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 11




The Nocturnal Aberration of Eleutherios Venizelos




 Eleutherios Venizelos

Eleutherios Venizelos

A general mood of nervous excitement which had gripped the Balkan peninsula now swept over the Turks as they became alarmed at a report of Greek mobilization. This alarm was, in turn, brought to the attention of King Constantine through the offices of the German Emperor so that Constantine was forced to declare to his brother-in-law on 27 July that Greece had never considered an attack on the Dardanelles, or anywhere else: ‘Both myself and my Government are very far from considering any adventurous policy…We want nothing from Turkey.’[1] This would, however, have been news to Admiral Kerr who, as early as June, had been ordered by the Greek Minister of Marine to draw up detailed plans for a naval war against Turkey.[2] The German reply to Constantine’s telegram, drafted by Bethmann-Hollweg in the Emperor’s name, suggested that an understanding between Greece and Turkey was the best policy and that Bulgaria and Turkey would not be permitted to intervene in a localized Austro-Serbian conflict but that in a general conflagration each Balkan state would have to make its own choice.

In a further, calculated, appeal the memory of Constantine’s father – murdered by a Serb assassin – was invoked: surely the King would not take the side of these people against the Triple Alliance? If this were not enough, Wilhelm warned: ‘If, contrary to my expectations, you range yourself with our opponents, Greece will be exposed to simultaneous attack by Italy, Bulgaria and Turkey; and our personal relations will suffer for all time.’ Not wanting to lay all the German cards on the table, a promise of spoils of war following a partition of Serbia was deleted.[3]

                Constantine’s reply on 2 August denied that any action was being taken to assist Serbia while concomitantly admitting the impossibility of associating with Serbia’s enemies as Greece was, after all, Serbia’s ally. ‘It seems to me’, the King informed his brother-in-law, ‘that the interests of Greece demand her absolute neutrality and the preservation of the status quo in the Balkans…If we should sacrifice this point of view, Bulgaria would become enlarged by the annexation of those portions of Macedonia lately won by Serbia, would surround our entire Northern border as far as Albania, and would constitute an enormous danger for us.’ In this, the King was merely echoing the decisions reached at a Council of Ministers held that day which urged neutrality for Greece and argued for an appeal to be delivered to the Central Powers (the new term for the Triple Alliance following the defection of Italy) to restrain Bulgaria as a means of preventing Greece’s intervention.[4] This was too much for Wilhelm: ‘Rubbish’, he declared with the certainty of a man who has the scent of victory in his nostrils, ‘the Balkans are marching!’ To make certain that he put a stop to this unconsidered wavering, the Emperor collared Theotokis, the Greek Minister in Berlin, told him of the alliance that Germany had just concluded with Turkey and warned him that Greece would now be treated as an enemy if she did not join the alliance at once.[5]

                On 4 August, as the British battle cruisers chased Goeben and Breslau back to Messina after the German ships had bombarded the North African ports, Theotokis telegraphed the text of the Kaiser’s appeal-cum-threat to Athens:

The Emperor [Wilhelm] begs to inform Your Majesty that an alliance has to-day been completed between Germany and Turkey. Bulgaria and Rumania are also siding with Germany. The German ships at present in the Mediterranean are about to unite themselves with the Turkish fleet in order that they may act together. From the above Your Majesty will understand that all the Balkan States have allied themselves with Germany in the struggle against Slavism. His Majesty, in bringing these considerations to Your Majesty’s knowledge, appeals to you as a comrade, as a German marshal of whom the German army was proud when that title was conferred on you, and as a brother-in-law; he reminds you that it was owing to the support of His Imperial Majesty that Greece definitely retained Cavalla and he begs you to order the mobilisation of your army, take your place at his side and march with him hand in hand against our common enemy, Slavism. The Emperor added that he makes this last and urgent appeal to Your Majesty at this most critical moment, and that he is convinced that Your Majesty will not fail to respond to it. If Greece does not range herself on the side of Germany, every link between Greece and the Empire will be broken.

                Finally His Majesty told me that what he requires of you to-day is the carrying out of all that which Your Majesty and he have so often discussed [touching the necessity of combating Slavism in the Near East. The Bulgarians, according to His Majesty, are not Slavs but Tartars].[6] He observed to me that, inasmuch as the Bulgarians (to whom Germany and her Emperor had never been very favourable) have placed themselves on the side of Germany, he can still hope that Greece will do likewise. I think it my duty to add that the Emperor appeared to me to be extremely decided in what he said to me.[7]

Constantine, who was at his palace at Tatoi ‘having a very innocent but a very excellent tea’ when the telegram arrived,[8] had to take this threat seriously: his brother-in-law could bluster – indeed he was renowned for it – however, news of the Turkish mobilization following the abortive Greco-Turkish talks provided a plausible reason for believing that this time there was no bluff involved and that, therefore, a Turco-German alliance did exist.

                The King saw the German Minister on 6 August to press him not to present a German ultimatum which would only have the effect of forcing Greece to draw closer to the Entente; Constantine also wanted an assurance that the Turkish mobilization was directed at Russia. He did, however, inform Quadt that he would be ‘willing to offer binding assurances to both Turkey and Bulgaria that Greece would under no circumstances act against them in the event they decided to join Germany.’ To assuage further the excitable Quadt, Constantine held out the hope that the Greek merchant marine might secretly supply Germany with American coal. This was enough to convince Quadt who cabled Berlin that ‘In general the King wants to help us fully and with all means and to stand on our side, and he thinks that he would be able to do this best if he could remain neutral.’[9] The Foreign Office in Berlin, who preferred this state of affairs, agreed with Quadt.

