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 13




The Sweeping Offer





Once Souchon was safely out of Greek waters Venizelos wasted little time in suggesting, yet again, his pet project for a Balkan Confederation. He saw Erskine on Monday 10 August and, in the course of their conversation, pointed out that Germany was still making ‘strenuous efforts’ to win over Greece and possibly Roumania also by offering that country a bribe in the form of half of Serbia. It was therefore a favourable time to realize Venizelos’ ambition of ‘a permanent and close confederation of all the Christian Balkan States’ with active Russian participation. Venizelos had similarly approached the Russian Minister, Demidoff, on the 7th to seek Russian patronage in the formation of a Balkan bloc. The territorial rewards envisaged, and which were considered necessary, involved the ceding of Serbian Macedonia to Bulgaria, which meant that the Serbs would have to be placated by Northern Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina; Roumania could have Transylvania, while all that Greece required was Southern Albania.[1]

                When Erskine inquired whether such a scheme would be based on neutrality or participation in the War Venizelos prevaricated and fell back on the convenient excuse of blaming Constantine. This represented another shift in the attitude of the Prime Minister: according to Rendel, before the war Venizelos had been ‘a staunch monarchist, if only for the sake of a symbol of unity which could arrest the endemic process of political disintegration which has always been the curse of Greece, [and] had played a leading part in building up King Constantine as a national figure.’[2] Venizelos now maintained that, personally, he would prefer participation in the war as a strong Balkan Confederation might be the deciding factor in ‘crushing Pan-German ambition’; could win territorial gains at the expense of Austria; and would act as a counterpoise to Russia. His ‘principal difficulty’, however, was Constantine who, ‘in spite of personal inclination has consented to neutrality, but would no doubt resist intervention against Germany.’ Venizelos would try to bring the King into line if the scheme ‘matures’, or else resign; finally, Erskine reported somewhat superfluously, the Premier had apparently abandoned any idea of an alliance with Turkey.[3]

                Grey, enthusiastic at the prospect of the Confederation, cabled back immediately offering financial assistance ‘to enable it to make a start’; Roumania would have to be included and the states would have to argue amongst themselves regarding the territorial carve-up. Grey further agreed to promote the scheme at Paris and St Petersburg and, indeed, he sent wires the same day to Ambassadors Bertie and Buchanan instructing them to consult with the respective Foreign Ministers and urge that ‘this project should be encouraged and supported in every possible way.’[4] That this initiative had the full support of the Government was made clear when Asquith, describing Venizelos as ‘much the most capable man in Eastern Europe’, wrote privately that ‘If they can get this on to its legs we will help them with any amount of money.’[5] But Venizelos, who was desperate to align himself with the Entente before the outcome of the Battle of Marne (to avoid the suggestion that he was merely attempting to side with the winners), had overplayed his hand.

                Although he had no way of knowing that the Marne, while turning the Germans back from Paris, would not result in a quick Entente victory, the real bar to his ambition was not the attitude of Constantine but rather that of the Bulgarians. His proposal for a Balkan Confederation was designed to elicit from Grey a form of territorial guarantee to enable Venizelos to use his limited forces in such a way as to maximize Greece’s territorial aggrandisement. The last thing he wanted from Grey was a blank cheque and best wishes. Three years later, following the melancholy experience of Greece in the Great War, Venizelos attempted to vindicate his offer: ‘Greece, not merely in consciousness of her indebtedness to the great Guaranteeing Powers, but from a clear perception of her vital interests as a nation, [understood] that her place was at the side of the Powers of the Entente’. Further, although military action to assist Serbia was out of the question owing to the danger from Bulgaria, the entire weight of Greek naval and military forces was at the disposal of the Entente to throw against Turkey. All that was required was a guarantee against the ‘Bulgarian danger’.[6]

                Venizelos’ greatest concern, which prayed on him far more than any military threat from the Turks, was his fear of being forced to make concessions to Bulgaria of Greek territory: he had already discovered a loophole in the treaty with Serbia to avoid marching to her aid, and probably realized that that hapless country would be crushed by the Austrians, who would then presumably tempt Bulgaria to alter her neutral stance (if they had not done so already) with a share of the prospective spoils. Turkey in fact could be temporarily discounted as any land-based attack would have to be mounted through Bulgarian territory, while, in view of the British action in detaining the two Turkish dreadnoughts, the respective navies of Greece and Turkey were not too unevenly matched, despite the Turkish acquisition of Goeben and Breslau. Bulgaria was the main danger and the supply of Entente cash only, rather than troops and ships, would not alleviate that danger.

