SUPERIOR FORCE : The Conspiracy Behind the Escape of Goeben and Breslau © Geoffrey Miller



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SUPERIOR FORCE : The Conspiracy Behind the Escape of Goeben and Breslau © Geoffrey Miller




Chapter 10




The Battleship Summer





Following the acquisition by Greece of the armoured cruiser Averoff the Turks upped the stakes with their order, in May 1911, for two dreadnoughts from British yards, one from Vickers, the other from Armstrong. Work on the Armstrong ship was suspended – never to be resumed – during the Balkan Wars when Turkish funds dried up as the country appeared on the point of collapse; work on the Vickers’ ship was temporarily halted also when the builders demanded a better guarantee of payment but was later to proceed. A disturbing new element was introduced when, in January 1913, Grey was informed by the British Ambassador in Constantinople, Sir Gerard Lowther, that the Turks had made a conditional contract for the purchase of two Brazilian battleships then being built in England.[1] There was, in fact, only one battleship – Rio de Janeiro – but, if true, the purchase would decisively alter the naval balance in the Aegean: the Greek battle cruiser Salamis, then being built in Germany, would be pitted against the Turkish super-dreadnought Reschad V, still under construction by Vickers in England and now, allegedly in addition, Rio de Janeiro. While Battenberg though it ‘undesirable from every point of view’ that Greece should have important units like Salamis he was also of opinion that the Turkish navy was ‘hopeless’ and that the British naval mission there should be withdrawn; given his close ties with the Royal family, it was little surprise that he advocated that the mission to Greece, and his protégé Mark Kerr, should remain in place as the rising sea power of Greece was ‘much more worthy’.[2]

                Although, on this occasion, Lowther’s report would prove to be premature (the Brazilians had, as yet, shown no inclination to sell) in the meantime, as neither Rio de Janeiro nor Reschad V would be ready until the summer of 1914, Germany offered the Turks a further two 19 year old pre-dreadnoughts (Worth and Brandenburg) to add to the pair of the same class the Turks had purchased in 1910 when concerned about Greece’s acquisition of Averoff — Turkey looked like becoming a useful repository for obsolete German weaponry. The head of the naval mission in Constantinople at the time, Rear-Admiral Limpus, predicted to Churchill on 12 March 1913 that if the deal went through there would be a ‘much more decided leaning towards Germany’ by the Turks and urged the British Government instead to dispose of two of its old pre-dreadnoughts. Disagreeing with Battenberg, Churchill condoned the suggestion and Limpus was informed on 3 April that the Admiralty was prepared to sell two obsolete Royal Sovereigns but that, unfortunately, nothing more modern was available. Unsurprisingly, the Turks were less than enthusiastic and nothing more came of the proposal.

                Ambassador Lowther, tired and cynical and nearing the end of his five year spell at the Porte (T. E. Lawrence referred to him as an ‘utter dud’), wearily reported to Sir Arthur Nicolson on the day after Limpus’ warning to Churchill that:

The Turks great idea is to buy ships once peace is declared for they realise that it is the intention of the Powers to deprive them of the islands and they will want to take them back. It seems to me a silly idea to buy two antiquated Germans but Limpus rather approves as they cannot buy anything good. The worst of it is, if the Navy here is to be full of German ships, our argument that the officers should be English falls to the ground…[3]

Apparently Limpus – like Kerr – had decided that his immediate loyalty lay with the country in whose service he was employed despite his worries of the day before regarding German encroachment. As with the British offer though the Turks also turned down the Germans: they had their eyes on bigger and better things. Indeed Lowther passed on a further rumour to Nicolson on 24 April that, in addition to the ‘two’ [sic] Brazilian dreadnoughts, the Turks were also negotiating to buy five French destroyers — ‘No folly seems to be too great for these poor Turks’, Lowther noted.[4] Again, in May, Grey was informed that the idea ‘has become prevalent in Turkish circles that Turkey must henceforth devote her energies and expense to reform her navy and become a Naval Power.’ One of the ideas underlying the attempt to purchase foreign ships, Lowther continued, ‘would seem to be that by the acquisition of such units Turkey might influence in her favour the solution of the question of the Aegean Islands, and in any case have after peace a navy superior to that of Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, if not to that of Russia in the Black Sea.’[5]

