A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

October 29, 1914: Admiral Souchon Forces Turkey into the Great War

Since last summer I have been noting each of the dates marking the centennial of events that brought the Ottoman Empire into the Great War on the side of Germany and Austria a century ago. Divisions in the Ottoman Cabinet, despite the signing of a secret alliance in August, kept the Turks from fully committing to war. The Ottoman War Minister, Enver Pasha, was enthusiastic enough, but others were dragging their feet. Germany was increasingly exasperated with its putative ally's excuses. On this day a century ago, without Cabinet approval, including that of Minister of Marine Djemal Pasha, the Commander of the Turkish Navy simply started the war on his own.

Souchon and his staff in Fezzes
You may recall a key fact from our earlier discussions of the Goeben and Breslau (now the Yavuz Sultan Selim and Medilli), the ranking officer of the Turkish fleet was now Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, who despite donning the fez and raising the Ottoman flag, was very much still a serving officer of the Imperial German Navy.

During October, each of the German-crewed vessels (still called Goeben and Breslau by their crews) had made brief sorties into the Black Sea for gunnery practice or other excuses; these were officially protested by some in the Cabinet, who feared they were aimed at provoking Russia (which of course they were). But the Russians, not wanting a new front with Turkey, refused the bait.

By late October, the German Ambassador in Constantinople, Wangenheim, passed on instructions to "Turkish" Admiral Souchon to take decisive action. It's not entirely clear if Enver knew what Souchon was about to do. He may have assumed it was another attempt to provoke the Russians to come out. It wasn't. Souchon had decided to shell the Russian coast.

Yavuz, Medilli,  and other elements of the Turkish fleet steamed out of the Bosphorus on October 27. The next day, at sea, Souchon informed the other captains of their orders. The next day, October 29, Yavuz/Goeben, accompanied by the Mine Cruiser Nilofer and the destroyers (sometimes classed as torpedo boats) Tasoz and Samsun, would shell the major Russian naval base at Sevastopol in the Crimea. Medilli/Breslau, accompanied by the Mine Cruiser Berk would lay mines in the Kerch Strait (between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov) and then proceed to attack Novorossisk. The Turkish light cruiser Hamidiye would attack the port of Feodosia (Theodosia), and the destroyers/torpedo boats Muavenet-i-Milliye and Gairet-i-Wataniye would attack Odessa.

Muavenet. Gairet  was similar
The plan assumed surprise, but something went wrong. Muavenet and Gairet reached Odessa well before dawn, apparently around 3 am. It was still dark, but they saw a line of old tramp steamers exiting the harbor.They were showing lights, and the Turkish commander decided to use the opportunity to enter the harbor, though the Yavuz and others were still hours away from their targets.

They spotted the old Russian gunboat Donets and several other ships in the harbor and after shelling her Gayret torpedoed her and she sank. In an engagement of only 15 minutes or so they also attacked the gunboat Kubanets, which fled, They attacked a minesweeper which burned and reportedly sank, shelled several merchant vessels in the harbor, and shelled shore installations.

The Odessa attack, coming hours before other ships reached their targets, alerted the Russians, and around 4 am warnings were sent out to other locations. By the time Goeben/Yavuz reached the big naval base at Sevastopol, around 6:30 AM, the Russian shore batteries were on alert. He shelled the base for about 20 minutes, firing 47 rounds (and hitting a naval hospital) but the Russian batteries were quite accurate and Yavuz/Goeben took three hits. None caused casualties but she chose to withdraw under cover of a smokescreen laid by her escorts.

Hamidie from the deck of Yavuz/Goeben
Meanwhile, at Feodosia, Hamidie had arrived to find little resistance, and gave the local population an opportunity to evacuate, before shelling the port facilities.

At Novorossisk, also after a warning, Berk began the shelling, being joined in late morning by Medilli/Breslau after she laid her mines in the Kerch Strait.
Said to Show Bombardment of Novorossisk by Medilli/Breslau

As Yavuz/Goeben was heading back to Constantinople she encountered an old Russian minelayer, the Prut, accompanied by three torpedo boats. They tried to defend her, but were driven away and one badly damaged by Yavuz' guns. The crew of the Prut, which was filled with a cargo of mines, opted to scuttle her rather than risk being blown to bits if their cargo was hit.

The German and Turkish crews lost no men, and suffered only minor damage, mostly the three hits on Yavuz/Goeben. Russian casualties are unknown but mostly occurred at Odessa.

But Souchon had done something more. Without official authorization from the Cabinet, he had started the war with Russia.

Russia declared war on Turkey November 2, joined by Serbia the same day and Montenegro on November 3. Serbia and Montenegro had other problems on their hands but were doing their Pan-Slavic duty.  Britain and France followed suit on November 5, and we'll be hearing more about them, especially Britain, than we will about Montenegro in coming weeks.. The Ottoman Empire was in the war.

Commemorative German postcard (painting?):

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