                Venizelos saw Erskine again on the 12th to admit disingenuously that ‘he went slightly farther in conversation…than was justified in view of policy agreed upon between him and King of Greece, viz., neutrality unless Servia was attacked by Bulgaria.’[7] For this reason he hoped his opinion regarding a Balkan federation ‘may be regarded as his personal views only.’ He was now also ‘anxious’ that the initiative for promoting the scheme should appear to come from Russia and, with this object in mind, Venizelos then approached Demidoff, who in turn cabled his Foreign Minister, Sazonov, on the 13th:

Venizelos is addressing to Russia, England, and France an appeal that if as a result of her agreement with Serbia Greece became involved in the war through an attack by Bulgaria or Turkey, the Powers should regard her as an ally having the same rights as Serbia and give her help and support. Venizelos would like to receive an offer to this effect from the Triple Entente Powers, but as he has not been empowered to take this step by the King and is acting without the latter’s knowledge and perhaps against his secret wishes, he asks for the initiative to come from us so as to give him a further argument with the King. I regard it extremely desirable to accede to this request of Venizelos…I would think it dangerous at this moment before the decisive and overt passing of Greece to the Entente side to touch on the delicate question of concrete concessions by Greece.[8]

Once more, although Venizelos desired to intervene in the war even if the federation scheme fell through, the King was the supposed stumbling block.

                Constantine was, so Venizelos informed Erskine, ‘hesitating in determination to assist Servia if attacked’ and, worse still, Queen Sophie, the Kaiser’s sister, would shortly return to ‘further weaken His Majesty’s resolution.’ What Venizelos really needed, to be able to assist Serbia and end the vacillation of the King, was a definite assurance of the ‘active assistance and protection’ of the Entente Powers. Not unreasonably, Erskine pointed out that Greek military intervention on Serbia’s behalf would ‘automatically bring Greece into alliance with these Powers, who could scarcely then fail her.’[9] When received in London, Venizelos’ plea disclosed a divergence of opinion in the Foreign Office: Crowe went so far as to draft a telegram instructing Erskine to assure Venizelos in writing that, should Greece, by aiding Serbia, find herself in conflict with ‘Austria, Germany or any other Power taking part in the war on their side, Great Britain will give to Greece every assistance and protection in her power during the war.’ Nicolson, however, urged caution. Although aware that the Turks had mobilized, this was viewed as a precaution and the belief continued that she would maintain a diffident neutrality. Prospects for the Federation project, Nicolson maintained, were waning, in which case it would be ‘risky’ to encourage Greece as the likely result would be that Turkey and Bulgaria abandoned their neutrality, entering the field against Greece ‘and consequently against us.’ The best policy would be to attempt to maintain neutrality in the Balkans; in any event, Nicolson argued, Russia and France should also be consulted.[10]

                Although Nicolson’s influence was waning, it was no surprise when Grey agreed with his Permanent Under-Secretary that it would be premature to give the assurance Venizelos wanted; Crowe’s provocative draft telegram was cancelled and, on 14 August, Grey cabled Erskine that the federation was still the ‘best thing for Balkan States now and hereafter.’ Separate action by Greece while Turkey and Bulgaria remained ostensibly neutral would increase the complications without increasing the cause.[11] Following this rebuff the desire of Venizelos for active participation in the war hardened even though hope of an assurance regarding Bulgaria continued to remain elusive. By now, the Russian Foreign Minister regarded the Balkan Confederation Scheme as a ‘chimera’[12] — Sazonov was more concerned to avoid Turkey entering the war. To this end he proposed on 15 August, that, as a reward for her neutrality, the Entente should guarantee Turkish territorial integrity while also allowing the Turks to nationalize German economic concessions in the Ottoman Empire and, as a final inducement, that the island of Lemnos could be retroceded. Grey was horrified at the latter prospects, being, in equal measure, ‘positively against’ any territorial expansion and concerned at the precedent that would be set by nationalizing German concessions in view of the extensive British and French interests in the Ottoman Empire.[13]

                As it had done with the Russians, the attitude of Turkey began to cause more concern at the Foreign Office. On 15 August Admiral Limpus and the officers of the British Naval Mission in Constantinople were suddenly withdrawn from the fleet,[14] coincidentally on the same day that Churchill made a plaintive appeal direct to Minister of War, Enver Pasha, which included a paragraph (drafted by Grey) agreeing to respect the integrity of the Turkish Empire as a reward for neutrality.[15] The more hawkish Crowe, forestalled by Nicolson and Grey on the 13th, now saw a renewed opportunity which he promptly took by shifting tack and writing to Grey three days later, ‘I think it is urgent we should obtain Greek co-operation with our naval force. This would probably be our best chance of setting a watch over the entrance to the Dardanelles (or exit from them). It would incidentally enable us to use any of the Greek islands or harbours as naval bases’.[16]

