A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Century Ago: Turkey Closes the Straits, Declares Shatt al-‘Arab Inland Waters

In July and August, I posted a lengthy series of posts dealing with the seizure of Turkish dreadnoughts by the Royal Navy on the eve of the European war in 1914 (see here), the flight of the German battle cruiser and cruiser Goeben and Breslau to Constantinople and their incorporation in the Turkish fleet, and the secret German Treaty of Alliance between the Ottoman Empire and the German Reich (Part I; Part I; Part III; and Part IV). Even at the end of all that, Turkey maintained its officially neutral status, despite its Navy now being under German officers. Throughout September, as Turkey mobilized, the Western powers continued to believe that Turkey's allegiance was still undetermined. No one was eager to force the issue, since the Turkish Straits were Russia's lifeline.

Early in September, Constantinople announced that it was unilaterally terminating the system of Capitulations, under which Western consulates exercised extraterritorial rights over their own citizens in Ottoman territory. This was strongly protested by all the European powers, Germany and Austria included.

German (now Turkish) Admiral Souchon, whom we met in my earlier postings, was chafing at the bit, eager to sail against the Russian Black Sea Fleet, but the Turkish Cabinet remained divided, Grand Vizier Said Halim Pasha still trying to cut a deal with the Entente Powers, and War Minister Enver Pasha enthusiastically backing Germany. During this period, Germany reinforced its presence in Turkey by sending military men in civilian clothing by train or by boat down the Danube through still-neutral Romania and Bulgaria.

A century ago this weekend, Turkey would take another major step towards Ottoman belligerency, moving to close the Dardanelles to the shipping of the Allied (Entente) Powers, and also declaring the Shatt al-‘Arab between Ottoman Iraq and Qajar Iran as home waters closed to foreign shipping. Of these moves, (along with the closure of the waters around Smyrna/Izmir), the closure of the Dardanelles was the most provocative by far, being in direct violation of treaties and yet another violation (after the Goeben and Breslau) of Turkey's officially proclaimed neutrality.

But I misspeak. Turkey did not close the Strait. A local (German) commander did so.

Rear Admiral Carden
Late on September 26 or early on September 27 a Turkish warship armed with torpedoes, called a destroyer in some accounts and a torpedo boat in others (but with the ability to sink other ships either way), passed out of the Dardanelles into the Aegean. The British flotilla that had pursued the Goeben and Breslau remained in the Mediterranean to prevent their escape and was now under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Sackville Carden, who had replaced Admiral Milne after the escape of the Germans.

Carden's squadron intercepted the Turkish vessel and discovered German sailors on board. They were determined not to let sailors of  belligerent pass, branded it  violation of Turkish neutrality, and required the vessel to return to Turkish waters. Carden apparently had the approval of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, but not of the British Foreign Office.

Erich Paul Weber (Weber Pasha)
The move would certainly not be well-received in Constantinople, but it didn't matter: the German commander of the fortifications on the Asian (the term at the time was "Asiatic") side of the Strait, Erich Paul Weber (1860-1933), was an Oberst (colonel) of engineers and later General, commanding the XV Pioneer Army Corps at Kum Kale. he had been in charge of the fortifications along the Asian side of the Dardanelles and, apparently entirely on his own initiative and without consulting the Ottoman Government, Weber Pasha (as he was known in Ottoman service) closed and mined the Dardanelles.

(There is an intriguing historical family connection of Weber Pasha, which I'll blog about later today.)

Already the Strait had been lined with mines and international shipping had been required to request a Turkish pilot boat to lead them through the minefields. Now the entire channel was mined, signs erected on the coasts, and the guns in the fortifications authorized to be prepared to defend the passage. Russia was cut off from warm-water access to its allies. And neither for the first nor last time in this autumn of 1914, a German officer was determining the policy of the Ottoman Empire.

The Entente protested of course, especially Britain. The Grand Vizier played it down, told the British Ambassador that he personally favored reopening the Straits, that perhaps if the British Squadron could withdraw a bit further into the Aegean, not so close to Turkish waters ...

The British were also noticing other signs of Ottoman drift towards the Central Powers. Egypt, under British de facto control since 1882, was still nominally an Ottoman territory, and the British had detected  Ottoman patrols that appeared to be probing the defenses of the Suez Canal.

As the Turks ratified Oberst Weber's closure of the Straits, only the Grand Vizier's conciliatory talk allowed the British to retain their hope that Turkey could be wooed away from its German suitors. But at the opposite end of the Ottoman Empire, similar calculations were at work.

British India was of course the "Jewel in the Crown" of the Empire, and it was no secret the Germans hoped to spark a revolt there; an alliance with the Turkish Sultan might alienate Muslims throughout the Raj. German naval vessels were known to be headed toward the Indian Ocean. And with the Royal Navy converting from coal to oil, the oil concessions of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company at Abadan were increasingly important.

The Abadan oilfields are on an island that lies between the waterway (itself formed by the juncture of the Tigris and Euphrates) known in Arabic as the Shatt al-‘Arab (roughly, coastline of the Arabs) and in Persian as the Arvand Rud, and a channel from the Karun River to the Gulf. This waterway is one of the most contentious border disputes in history, throughout Ottoman-Iranian history and including the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. But that's a post for another day.

In 1914 the Ottomans had an arguable claim (probably voided by a recent treaty with Persia/Iran) to Abadan island. Qajar Iran had the better claim under treaties, but both were pretty theoretical since the island was controlled by the local Sheikh of Muhammara (today Khorramshahr: this is in Iran's largely ethnically Arab Khuzistan), and he had cut a deal with the British and was under British protection.

Though the British Government was was already charting out an occupation of Basra if Turkey entered the war, it tread gingerly at first, occupying Abadan island, which was not recognized generally as Ottoman territory. West of the island in the Shatt/Arvand, it placed a warship, HMS Odin, respecting Turkish neutrality.

The day after Turkey (or Col. Weber) closed the Dardanelles, the Ottoman Vali of Basra informed the British that the Shatt was now considered Turkey's inland waters and that foreign vessels must depart.

HMS Odin left soon thereafter. A British Indian Division would land in November, but only after the Ottomans were formal belligerents.

The status of the Shatt is debatable. The Turkish Straits are the subject of international treaties. Yet despite this, Turkey would remain officially neutral for another month.

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