                In June it was reported that Turkey was attempting to purchase Goeben; in October it was two Italian cruisers; but the great prize remained Rio de Janeiro. Brazil had received pre-emptive offers for the ship from Russia and Italy as well as Turkey but the first intimation that the ship would actually be put on the open market came on 4 September in a cable from the British Minister in Brazil. The Admiralty quickly disinterested itself in the fate of the ship which was haughtily declared ‘unsuitable for the British Navy’ so that, when Limpus reported Turkish fears that the Greeks might buy the ship, his suggestion that Britain herself buy the vessel, to take it out of circulation, was promptly turned down. Similarly, in November, when the Admiralty received information that Italy had asked for a 10 days option to purchase, the Board decided that they ‘were not aware of any circumstances which would justify them in purchasing the ship in order that it might not come into the possession of the Italian Government.’[6] Yet the following day the Admiralty confusingly admitted to the French Naval Attaché that the Italian purchase would upset the present balance in the Mediterranean. Also, it was now thought the Russians did not want the ship, and the Greeks could not afford it.[7] The news caused consternation in Paris when it was realized that the addition of such a powerful unit to the Italian navy could jeopardize French plans for the transport of the Algerian Army Corps and, in a deft attempt to resolve the matter in their favour, it was proposed that the French loan to Greece, then being negotiated, could be increased to cover the cost of purchasing the ship — but this would take time.

                On 22 November 1913 the Foreign Office informed Churchill and Battenberg that the French would find the money to enable the Greeks to buy the ship but that the builders – Armstrong’s – were on the point of completing the sale to Italy and should be warned to delay completion. Although Grey would have preferred Greece to have the ship, he left the final decision to the Admiralty.[8] Churchill needed no prompting: he telephoned a message the next day (a Sunday!) to inform Battenberg that the Foreign Office ‘should be told Admiralty regard it as most important Greece should purchase. Firm should be warned at once not to conclude alternative bargain.’[9] Admiralty strictures notwithstanding, information emanating from Brazil in December indicated that a firm offer had been made by an unknown Power of a £1¼ million down payment and £940,000 in instalments,[10] although the Brazilian Government was still disingenuously denying any knowledge as to the identity of the mysterious purchaser.[11] Grey, at least, should have been alerted when Louis Mallet, now the Ambassador in Constantinople after Lowther’s recall, reported on 13 December that the Turkish Ambassador in London had been authorized to negotiate the purchase of the ship on the basis of £1 million down and the remainder in instalments,[12] but almost before Grey had had a chance to come to the conclusion warranted by this information confirmation was received in a simple message from the British Minister in Brazil on the 15th: ‘Turkey is the purchaser.’[13]

                A French bank had – somewhat undiplomatically – loaned the Turks the money, the bank’s discomfort eased by a usurious rate of interest. Accusations were soon being bandied about: the Greeks blamed the French who suspected in turn that the Greeks were using the fate of the dreadnought to extract better terms for their own loan.[14] The point was not lost, however, that Armstrong’s had recently obtained the concession to reorganize the Ottoman dockyards leading to speculation that Rio de Janeiro, now re-named Sultan Osman I, formed part of the deal. Negotiations for the dockyard contract had been in progress from September until 3 December when Limpus was able to announce finally to Churchill their successful conclusion, in Armstrong’s favour.[15] Worse news was to follow for the Greeks when, early in 1914, Turkey ordered a third super-dreadnought. Meanwhile, the original ship from the 1911 contract – Reschad V, now re-named Reshadieh – had been launched on 3 September 1913 by the daughter of the Turkish Ambassador with a bottle of rose water instead of the customary champagne. This ship, along with Sultan Osman, would be completed by the summer of 1914 whereas the Greek battle cruiser Salamis, building at Hamburg, could not possibly be ready till the following year (the Germans had a perfect excuse in that the Greek Ministry of Marine had ordered American guns which would not be delivered until 1915). To make amends, the delivery of six torpedo boats was, however, expedited in part compensation and the flotilla sailed for Athens in January 1914. Venizelos attempted to put a brave face on matters, assuring the Greek Chamber that, despite the Turkish purchase of Sultan Osman, ‘Greece would remain mistress of the Aegean.’[16] Just in case, though, the Greek Minister of Marine was instructed to inquire as to whether the French could supply a dreadnought similar in concept to Salamis.

                The rumours began to fly again: that the Greeks were attempting to buy two battleships from a foreign fleet, ‘possibly Germany’; or else one of the Argentine ships building in the United States. The New York Shipbuilding Company, then building Moreno for Argentina, had in fact approached the Greeks with an offer of three obsolete American pre-dreadnoughts if the Greeks would order a super-dreadnought from them.[17] Before his meeting with Grey in January 1914 Venizelos had been in Paris where the French pressed him to place an order, before leaving for London, for a dreadnought, four destroyers and four submarines; the Prime Minister replied that he needed the ships now, not years hence, but, nevertheless, if he could not find a ready made battleship he would order a French one. The French were to be similarly disappointed when they learned on 15 January of the departure from Athens of a British naval engineer on a secret mission to England supposedly to order a projected pair of scout cruisers and four destroyers for the Greeks. Although the French Schneider submarines, already in Greek service, had trialled satisfactorily Admiral Kerr was strongly pressing the claims of the British design, while King Constantine favoured Krupps.[18] The French looked like being further disappointed except that they had, of course, a crucial weapon in the form of the Greek loan. The director of Greek naval construction, Léondopoulos, approached the French firm Penhoët about the possibility of producing a derivative of Salamis whereupon Penhoët countered with an attractive offer — an exact copy of the dreadnought Lorraine they were currently building for the French navy.

