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 14




A Question of Semantics





While Churchill was thus engaged Grey had, in the meantime, proposed a joint representation by the Entente Powers to Venizelos guaranteeing to support Greece as an ally if Turkey joined Germany and Austria, and had hinted again that concessions might have to be made to Bulgaria. However, before this communication could be delivered, the Russian Minister in Athens learned that his Government was now insisting on Greek concessions.[1] Elliot cabled Grey on 2 September that, in his opinion, Greece would refuse ‘because neither King of Greece nor public opinion would consent to such concessions.’[2] Although Venizelos was determined not to be the stumbling block he had, however, to perform a delicate balancing act: how to reconcile his desperation to join the Entente against Turkey with his anxiety not to be associated with the loss of Greek territory to Bulgaria to guarantee the support of the Powers. Venizelos repeated his fears through the pliant Elliot on the 4th by arguing that Bulgarian mobilization would paralyse the scope for movement of the Greek army, while adding hopefully that, if inducements had to be made to Bulgaria, they should be in the form of Turkish territory — a suggestion the Russians were hardly likely to agree to, nor Grey for that matter keen as he was to keep the Turks neutral.[3]

                The irreconcilable problem for Venizelos was that the Greek army simply was not strong enough to mount a campaign against Turkey yet retain sufficient forces to be able to guarantee that the Bulgarians could be held in check. As Admiral Kerr was later to remark, the logical result of what Venizelos was proposing would be to send the Greek Army to Gallipoli and substitute for them Allied troops in Greece to match the Bulgarians.[4] Kerr had been in the Aegean long enough to formulate his own ideas as to how to attack Turkey; whereas Admiral Condouriotis believed the Greek navy could go up the Dardanelles, Kerr disagreed. In June 1914, when war with Turkey had seemed imminent over the islands’ question, Kerr had been instructed by the Greek Minister of Marine to prepare a plan for a naval attack against the Turks. His report was uncompromising: ‘The British Fleet, backed by all the other navies in the world, cannot force the passage of the Dardanelles. This must be a military operation, assisted by the Navy.’ Turkish torpedo-tube installations and mines protected by shore batteries could only be neutralized by troops holding the Gallipoli Peninsula, allowing the mines to be swept unhindered.[5]

                Holding these views, Kerr immediately went to work and prepared an ambitious plan involving a five-pronged attack: while 20,000 troops would capture and hold Alexandretta (at which point the railway passes close to the coast) to cut off Turkish supplies from the south-east, 30,000 men would land at Aivali to pin down the Smyrna Army Corps and prevent them from going north to reinforce the Dardanelles’ defences; 2,000 men would land on the Asiatic side of the Dardanelles to take the fort there (Kum Kale) from the rear and use its gun against the other fortifications; 30,000 troops were to occupy Bulair, at the narrowest point of the Gallipoli Peninsula, to isolate the Peninsula and prevent reinforcements arriving from Constantinople; and, finally, the main thrust would be delivered by 80,000 troops who would land near Gaba Tepe and neutralize the forts there. Estimates for the number of troops varied from 142,000 to 162,000[6] — but as the Greek army numbered 180,000 fully equipped, an expeditionary force would leave insufficient men to face the threat posed by Bulgaria’s army of 350,000.

                King Constantine’s solution to this dilemma was for Greece to remain neutral and await a Turkish attack which he considered appeared a remote possibility. Venizelos likewise had nothing to fear from a Turkish attack and assured Elliot on this point; the Greek General Staff also remained unconvinced as to the probability of a Turkish land attack for, assuming the co-operation of Bulgaria, which was doubtful, it would take the Turks 17 days, marching through Bulgarian territory, just to reach the Greek frontier. It was also thought likely that German interests would exert a restraining influence on the Porte.[7] This apparent insouciance was not, however, widely shared: Mallet issued a warning from Constantinople on 5 September that, though the Turkish fleet would not enter the Aegean, the ‘danger point is an attack on Greece by land.’[8] Similarly, the Russian Ambassador at Constantinople also forwarded to Petrograd his opinion that Turkey was on the point of attacking Greece ostensibly because of the failure of Greece to make concessions with regard to the disputed islands at the Bucharest conference. Sazonov was convinced that, in that eventuality, Bulgaria would participate in a Turkish attack unless she could be bought off by the promise of Greek territorial concessions. Fully committed against the Germans in the north, Sazonov warned Buchanan that he had no desire ‘to allow Greece to drag Russia into a war with Turkey and unless she listened to our advice he would disinterest himself in her altogether.’ The position was clear: Greece had to square Bulgaria or ‘bear the brunt of the war single-handed.’[9]

