Turkey Enters the War and British Actions

The following paper appeared on WW1-L in December 1999, and is reproduced here by permission. Geoffrey Miller (manorhouse@clara.co.uk), is the author of The Millstone, part of a trilogy dealing with the Royal Navy and the Mediterranean.

Another long post, which I hope some may find of interest, on the events of late October and November 1914 in the Black Sea. The situation was so complex it is impossible to describe in a few short paragraphs, so please forgive the use of bandwidth.

On 22 October 1914 Turkish Minister of War Enver presented the Germans with his war plans. Enver maintained that, due to the continued uncertainty in the Balkans, substantial Turkish forces would have to remain in Thrace. The options that remained were, in the main, those that had been canvassed in the preceding months: the proclamation of a jihad against the Entente; the dispatch of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (though this would take some time); diversionary operations against Russian land forces in the Caucasus; seek out and attack the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Of the four options, only the last promised immediate results; the plans were unhesitatingly approved by the Germans. One final hurdle remained for Enver. Now, at the last minute, Halil and Talaat began to waver. There was even talk of Halil and Hafiz going to Berlin to plead for another six months' neutrality as Turkish arms remained inadequate for the task. It was too late. Enver promptly resorted to subterfuge by handing Souchon a sealed order to commence hostilities against Russia without a formal declaration of war. If, however, Enver found that he could not persuade his colleagues to acquiesce in such a radical course the Minister for War would instruct Souchon not to open the orders - this was to be the pre-arranged signal that, to force the issue, Souchon himself would have to manufacture an incident. Wangenheim, however, was not at all satisfied with this arrangement. On 23 October the Ambassador sent the Commander of the German Naval Base, Humann, to see Enver who, typically, was not in his office. Humann thereupon dictated a note to Colonel Kiazim Bey, Enver's A.D.C.:

German Ambassador is of opinion that Fleet Commander Admiral Souchon must have in his hands a written declaration from Enver Pasha if Souchon is to carry out Enver's plan to cause Russian incident. Otherwise, in case of military failure or political defeat for Enver, a grave compromise of German policy with extremely fatal consequences is inevitable.

Enver's subterfuge had been designed to override opposition from his own side and did not take into account Wangenheim's last-minute faint-heartedness. In the circumstances, there was little that Enver could do but comply, which he did two days later:

War Minister Enver Pasha to Admiral Souchon October 25, 1914 The entire fleet should manoeuvre in Black Sea. When you find a favourable opportunity, attack the Russian fleet. Before initiating hostilities, open my secret order personally given you this morning. To prevent transport of material to Serbia, act as already agreed upon. Enver Pasha. [Secret order] The Turkish fleet should gain mastery of Black Sea by force. Seek out the Russian fleet and attack her wherever you find her without declaration of war. Enver Pasha.

Wangenheim, too, had some final instructions for Souchon: "(1) put to sea immediately, (2) no aimlessness, but war by all means, (3) if possible, report soon to Berlin on operative intentions."

Souchon now had a surprise for Enver. Rather than an incident at sea, the Admiral had determined upon the far more provocative scheme of attacking the Russian coast! On that afternoon the German officers began to leave the congenial environment of the steamship General to rejoin their ships, German or Turkish, which were congregated around Goeben. Aboard Breslau orders were issued to set out for the Black Sea for scouting practice; Lieutenant Doenitz later recorded that word had been received that the Russians were sowing mines at the entrance to the Bosphorus and that Souchon planned to cut off their retreat! In reality the plan was for a simultaneous attack at four locations - Sebastopol, Theodosia, Novorossisk and Odessa - early on the morning of 29 October. Goeben, accompanied by two torpedo boats and a gun boat, would go to Sebastopol; the targets for Breslau (accompanied by Berk) and Hamidieh would be Novorossisk and Theodosia respectively; while Odessa would be attacked by three torpedo boats. The fleet sailed on the evening of 27 October. One of the torpedo boats detailed for Odessa developed engine trouble and turned back; the remaining two (Muavenet and Gairet) sighted the lights of Odessa at 3 a.m. on the 29th. On a moonless night the boats were unsure as to how to enter the harbour when, fortuitously, three steamers emerged, the first showing lights. The Turkish vessels quickly ran past the emerging ships, into the harbour and, from about 70 yards, put a torpedo into the Russian gunboat Donetz. One French and three Russian steamers were also damaged, as were shore installations and a sugar factory.

