the passage of the German warships through the Dardanelles and against the audacity of their commanders in searching a post steamer which had left Constantinople the previous evening with a number of Frenchmen as passengers on board. They alleged that this was an infringement of the neutrality which the Imperial Government had declared.
After a very thorough discussion we decided to ask the German Government to consent to the two ships being disarmed — temporarily and superficially only. Talaat Bey and Halil Bey went to the German Embassy in Therapia to communicate our decision to the Ambassador, von Wangenheim. An hour later they returned with the news that the Ambassador had declared that under no circumstances could he consent. He had consented to the Ottoman Government's refraining from taking part in the war under the form of neutrality, but was convinced that the arrival of the German ships, compelled to withdraw into Turkish waters, had completely changed the situation. If this piece of provocation involved the breaking off of diplomatic relations, or even war between the Entente and the Ottoman Government, we must accept it as the logical consequence of events.
Enver Pasha identified himself with the views of the Ambassador, but I insisted that, come what may, we must arrive at some compromise, so that in view of our position at the moment we could delay our entry into the war as much as possible.
The Grand Vizier and Djavid Bey were of my opinion. Ultimately one of us proposed the following formula: "Could not the Germans have previously sold us these units? Could not their arrival be regarded as delivery under the contract?"
It's curious that Djemal doesn't name the person ("one of us") who came up with the famous idea which would both provide a fig-leaf for the Ottomans and also would win popular support as a suitable retort to Britain for her earlier seizure of two Turkish dreadnoughts (discussed in detail in this post). Perhaps it was Djemal himself, being modest?
Everyone heaved a sigh of relief. The ground for a friendly settlement of the affair had been discovered! Shortly afterwards we decided to ask Wangenheim to come to the Prince's house to hear what we had agreed to do. One of Enver Pasha's aides-de-camp was sent to the Embassy, and a quarter of an hour later — after midnight — the Ambassador reached the palace. After an hour of lively discussion between the Grand Vizier, Talaat Bey, and the Ambassador, the latter promised to get into communication with Berlin the same night and get a favourable answer before morning. We then decided to wait at the Grand Vizier/s house until the answer arrived. It came about four o'clock in the morning. It empowered us, on condition that we accepted Admiral Souchon in the Ottoman service, to say that the ships had been sold to Turkey. It was not a real, but merely fictitious, sale. We were informed that as tlie Emperor could not sell a single ship in the navy without a decree of the Reichstag, the real sale could not be carried out until the end of the war and the Reichstag had conveyed its assent. As a solution which saved appearances had now been found, the Ministers separated about five o'clock. All matters of detail were to be left to the Naval Ministry in accordance with the terms of the agreement.
Early next morning I sent to the papers an official communique referring to the purchase of the Goeben and Breslau by the Government and the arrival of these two ships in the Dardanelles. I asked the Press to speak enthusiastically of the circumstance that we had obtained possession of the ships as compensation for the Sultan Osman and the Reschadieh, of which the English had robbed us.
Goeben and Breslau in the Straits, Goeben firing a salute
As Goeben and Breslau made their way through the Dardanelles and Marmara towards Constantinople, protests flowed in from the Allies, demanding the ships be disarmed and as yet unaware of the ruse of the "sale."

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