                But all this would take time – the one commodity above all that the Greeks lacked – so that, unless some other event intervened, the game would be up for them in the summer when Turkey took possession of her two dreadnoughts. Léondopoulos was then ordered to the United States in pursuit of one of the pair of battleships building for Argentina though this assignment was aborted after reports filtered through of serious problems with the turbines of the new ships. Meanwhile, the French continued to apply pressure until, finally and in desperation, at the end of March 1914, Venizelos relented and agreed to order the Lorraine copy.[19] Admiral Kerr had no weapon in his armoury with which to counter the Greek loan — indeed, the success of the French left him in invidious position as he had already advocated British ‘E’ class submarines only to see the Greeks purchase French Schneiders; similarly, his preference for Babcock and Wilcox was ignored. And now, a far greater blow, against his oft-stated dictum on the uselessness of capital ships in the Aegean, a French dreadnought had been ordered in addition to the German battle cruiser. This also ran counter to the two striking achievements of the Greek navy (both occurring before Kerr’s arrival) which pointed the way to the future: the first use of an aircraft in naval warfare and the first submarine torpedo attack of the twentieth century.[20] Although, in fact, both attacks failed this did not detract from the message taken up so enthusiastically by Kerr that Greek strategy should be based on such forms of attack; it is doubtful, however, if anything would have caused Venizelos to deviate from his quest for battleships.


In the spring of 1914 war between Greece and Turkey appeared certain. The Turkish Minister of Marine, Djemal Pasha, with his usual bravado undiluted by the precarious circumstances, was confident in May that the Turkish fleet could defeat the Greeks without the assistance of the new dreadnoughts. Besides, he added in a fatalistic aside to the British Ambassador, if Turkey ‘were defeated [she] lost nothing but what had already gone, namely the islands.’[21] Djemal further confided in Mallet that the Turks had another weapon, to be used as a last resort — the expulsion of all Greeks from the Empire. At the same time Mallet wrote privately to Grey passing on the report of Captain Boyle, the British Naval Attaché to Greece and Turkey, who had just arrived from Athens to present Mallet an ‘alarming account’ of the feeling in the Greek navy. Everyone was talking ‘of war as inevitable in the near future and that even if the Greek Government did not officially approve it might be difficult to prevent the Navy taking the matter into their own hands and sinking the Sultan Osman and Reshadieh on their way out.’[22] To forestall such an attack the Russian Ambassador helpfully inquired whether the ships could not ‘come out under the English flag.’

                Despite the threat of impending war in the Balkans, Mallet was still anxious to return home on leave. Grey could see no objection: ‘indeed’, he incautiously informed the Ambassador, ‘it would be a good thing to get your leave over before the day when things may become acute between Turkey and Greece.’[23] Mallet would eventually depart early in July. Not to be outdone, the British Minister in Athens, Sir Francis Elliot, also travelled home on leave at the end of May. Therefore, for the critical period in the disturbed summer of 1914, the legation in Athens and embassy in Constantinople would both be in the hands of Chargés d’Affaires: William Erskine and Henry Beaumont respectively.

                As the time expired before the arrival of Sultan Osman and Reshadieh, the Greeks redoubled their efforts to obtain ships ‘off the peg’: an approach to Japan to sell the British-built battle cruiser Kongo was politely but unsurprisingly rebuffed; however, China did agree to the sale of a small cruiser about to be completed in the United States, but whose presence in the Aegean by the end of June, while welcome, could not compensate for the arrival of the Turkish battleships, due shortly after. Despite the earlier abortive mission it was, in fact, in America that the breakthrough was made. The U. S. Navy was anxious to dispose of two relatively recent capital ships – Idaho and Mississippi – which had been completed in 1908 but still ranked as pre-dreadnoughts. Although fêted at the time of their building as amongst the latest and most powerful weapons of mass destruction in reality they were too slow, too small, and with too low a freeboard. On 28 May 1914 Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels appeared before a Senate Committee to recommend acceptance of the amendment that the ships be sold. The amendment passed easily: American vital interests were not being affected and the Navy would do well out of the deal — Greece was getting no bargain. The debate then moved to the House of Representatives while the Greek Government, ‘unable to comprehend the tortuous procedures of a liberal democracy, fretted at the delay.’[24]

