The story has been frequently told. It occupies its own chapter in Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, in Robert K. Massie's Castles of Steel, in David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace, and in many general histories of the Great War in general or the war in the Middle East in particular, A leas one whole book in English, Dan Van Der Vat's The Ship That Changed the World: The Escape of the Goeben to the Dardanelles in 1914, not to mention works in Turkish and German. It produced a whole new front in the emerging war and led to a celebrated British Admiralty Court of Inquiry.
During the treaty negotiations on August 1, Enver, but not the other Turkish negotiators, ha held a private meeting at the German Embassy in Constantinople with Ambassador von Wangenheim and Geman Military Mission Chief Liman von Sanders (for all three men, see he earlier post.) The three men felt that deploying Germany's small Mediterranean fleet to the Black Sea could strengthen Turkey's (and Bulgaria's) position against Russia.
This first post introduces the ships and the Dramatis Personae. Part II later this week will deal with the chase across the Mediterranean, and Part III early next week with the aftermath in Constantinople.
|Admiral Wilhelm Souchon|
The strongest fleet in the Mediterranean was France's, with several modern battleships, since Britain's Royal Navy had pledged to protect Frances Channel and Atlantic coasts, allowing the French fleet to protect the movement of goods and troopships between North Africa and Toulon.
|Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne|
|Vice Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge|
Neither Milne nor Troubridge was exactly a Nelson, but the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had muddled thingss further on the eve of war; our earlier post noted how he was well out ahead of the Cabinet in preparing the Navy for war. On July 30, aware that war was likely, sent this order to Milne:
Your first task should be to aid the French in the transportation of their African Army by covering, and if possible, bringing to action individual fast German ships, particularly Goeben, who may interfere in that action. You will be notified by telegraph when you may consult with the French Admiral. Do not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces, except in combination with the French, as part of a general battle. The speed of your squadrons is sufficient to enable you to choose your moment. We shall hope to reinforce the Mediterranean, and you must husband your forces at the outset."Do not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces, except in combination with the French, as part of a general battle." What those words meant would be debated later by a Court of Inquiry and a Court Martial.
Churchill kept sending Milne orders. On August 2, "Goeben is to be shadowed by two battle cruisers." On August 3:
Watch on mouth of Adriatic should be maintained, but Goeben is your objective. Follow her and shadow her wherever she goes, and be ready to act on declaration of war which appears probable and imminent.Milne assumed, and London probably assumed, that the German ships had three likely destinations: 1) to interfere with the French troop transports in the western basin of the Mediterranean; 2) to escape via the Straits of Gibraltar into the Atlantic; and 3) to enter the Adriatic and join he Austrian fleet at Pola. The idea of flight to the Turkish Straits does not seem to have been considered a likely scenario by the British side.
On August 1, as Milne prepared to leave Malta,he ordered Troubridge's cruisers to watch the mouth of the Adriatic, a light cruiser, HMS Chatham, to watch the Strait of Messina, and two of his battle cruisers, Indomitable and Indefatigable, to head west toward Gibraltar. Britain, remember, was still at that point three days from entering the war.
|One of the German ships (note flag) with pursuing British|
Meanwhile, Milne had been ordered to strictly respect Italian neutrality to the point of remaining at least six miles from the Italian coast. Since at its narrowest point the Strait of Messina was less than two miles wide, that barred him from the Strait.
Milne decided to guard both exits from the Strait, since by morning Britain and Germany were at war. But Milne assumed Souchon would head west; Troubridge's cruisers were guarding the Adriatic and no one suspected Goeben was aiming for Constantinople.
Throughout August 4 and 5, the British maintained the watch on the exits. Meanwhile, though Enver had asked for German ships, Berlin learned that the Grand Vizier and the rest of the Turkish Cabinet were balking, and rescinded the "Proceed to Constantinople" order. But Souchon was given the option to decide on his destination, and he did not want to end up in Pola under Austrian command. He chose to head for Constantinople anyway.
In Part Two: the Chase.