                That the Government position was beginning to shift was evident when the Cabinet met at noon the following day to discuss, inter alia, vague Turkish threats to Egypt and the double game being played with Goeben and Breslau. Asquith recorded that ‘Winston, in his most bellicose mood, is all for sending a torpedo flotilla thro’ the Dardanelles — to threaten & if necessary to sink the Goeben & her consort’, a stance which met decided opposition from Kitchener and Crewe who resorted to playing the Muslim card: for the sake of Britain’s position in India and elsewhere Turkey must be compelled to strike the first blow, a proposition Asquith agreed with.[17] The combination of the highly ambivalent Turkish attitude and concern at the unrest that might follow in India, in particular, meant that the Turks had to be handled with kid gloves; yet this did not prevent Grey cabling Erskine on the 17th, altering his previous stance and offering to support Greece as an ally if Turkey departed from an attitude of neutrality.[18] Erskine, however, did not receive this telegram until the 19th; meanwhile, a Cabinet Council had met in Athens the previous day at which Foreign Minister Streit referred to a conversation he had had with Demidoff concerning a proposition to send Greek troops to assist Serbia.[19] Without consulting any of his colleagues, Streit invoked neutrality and rebuffed the Russian Minister. Although there are conflicting accounts as to what transpired at this meeting, it is apparent that Streit sided with the King in continuing to believe neutrality the best course to adopt. Venizelos, still unaware of Grey’s telegram offering support against a Turkish attack, must have realized by now that there was little the Entente could do to assist him against Bulgaria, but Turkey was a different matter and Turkey, where Venizelos could see legitimate Greek interests, threatened Egypt.

                Streit objected that the matter was too important to be rushed, and wanted discussion to be held over till that afternoon; but a postponement of a few hours was too much for Venizelos as the German armies were (supposedly) faltering — it was now or never. Venizelos had ‘formed the conviction that the war would terminate in three weeks’ time in the complete defeat of the Central Powers.’[20] Depending on which source is used, Streit was either asked to resign by Venizelos or else tendered his resignation voluntarily. Despite this, he remained, anomalously, at the Foreign Office at the King’s behest[21] until September when a further clash with Venizelos resulted in his permanent departure.[22] Undeterred, Venizelos went to see Erskine that night and, with what Erskine reported was ‘ full approval of King and Cabinet, formally placed at disposal of Entente Powers all the naval and military resources of Greece from the moment when they might be required…He knew resources of Greece were small, but 250,000 troops she could dispose of, her navy and ports may be of some use, and he suggested that, in case of necessity, 50,000 Greek troops could be sent to Egypt to keep order.’[23] The offer would remain open and, until accepted, must remain a profound secret.[24] This, alleged, ‘full approval’ of the King was, in fact, conditional on Greek forces not being moved to where they would then be unable to operate against Bulgaria,[25] while Venizelos himself was later to claim that the offer applied only in the situation where Turkey declared war against the Entente.[26]

                Having made this sweeping offer to the British Chargé d’Affaires, Erskine’s cordial thanks, coupled with his opinion that if the other Balkan states remained neutral Greece should also, must have come as a profound disappointment to the Prime Minister. Worse was to follow. The next morning, 19 August, Erskine received at last Grey’s message of the 17th, which advised neutrality except in the case of Turkey entering the war. Although written before Venizelos’ offer Erskine saw that it was, in effect, a reply to the offer and, moreover, a reply which backed Erskine’s opinion of the previous evening. Nevertheless, with two hostile neighbours, Venizelos could play one off against the other in his efforts to join the Entente: upon learning the content of Grey’s cable he immediately pointed out that no mention had been made of a Bulgarian attack on Serbia ‘in which eventuality Greece was bound by her treaty to assist the latter, and intended to do so.’ Since 10 August the stakes had been raised — by threatening to resign himself and then forcing Streit’s resignation Venizelos had succeeded in transforming a purely personal view that he would prefer active Greek participation on the side of the Entente into a formal offer of all Greek military and naval resources.