                Doubtful as to the apparent lack of concern shown by the Greeks, Elliot warned Grey that it was ‘highly desirable to let Turkey know that if she attacks Greece we shall support the latter. This would do more than anything to keep Turkey quiet.’ Elliot further reported that, with regard to Bulgaria, Venizelos maintained that he had received ‘positive assurances of definite neutrality’ from Sofia but, like the Turco-German alliance, he chose to disbelieve them — at least to Elliot.[10] In Constantinople at the same time, in the hope of deterring the Turks, Mallet pointedly warned Talaat Pasha that Admiral Kerr had hoisted his flag on Averoff as C-in-C of the Greek Fleet and that if the Turkish fleet went out into the Aegean it would be attacked and sunk. Only the news of Kerr’s appointment surprised the otherwise imperturbable Turk.[11]

                Although Grey had asked the Russians to consider joining in an attack on Turkey they already had enough on their hands: the decisive Battle of the Masurian Lakes was about to begin, following the Russian rout at Tannenburg. Not that things were decidedly better on the western front: the dire strategic position in France, where the Battle of the Marne had begun on 5 September, but whose outcome would be uncertain for some time, meant that the receipt of Buchanan’s cable, in which the Russians threatened to ditch Greece, threw Grey into despair. If the Germans won at the Marne, Italy might be tempted out of neutrality and the French fleet ‘paralysed’; Grey did not ‘like the prospect in the Mediterranean at all, unless there is some turn of the tide in France.’[12] Churchill, convinced that Turkish neutrality was a sham, hoped to bolster both Grey’s and Sazonov’s confidence: his method of doing so, however, was to propose that Russian troops could be taken from a quiet front – Archangel, Vladivostock or Port Arthur – and shipped to the Dardanelles. This would obviate the need for Greek participation: ‘A good army of 50,000 men & sea-power,’ the First Lord sanguinely maintained, ‘that is the end of the Turkish menace.’[13] Grey responded to this crazy scheme by showing Churchill that morning’s telegram from Petrograd: the Russians had no help to give.[14]


With the Entente Powers fully committed elsewhere the focus for any allied action against Turkey once more became Greece. After the receipt of Churchill’s cable on 4 September, instructing Kerr to submit a plan for an attack, the following days would be crucial in deciding whether or not the Greeks would participate in the war. Kerr’s earlier, ambitious, plan required revision on the basis of the latest intelligence; immediately upon Kerr’s return to Athens from the fleet, on Saturday 5th, he saw the King to seek his approval to have the plan brought up to date.[15] Constantine also saw Venizelos on this Saturday to discuss the situation; both were generally in agreement that, though a Turkish declaration of war would be preferable, it would still be possible for Greece to launch an attack first as long as the danger from Bulgaria could be circumvented. But here was the divergence: Constantine wanted the terms of collaboration between Greece and the Entente agreed in advance while, according to the King’s recollection, the Prime Minister did not want ‘to bargain about our help, but simply trust to the generosity of England.’ Sunday, as usual, was a day of rest for most of the protagonists, in anticipation of the furious activity of Monday. The exception was Foreign Minister Streit. His ‘provisional retention’ at the Foreign Ministry following his attempted resignation in August was becoming ever more anomalous. After the Prime Minister’s audience with the King the previous day, Venizelos had informed Elliot that he would ‘very probably’ ask Streit to resign ‘within forty-eight hours’. Streit knew the game was up and so, on Sunday, sat down to compose a memorandum to be presented to the King and Venizelos the following day, accompanied by his formal resignation.