                Confirmation of the main thrust of the Kaiser’s telegram was received on the afternoon of the 7th when it became apparent in Athens that Souchon had passed Cape Matapan and was heading north-east, with the Dardanelles as his most likely destination. If this part of Wilhelm’s message now seemed to be coming true it leant greater credence to his claim regarding a Turco-German alliance. With little room to manoeuvre, Constantine had waited until the 7th to reply to his brother-in-law, possibly in the hope that the position might be clarified, though, as he admitted, he had known upon receipt of Wilhelm’s telegram of the 4th what his response would be.[10] Although he would attempt to “sugar the pill” he could not see how he could depart from the course of neutrality: ‘The Emperor knows’, he informed Wilhelm,

that my personal sympathy as well as my political opinions draw me to his side. I shall never forget that it is to him that we owe Cavalla. After deep reflection, however, it is not possible for me to see how I could be useful to him by immediately mobilising my army. The Mediterranean is under the control of the united English and French fleets. They would destroy both our navy and our mercantile fleet, seize our islands, and, above all, prevent the concentration of my army, which can only take place by sea, as there is not yet any railway. Without being of any use to him we should be blotted out of the map. I am compelled to consider that neutrality is a necessity for us, and this might be useful to him, coupled with the assurance that I will not touch his friends amongst my neighbours as long as they do not touch our local Balkan interests.[11]

‘I tried to make it polite’, Constantine later declared, ‘but apparently the Kaiser didn’t think it was polite enough. In any case he was particularly rude to my minister in Berlin, Monsieur Theotokis.’ As the King admitted, Greece was in a bad way at the start of the war: ‘We had none too much money. We had been exhausted by a very long series of wars. We needed, above all things, rest.’[12]

                So the position then was Greece neutral, Bulgaria neutral and Turkey allied to Germany but disinclined to fight, though there was some expectation that the arrival of Souchon’s squadron off the Dardanelles would force the Turks to take up arms. But to complicate the equation Constantine knew – on 4 August – through the Kaiser’s impetuousness, of the destination of Goeben and Breslau. There was, of course, no reason for the King to impart this information to the representatives of the Entente Powers; in fact, just the reverse as the sudden appearance of a British squadron off the Dardanelles might lead Wilhelm to the conclusion that his privileged communication had been leaked through Athens, with, perhaps, dire consequences for Greece. And there the matter might have ended were it not for the fact that, when the dramatic appeal arrived from the Kaiser on the 4th, containing as it did the vital clue as to the destination of Souchon’s squadron, King Constantine took the telegram to Admiral Kerr, head of the Greek Navy and a serving British officer.[13]

                The King read the telegram to Kerr, ‘expressing to him his indignation at the interference on the part of the Emperor in the internal affairs of Greece.’[14] As mentioned, at this early date, it was still possible that Wilhelm was bluffing, that there was no alliance and Goeben and Breslau had not been ordered to Constantinople; however, both the British Legation in Athens, and Kerr, were in constant communication with Milne, via the Admiral Superintendent, Malta so that by Friday 7th (when Milne warned Athens early that morning that ‘German cruisers have gone to Eastward’[15]) Kerr must have been reasonably sure that the information contained in the Emperor’s telegram was correct. Yet, what was he to do with this information? It seems evident that, at all costs, he wished to protect the source – Constantine – and to prevent it being known that, through the King, Wilhelm’s privileged intelligence had been leaked to a representative of the Entente. However, that he must try somehow to impart the information that had now come into his possession was made clear when, at 6.51 a.m. on the 7th, Milne cabled the British Minister in Athens,[16] ‘Urgent. German ships Goeben and Breslau were off Matapan this morning. Please make enquiry whether heard of on Aegean trade route. Cable Malta any information.’[17]

                To begin with, Kerr chose to pass the information he had been given by Constantine – but in a heavily diluted form – to the Russian Minister in Athens, Prince Demidoff, who, in turn, cabled the Admiralty in St Petersburg. Kerr must have assumed that St Petersburg would pass the message on to London, thus ensuring that the information got through without revealing the true source. As anticipated, early on the morning of the 8th, the Russian Admiralty informed the British Naval Attaché and, at 3.05 a.m., he cabled to the Admiralty in London, ‘Russian Admiralty informed from Athens, Goeben and Breslau passed Matapan morning of the 7th August steering to north-east.’[18] However, this cable was not received in the Admiralty War Room until 1.15 a.m. on Sunday 9th, when it was filed away without action. Meanwhile, fifty minutes after the receipt of this message in London, and unaware of precisely how the Russians had obtained the information, the Foreign Office forwarded the cable to Athens where it landed on the desk of William Erskine (the Chargé in the absence of Minister Elliot) and where a, presumably sheepish, Third Secretary, George Rendel, was obliged to minute the telegram, ‘Adm Kerr told me this morning that it was he who had given this information to M. Demidoff.’[19] The circle had been completed.

                The crucial portion of the intelligence that was being so casually bandied about concerned the direction of the German ships. Kerr knew that Souchon was heading for the Dardanelles – that is, his course would have to be north-east – yet Milne had no such knowledge. The C-in-C’s three telegrams to the Admiralty that day had stated, first, that the German ships were ‘evidently going to Eastern Mediterranean’ (which may, or may not have included the Aegean); then, that they had ‘proceeded towards Crete’ (which would appear to rule out the Aegean); finally, and simply, that they had ‘passed Cervi Channel eastwards.’[20] Only Kerr knew that Souchon was in fact steering north-east. If his intention was to disguise the source of this information he succeeded in the interim for, by the time the signal eventually reached London via St Petersburg in the small hours of Sunday morning, it is clear from the reaction of the Foreign Office that the Legation in Athens was not credited as being the source. What Kerr might not have anticipated was that no-one would take any action.

