A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

1914: Gearing Up for War: First Moves Before the Declaration

As I have noted previously, since August 1914 and certainly since the closing of the Dardanelles in September, it had been obvious that, a century ago, the Western powers and the Ottoman Empire were likely to go to war. After the Turco-German shelling of Russian seaports on October 29, it became a certainty. Russia declared war on November 2, and Serbia the same day; Montenegro followed on the third.

Britain and France, not enjoying the autocratic power of the Tsar of All the Russias, had to wait for the workings of their democratic processes, and would declare war on November 5. But in the intervening days, fully aware of what was imminent, they were not inactive. France's main preoccupation was keeping communications open to Algeria (considered part of France proper) and to Morocco and Tunisia. Britain's interests were much closer to the Ottoman borders.

We've already discussed Britain's critical concerns in the region: the Turkish Straits; Egypt, with the Suez Canal its essential link with India; and the oil refinery at Abadan in the Gulf. Before the declaration of war, it took action in all three, and in one case initiated hostilities.

The Dardanelles

Rear Admiral Carden
Keep in mind that the British had kept a naval force just outside the Dardanelles since the flight of Goeben and Breslau in August; this force was now commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Sackville Carden, and included French vessels as well. It was still there.

On October 30, after the British Ambassador had delivered an ultimatum to the Ottoman Government, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill proposed a "demonstration" against the forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles. This Carden was ordered to do late on November 1, on the earliest suitable date. On November 2 he conducted some coastal operations and at dawn on November 3 two British battle cruisers bombarded the forts on the European side of the Strait, while two older French battleships bombarded the Asian side. The results were satisfactory and a magazine exploded at the fort of Sedd El-Bahr on the European side. Britain had opened hostilities against Turkey, two days before the formal declaration of war. Churchill's fascination with the Dardanelles, which would lead to the Gallipoli campaign, was already in evidence.


We have already discussed the anomalous position of Egypt.

De facto a virtual protectorate (often referred to as a "veiled protectorate") of Britain,it was de jure still an Ottoman province, yet under its on hereditary ruling family. In the Imperial era, Britain was not going to let legal details endanger the Suez Canal, and began a series of moves which, within weeks, would change both Egypt's status and its ruler. On November 2, again before any declaration of war, it declared martial law in Egypt.

The Gulf

I've also gone into considerable detail previously about Britain's concern about the Iranian oilfields and Abadan refinery, its links with the semi-independent Sheikh of Muhammara, and the pre-positioning of an Indian Army Brigade (Force D) at Bahrain in anticipation of war. Now, with war inevitable, that force, meant to protect Abadan and soon to be ordered to take Basra, moved northward to the bar at the mouth of the Shatt al-‘Arab, and arrived there on November 3. There they paused, awaiting the formal declaration of war, a nicety ignored by Churchill and Carden at the Dardanelles. On November 6, the land war would begin.

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