                The thrust of this document was to advise against Greek involvement in a war with Turkey as, while intervention against Turkey would solve the outstanding differences between the two countries, it would result in no great territorial expansion for Greece. Further, Greek intervention might provoke Bulgaria to attack Serbia and then turn on Greece — though if Turkey entered the war against the Entente Bulgaria would probably remain neutral to avoid a Greek and Roumanian attack. Streit also believed that a Turkish or Bulgarian attack on Greece would attract only limited support from the Entente. Overall, Streit’s outlook was guided by his belief that, if Greece entered the war alongside the Entente, she had little to gain in the event of an Entente victory while, with the (in his view) much more likely outcome being an Austro-German victory, Greece had much to lose.[16]

                Streit submitted his memorandum to the King on the morning of Monday 7 September, but to Venizelos only in the afternoon.[17] When Kerr saw the King again on Monday (after Constantine had received Streit’s memorandum) to discuss the Dardanelles plan, Constantine initially intimated that a main landing on the Asiatic shore would be preferable, then he went off the record: no longer was he speaking to the C-in-C of his Navy, but to his old friend. After his audience with the King, Kerr quickly made a note of their conversation to show to Venizelos. Apparently unaware of their unofficial nature, Kerr had treated the King’s opinions as policy: that Constantine did not want to go to war unless first attacked by Turkey; that he wished to remain neutral to avoid a complete break with the Kaiser; that he required an assurance that the Entente would support Greece in the case of a Bulgarian attack after Greece had been exhausted resisting a Turkish attack; that he disbelieved the current intelligence which suggested the German presence in Turkey was directed at Russia; and, finally, that he was averse to provoking Turkey as the Greek people were tired of war.[18]

                The reaction of Venizelos to this can be imagined and Kerr was doubtless being diplomatic when he stated that the Prime Minister ‘desired me not to communicate it to my Government.’ Yet, despite this request, Kerr nevertheless showed his notes to Elliot and drafted a telegram to London. Venizelos obviously recognized that a reply by Kerr to Churchill based on Kerr’s memorandum (made, one must assume, under the influence of Constantine and Streit) would put an immediate stop to any idea of Greek participation. Venizelos had but one last card to play, although it was one he was not averse to using whenever it suited him — he submitted his resignation to Constantine:

By your Majesty’s instructions [he wrote the King on 7 September] Admiral Kerr has communicated to me the text of a telegram, drafted by him on the basis of the conversation he had with your Majesty in reply to the dispatch he received from the British Admiralty.

                I asked the Admiral not to send this telegram…before receiving fresh instructions from your Majesty, and I now respectfully beg you to accept my resignation so that the complete harmony between the Crown and the responsible Government that is essential at times so critical for the Nation can be restored.[19]

Greece could not take the offensive against Turkey, Venizelos argued, without some form of assurance against Bulgaria, ‘But to declare that in no case…would we be disposed to make war against Turkey before being attacked is manifestly contrary to the well recognised interests of the Nation.’ Venizelos argued that the war could be localized and there was no need to declare war against the Central Powers but that, even if they did regard her as a belligerent, Greece’s position – backed by Britain and France – would be too strong. ‘I do not overlook the fact’, he continued, ‘that the condition I impose on our active co-operation against Turkey, namely, the co-operation or the assured neutrality of Bulgaria, is difficult of realization.’[20] Yet here was the fatal flaw in his argument: ‘difficult of realization’ should have read ‘impossible of realization’, as Venizelos knew quite well by now that Grey had shown no interest in guaranteeing such a condition. Indeed it is tempting to suggest that only semantics separated the positions of the King and the Prime Minister — though neither would admit it.

                Constantine replied immediately to the Prime Minister’s accusations and, in doing so, lobbed the ball firmly back into Admiral Kerr’s court:

As I know the Admiral very well, [Constantine informed Venizelos later that day] and we had in former times had somewhat intimate conversations, I then spoke to him about the situation in general. He knows the Emperor of Germany intimately, and, talking thus to a man who was acquainted with the character of the Kaiser, I said that for my own part I would greatly prefer that Turkey should attack us rather than that we should participate in a war declaration on Turkey by the Entente, my reason being that I did not want to put myself out of favour with the Kaiser for ever.

                I even said, in the course of the conversation (first of all pointing out that it was a question of policy to be discussed between the English and Hellenic Governments, and in any case, did not concern him) that if Bulgaria did not take part in the war, she would remain so strong afterwards that she would find some pretext to attack us.