                As this information was being channelled through this circuitous route, Milne had set off from Malta at a stately pace and had completed half the distance to Cape Matapan when the farce of the telegram prematurely declaring war on Austria broke around him, causing him to deviate to the Adriatic where he remained temporarily following the gratuitous advice from the Admiralty that the situation was critical. After a copy of the Russian cable was given to the Foreign Office to forward to Athens the telegram from St Petersburg containing the accurate indication of Souchon’s course was quietly filed without comment by the Admiralty until late Sunday morning, when it was realized in London that Milne continued to loiter in the Adriatic, with little inclination to proceed in pursuit of Souchon. Once this realization dawned upon Admiral Leveson, the D.O.D. hastily retrieved the Russian cable and drafted an urgent priority cable to Milne: ‘Not at war with Austria. Continue chase of Goeben which passed Cape Matapan early on the 7th steering north-east.’[21] As the C-in-C had never once informed London that Souchon might be heading north-east, Milne or his staff might have stopped to consider how the Admiralty had obtained this information. In any event, this cable, directing Milne to resume the chase, was not sent until 12.50 on the afternoon of Sunday 9 August by which time is was all but too late. A combination of Milne’s want of initiative and the multifarious intrigues in Athens had combined to waste a perfect opportunity to catch the German ships.


Admiral Kerr’s tip-off to the Russian Minister was not his only attempt to put Milne on the right course. Just as curious was the incident of the phantom coaling at Syra: once Souchon passed out of sight of Gloucester on the afternoon of Friday 7th Admiral Kerr had, apart from the knowledge of Souchon’s destination imparted by the King, another source of information unavailable to Milne, who was out of range — direction finding via the wireless telegraphy of the Greek Admiralty and fleet. Admiral Condouriotis, with the main units of the Greek fleet, was at his naval base at Mudros when, about 10 p.m. on the evening of Friday 7th (as Milne’s battle cruisers prepared to depart from Malta after re-coaling), a fix was obtained on Goeben placing her near the island of Syra. Kerr now knew – approximately – where Souchon was: if he could direct Milne to that location, the destruction of the German squadron could be achieved without having to divulge the fact that he was aware also, by virtue of King Constantine, of the eventual destination of Souchon. Kerr sent a confidential private message to Third Secretary Rendel of the British Legation later that evening which, according to Rendel’s own subsequent account, stated that Goeben was known to be off Syra, sailing north-eastwards. Rendel promptly dispatched a ‘most immediate’ telegram to Milne[22] who received the cable at 1.45 a.m. (now 8 August), just over an hour after he had proceeded from Malta with the Second Battle Cruiser Squadron. As usual Rendel had routed the signal via Malta; however, the mystery now deepens as the message Milne actually received read: ‘Following from Athens begins: from strength of signals Goeben thought to be near Syra.’[23] There was no indication of direction. It is clear that the Greek fix had been accurate and that Goeben had, in fact, passed Syra on the night of 7/8 August without stopping.[24] If Milne had entertained any doubts a further signal from Athens, one hour later, should have removed them: it was reported that two men of war ‘had passed Cape Spathi at 5 p.m. (7th) in the direction of Malida.’[25] This information, demonstrably correct, should have acted to confirm the earlier signal; instead, there is no indication that Milne took any action with regard to the invaluable, if incomplete, intelligence he was receiving from Athens.

                In a further attempt to reinforce the urgency of his message Kerr once more alerted Demidoff to the latest intelligence of the Greek W/T fix and the ‘Syra tip-off’ began its tortuous journey via St Petersburg until it eventually reached the Foreign Office in London at 2 p.m. on Sunday 9th, and, from there, into the hands of the Admiralty at 5 p.m. — almost 44 hours after the information had first been obtained. By this time the Russians, on the basis of information received from Athens, now believed that Goeben was heading for the Dardanelles and the Foreign Office in London was duly informed.[26] The Russians had also informed the French and it was actually the cable from the French Admiralty in Paris which beat the Russian cable to the Admiralty in London by 10 minutes. There was, however, one crucial difference from the cable that Rendel had sent to Milne over 40 hours previously. That cable had stated that Goeben was ‘near Syra’; by the time the Athens-Petersburg-Paris-London circuit had been completed the information had somehow been altered and now read, as recorded in the War Room Log Book: ‘Admiralty Paris to Admiralty London 9 August 1914. Received in War Room 4.50 p.m. Minister of Russian Navy warns that Goeben coaled 8th August Syra (sent to C-in-C Medt) also received wire from Naval Attaché St Petersburg “Russian Admiralty just received telegram from Athens dated 8th stating the Goeben was then coaling at Syra.” ’[27] This information, through official channels, was preceded by some hours by an intelligence report (telephoned to the Admiralty by the Chief Censor of the War Office) of a message that had just been intercepted. A certain ‘Metriticicas’ in Athens had cabled to ‘Warplume’ in London the following: ‘…informed Goeben anchored Syra asked to coal — do not know if demand will be agreed to following decision of Government to appropriate all available coal.’[28]

                How, or why, was this information adulterated so that Goeben, at first correctly reported as being ‘near Syra’ on the night of 7/8 August, was then reported to be coaling, or attempting to coal, at Syra during the 8th? (It was not until 5.32 a.m. on the 9th, and at Denusa not Syra, that Goeben anchored to await the collier which would then not arrive till that afternoon.) For Milne, however late, the chase was on after the fiasco of the cancelled war with Austria. Nevertheless when, at 6.55 p.m. on the 9th, he received the adulterated message concerning Syra, Milne chose to ignore it for the simple reason that neither the British consul at Syra nor the head of the Eastern Telegraph Company there, Mr Hastings, could hardly have overlooked such an event as the coaling of a German battle cruiser.[29] Hastings later stated that it was an ‘absolute fable’ that Goeben and Breslau went into Syra at all as he was bound to have heard of it and would have reported it at once although there was a rumour that two warships had passed between the adjacent islands of Tinos and Mykonos early Saturday morning, 8 August.[30]