                The newly arrived Turkish Ambassador in Washington was, to his surprise, informed by President Wilson that the ships were wanted by Greece for ‘peaceful purposes’ by making the Greek navy too strong to be attacked by the Turkish fleet. The Ambassador riposted that the presence of the ships would add to the imbalance of power, for, while she had them, the Greek navy would be the stronger; however, the Turkish navy would soon be in possession of two vastly superior super-dreadnoughts and so would then have the initiative. The pressure would be increased on Greece, therefore, to launch a pre-emptive attack. In desperation the Turks offered more for the ships in spite of the fact that, when the House debated the matter again on 23 June, it was made plain just what a liability they were. According to the New York Times, ‘In the ordinary course, the ships would be consigned to the scrap heap, or be used as targets.’[25] Although, incredibly, there was still some opposition to this one-sided deal, the Naval Appropriation Bill duly passed by 174 votes to 87; Greece would pay more than the original cost of the two battleships, while the Americans could now afford to build a new super-dreadnought with the proceeds.

                Admiral Kerr, ignored in Athens, could only describe Venizelos as ‘penny-wise and pound foolish’ as the latest additions to the Greek navy were ‘two old battleships whose guns and engines were worn out, and which were entirely useless for war.’ The deal, concluded behind his back, ‘ruined the progress of the Greek navy for the rest of the time I was there, and afterwards.’[26] Kerr’s discomfiture would not have been eased had he been aware of the First Lord’s reaction — Churchill made his feelings quite clear to Battenberg and the Admiralty secretary, Sir William Graham Greene on 4 June:

I am greatly concerned at the report in the Foreign Office telegram attached of the proposed purchase by Greece of two of the United States battleships of approximately the Formidable class. An offer like this, if made to us, would enable an enormous improvement in our material to be effected without additional cost. Our strength in older battleships is far beyond what we require. It is incredible that our Naval Mission can have let the Greeks go to the United States without, at any rate, giving us the option…[27]

                The threat of a Turco-Greek war was now acute. In Constantinople the British Embassy had decamped from its commanding position atop the hill overlooking the Golden Horn in hot, unhealthy Pera to the more congenial Therapia on the shores of the Bosphorus. When, late on the afternoon of 19 June, the Embassy Dragoman, Andrew Ryan, returned to the deserted building in Pera, intending to sleep there, he found the ‘danger signs so ominous’ that he hurried back that evening to inform Mallet, who was due to go on leave on 6 July; the most Mallet would do was to delay his departure about a week.[28] Short of war itself, Grey’s primary concern was that the Turks would close the Straits to shipping. His apparent insouciance in the matter of Mallet’s leave was in part explained by the information he had received that the Turkish army could not move through Thrace to attack Greece by land: the army was in no fit state for such an expedition and there was also the small problem of violating Bulgarian territory while, at sea, Greece was already in possession of the islands and the Turkish fleet was unlikely to emerge from the shelter of the Dardanelles. If Britain intervened at all, Grey argued, ‘it would be to keep the Straits open, because any closing of the Straits caused no end of trouble and loss to British shipping.’ In discussion with the French and Russian Ambassadors, Grey’s opinion was that warships might be sent to the mouth of the Straits as a guarantee that if Turkey kept them open for merchant shipping no Greek warship would be allowed to go through. ‘On the other hand’, he added,

it would be necessary to prevent Turkish warships from coming out; but we could hardly take a measure of that kind unless Turkey had first, by closing the Straits, shown that she did not intend her own fleet to come out and fight. In that event, we should be justified in saying to her that, as she clearly did not mean her own fleet to come out, she could lose nothing by opening the Straits with a guarantee from us that Greek warships would not be allowed to enter to attack her.[29]

Grey warned Mallet the following day, 16 June, of his fears regarding a closure but had to admit that a proposal to Turkey along those lines would be ‘premature’. At the same time Erskine was reporting from Athens that war ‘is commonly regarded here as a matter of days’. Although the simmering state of the islands’ question had been exacerbated by reports of the ill-treatment of Greek subjects by Turks, the root cause of the current alarm remained the rapidly approaching date for the delivery of the Turkish battleships. As a bonus for the Greeks, one of the newly purchased American ships – Idaho – was fortuitously in the Mediterranean on a training cruise and it was hoped that the ship could be manned and in Greek service by mid-July, some weeks before Sultan Osman would be ready to sail from the Tyne (Reshadieh would not be ready until the end of August).