                You will thus see, from the way this conversation turned, that I made no communication to the Admiral that he could telegraph to the Admiralty. I do not at all want to show indifference to the Triple Entente, nor want of respect to Germany. I only desire the good of the country and of the people over which I reign…[21]

Expressing great surprise at Venizelos’ letter, Constantine admitted ‘unreservedly’ that his Prime Minister’s arguments were irrefutable. ‘Furthermore’, the King added, ‘you had already developed them last Saturday when I saw you…I think I told you and proved to you that I was in complete agreement with you.’ What divided them was ‘a mere difference which ought not to be called a disagreement.’ Constantine then mentioned that, knowing Kerr intimately, he had talked to him about the general situation, but, as shown above, had ‘made no communication to the Admiral that he could telegraph to the Admiralty.’

                Nevertheless, Venizelos was later to claim that the King had done just the opposite: speaking in 1917, Venizelos purported to reconstruct the conversation between the King and Kerr which took place on Monday 7 September 1914. According to his version Venizelos alleged that he had obtained the authorization of the King before making his sweeping declaration to place all the naval and military forces of Greece at the disposal of the Entente (‘always presupposing that we were to be guaranteed against the Bulgarian danger’) but that Constantine had then, supposedly, changed his mind under the influence of Streit and the General Staff, so that:

when as a direct result of our declaration the British Admiralty instructed Admiral Kerr to come to an understanding with our General Staff in order to study the possibility of attacking and work out plans for occupying the peninsula of Gallipoli, King Constantine said to Admiral Kerr: “Why all this? I have no intention of making war against Turkey. You know,” he added, it is true, in his remarks to Admiral Kerr, “you know that Mr Venizelos has spoken to me about this, and he feels very strongly about it; I agree with him to this extent: if Turkey declares war against us, and if you want to help us, I will accept your help”…Admiral Kerr was obliged to ask if the King would allow him to communicate these remarks (to the British Government)…“I authorise you,” the King replied, “to communicate them as my answer to your Government, but please remember…that you must call and see the Prime Minister for him to confirm your telegram, for this reply must not be sent without his approval...[22]

Constantine was, of course, fully conversant with Streit’s views and was unlikely, therefore, to have been unduly influenced by his memorandum; for Venizelos, however, it represented the perfect opportunity to claim that foreign policy was being formulated, without his approval, by Streit, Constantine and Kerr. Yet, as the King made clear at the time to his petulant, scheming Prime Minister:

You appear to me to believe that since Saturday, when I last saw you, I have changed my views regarding the policy we should adopt and that I have communicated my views to Admiral Kerr before discussing them with you. Similarly, that I shared the contrary opinion of the Foreign Minister regarding the line of conduct to follow in certain circumstances, and that I have communicated this view to a third party before telling you. I have always striven to be loyal and frank in my relations with my Ministers, with the Chief of the Cabinet, and especially with M Venizelos.

                Do you not think it would have been sufficient to ask me whether the contents of Admiral Kerr’s telegram represented my views? If I had answered such a question in the affirmative you could have tendered your resignation, but in the present circumstances I see no grounds for your resignation, which I do not accept.[23]

                As with all his threats of resignation, Constantine was perfectly well aware of the difficulty of forming a Government in the absence of Venizelos, a fact on which Venizelos himself was counting. All such threats amounted, therefore, to a game of bluff and counter-bluff. This time, however, as the King could not be bluffed, Venizelos determined to try a similar experiment on Elliot; he would not have long to wait.

                Entente representations had, in the meantime, been made to the Bulgarian and Serbian Governments so that, provided Greece and Serbia secured territorial expansion in the war, ‘adequate’ territorial concessions would be granted to Bulgaria. When Elliot attempted to inform Venizelos of this the Prime Minister became ‘excited’ and replied that if the communication ‘had anything to do with concessions he would resign himself.’[24] Elliot, taking the threat more seriously than Constantine, decided to consult Grey before presenting the communication: the Minister had ‘no doubt’ that Venizelos ‘meant what he said’, and, he added earnestly, ‘I need not enlarge upon unfortunate consequences which his resignation would have for us. He is in a very nervous state from overwork and is only kept by patriotism from taking rest.’[25] Grey comfortingly replied that the Powers were not contemplating, ‘in any case for the present’, that Bulgaria should receive territorial concessions ‘as there are signs that she will not depart from neutrality[26] and’, he ventured, somewhat optimistically, ‘may even perhaps gravitate towards the three allies.’[27] Venizelos was informed, ‘very confidentially’, of Grey’s message; but though this was a small victory for the Prime Minister he had, in effect, lost the war.[28]


Admiral Kerr’s overly ambitious original plan for a five-pronged attack went beyond the remit of Churchill’s instructions, which required a simpler plan to be developed in conjunction with the General Staff. The revised plan was ready by the morning of 9 September at which time Kerr presented Elliot with a telegram to be forwarded to Churchill which would put paid to any chance of immediate Greek participation:

Following from Admiral Kerr to Fist Lord of the Admiralty.