                In any event Malta had been in touch with Syra both to ascertain the location of any German colliers in the Aegean and to arrange the purchase of coal, while a coded message had been sent to Syra on the morning on the 8th from Malta inquiring about the whereabouts and cargo of the German steamer Kythnos.[31] Mr Saliba, the current consul, had a problem however: his predecessor, Mr Cottrell, had taken the code books with him when he returned to Athens with the intention of handing them in to the Legation. Mr Saliba thought that, in the present circumstances, it would be ‘advisable’ for him to be in possession of the code.[32] In the meantime, all such coded messages would have to be relayed to Athens for deciphering. This was not untypical: the consuls on Corfu, Crete and Rethymo all reported that they lacked the code book although this was perhaps fortunate with regard to Rethymo as the British consul there, Mr Trifilli, also doubled as the Austrian consul.[33] Mr Erskine in Athens was, meanwhile, concerned about continuing to transmit naval intelligence to Malta in Cypher G as, although the telegrams went by the secure Eastern Telegraph Company, the clerks were all Greeks.[34]

                Milne, though privately doubtful of the latest news from London, simply passed on the latest, so-called, ‘intelligence’: ‘Squadron is proceeding search for Goeben she was coaling at Syra yesterday.’[35] The battle cruiser squadron finally sighted Cape Matapan at midnight on 9/10 August but it was not until 9.28 on the morning of the 10th that Milne instructed Weymouth to go to Syra and communicate with the British consul — though only after first looking in at Milo to see if there was anything there.[36] Two and a half hours later Milne had second thoughts and cancelled Weymouth’s order regarding Syra[37] instructing her instead to rejoin the squadron as Goeben’s W/T signals had been picked up at intervals varying from strength 7 to a maximum 12. Presumably Milne did not want a single armoured cruiser blundering into the German ships but physical contact was not made and at 5.34 p.m. Milne once more instructed Weymouth to investigate Syra. Weymouth’s report, received at 1 a.m. on Tuesday 11th, that there were only three steamers at Syra must have confirmed the obvious to Milne, but where then were Goeben and Breslau?

                Monday’s London Times had a better idea than Milne: the Russian Admiralty was leaking like one of Goeben’s boilers tubes as Reuters reported that morning from St Petersburg that ‘The German warships Goeben and Breslau, according to intelligence that has reached here, have passed Greece apparently directing their course to the Dardanelles.’ Was Kerr the source of this information? On the Monday, cabled at once to Milne it might have been of some use, though perhaps he would choose to ignore it as mere reporter’s gossip,[38] but by Tuesday it was already too late. As Milne paraded forlornly backwards and forwards in the south-west Aegean a note of desperation crept in: he signalled to Gloucester at 11.49 a.m. on the 11th ‘Call at Syra – see Consul – get all information about German cruisers – did they come there. No information coming from Syra or elsewhere. Is coal ready for us ordered from Athens…’[39]



Coal remains the other great mystery, following the silence of Admiral Kerr. The subject of coal – coal for the German squadron – ushers in the reappearance of Eleutherios Venizelos. Coal for Troubridge’s squadron had been obtained by the British consul at Corfu but on 3 August he notified Erskine that the Greek Government had placed a prohibition on the sale of coal by British subjects. Erskine cabled Milne (repeated to the Foreign Office) that, due to small stocks available for their own use in case of war, Venizelos had prohibited all exportation of coal.[40] Erskine was of the opinion that there were insufficient grounds for protest but he could, perhaps, arrange to purchase coal for the fleet if the British Government would allow the Greeks to buy coal in England.[41] Venizelos apparently relented as Erskine was able to arrange to send 1,000 tons to Corfu late on the evening of 4 August,[42] while Milne, meanwhile, made arrangements to try to purchase coal in Alexandria or Port Said and have it shipped to Ithaca for Troubridge.

                Erskine again saw Venizelos on the morning of Wednesday 5th – after the Prime Minister had learned from Theotokis of the Turco-German alliance – then, at 5 p.m. that evening, Erskine cabled a report of the meeting to Grey:

Indications have recently reached Greek Government from several sources that Germany is pressing Turkey to make common cause with her, and M. Venizelos told me this morning that Greek Minister at Berlin had just learnt from Government circles that military convention has now been concluded with Turkey.

                His Excellency informed me in confidence that German Government had recently been and still are exercising strongest possible pressure on Greek Government to throw in their lot with Triple Alliance and apparently wish them to attack Servia, or at least allow Bulgaria to do so in order to divert Servian army from Austrian frontier. German Emperor, too, has sent repeated telegrams to King of Greece appealing to family ties, and threatening permanent rupture of personal relations if Greece does not comply. Emperor’s introduction of personal element is deeply resented by Greek Government, and even by the King. German overtures have been firmly declined on the ground of treaty engagements.

                So far no bait has been offered, but M. Venizelos believes German Minister intends to make a proposal this afternoon. On my urging him to stand firm, his Excellency asked me to assure you that in no circumstances, and no matter how great an inducement might be offered, would Greece range herself against a combination of Powers including Great Britain. When I informed him of state of war with Germany, he expressed the greatest satisfaction, considering that England’s intervention will save Europe from either German or Slav hegemony.