                Admiral Kerr meanwhile had formulated his own ideas and submitted ‘a rather bold plan of action’ but doubted the Greek Government would adopt it. ‘They have in other matters’, Erskine confided to Grey, ‘repeatedly preferred to listen to the advice of ignorant Greek officers rather than his own, and it was only with great difficulty that he induced them recently to lay in a store of ammunition. He says moreover that there is a serious shortage of officers and of trained men.’[30] This, of course, was the crucial issue. Kerr’s ‘rival’ in Constantinople, Admiral Limpus, had spent months raising and training a scratch crew for Sultan Osman but by late May his time was up and five hundred ratings, ‘possessing a thin veneer of knowledge of their specialized trades…were packed into the transport Neshid Pasha at Constantinople and cheered off down the Hellespont.’[31] The steamer finally arrived at Armstrong’s yard, Newcastle-on-Tyne, on 27 July.

                It is difficult to imagine, if the greater conflict had not intervened, what would have been the outcome of the match between the new Turkish super-dreadnoughts and the older Greek battleships, supported by a couple of modern cruisers. If it is accepted that, following the evidence of the Balkan Wars, the Greek ships were more ably manned, could this alone have offset the huge Turkish materiel advantage? Venizelos was in no such doubt: he confidently predicted that the acquisition of Idaho and Mississippi would ensure peace and, not to be outdone by Djemal Pasha, went so far as to declare that their presence would give Greece naval superiority even after the delivery of the second Turkish dreadnought. Of course he did add that while this would avert the danger of Greece provoking war , it would also ‘undoubtedly render her indisposed to make any concessions over the islands.’[32] But Venizelos’ little bluff fooled no-one: two days earlier, Erskine had been reporting that the Greek Government and public opinion were ‘much concerned at report that Turkish Government are pressing for immediate delivery of Dreadnoughts, even if unfinished.’[33] These fears were corroborated by the Greek Minister in London, Gennadius, who saw Grey on 24 June with ‘circumstantial details’ which left Grey under the impression that ‘the two ships will not be complete but they will be in fighting condition though still short of a gun or two and will be handed over to the Turks at the beginning of August.’[34] Missing guns or not, Venizelos could not afford to take chances.

                At which point Dr E. J. Dillon entered the scene, following a path trod by the likes of Bourchier. Dillon was an Anglo-Irish journalist and sometime foreign affairs commentator for the Daily Telegraph; the 60-year-old writer and linguist had covered such events as the Dreyfus Trial and Boxer Rebellion for the Telegraph and, no doubt, his well-meant copy would again make good reading no matter how unlikely the proposal he carried with him. Dillon had been handed a Treaty of Peace and Reciprocal Protection which had been drawn up by the Greek Foreign Ministry and covered the question of the islands and other outstanding differences with Turkey.[35] Dillon met Talaat Pasha, the Turkish Minister of the Interior, on 13 July 1914 to put to him the Greek offer of a defensive treaty — Venizelos would meet a Turkish plenipotentiary at a neutral site to discuss a defensive alliance and an agreement that the disputed islands become autonomous, under Turkish suzerainty, but with a Greek governor-general. In Constantinople there was no rush of candidates to meet the wily Greek politician and, almost by elimination, the Grand Vizier drew the short straw; the venue would be Brussels.[36] News of the proposed meeting drew a self-satisfied response from Grey:

Their respective purchases of Dreadnoughts to overawe each other will be money wasted after a defensive Treaty has been made. When that is signed they had better agree to sell their Dreadnoughts, unless they are ambitious enough to attempt together to control Italy.[37]

On the same day that Dillon met Talaat, the timorous German Minister to Greece, Count von Quadt, was sent back to Athens from Berlin with ‘propositions of the greatest importance’ — which possibly involved a bribe to Greece in the form of concessions at the expense of Serbia. Nevertheless, the German hope that Greece would join the Triple Alliance as a result of these ‘propositions’ was to be unfulfilled.[38] Wilhelm, undeterred, continued to play a lone hand. At the German Foreign Office, however, the response to the surprise announcement was characterized by Jagow who thought the conclusion of an alliance ‘very dubious’ and who would have preferred an arrangement on the basis of neutrality.[39]