                Erskine appealed again to Grey on behalf of Venizelos to provide the assurance needed against Bulgaria in view of the supposedly “unconditional” Greek offer; however, when it was subsequently debated by the Cabinet on 20 August Asquith privately recorded that:

The main question was as to what answer we should give to Venizelos’s offer of a Greek alliance, not only against Turkey, but possibly also against Bulgaria if she should attack Servia. I am all against interfering in the Balkans among these small States: on the other hand, one does not want to snub Greece; & it took some time to hammer out a cordial yet not too-committal reply.[27]

According to Grey’s memoirs, ‘the Cabinet appreciated [the Greek offer], but, after consideration, decided that it would be impolitic to accept it. This was in accord with the advice I gave to the Cabinet…The wisdom of that advice has been severely impugned; I still think it was right, and that, had we accepted this or a subsequent Greek offer in the early days of the war, the consequences might have been very serious, perhaps fatal to the cause of the Allies. The consequences, in my opinion, would have been: the immediate entry of Turkey into the war on the side of Germany; the immediate or early entry of Bulgaria into the war against Serbia probably; the unsettlement of Russia’s whole-heartedness in the war, at first possibly, later on certainly’.[28] In consequence, Grey therefore cabled his ambassadors in Paris and St Petersburg:

Should Turkey depart from neutrality and come out on the side of Germany and Austria, we should at once welcome support of Greece as an ally, and should regard the use of Greek ports and co-operation of Greek navy as being most valuable. As to Bulgaria, a point on which M Venizelos is very particular, for the most desirable object, in our opinion, would be a confederation of the Balkan states, including Roumania, as suggested by M Venizelos the other day. We wish to help that by every means in our power, and M Venizelos will understand that HM Government are anxious not to be involved in any inter-Balkan conflicts.

                We are not possessed of information that would lead us to believe that the contingency of Bulgarian intervention against Servia is probable, but if Bulgaria were to join Germany and Austria in attacking Servia, and Greece were thereby drawn in by treaty obligations to Servia’s assistance, HM Government would be ready to give Greece such support as in their power...[29]

In the meantime, the Admiralty made inquiries regarding the Greek naval forces which would be immediately available.


Grey was later to claim that these early Greek offers of assistance were ‘embarrassing’. As indicated by the Cabinet debate, before Turkey actively entered the war Grey was hampered by the desire for the Turks to strike the first blow and so assuage Muslim sensitivity in India and Egypt; he therefore sought to restrain both the Greeks and certain of his own more impulsive Cabinet colleagues. Then, after the breach with Turkey, ‘Russian sensitiveness about Constantinople made these Greek offers of help a very delicate matter.’ Events were moving too fast for Venizelos: he needed time to continue to work on Grey in the hope of exacting a firm commitment from him. In an attempt to accomplish this, he cynically decided to approach the Turks once more with a proposal to convene a conference to try to decide the islands’ question. This cynicism was reciprocated as, equally anxious for a delay before having to fulfil their commitments to their new German ally, the Turks willingly agreed and the first meeting was scheduled for Bucharest on 22 August; Greece would be represented by ex-Premier Zaimis and Nikolaos Politis from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

                The Turkish representatives, Talaat Pasha and Halil Bey, immediately adopted an intransigent tone which fed on initial Greek fears that Talaat, under the tutelage of Berlin, was intent on forming a Turkish-Bulgarian-Roumanian bloc while securing Greek neutrality. As the futile discussions dragged on the Greek delegates became aware of persistent rumours that Turkey would launch an attack against Greece to coincide with a Bulgarian assault against Serbia. It was certainly known that Talaat had been involved in discussions with the Bulgarian Government, the purpose of which, it was assumed, involved an agreement for concerted action. By 10 September, however, the attitude of the Turks had changed and Politis was able to report that the delegates, although failing to resolve anything, had parted ‘amicably’.[30] Ambassador Mallet in Constantinople thought that the Turks had been influenced by Wangenheim whom Mallet believed was pressing for Greek neutrality. Wangenheim’s real object, Mallet informed Grey, ‘has been always to induce Turks to declare war on Russia or to bring about situation which would make war inevitable.’ A neutral Greece would be unable to assist in Allied landings ‘at the Dardanelles if war broke out between Turkey and Russia, and if we were involved.’[31]

                Mallet’s surmise was accurate: Talaat had left Bucharest on 31 August, leaving Halil to conduct the negotiations. On his way back to Constantinople Talaat stopped at Sofia to try to persuade the equivocating King Ferdinand of the need for Bulgarian co-operation but, citing Austrian reverses against Serbia and Roumania’s ambivalent attitude, Ferdinand again refused to commit himself. Bulgaria could not attack Serbia for fear of drawing in Greece and Russia against her. Upon reaching Constantinople Talaat decided on a new approach: on 6 September he informed Wangenheim that, failing a Greek declaration of neutrality, Halil would be recalled and the negotiations suspended. Talaat demanded that further German pressure should be exerted on Athens and the Greeks warned that the islands question would become a casus belli if they failed to issue the declaration. The Germans went so far as to have Quadt sound out Streit, but the Foreign Minister’s violent reaction confirmed German fears that the desired ultimatum would push the Greeks into the Entente camp. Instead, any pressure emanating from Berlin was directed back at Talaat: he was instructed to stop making waves with Greece and, if he must attack someone, attack Russia — a prospect Talaat viewed with something less than equanimity. Understandably, Talaat quickly saw reason and Halil was ordered to suspend negotiations in Bucharest while ‘Turkey made a proposal to Greece, believed to be at the instigation of Germany and thoroughly insincere, for a neutrality agreement by which neither should take part in the war.’[32]