I have consulted with Greek General Staff on the subject of your telegram.

They are of opinion, and I agree, that force at disposal of Greece is sufficient to take Gallipoli if Bulgaria does not attack Greece. It is not sufficient guarantee for Bulgaria to undertake to remain neutral. They will not trust her unless she also attacks Turkey at the same time with all her force. The plan for taking the Straits of the Dardanelles is ready if above conditions obtain.

                Greece has sufficient transports to convey troops. Assistance of a British squadron of two battle-cruisers, one armoured cruiser, three light cruisers and flotilla of destroyers and mine-sweepers will be needed. This plan was originally made out by General Staff and myself without outside assistance, but since Turkey has mobilised and obtained German ships operation has become greater.

                General Staff has alternative plan ready, but it would require money from England to carry through. Enormous import trade of cereals are sent to Germany by Bagdad Railway from Mesopotamia. This railway can be seized at Alexandretta and position maintained by a very large force.[29]

That, by so boldly stating the predicament, Kerr would go further than Venizelos desired was to be expected; even so, the contents of the telegram must have come as a profound shock in London. In the Foreign Office opinion was united: George Clerk minuted simply, ‘The condition as regards Bulgaria seems to me scarcely practicable’, while a weary Nicolson added, ‘Greece would have to offer Bulgaria something to join with her. I think M Venizelos declines to do.’ Nicolson also queried whether the telegram should be circulated; Grey, suspicious of Greek intentions and possibly relieved to be clear of the whole Greek imbroglio, had the final say: ‘Certainly not.’[30]

                Kerr was later to write, disingenuously, that the silence emanating from London after the receipt of his telegram was ‘curious’; that he was the man on the spot, ideally suited to plan and lead an attack on the Dardanelles, yet no orders came to launch such an attack. On the contrary, on the same day Churchill received Kerr’s report, the First Lord had relieved Admiral Limpus from his invidious position in Constantinople and, with the proposed assault in mind, planned to install him in command of the Dardanelles Squadron in place of Troubridge.[31] However, with the Turks still not in the war, this appointment was considered too provocative and was later rescinded; it is hard to envisage that Kerr’s appointment – if ever seriously considered – would not have raised the same, or even greater, difficulties. In any event, Kerr must have known that, by adding the condition about Bulgaria, he had destroyed any chance of Greek involvement and, for the time being, without the Greeks there would be no Dardanelles campaign.

                Venizelos went even further in his post-war attempts to remove from his own shoulders the burden of Greece’s failure to participate in the Gallipoli operations. He went so far as to deny knowledge of the contents of Churchill’s telegram to Kerr, insisting that Kerr had told him only that the Admiralty had merely ordered a study to be made in case of an eventual attack on Gallipoli. Venizelos then continued in an “if only” vein (which was to become a familiar litany for those tainted by the calamity of Gallipoli):

Had I known the contents of the telegram [from Churchill]…I would not have mentioned to the King the need for guaranteeing our security against the Bulgarian danger. Since we would have undertaken and conducted the operation against the Dardanelles in common with Great Britain (the rapid success of which had been then considered guaranteed by our Staff itself) Bulgaria would not think of attacking us, since only one Greek corps would operate in Gallipoli and the other four corps would remain in Greece in order to face an eventual Bulgarian attack.[32]

This, of course, is arrant nonsense. As has already been shown, Venizelos had pledged Greek troops to assist in the Dardanelles on 29 August[33] and had opined that Bulgaria could be bought off with the promise of Turkish territory. Grey had informed Elliot on 4 September of Kerr’s instructions from Churchill[34] and, when Elliot saw Venizelos the same day, he replied to Grey at 10.20 that evening that he had ‘remarked to M Venizelos that if Greek Army mobilized in order to co-operate with us something would have to be done to reassure Bulgaria and he asked me to point out to you that Bulgarian mobilization would paralyse action of Greek Army. He suggested that Bulgaria should be offered advantages at the expense of Turkey to induce her to join us or at least maintain benevolent neutrality.’[35] Could the Venizelos who admits here that the mere fact of Bulgarian mobilization would paralyse the Greek army be the same one who, in the quotation above, believes that, due to the presence of four army corps, the overwhelmingly strong Bulgarian army would not dare attack Greece?