                The Grand Vizier was, understandably, hesitant in nominating a date for his departure: that he considered his journey would be wasted was evident when he declared to the Austrian Ambassador on 23 July, ‘in the most definite manner’, that he would agree to no alliance with M Venizelos.[40] Undeterred, Venizelos started out for Brussels anyway. ‘I gather’, Erskine reported from Athens on 25 July,

that in view of the vacillating attitude of the Ottoman Government and of the evident reluctance of the Grand Vizier to fix the date of his departure, M Venizelos is less sanguine now than he was recently as to the result of the meeting, assuming that it takes place. His principal reason for starting at once without waiting for the Grand Vizier seems to have been his desire to show that the Greek Government on their side had done everything possible to bring about a peaceful settlement. His need of a holiday and the good excuse afforded by his absence for the continued adjournment of the Chamber have also no doubt influenced his decision.[41]

                Rather than travel all the way, fruitlessly, to Brussels, Venizelos’ intention was to ‘wait in the neighbourhood of Munich’ until he was certain that the Grand Vizier had left for Brussels.[42] In fulfilment of this plan the Greek Premier had reached Trieste by 24 July where he learnt of the Austrian ultimatum the previous day to Serbia. This would not have improved his temper as he knew that article 1 of the Military Convention between Greece and Serbia of 21 June 1913 bound either side to come to the assistance of the other if attacked by a third party — ‘Greece with all her land and sea forces, Serbia with all her land forces’. Venizelos realized that any support offered to Serbia against Austria would leave Greece open to attack from either Bulgaria or Turkey. Conveniently, his absence from Athens provided a handy excuse to postpone ‘any immediate reply in the event of Serbia’s asking for the application or our alliance.’[43] By the next day Venizelos had reached Munich on his odyssey; in the intervening 24 hours he had also discovered a let-out to avoid the onerous burden of the defensive alliance with Serbia. Without yet seeing the Serbian reply to the Austrian note, Venizelos informed his Minister for Foreign Affairs, Streit, that it was premature to enforce the terms of the alliance due to the ‘provocative’ conduct of Serbia, who would therefore have to face the Austro-Hungarian Empire alone. The only event that would cause Venizelos to act was a Bulgarian attack. Streit, who entertained pronounced German sympathies, promptly informed the German Chargé d’Affaires that Greece would not take part in an Austro-Serbian conflict, and Herr Bassewitz just as promptly wired Berlin.[44]

                Everything, then, depended on the attitude of Bulgaria; however, when Austria declared war on Serbia on 28 July, Bulgaria announced her neutrality, giving Venizelos a further breathing space. As there was little point in continuing on to Brussels Venizelos requested that the Grand Vizier meet him in Munich instead but Said Halim was not for leaving Constantinople and, his scheme thwarted by outside events, the Greek Premier left Munich on 29 July to return to Athens — but not before instructing Streit ‘to encourage the Entente Powers to send a naval unit to the Aegean in order to secure Greece’s freedom of communication.’ Venizelos feared that Greek mobilization might provoke Austria into attempting to blockade the Gulf of Salonica which was ‘a major supply artery for both Greece and Serbia.’[45] Once back in Athens, and still scheming, he suggested to the Grand Vizier that they meet on one of the disputed islands[46] but by then it was too late — the Turco-German alliance was on the point of being signed.


A fortnight earlier, the German Ambassador at Constantinople, Baron von Wangenheim, had been of little doubt: ‘Turkey is today’, he declared vehemently, ‘without any question worthless as an ally. She would only be a burden to her associates, without being able to offer them the slightest advantage…Turkey can only be advised to keep away from every political adventure and to maintain friendly relations with all nations.’[47] In talks with senior members of the Committee of Union and Progress Wangenheim reiterated his argument that neutrality was the best option for Turkey. His subsequent volte-face was forced by the receipt of a ‘peremptory’ order on 24 July from the Kaiser who, ‘in spite of existing doubt as to Turkey’s capacity as an ally, is of the opinion that at the present moment, for reasons of expediency, Turkey’s inclination towards a connection with the Triple Alliance could be taken advantage of…’ Wangenheim was emphatically instructed to negotiate an ad hoc arrangement, avoiding any far-reaching obligations.[48] The Ambassador had a valid point – that the Russo-Turkish border would always be a weak point in a grand Berlin-Baghdad link-up – but this tactical defect was counterbalanced in Wilhelm’s mind by the desirability of having as many allies as possible and, not unincidentally, the incalculable advantage of being able to close the Straits to Russian shipping. The dropping of Wangenheim’s scruples resulted in the immediate offer of an alliance.