                His Excellency does not see what inducements could be offered to Turkey unless at expense of Greece, but thinks that possibly Greek Minister may have been deliberately misled by German Government as to convention [with Turkey] in order to frighten Greece into compliance with their wishes.[43]

Venizelos withheld two vital pieces of information: the Turco-German alliance was referred to as a less alarming ‘military convention’ and, more seriously, he made no mention of the destination of Goeben and Breslau which he must have been aware of; he then tried to undermine the report by hypothesizing that Theotokis had been deliberately misled. Venizelos was well aware of the political leanings in Constantinople following his abortive quest to meet the Grand Vizier, yet he consciously played down this information. Like Kerr, but for different reasons, he had decided to keep quiet about Souchon’s orders to proceed to Constantinople.

                At the same time, Souchon, having arrived at Messina, soon became aware that due to the time limit placed upon him by the Italian authorities he would be unable to fill his bunkers with sufficient coal to allow for a margin of error should he reach the Dardanelles and find his way blocked. He had to have another source of coal en-route. On the afternoon of 5 August he cabled the German Legation in Athens with instructions to purchase 800 tons of coal and have it dispatched in a German collier to rendezvous with him off Cape Malea. The cable was handed to the German Minister, Quadt, late than night. Aware of the restrictions placed upon the exportation of coal by the Greek Government, and also of the urgency of the request, Quadt asked for, and was granted, an immediate audience with Venizelos despite the lateness of the hour — now approaching 2 o’clock on the morning of 6 August. Roused from his slumber Venizelos agreed ‘at once’ to the release and exportation of 800 tons from the sequestrated stock of a German coal company.[44] Quadt left clutching Venizelos’ calling card, on which the Prime Minster had scrawled ‘Eleutherios Venizelos begs the Master of the Port of Piraeus to allow the coal merchant Plok to dispose out of the coal in his possession eight hundred tons in favour of the German steamers actually in the Port of Piraeus.’[45] This was despite the prohibition that had been placed on the sale of coal by private individuals.[46] Plok was located and dragged from his bed at 4 a.m. and the coal was duly loaded on to the German collier Bogados;[47] however, such activity could not escape the notice of the British consul at Piraeus who informed both the Admiral Superintendent, Malta (at 7.30 a.m., 7 August) and Mr Erskine (1 p.m., 7 August) that the Bogados after loading ‘about 700 tons of German coal’ had left at daybreak, destination unknown.[48] There was a report that the ship had been supplied with false papers showing her destination as Cape Town, the significance of this being that, as she was allegedly headed for a British port, she was more likely to pass unmolested through either Suez or Gibraltar. Whatever precautions were taken in Piraeus, once under way the collier was camouflaged so as to resemble a Greek ship and would sail for her rendezvous with Souchon as the Polymitis.[49]

                If Venizelos did not know the precise destination of the Bogados he nevertheless knew where her coal was destined for: the bunkers of Goeben and Breslau. The urgency of Quadt’s appeal, coupled with his knowledge from Theotokis of the route the German ships would be taking, must have left him in no doubt whatsoever that he was supplying vital fuel to the fleeing warships. Indeed the Prime Minister later made this admission to his colleagues but excused it on the specious pretext that, having agreed to supply coal for the British men-of-war, Greece would be failing in her duty as a neutral not to do the same for the Germans[50] — a sentiment which sits uneasily alongside his earlier effusion to Erskine. For Souchon the equation was simple: ‘Everything’, he later recorded, ‘depended on my being able to obtain enough start on the pursuing British to enable us to coal en route, and that we would find at least one of the colliers ordered to meet us.’[51] Souchon had three colliers in readiness — first, Bogados; then a second to rendezvous 20 miles south of Santorin (from 10 August); and a third at Chanak at the entrance to the Straits.[52] Of the three Bogados now disguised as the Greek Polymitis down to the cap ribbons of her crew[53] – was by far the most important. What precious thoughts whirled through the mind of Venizelos as he returned to his bed in the small hours of 6 August?

                Later that day the Council of Ministers met under the King’s presidency to decide on Greece’s policy. Streit, the Foreign Minister, believed that Greece should do nothing and wait for proposals to be made by all the belligerents. Venizelos, aware of the Turco-German alliance, advocated a more forward policy safe in the knowledge that Goeben and Breslau were nearing their destination — with his help. Ignoring the Central Powers, Venizelos declared, ‘We will not wait to be invited by the Entente allies, we must ask for their proposals.’[54] The deciding factor for the Prime Minister had been the expiration of the British ultimatum to Germany on the night of 4/5 August: whatever setbacks may occur in Central Europe, Venizelos was convinced of an eventual Entente victory.[55] Ironically, Churchill was independently lobbying the Foreign Office on Greece’s behalf — on 8 August, as one of his Admiralty clerks mistakenly diverted Milne to the Adriatic by prematurely declaring war on Austria, Churchill entreated Grey:

Greece is an important factor in the Medn. and we greatly desire that if possible she shd be brought into the alliance against Germany. When M Venizelos was last here he made earnest request for an alliance which it was not then possible to accede to. But it is hoped by the Admiralty that this may now be reconsidered. The Greek fleet comprises 3 ships & an excellent flotilla all under British officers. They have the best harbour & the key to the Adriatic. If Greece will join England & France (& we could surely make her a good offer) the Medn situation will be absolutely satisfactory.[56]