                These attempts to influence policy were not all one-way: throughout this period, the Greek Government was in constant communication with a group of disaffected Turks, based in Paris, who sought the overthrow of the C.U.P. and its replacement at the Porte by a pro-Entente regime. The Greek Legations in Paris and Constantinople became centres from which Athens attempted to influence the conspiratorial movement with the latter Legation being assisted by the Greek secret agent Nikolaïdes working under cover as a commercial representative. The movement was unable to achieve its objectives however and, with Constantinople becoming unhealthy for Greeks, Nikolaïdes was sent to Alexandria in October to help organize a further movement of liberal Turks in that city.[33]


Meanwhile, no sooner had the Bucharest conference convened than Venizelos had another crisis on his hands. Sir Francis Elliot, the British Minister who had been home on leave when war broke out, had left London on 7 August but, being compelled to take a circuitous route via Port Said, did not reach Athens until 24 August, when, one might expect, the beleaguered Mr Erskine breathed a hefty sigh of relief. However, Sazonov, who had never placed much faith in Venizelos’ original scheme of Balkan confederation, chose the very day of Elliot’s return to voice the opinion that Greece must make concessions to Bulgaria comprising all the territory from Doiran to Kastoria.[34] Unknown to Elliot, the spur for this rash action was provided, intentionally or not, by the British Foreign Secretary — Grey had hoped that Sazonov would take the initiative of airing the question of concessions to Bulgaria as the Foreign Secretary realized only too well what the outcome of a direct approach to Venizelos, with concrete proposals, would be. Indeed, Grey had written to Bax-Ironside in Sofia the day before,

The solution that we should promote would be a confederation of Balkan States; to effect this we recognise that Serbia and Greece would have to make offers sufficiently attractive to Bulgaria. They could easily do this if they got compensation elsewhere, as they would do if Austria were defeated. Redistribution of territory is a matter for Balkan States themselves to discuss, but we are so much in favour of a Confederation of Balkan States on fair and lasting lines, that if it could be brought about we would provide some financial help to give it a favourable start…[35]

Still flying the same kite, the following day Grey instructed Buchanan to inform Sazonov in the same terms and, acting on cue, the Russian, as impulsive as ever, quickly spelled out the exact nature of the concessions.

                The British representative Venizelos would now have to deal with – Elliot – has been variously described as ‘spare and taut as a wire rope’[36] and ‘a great gentleman in the best Victorian tradition, much respected in Greece…a shrewd and clear-headed Scotsman and possessed [of] a remarkable uprightness of character.’[37] A disconcerted Venizelos now approached Elliot to inform him of the rumour that Greece might be asked to cede Cavalla.[38] Elliot then reported to Grey that ‘M Venizelos came to me yesterday in unusual perturbation, having heard that it had been suggested that Greece should cede Cavalla to Bulgaria as her share of price to be paid to latter for re-establishment of Balkan Confederation. That was quite impossible.’ Venizelos had been prepared to allow Bulgaria to retain Cavalla, in opposition to King Constantine, in order to maintain the Confederation following the First Balkan War; however, as the price to be paid for her part in instigating the Second Balkan War, ‘Bulgaria had lost Cavalla as part of penalty of a treacherous war.’ Venizelos threatened now to withdraw his Balkan Confederation proposal rather than give up Cavalla.[39] Although extremely reluctant to become embroiled in an inter-Balkan conflict Grey was able to reassure Venizelos that he would urge Cavalla should not be given up; nevertheless, some kind of attractive proposal should be made to Bulgaria. ‘But’, Grey continued, ‘I have always said that territorial rearrangements must be a matter for discussion between the Balkan States themselves; that I could not interfere in this; and that the part we could play would be to give financial assistance when a confederation has been arranged.’[40] While concomitantly attempting to convince Constantine that the proposal had not emanated from the Russians, Elliot repeated Grey’s comments to the King who remarked that he would rather commit suicide than cede Cavalla.