The premature bombardment had, though, ruined Souchon's plan for simultaneous attacks, as Goeben was still some hours away from Sebastopol. At 4 a.m. she intercepted a Russian W/T message, en clair, reporting the Odessa action so that when, just before 6.30 a.m., Goeben sighted her target, the shore batteries had been alerted and were prepared for action. Goeben's bombardment of fifteen minutes' duration did not go unanswered and she received at least three hits from heavy shells, one of which resulted in a boiler being shut down. While this was going on the Russian minelayer Pruth (loaded with 110 mines) blundered on to the scene and was promptly scuttled by her crew who viewed their ship as being no more than a giant floating bomb waiting to be detonated. Three modern Russian destroyers attempted to chase the fleeing attackers but abandoned their effort when the leading boat was hit.

At the same time Hamidieh arrived at Theodosia. With no opposition evident a German and a Turkish officer proceeded on shore to give notice of the coming bombardment, to enable civilians to evacuate the area. A similar warning was delivered at Novorossisk by Berk which eventually opened fire shortly before Breslau arrived. Breslau did not, in fact, reach the port till 10.50 a.m., having first laid a barrage of 60 mines in the Kertch Straits, then, with her engines stopped, she commenced a leisurely bombardment of over 300 shells in two hours concentrating first on the oil tanks on shore, before shifting her aim to the ships in the harbour, ultimately sinking 14 vessels including (in contradiction to the German Official History) the British registered steel schooner Friedericke. All the Turco-German ships returned safely to the Bosphorus.

News of the attack, which was received in London at 5.45 that evening, 29 October, was already common knowledge in Constantinople that afternoon. Djemal, dining at the fashionable Cercle d'Orient, was reported to have reacted furiously when he became aware of the news and to have denied vehemently any knowledge of the attack; when Vere (the Armstrong-Vickers representative) saw Djemal at 9.30 that night to ask if the rumours were true, the Pasha =- still professing to know nothing about the Black Sea incident - lost his temper and shouted, "That swine Admiral von Souchon has done this." While Djemal's protestations of innocence may, or may not have been, genuine even Liman von Sanders subsequently denied any foreknowledge of the attack upon the Russian coast.

Mallet saw the Russian and French Ambassadors, Giers and Bompard, that evening and they agreed between them to suggest that, as the Ottoman Government must have had prior knowledge of, and authorized, the attacks, the Porte should be instructed to "choose between rupture with Triple Entente or dismissal of German naval and military missions." Mallet should have been spared the necessity of having to make such a fatuous demand as the following day - 30 October - Giers was instructed to ask for his passports and Mallet, following his own instructions, proposed to do the same; however his telegram informing Grey of his intention crossed with one from the Foreign Secretary directing Mallet to send in a note to the Porte expressing "the utmost surprise of the wanton attacks made upon open and undefended towns of a friendly country without any warning and without the slightest provocation." Mallet was to demand that the Turkish Government dismiss the German missions and repatriate the German sailors; they would have twelve hours to produce a satisfactory reply to the note, otherwise Mallet was then to ask for his passports.