What, then, were Venizelos’ motives for aiding and abetting the escape of the German ships to Turkey? There was no dispute as to his strong pro-Entente sympathies yet, within the space of 48 hours, he had neglected to pass on vital information regarding the destination of Goeben and Breslau; had deliberately played down the reports being picked up by the entente representatives in Athens of a Turco-German compact; and had supplied coal to the fleeing ships. It would seem that – at least in relation to the last action – Venizelos realized he had gone too far and, before the mystery of Goeben ‘coaling at Syra’, the first false trail suddenly emanated from Athens. The consul at Piraeus had correctly apprised Malta at 7.30 on the morning of Friday 7th that Bogados was a German collier carrying German coal to an unknown destination. This was precisely the sort of information that was vital to Milne and, indeed, later that morning, Milne specifically requested the Minister in Athens to ‘make particular enquiries if any German colliers in Greek ports and islands.’ There is, however, no evidence available that Malta passed on the consul’s information to Milne. The consul himself then notified Erskine in Athens at 1 o’clock on the afternoon of the 7th that, on his own initiative, he had telegraphed the information regarding Bogados to Malta. The knowledge that Bogados had been correctly identified as German must have set alarm bells ringing in Athens as, some time that afternoon or evening, the Legation was informed that Bogados was supposedly an Austrian collier proceeding to Salonica and this faulty intelligence was passed on to Milne.[57] Who supplied the Athens legation with this false information, and why? Add to this the transformation of Admiral Kerr’s accurate message that night that Goeben was near Syra to the message which reached Milne, via St Petersburg and London, a day and a half later that Goeben was coaling at Syra (presumably appropriating at gunpoint the stocks of British coal Milne knew to be there) and it becomes apparent that someone was anxious to disguise the source of Souchon’s coal.

                Who, then, would have the most pressing need to divert attention away from the humble Bogados and her precious cargo? None other than Eleutherios Venizelos, an accusation strengthened by the disingenuousness of his approach to Erskine on 10 August (as reported to Grey that evening):

Monsieur Venizelos asked me to-day whether H.M.G. would prefer that Greek Government should adopt principle of giving belligerent ships enough coal to take them to nearest home port or refuse all facilities. I said that as British and French ships in Mediterranean largely outnumbered German and Austrian I thought H.M.G. would prefer former alternative but that I would ask your instructions. At the request of Commander-in-Chief have just arranged for purchase of further 2,000 tons at Syra.[58]

This was, of course, some days after Venizelos had already determined on precisely what action he would take: he was now seeking retrospective approval of his actions from the British, and in this he was to be successful. When the matter was subsequently raised in the House of Commons in 1923 the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, McNeil, declared that,

There is no reason to doubt that coal was supplied to the Goeben and Breslau by the order of M. Venizelos, but I ought to state that at the beginning of hostilities with Germany and, therefore, before giving this order, M. Venizelos went out of his way to consult His Majesty’s Government as to the course which he should adopt in such circumstances. After full consideration His Majesty’s Government suggested to him that he should follow the principle of International Law and afford belligerent ships enough coal to take them to their nearest home port. British ships were similarly treated and supplied with coal by the Greeks, who were at that time neutral.[59]

McNeil was incorrect. He had confused the inquiry from Venizelos of 3 August 1914 concerning the sequestration of coal stocks – the only inquiry from that quarter before Venizelos authorized the delivery of coal to Quadt – with the later inquiry, of 10 August, concerning the position to be adopted with regard to belligerent vessels. The advice of His Majesty’s Government on this subject was tendered only after Goeben and Breslau were safely tucked away in the haven of the Dardanelles. Venizelos’ clever approach to the artless Mr Erskine on the 10th had, apparently, worked; but his reputation was not safe yet.

                The Prime Minister later accused King Constantine, in league with Admiral Kerr and the General Staff, of acting treacherously with the certain consequence, he argued, that distrust of Greek intentions was fomented in London. The inevitable repercussion of this, according to Venizelos, was the refusal in 1915 of the Allies to seek Greek assistance ‘for the obvious reason that they did not trust our General Staff not to give the enemy notice of the attack.’[60] However, it was Venizelos himself who had three imperative motives for wanting Goeben and Breslau to reach Constantinople. Believing – following Quadt’s nocturnal visit – that Souchon was short of coal, the prospect of the German ships putting in to neutral Athens to coal, only to have them interned there should the British establish a blockade, must have been alarming to Venizelos to say the least. It is clear, for example, that Milne presumed that, once Souchon had entered the Aegean, one of the few options available to the German Admiral was to seek refuge in a Greek port.[61] Whenever it suited him, Venizelos played on the King’s alleged German proclivities to win support for his own cause. Thoughts of a palace inspired coup against him, supported by the guns of the Mittelmeerdivision, would have been all the prompting Venizelos required to send Quadt on his way with a simple message on the back of a calling card and the expression of the Premier’s ‘friendliest intentions’ towards Germany.

                Second, if the Turks were wavering at the prospect of their new allegiance, the presence of Goeben and Breslau in the Golden Horn would have signalled the unequivocal alliance of Turkey with Germany, would have jolted Greek public opinion (which was tired of war and remained neutralist in the current crisis) and, if Venizelos played his cards right and could win support from the Entente, would have given him a chance at last to put an end to the Ottoman Empire, keep the Aegean Islands and perhaps, just perhaps, march on Constantinople. As evidence of this, once the German ships had arrived in the Golden Horn, the Venizelist newspaper Patris began the process of forming public opinion: by arming the enemies of Greece it declared, Germany had departed from the benevolent neutrality Greece had shown to Germany. Later, citing the fictitious sale of the German ships to Turkey as a move directed against Greece, the paper advocated Greek entry into the War.[62] In gambling so, Venizelos was applying the same logic as Ponceau in the Quai d’Orsay who, on 10 August, declared to Isvolsky, the Russian Ambassador, that ‘it might be advantageous for us to draw Turkey to the number of our enemies in order to make an end of her.’[63]

                Third, a revivified Turkish navy, manned by German officers, and with the addition of a first rate battle cruiser and cruiser, would have been overwhelmingly powerful in the Black Sea and therefore able to forestall a Russian descent on Constantinople, leaving the way clear for the Greeks to achieve their ambition, while the Aegean would have been out of bounds to the German ships due to the presence of the British and French navies in addition to the Greek. By ensuring that Goeben and Breslau made it safely through the Dardanelles Venizelos was also ensuring that their future radius of action would be limited to the Black Sea.