On 27 August the British Military Attaché at Constantinople reported that Goeben was rapidly being made ready to sail once more at which time, combined with the rest of the Ottoman fleet, Turkey would effectively control the Black Sea, a factor which might encourage both Bulgaria and Roumania to enter the lists. Major Cunliffe-Owen then went on to consider the question of the British fleet entering the Straits: Turkish mines recently laid in those waters would be the obvious danger but, if these could be safely negotiated, ‘there should be little apprehension of difficulty in running past the shore defences’ after which the fleet could then maintain a commanding position off Stamboul. Cunliffe-Owen cautioned, however, that the fleet alone would probably need support by a simultaneous advance on the Bosphorus by the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the Russian military occupation of ‘adjoining country’; further, ‘to command situation properly at Dardanelles, requires also use of military force and point arises whether substantial enterprise should be attempted in quite a subsidiary theatre of war.’ After venturing the opinion that it would be ‘far easier’ to attack Turkey through Syria or the Persian Gulf, the Attaché ended with an admonition, strongly supported by Ambassador Mallet (who had now also returned to Constantinople from his leave), that should have been heeded by all in London:

Should decision be eventually taken for a fleet movement, I need hardly impress that for local reasons there should be no mistake as to rapidity of execution and minimum risk of failure.[41]

Cunliffe-Owen’s report was sent via Athens where Elliot took the opportunity to remind the King that the Germans were endeavouring to ready Goeben for action in the Black Sea. Elliot then submitted his own opinion that war, into which the Allies would be drawn, would follow from Goeben’s appearance in the Black Sea and, in that case, ‘we should want to attack Dardanelles and our difficulty would be to provide a landing party.’[42]

                As Constantine did not rise to the bait, it was left to Elliot’s impetuous and slightly less diplomatic Russian colleague to put the question more directly: would Greece supply the troops? The Russian Minister’s impulsive request was in no sense a formal inquiry on behalf of the Russian Government; indeed, although Greek intervention at the time, if limited to the Gallipoli Peninsula, might have been welcome in Petrograd (as St Petersburg was now known) in view of the dire military position on other fronts, any prospect of a subsequent Greek move on Constantinople was anathema to the Russians. And, although the King agreed, reluctantly, Elliot reported that he again stated his preference that Turkey should make the breach so ‘his joining us then would be a less open break with the Emperor.’ Elliot then approached Venizelos who was, naturally, more forthright — to the extent that he immediately pledged ‘spontaneously’ to supply Greek troops, but only provided that Bulgaria did not attack. Even though Venizelos did not think this likely, he helpfully suggested that Bulgaria could be bought off with the promise of Adrianople and the rest of Thrace. According to the Prime Minister this would have the benefit of settling the difficulties of the Confederation Scheme with the additional bonus (which Venizelos was not so obvious as to point out to Elliot) of forestalling calls to cede Greek territory to Bulgaria.

                Meanwhile, in London, attempts were still being made – publicly at least – to promote the Confederation Scheme. Churchill wrote to the notorious Bulgarophil, Noel Buxton, on 31 August urging the Balkan States to act in concert so that they could then play a decisive part:

By disunion they will simply condemn themselves to tear each other’s throats without profit or reward, and left to themselves will play an utterly futile part in the destinies of the world. I want you to make your friends in Greece and in Bulgaria realize the brilliant but fleeting opportunity which now presents itself, and to assure them that England’s might and perseverance will not be withheld from any righteous effort to secure strength and union of the Balkan peoples.[43]

Grey was aghast at Churchill’s interference, causing him to reprove the First Lord in what was, for Grey, intemperate language: ‘I am afraid I don’t much like a letter of this kind being given to be shown in the Balkans — words won’t influence them.’[44] However, Churchill was hedging his bets for, on the same day as he wrote to Buxton, he also saw the Secretary of State for War, Kitchener, and arranged for two officers from the Admiralty to meet two officers from the Military Operations Department to work out a plan to seize the Gallipoli Peninsula by means of a Greek Army, ‘with a view to admitting a British Fleet to the Sea of Marmora.’[45]