                Wangenheim telegraphed Berlin on 28 July that the Grand Vizier desired a secret offensive and defensive alliance with Germany against Russia only: Turkey ‘required no protection against any other countries than Russia.’[49] The Chancellor replied with alacrity that Wilhelm accepted the Grand Vizier’s proposal and that the deal should be concluded on the basis that both Powers observe strict neutrality in the present Austro-Serbian conflict.[50] Following the intervention of the All-Highest Wangenheim had diplomatically, if cravenly, revised his opinion of Turkish arms: with German officers at its head the military worth of the Turkish army would, he declared, be increased ‘threefold’, but his new found confidence could not offset Turkish cold feet following the Russian mobilization on 31 July.[51] As Wangenheim also suspected that the Greeks might try to block the Dardanelles to prevent the passage of the Turkish Dreadnoughts clearly the time to act was now — however, his appeal on 1 August that Goeben be sent to reinforce the Turkish fleet against the Russian Black Sea Fleet was rejected when Wilhelm directed that the Ambassador be informed ‘The cruiser Goeben can not be dispensed with at present time.’

                On the evening of 1 August Wangenheim met senior members of the C.U.P. in the Grand Vizier’s villa at Yeniköy. Minister of War Enver hoped to present his co-conspirators with a fait accompli in respect of the alliance, overriding the strong objections of Minister of Finance Djavid; besides, Enver (never one to carry one revolver when two would do) had a bombshell in his possession — a telegram from London announcing that the British Government had embargoed the two Turkish dreadnoughts. In any case, Enver declared, it was now too late to consider alternative courses of action as Said Halim had already signed the alliance. This was, as Enver knew, precipitate as Wangenheim informed Berlin that the alliance was actually signed at 4 p.m. on 2 August.[52] Nevertheless, confirmation of the signing brought a change of heart in Berlin when Tirpitz requested that Constantinople be informed that Goeben and Breslau had now been ordered at once to the Golden Horn, with the suggestion that Souchon be placed at the disposal of the Turkish Government to command the Turkish fleet.[53] It was thought that this sudden turnaround would help prevent any wavering at the Porte, though the ploy was not immediately successful: aware at last of the implications of his actions Said Halim now began to worry. Just as the Greeks would do, Said looked at Bulgaria and did not like what he saw. Perhaps Said was hopeful that Germany would settle for a benevolent neutrality of Turkey’s part, a course which would have been jeopardized by the sudden descent of Goeben and Breslau. In addition, the Turkish mobilization announced on 3 August was proceeding as efficiently as one would expect — in other words, Turkey was in no position to begin fighting.

                In the circumstances Wangenheim was forced to telegraph Berlin of the Grand Vizier’s fears regarding Bulgaria — it was this fear which resulted in the telegram being forwarded to Souchon on the 5th by the German Admiralty that it was not possible to put into Constantinople at present for political reasons (Souchon received the information while at Messina on the 6th and decided to ignore it).[54] It is also possible that Said could have used his fears as a pretext to extract further concessions from Germany; he was certainly not slow to exploit his momentary ascendancy over Wangenheim and the Ambassador’s torment lasted until the 6th when he was finally informed that the Cabinet had agreed to open the Straits to Souchon’s squadron and any stray Austrian ships. However, as a quid pro quo, could Wangenheim possibly pledge Germany’s acceptance of any of the following? — German assistance in the abolition of the hated Capitulations; a guarantee of Turkish territorial integrity; restoration of the islands; a ‘small’ correction of Turkey’s eastern border and an appropriate war indemnity.[55] As the Royal Navy was then in hot pursuit of Souchon, Wangenheim was obviously aware – as he was meant to be – that any delay at the entrance to the Dardanelles might result in the destruction of the German squadron. The Ambassador accepted the proposals. Lest this action be deemed reckless, clearly only a decisive victory by the Triple Alliance would necessitate the fulfilment of these promises and, as there was thus considerable room to manoeuvre, the German Foreign Office approved Wangenheim’s action.






[1]    Lowther to Grey, 17 January 1913, PRO Adm 1 8365/8.

[2]    Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, pp. 302-3; Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, pp. 334-5.

[3]    Lowther to Nicolson, 13 March 1913, Nicolson mss., PRO FO 800/364.

[4]    Lowther to Nicolson, 24 April 1913, Lowther mss., PRO FO 800/193.

[5]    Lowther to Grey, 13 May 1913, PRO Adm 1 8365/8.

[6]    Board minutes, 17 November 1913, PRO Adm 1 8365/8.

[7]    Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, p. 339.

[8]    Battenberg to Churchill (telegram), 22 November 1913, PRO Adm 1 8365.

[9]    Telephone message from First Lord to First Sea Lord, Sunday, 23 November 1913, ibid.

[10]  Robertson (Rio de Janeiro) to Grey, no. 24, 11 December 1913, ibid.

[11]  Robertson to Grey, no. 25, 12 December 1913, ibid.

[12]  Mallet to Grey, no. 620, 13 December 1913, ibid.