                Further proof that the Prime Minister was fully aware of the proposed Gallipoli operation before his meeting with the King is provided once more by Elliot who saw Venizelos again on 5 September. The Minister informed Grey after this meeting that Venizelos had estimated it would take 20 days for the Greeks to mobilize which ‘includes concentration of troops on the frontier’ although ‘their assembly at various ports for embarkation could be effected in much less time.’[36] Finally, the King maintained that he learned of the contents of the Admiralty telegram from Venizelos before being approached by Kerr on the subject.[37] Greek participation had foundered, and with it hopes of an immediate assault on the Dardanelles, on the rock of Bulgaria. There was little Grey could do if Venizelos refused to believe Bulgarian protestations of neutrality. They, like the Roumanians and Italians, were awaiting a clearer indication of the course of the war before deciding which way to jump.

How serious was the threat that Bulgaria would intervene? The prospect certainly seemed real when a draft treaty of Austro-Bulgarian alliance was presented on 2 August to the Austrian and German representatives in Sofia who then balked at the contents, which were simple yet far-reaching:

1.  The Triplice will guarantee Bulgaria’s present territory against attack from whatever side it may come.

2.  The Triplice will give Bulgaria support in her aspirations for future territorial acquisitions in regions in which she possesses historic or ethnographical rights and which are under the dominion of a State not belonging to the Triplice.

Although Germany was keen to have Bulgaria as an ally at almost any price, the Austrians stalled. One theory is that, convinced of victory against Serbia, the Austrians were disinclined to offer Bulgaria Serb territory, or that, alternatively, the promise of concessions to a third party would complicate any compromise peace between Austria and Serbia. Either way, with Germany and Russia pressing for neutrality as the safest course in the immediate future, and the irresolute Berchtold in Vienna swamped by the tide of events, the spectre of the Bulgarian army marching on Greece which weighed so heavily on the shoulders of Venizelos in 1914 was, in reality, a phantom. It would be October 1915 before, in a further miscalculation, the Bulgarians nailed their colours to the Central Powers’ mast and attacked Serbia.[38]

                Elliot had one last attempt on 10 September to persuade Venizelos to offer some concession to Bulgaria other than Cavalla. Churchill was later to argue that a wiser course would have been to give Cyprus to Greece as a sop;[39] however, Venizelos remained intransigent and Elliot forlornly reported that he ‘refused to consider any of these proposals on military or other grounds.’[40] By 12 September the French and British had turned the Germans back from Paris, a victory of sorts had been won, and the front line stabilized. This was enough to renew the belief in London that Bulgaria would remain neutral and might even, optimistically, gravitate towards the Entente — which must have been something of a surprise to those in Athens clearly aware of the Austro-German influence in Bulgaria. Nevertheless, relief at the outcome on the Marne led to the postponement of any further attempts to bribe the Bulgarians. Aware now that the critical moment at which to align his country with the Entente Powers had passed him by, Venizelos bided his time, waiting for the inevitable rupture with Turkey. However, Churchill, undeterred, made one last attempt to convince Grey: ‘I am very unhappy about our getting into war with Turkey without having Greece as our ally’, he wrote the Foreign Secretary on 23 October adding, ‘This was the least to be hoped for. Surely it is not too late.’[41]

                Unfortunately, for Venizelos in particular, Bulgaria would continue to be a bogy. When, in 1915, he agreed finally to cede Cavalla (conditionally) as a precursor to possible Greek participation against Turkey it was only to see the Russians veto the use of Greek troops. Throughout, Venizelos had attempted to use the putative threat posed by Bulgaria to extract the maximum guarantee from the Entente to safeguard his flank, without the necessity of having to bribe Bulgaria and risk a public outcry by offering concessions of disputed Greek territory. Ultimately and ironically the Prime Minister was hoist by his own petard; he admitted that his conditions for Greek participation – the co-operation or assured neutrality of Bulgaria – were ‘difficult of realization’, but he gave no practical indication as to how it would be possible to be assured of Bulgarian neutrality in all situations. Therefore, although he refused to admit as such, co-operation alone became his sine qua non.