                At 6 o’clock on the evening of 1 September the D.M.O., Major-General Callwell, together with Colonel Talbot met the Fourth Sea Lord, Captain Lambert, the Director of Transport, Mr Thomson, and the Assistant D.O.D., Captain Richmond to discuss the operation, from which it soon emerged the navy was more enthusiastic than the army. Sufficient transports for 40,000 or 50,000 men could be arranged with six weeks’ warning and the landings could be covered by the guns of the fleet; but Callwell remained unconvinced. The Turkish garrison was already too strong, and could easily be reinforced. His opinion – and that of the War Office – was that it was not a ‘feasible military operation’. This was not, however, the desired answer, and Callwell was summoned to a further meeting, this time with the ‘big guns’ – Churchill and Battenberg – in attendance, in addition to Lambert and Richmond. As a result of this meeting Callwell felt the need to write a memorandum on 3 September which somewhat modified his stance although he continued to refrain from giving the proposition his whole-hearted support. The operation, he now argued, would be ‘extremely difficult’ rather than not feasible; a minimum force of 60,000 men was required, though 30,000 could be landed first to take and consolidate a bridgehead while the transports returned to Greece to collect the remaining 30,000 troops. The Turkish defences would undoubtedly have been strengthened as a result of the Balkan Wars; however, the Greeks would probably be in a better position to evaluate the strength of the land defences.[46]

                Callwell’s part recantation under pressure provided the pretext of unity that Churchill needed. The following day, 4 September, he cabled to Athens to instruct Admiral Kerr that,

Without entering into the political probabilities which must be settled by Governments, Admiralty think it necessary now to discuss with Greek General and Naval Staff as a staff precaution the question of the right war policy to be pursued if Great Britain and Greece are Allies in a war against Turkey.

                If addressed by the Greek Government, you are authorized to enter into these discussions on behalf of the Admiralty. The following are our general views: In principle, Admiralty would propose to reinforce the Greek Fleet by a squadron and a flotilla strong enough to give decisive and unquestionable superiority over the Turkish and German vessels. They would propose that the whole command of the combined Fleets should be vested in you, and that you hoist your flag in the British battle-cruiser Indomitable. They will reinforce you to any extent and with any class of vessel that circumstances may render necessary. The right and obvious method of attacking Turkey is to strike immediately at the heart. To do this, it would be necessary for a Greek army to seize the Gallipoli Peninsula under superiority of sea predominance, and thus open the Dardanelles, admitting the Anglo-Greek Fleet to the Sea of Marmora, whence the Turco-German ships can be fought and sunk, and where in combination with the Russian Black Sea Fleet and Russian military forces the whole situation can be dominated.

                Admiralty wish that these conceptions should be immediately examined by the Greek naval and military experts in consultation with you. They wish to know at once the general views of the Greek Government upon this enterprise, and what force they think would be necessary on the assumption that safe transportation is assured. To what extent and in what time could Greece provide the necessary transports, or should we do so? Or what are their alternative suggestions? You should report fully to the Admiralty by telegraph.[47]

Although this message was sent on 4 September, in a clear indication that Churchill had already made up his mind and had expected no opposition from the War Office, the original draft outline had been written on 1 September, before Callwell had had a chance to voice his objections.[48]

                Kerr, who was with the Greek fleet at Tenedos, was promptly recalled to Athens, arriving on 5 September. Grey’s covering telegram to Elliot had made clear that the Foreign Secretary still wished to avoid war with Turkey and that co-operation between British and Greek forces would only come about as a result of Turkish aggression: ‘It is essential’, Grey enjoined the Minister in a covering telegram, ‘that the discussions between Admiral Kerr and the Greek Staff should be kept strictly private and secret and it must be clearly understood that, so long as Turkey does not break the peace, Greece must abstain from giving any provocation to Turkey.’[49]Please click to go to the top of this page





[1]    Leon, Greece and the Great Powers, p. 33.

[2]    Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, p. 15.

[3]    Erskine to Grey, no. 145, Vy confidential, 10 August 1914, (rec’d 11 August), PRO FO 371/2164/37861.

[4]    Grey to Erskine, no. 116, 11 August 1914; Grey to Bertie, no. 359, 11 August; Grey to Buchanan, no. 495, 11 August, PRO FO 371/2164/37861.

[5]    Asquith to Venetia Stanley, 11 August 1914, in Brock, Asquith Letters, no. 121, pp. 165-6.

[6]    Venizelos, The Vindication of Greek National Policy, pp. 73-4.

[7]    Erskine to Grey, no. 151, 12 August 1914, PRO FO 371/2164/38465.

[8]    Quoted in, Leon, Greece and the Great Powers, pp. 36-7.

[9]    Erskine to Grey, no. 151, 12 August 1914, PRO FO 371/2164/38465.

[10]  Minutes by Crowe, Clerk and Nicolson, ibid.

[11]  Grey to Erskine, no. 126, 14 August 1914, PRO FO 371/2164/38465.

[12]  George Rendel, Third Secretary, Athens Legation, Notes on the Proposed Greek Participation in the War, St Antony’s College, Centre for Middle East Studies, DR 701.G6. Entry for 14 August 1914 [hereinafter referred to as ‘Rendel, Notes’].