At thirty-five minutes past midnight that night (30/31 October) a warning telegram was sent by the Admiralty to all Mediterranean commands informing them of the twelve hour time limit. The countdown to war now appeared a formality. Yet British Ambassador Mallet, encouraged by what he believed to be credible internal opposition on the 30th, still held out a last lingering hope. The shock of Souchon's fait accompli had reverberated throughout the Porte that day in a series of confused and emotional meetings convened by the Turks. At the first of these the vote was 17-10 in favour of intervention upon which Said Halim, Djavid and three other ministers promptly resigned. Enver had not, apparently, counted on Said Halim taking so principled a stand and the Minister for War promptly went to work: he could not afford to lose Said Halim as the Grand Vizier was a useful figurehead who might, additionally, be able to buy time by continuing to string along the Entente Powers. So it was that, subject to heavy pressure at the second meeting that day, Said Halim returned to the fold, reluctant as ever to give up the sybaritic pleasures of his post. In one sense the arguments were irrelevant as Souchon's action had moved the debate away from being a purely Turkish decision: Russian soil and Russian ships had been shelled; Russian sailors and civilians killed; and, incidentally, a British ship had been sunk. Souchon could no longer be disavowed.

Mallet subsequently had a "very painful" interview with the Grand Vizier, who was said to have pleaded "Do not abandon me". This, and Djavid's report of that day's meeting, given to the French Ambassador, resulted in Mallet informing Grey that he was "unwilling to leave if there is slightest chance of change in situation during next twenty-four hours." The situation, however, deteriorated rapidly: Giers, the Russian Ambassador, left on 31 October, while Morgenthau, the American Ambassador, advised Mallet in strict confidence to go as soon as possible for, from the information at Morgenthau 's disposal, there was "no chance of favourable solution." Mallet, who planned to leave that same evening, responded to one final plea from the Grand Vizier and consented to stay over till 1 November to allow another interview to be scheduled. This last act of consideration for Said Halim was unnecessary: at 5.05 p.m., 31 October, the order went out from the Admiralty to all ships, "Commence hostilities at once against Turkey. Acknowledge." The smoke that rose from the Embassy garden told its own forlorn story: "the documents and records of British achievements in Turkey for over one hundred years were slowly burning before the eyes of the Ambassador and his Secretaries. It was the funeral pyre of England"s vanishing power in the Ottoman Empire."

Mallet and Ryan drove out to Said Halim's country residence late on the afternoon of 1 November but, as Ryan had foreseen, "the meeting produced no change in an irremedial situation." Together with the French, Mallet and his staff left that evening by train to Dedeagatch (the only exit as the Dardanelles remained closed) and there boarded the SS Ernest Simon on 2 November. From Dedeagatch they proceeded via Athens and Malta to Marseilles, then by train to Dieppe, finally reaching London on 11 November. After Mallet had taken his leave on the evening of 1 November, Said Halim had other visitors: the Grand Vizier was again wavering and Enver and Talaat arrived to ensure his final adherence to the cause. Although now abandoned, and with war inevitable (and Talaat reminded Said Halim that it was he who had signed the alliance with Germany and would, therefore, be responsible for the consequences) it apparently still took a threat to his life to persuade the Prince to comply.

Somewhat embarrassingly, Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov hesitated over declaring war on Turkey even though the attack upon his homeland had been flagrant and unprovoked and the Ambassador had been withdrawn on 31 October. Such unexpected circumspection was the result of Sazonov's desire for Turkey to remain intact until at least 1917, when Russia would be strong enough herself to force the issue of the Straits, his quarrel was with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Rather like the Grand Vizier, Sazonov seemed to believe that, by ignoring the problem, it might go away; only a direct order from the Tsar secured the Russian declaration of war against Turkey on 2 November. This unanticipated Russian intransigence resulted in Britain involuntarily leading the way to strike back at the Turks.

At the Cabinet on 2 November Grey reported that the situation in Turkey was still obscure; despite this, the general opinion was that, after what had happened, there should be a vigorous offensive and every effort should be made to bring in Greece, Bulgaria and, above all, Roumania. "Henceforward', Asquith reported to the King, "Great Britain must finally abandon the formula of 'Ottoman integrity' whether in Europe or in Asia." While the politicians debated, far away, off the Dardanelles, the last futile act of the drama was being played out. On the back of the Admiralty copy of Grey's telegram to Mallet of 30 October, which set the Turks a twelve hour time limit to respond to the British ultimatum, Churchill had written in blunt red pencil, "1 S[ea] L[ord]. Admiral Slade shd be asked to state his opinion on the possibility & advisability of a bombardment of the sea face forts of the Dardanelles. It is a good thing to give a prompt blow." Slade replied the same day:

A bombardment of the sea face of the Dardanelles Forts offers very little prospect of obtaining any effect commensurate with the risk to the ships. The Forts are difficult to locate from the sea at anything like the range at which they will have to be engaged. The guns in the Forts at the entrance are old Krupp and would probably be outranged by those in the Fleet, but it is not known where the new guns 16.5" Krupp said to have been mounted by the Germans are situated. It may be possible to make a demonstration to draw the fire of these guns & make them disclose themselves trusting to lack of training of the gunners, but it would not be advisable to risk serious damage to any of the battle cruisers as long as the Goeben is effective, A little target practice from 15 to 12 thousand yards might be useful....

The following day, 1 November, the order was sent to Admiral Carden: without risking either his own or the French ships a demonstration was to be made against the forts on the earliest suitable day from long range and with the ships underway. Approaching soon after daylight, Carden was instructed to retire before return fire from the forts became effective. At 5.45 that morning Carden's ships had opened fire, his objective being "to do as much damage as possible in a short time with a limited number of rounds at long range, and to turn away before the fire from the forts became effective." To accomplish this, he allowed a mere eight rounds per turret. Britain had commenced hostilities before the official declaration of war!

The immediate results were better than expected, particularly those obtained by the British battle cruisers, and included the destruction of Fort Seddel Bahr when its magazine exploded after being hit. "It seemed to me", noted an onlooker on Dublin, "to be a deliberate bombardment of practically every building in sight, care being taken not to hit the minaret. This would be because of its use for range finding and also perhaps of a wish not to offend religious sensibilities. The main target was certainly the fort, which we made a mess of, culminating in a huge explosion. There had been sporadic return fire from several positions but we certainly weren't hit and it was all a most one-sided affair." Djevad Pasha, the Turkish commandant, testified after the war that this attack, though more or less a reconnaissance, caused more damage than any succeeding attack. "The Turkish guns were quite outranged", noted the commander of HMS Harpy, "and as far as I could see, only a few ricochets came near us. I hope this war will be prosecuted with vigour, and that we shall not be content with a 20 minute bombardment occasionally." Asquith, however, was less impressed: "The shelling of a fort at the Dardanelles seems to have succeeded in blowing up a magazine", he wrote, adding cynically, "but that is peu de chose. At any rate we are now frankly at war with Turkey." This was, in a formal sense, still incorrect.

In Constantinople von Usedom admitted that the long range shooting had been remarkably good and the demonstration had produced near panic in the capital, resulting in a conference being convened of Government representatives and town authorities to discuss the measures to be taken to safeguard the city, its treasures, valuables, holy places, and the Sultan. There was even talk of laying a minefield in front of the Golden Horn while steam was raised in Goeben so that she could sail to the Dardanelles and assist if necessary. In London the Cabinet reached the conclusion that, due to the bombardment and destruction of the fort, "a final declaration of war against Turkey could no longer be postponed." On the afternoon of 4 November Tewfik Pasha, acting under instructions from Constantinople, called on Grey and asked for his passports. The following day Britain and France declared war on Turkey. Churchill would not let up; he asked Carden four days later to report on any way the Turks could be injured "without undue risk or expenditure of ammunition." Carden was not keen, replying that there was not much that could be done at present without using a full charge in the 12-inch guns. Undeterred, Churchill again asked Carden for his proposals for injuring the enemy. Almost in desperation, Carden replied that, apart from preventing contraband entering through the Dardanelles or Smyrna, which he was already doing, the only other option was a further bombardment. "The bombardment should be repeated", Churchill instructed on 16 November before Vice-Admiral Oliver's timely intervention prevented another futile demonstration. "Possibly", the Admiral minuted, "the guns have not enough remaining life to make it advisable to bombard again with full charges." The proposal lapsed for the time being.

Last Updated: 2 January, 2000.

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