[13]  Robertson to Grey, no. 26, 15 December 1913, ibid.

[14]  Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, p. 341.

[15]  Limpus to Churchill, 3 December 1913, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. iii, pp. 1800-1. Limpus’ rambling letter earned a sharp rebuke from Churchill about the ‘general style and presentment’ of his letters.

[16]  The Naval Annual, 1914, pp. 60-1.

[17]  Richard Hough, The Big Battleship, (London, 1966), p. 76.

[18]  Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, p. 344.

[19]  Ibid., pp. 345-7.

[20]  Conways All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-22, p. 382.

[21]  Mallet to Grey, 21 May 1914, B.D., X, i, 273.

[22]  Mallet to Grey, 17 May 1914, Grey mss., PRO FO 800/80.

[23]  Grey to Mallet, 11 June 1914, ibid.

[24]  Hough, The Big Battleship, p. 80.

[25]  Quoted, ibid., p. 83.

[26]  Kerr, Land, Sea and Air, pp. 195-6.

[27]  Churchill to First Sea Lord, Secretary, 4 June 1914, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. iii, p. 1983.

[28]  Sir Andrew Ryan, The Last of the Dragomans, pp. 89, 92.

[29]  Grey to Bertie, 15 June 1914, B.D., X, i, 282.

[30]  Erskine to Grey, 16 June 1914, B.D., X, i, 286.

[31]  Hough, The Big Battleship, p. 108.

[32]  Erskine to Grey, no. 291, 26 June 1914, B.D., X, i, 291.

[33]  Erskine to Grey, no. 290, 24 June 1914, B.D., X, i, 290.

[34]  Minute by Grey, ibid.

[35]  Christos Theodoulou, Greece and the Entente, (Institute for Balkan Studies, 1971), p. 8.

[36]  Crampton, Hollow Detente, p. 153; Albertini, Origins of the War, I, p. 607.

[37]  Minute by Grey on Mallet to Grey, 13 July 1914, B.D., X, i, 299.

[38]  Leon, Greece and the Great Powers, p. 28, note 38.

[39]  Jagow to Chargé d’Affaires, Athens, no. 99, 23 July 1914, Kautsky, German Documents, no. 122, p. 163.

[40]  Wangenheim to Foreign Office, no. 364, 23 July 1914, ibid., no. 149, p. 178.

[41]  Erksine to Grey, no. 309, 25 July 1914, B.D., X, i, 309. Incredibly, this telegram was not received in the Foreign Office until 14 August. Crowe minuted the following day that Erskine’s report showed ‘that even if the war had not intervened, there was little chance of the Dillon negotiation leading to a satisfactory issue.’

[42]  Erskine to Grey, ibid.

[43]  Albertini, I, p. 629; Leon, Greece and the Great Powers, p. 16.

[44]  Chargé, Athens to Foreign Office, no. 213, absolutely confidential, 25 July 1914, Kautsky, German Documents, no. 189, pp. 204-5.

[45]  Leon, Greece and the Great Powers, p. 21.

[46]  Theodoulou, Greece and the Entente, p. 14.

[47]  Wangenheim to Foreign Office, no. 349, 18 July 1914, Kautsky, German Documents, no. 71, pp. 130-1.

[48]  Jagow to Wangenheim, no. 268, 24 July 1914, ibid., no. 144, p. 175.

[49]  Wangenheim to Foreign Office, no. 370, 28 July 1914, ibid., no. 285, p. 265.

[50]  Bethmann-Hollweg to Wangenheim, no. 275, 28 July 1914, ibid., no. 320, pp. 286-7.

[51]  Wangenheim to Foreign Office, no. 371, 27 July 1914, ibid., no. 256, p. 242.

[52]  Wangenheim to Foreign Office, no. 408, 3 August 1914, ibid., no. 726, p. 526; Y. T. Kurat, “How Turkey Drifted into World War I”, in Bourne and Watt (eds.), Studies in International History, p. 299.

[53]  Tirpitz to Jagow, 3 August 1914, Kautsky, German Documents, no. 775, p. 552.

[54]  Wangenheim to Foreign Office, no. 426, 4 August 1914, Kautsky, no. 852, p. 588; Ulrich Trumpener, Germany and the Ottoman Empire, (Princeton, 1967), p. 27; Kurat, How Turkey Drifted into WW1, p. 300.

[55]  Trumpener, Germany and the Ottoman Empire, p. 28; Albertini, I, p. 620.


First Class Battleship HMS Magnificent

Ships of the Victorian & Edwardian Navy :


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SUPERIOR FORCE : The Conspiracy Behind the Escape of Goeben and Breslau © Geoffrey Miller

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