                In fairness to both Venizelos and Kerr, however, it should be added that there was a possibility that, even if the Kaiser himself had cabled Grey with news of the Turco-German alliance, the Foreign Secretary might still have been sceptical. While acknowledging the vital part played by the German ships, Grey later wrote that:

We did not know at the time that Turkey already had a secret treaty binding her to join Germany; in my opinion that makes little difference. There was always a great power of inertia in the Turkish Government, and if things had not gone well for Germany in the first year of the war, and if the two German cruisers and their crews had not got to Constantinople and stayed there, the Turks might have been a long time before they acted on that treaty, or might never have acted upon it at all. Without knowing of the treaty, we knew well enough that some of the most influential Turks were fanatically pro-German, and we knew what the influence of Germany was at Constantinople. Knowledge of the treaty would not have made much difference; we feared the worst, even without knowing of the treaty.[64]

Unfortunately, Grey’s effort to absolve the Foreign Office contained a clear contradiction — if, he claims with justification, the German ships had not completed their escape the Turks might have avoided indefinitely their treaty obligations. Yet surely knowledge of the treaty on 5 August – particularly when coupled with other information available – would, if passed to Milne in time, at least have given the British Mediterranean Squadron a fighting chance to intercept and destroy Goeben and Breslau.Please click to go to the top of this page






[1]    King Constantine to Wilhelm II, no. 218, 27 July 1914, Kautsky, German Documents, no. 243, pp. 234-5.

[2]    Kerr, Navy in My Time, p. 182. In addition, Lt-Col Metaxas had, in May, drawn up a plan for a surprise attack and occupation of the Gallipoli Peninsula without declaring war. See, Theodoulou, Greece and the Entente, p. 39, note 74.

[3]    Chancellor to Wilhelm II, 30 July 1914, Kautsky, German Documents, no. 466, p. 388.

[4]    Leon, Greece and the Entente, p. 21.

[5]    King Constantine to Wilhelm II, no. 231, 2 August 1914 and note by Wilhelm, 3 August, Kautsky, German Documents, no. 702, p. 515.

[6]    Note: Albertini, III, p. 637 claims that the passage in parenthesis was suppressed in the White Book. A-F Frangulis, a jurist and historian who was given the task in March 1921 of examining the Greek Foreign Office Archives to ascertain the truth of Constantine’s attitude in the War (La Grèce et la crise mondiale, Paris, 1926) maintained that this was done to insinuate that the King had promised Greek adherence to the cause of the Central Powers. While asserting that Frangulis was biased in the King’s favour, Albertini acknowledges there was no question regarding the authenticity of the documents published by him.

[7]    J. S. Willmore, The Story of King Constantine as revealed in the Greek White Book, (London, 1919), p. 13 quoting White Book, no. 19 [my emphasis].

[8]    Nichols, Twenty-five, pp. 123-4.

[9]    Quadt to Foreign Office, 6 August 1914, quoted in Leon, Greece and the Great Powers, p. 31.

[10]  Kerr, Land, Sea and Air, p. 189.

[11]  Willmore, Greek White Book, pp. 14-15, quoting White Book, no. 21.

[12]  Constantine in conversation with Beverley Nichols. Nichols, Twenty-five, p. 124.

[13]  Kerr, Land, Sea and Air, p. 189; Letters by Kerr to: The Times, 9 December 1920; Morning Post, 11 December 1920; The Sunday Times, 10 November 1940. Kerr at first maintained that Constantine’s ‘friendly’ telegram to Wilhelm was designed to prevent a daily stream of threats from the Kaiser; later he claimed the intention was to ‘sugar the pill’ for the telegram Constantine knew he would have to send declaring his intention to preserve Greece’s neutrality at all costs.

[14]  Constantine I, A King’s Private Letters, (London, 1925), p. 151. This book consists of letters the King wrote to Paola, Princess of Saxe-Weimar; the preface was written by Kerr who, therefore, was presumably aware of the above quotation and did not refute it.

[15]  C-in-C to AS, Malta (0513), 7 August 1914, C-in-C’s Signal Log, Milne mss., NMM MLN 210/7.

[16]  As the Minister, Sir Francis Elliot, was on leave the legation was in the charge of the counsellor William Erskine.

[17]  C-in-C to S.N.O., Malta for transmission to Athens, (0553), 7 August 1914, C-in-C’s Signal Log, Milne mss., NMM MLN 210/7.

[18]  Buchanan to Foreign Office, no. 247, dispatched 3.05 a.m., 8 August, rec’d 1.15 a.m., 9 August 1914. PRO Adm 137/HS19. See also, PRO Adm 137/4083, Admiralty number 9/6.

[19]  Grey to Erskine, no. 112, minute by Rendel, 9 August 1914, F.O. Athens Archives, PRO FO 286/575.

[20]  C-in-C, Medt. to Admiralty, nos. 404, 405, 406, all 7 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19.

[21]  Admiralty to C-in-C, no. 239, 9 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19.

[22]  Sir George Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, p. 19.