[13]  Howard, The Partition of Turkey, pp. 98-101.

[14]  Beaumont to Admiralty, no. 545, urgent, 15 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19.

[15]  Churchill to Enver Pasha, 15 August 1914, WSC Comp. Vol. III, pt. i, pp. 38-9.

[16]  Crowe to Grey, Situation in Turkey, 16 August 1914, PRO FO 371/2138.

[17]  Asquith to Venetia Stanley, 17 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 123, pp. 170-2.

[18]  Grey to Erskine, no. 133, 17 August 1914, Correspondence of Admiral Mark Kerr, PRO Adm 137/4178.

[19]  There are alternative accounts as to the number of troops mentioned: Theodoulou, p. 45, gives 200,000 while Leon, p. 41, and Abbot, p. 12, both give 150,000.

[20]  Cosmetatos, The Tragedy of Greece, p. 7 [emphasis in original].

[21]  Leon, Greece and the Great Powers, p. 42.

[22]  Theodoulou, Greece and the Entente, p. 45 and notes 85-6.

[23]  The offer of troops for Egypt apparently originated with the Greek Minister in London, Gennadius, who – aware of rumours that Turkey was about to attack the weak British forces in Egypt – thought that the offer would be a ‘political gesture of great importance.’ See, Leon, Greece and the Great Powers, p. 43, note 81.

[24]  Erskine to Grey, 19 August 1914, Kerr Correspondence, PRO Adm 137/4178.

[25]  Abbott, Greece and the Allies, p. 13.

[26]  Venizelos, The Vindication of Greek National Policy, p. 74.

[27]  Asquith to Stanley, 20 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 126, pp. 181-3; see also, Asquith to the King, 20 August 1914, PRO Cab 41/35/34.

[28]  Grey, Twenty-five Years, vol. II, pp. 172-4.

[29]  Grey to Bertie and Buchanan, 20 August 1914, Kerr Correspondence, PRO Adm 137/4178.

[30]  Theodoulou, Greece and the Entente, pp. 30-8; Rendel, Notes, passim.

[31]  Mallet to Grey, no. 747, 11 September 1914, PRO FO 371/2141.

[32]  Rendel, Notes, entry for 10 September 1914.

[33]  Theodoulou, Greece and the Entente, pp. 66-8 and note 65.

[34]  Rendel, Notes; Leon, Greece and the Great Powers, p. 47.

[35]  Grey to Bax-Ironside, 21 August 1914, quoted in, Theodoulou, Greece and the Entente, p. 53.

[36]  Compton Mackenzie, First Athenian Memories, p. 8. By contrast, Mackenzie described Mr Erskine (in 1915) as ‘a smallish finely made man of round forty, with an air of polite weariness of the war as if it were a woman who would insist on talking too loudly or insistently at a dinner party.’

[37]  Rendel, Sword and the Olive, p. 11.

[38]  Rendel, Notes, entry for 26 August 1914.

[39]  Elliot to Grey, no. 170, 26 August 1914, PRO FO 371/1901.

[40]  Grey to Elliot, no. 151, 27 August 1914, PRO FO 371/2264.

[41]  Mallet to Grey, no. 630, enclosing report of Military Attaché, 27 August 1914; Mallet to Grey, no. 632, 27 August, PRO FO 371/2138.

[42]  Elliot to Grey, no. 179, 29 August 1914, PRO FO 286/575.

[43]  Churchill to Buxton, 31 August 1914, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 72-3.

[44]  Minute by Grey, ibid., p. 73, note 1. Despite this, Churchill sent the letter to Buxton. No sooner had the Buxton brothers arrived in Bulgaria on their mission than Nicolson was forced to minute: ‘I wish it were possible for Messrs Buxton to come home. I am afraid this roving “mission” may cause difficulties.’ Quoted in, Theodoulou, Greece and the Entente, p. 52, note 16.

[45]  Churchill to Sir Charles Douglas, 1 September 1914, PRO Cab 19/28 Appendix A1; also given in, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 75.

[46]  Memorandum by Callwell, 3 September 1914, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 81-3.

[47]  Churchill to Kerr, 4 September 1914, “Policy to be Pursued in the event of Great Britain and Greece being allied in War against Turkey”, PRO Adm 1 8393/301; see also, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 83-4; Kerr, The Navy in My Time, pp. 181-2.

[48]  The original draft outline was written on the 1st and revised the following day. The revision was virtually identical to the cable as sent above. PRO Adm 1 8393/301.

[49]  Grey to Elliot, no. 171, secret, 4 September 1914, PRO FO 371/2140.



First Class Battleship HMS London

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

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