[23]  A.S., Malta to C-in-C (2351), 7 August 1914, C-in-C’s Signal Log, Milne mss, NMM MLN 210/7.

[24]  Trumpener, Reassessment, p. 182, note 45; E Keble Chatterton, Dardanelles Dilemma, p. 31.

[25]  A.S., Malta to C-in-C (0100), 8 August 1914, C-in-C’s Signal Log, Milne mss., NMM MLN 210/7.

[26]  Nicolson to Grey, 4 pm, Sunday 9 August 1914, PRO FO 371/2163/37547.

[27]  Admiralty, Paris to Admiralty, 9 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/4083.

[28]  Telephone Messages Received by Chief Censor R.T. from Chief Censor War Office, 12.25 p.m., 9 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19.

[29]  Milne to Admiralty, 20 August 1914, para. 35, PRO Adm 137/879; Diary of Admiral Phillimore, 9 August 1914, IWM 75/48/3; Henry Horniman, Smiling Through, p. 99, IWM PP/MCR/46.

[30]  H. G. Barwell, Superintendent, Eastern Telegraph Co. Ltd, Malta Station to Milne, 14 August 1914, Milne mss., NMM MLN 207/1.

[31]  Malta to Consul, Syra, 8 August 1914, Consular Archives, Athens, PRO FO 286/581/206.

[32]  British Consulate, Syra to Athens, No. 24, 8 August 1914, PRO FO 286/581/212.

[33]  British Consulate, Corfu to Athens, 2 August 1914, PRO FO 286/581/190; British Consulate, Canea to Athens, 9 August 1914, PRO FO 286/581/221.

[34]  Erskine to Grey, 9 August 1914, Greek Legation Archives, PRO FO 286/572.

[35]  Flag to Ships in Company, (1831), 9 August 1914, C-in-C’s Signal Log, NMM MLN 210/7.

[36]  Flag to Battle cruisers, Weymouth, (0801), 10 August 1914, ibid.

[37]  Flag to Weymouth, (1029), ibid.

[38]  By 8.30 that morning the Admiralty had, similarly, come to the conclusion that Souchon was making for Constantinople. Milne was not admitted into their confidence.

[39]  Flag to Gloucester, (0928), 11 August 1914, ibid.

[40]  An item appeared in The Times of 4 August datelined Athens, the previous day: ‘The export or sale of coal by private individuals is prohibited…’

[41]  Erskine to Foreign Office, no. 133, 3 August 1914, PRO FO 371/2161/35662.

[42]  C-in-C to First Cruiser Squadron, (2145), 4 August 1914, NSM,B.

[43]  Erskine to Grey, no. 137, sent 5 p.m., 5 August 1914, rec’d 6 August, PRO FO 371/2162/36270. Note: in the Greek Legation Archives (FO 286/572) the draft telegram is dated 4 August.

[44]  Frangulis, La Grèce et la Crise Mondiale, p. 121; Trumpener, Reassessment, p. 174. Quadt, according to Cosmetatos, apparently sought authorization to coal two German merchant vessels, though, as Cosmetatos acknowledges, ‘M. Venizelos said that he had granted the request although he knew that the coal was intended for the Goeben and the Breslau…’ Cosmetatos, The Tragedy of Greece, pp. 6-7.

[45]  Frangulis, p. 122. A photograph of the actual card appears in Sir Basil Thomson, The Allied Secret Service in Greece, (London, 1931); see also pp. 39-41.

[46]  See, The Times, 4 August 1914.

[47]  This is the generally accepted version of the ship’s name [as reported by the British consul in Piraeus who watched her being loaded with Plok’s coal] but other variations have included Bogabos, Bogadir and Bogador. Similarly, the German coal merchant appears variously as Plock or Plok. See also Trumpener, Reassessment, p. 175 and note 17

[48]  British Consul, Piraeus to Mr Erskine, 1 p.m., 7 August 1914, PRO FO 286/581/203.

[49]  Frangulis, p. 122; Trumpener, p. 175; Souchon, p. 490; Der Krieg Zur See, p. 48.

[50]  Thomson, Allied Secret Service in Greece, p. 39.

[51]  Souchon, p. 489.

[52]  According to the Turkish Minister of Marine, the German Naval Attaché to the Porte approached the Ministry on 8 August with a request for coal from Turkish stocks. Djemal Pasha, in consultation with other Ministers, promptly agreed to the release of five or six thousand tons. See, Djemal Pasha, Memories of a Turkish Statesman, p. 118.

[53]  Souchon, p. 490.

[54]  Quoted in Theodoulou, Greece and the Entente, p. 24 [my emphasis].

[55]  Leon, Greece and the Great Powers, pp. 31-2.

[56]  Churchill to Grey, 8 August 1914, Grey mss., PRO FO 800/88.

[57]  Ad. Supt., Malta to C-in-C, Rear Adl., (0100) 8 August 1914, C-in-C’s Signal Log, Milne mss., NMM MLN 210/7.

[58]  Erskine to Grey, no. 143, 10 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19.

[59]  Parliamentary Debates, Fifth Series, Vol. CLXIV (1923) 1743, House of Commons (Oral Answers) GREECE - Goeben and Breslau, (Coal Supplies), 4 June 1923.

[60]  Eleutherios Venizelos, The Vindication of Greek National Policy, (London, 1918), p. 87.

[61]  Milne, The Flight of the Goeben and Breslau.

[62]  Theodoulou, Greece and the Entente, p. 26, note 34.

[63]  Quoted in, Harry N Howard, The Partition of Turkey, 1913-23, (Norman, 1931), p. 98.

[64]  Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Twenty-Five Years, 1892-1916, (2 vols., London, 1925), vol. II, p. 164.


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

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