                Admiral Kerr, backed by the Greek General Staff, also admitted the problem regarding neutrality (‘It is not sufficient guarantee for Bulgaria to undertake to remain neutral’) but used stronger language with regard to possible co-operation: the General Staff would not trust Bulgaria ‘unless she also attacks Turkey at the same time [as Greece] with all her forces.’ Kerr had called Venizelos’ bluff and the Prime Minister knew it. Rendel, from the British Legation, put the problem concisely:

No means was found of at once effectively guaranteeing Greece against Bulgarian attack and at the same time of maintaining sufficiently friendly relations with Bulgaria to leave the door open for possible co-operation on her part, and the question of Greek co-operation was practically dropped.[42]

The question remains, why did Kerr go further than Constantine (apparently) and Venizelos (certainly) intended in his reply to Churchill? Although Kerr did state, if somewhat bluntly, the actual Greek position, Constantine denied – to Venizelos at least – giving him the authority to do so, while Venizelos twice attempted to resign to prevent Kerr’s reply being sent. Did Kerr simply misinterpret a friendly discussion with the King or did he, with Constantine’s consent, try to pull the rug out from under Venizelos by stating a condition he must have known would be rejected?


Kerr was to remain a thorn in Venizelos’ side for some time: when the Prime Minister proposed, late in November 1914, that the fleet be demobilized, Grey guessed that the real reason was to make Kerr’s position untenable. Was there, Grey inquired innocently, any friction or dissatisfaction with the Admiral?[43] Elliot confronted Venizelos and, as was the Minister’s wont, came away convinced by the explanation proffered:

The reason given by M Venizelos for the demobilisation of the Fleet was the true one [he replied to Grey]. He gave me to understand that he was parting with his Minister of Marine on account of his extravagance. The Treasury is empty and the present rate of expenditure cannot be kept up. The military expenditure cannot be reduced, so he turned to the Navy, admitting frankly that the Allied Squadrons off the Dardanelles are doing its work. I am sure that he would not wish for any change in the Naval Mission. If there is dissatisfaction, it is on the side of the Mission, which cannot make progress it ought, owing to interested obstruction, and reactionary place-hunters, but the Government and the best of the Officers are quite satisfied…[44]

What was this ‘interested obstruction’ and who were these ‘reactionary place-hunters’ to which Elliot referred? This contrasts markedly with Kerr’s comment that ‘during the whole time I was there, the [building] programme was not only not carried out, but Mr Venizelos himself was the chief obstructionist to its being fulfilled, and was also the cause why nearly all the money for the Greek Naval Estimates was expended on two useless, worn-out, and obsolete battleships [the American ships purchased in the summer of 1914] which could neither steam nor effectively use their nearly worn-out guns.’[45]

                The final twist came in March 1915 when, following the abortive Anglo-French attempt to force the Dardanelles by ships alone, the question of Greek participation in the combined operations was raised once more. Before the Russian veto was applied, Elliot telegraphed Grey that,

In likely event of Greece coming into the war it is desirable immediately to define position of Admiral Kerr. At present only instructions are telegram from First Lord of the Admiralty in Foreign Office telegram no. 170 of September 4th. [Churchill’s order to prepare a plan of attack]. If Admiral Kerr goes to sea probably Admiral Condouriotis will not, which is very desirable as he is incompetent and difficult to deal with. Kerr is most anxious to fall in with any arrangement to help the service and Admiral Carden [in command of the Allied fleet off the Dardanelles]. His knowledge of the Dardanelles may be useful. It must be remembered that Admiral Condouriotis being senior to Carden would cause embarrassment and Kerr is quite willing to work under Carden. Would British ship be at Kerr’s disposal in which to fly this [sic] flag as previously arranged?[46]

This telegram was sent to the Admiralty where it took some time to locate a copy of Churchill’s orders of 4 September 1914 and, when a copy was eventually found on 9 March, it resulted in the following minute: ‘First Lord... No one in Admiralty appears to have seen it before.’[47] Churchill replied to Kerr the same day:

My telegram of September 4 is superseded by course of events. If Greece comes into the War we should urge that you should command the Greek ships working with our forces. You would of course in that event serve under Admiral Carden. If the Greeks would be influenced to give you the sea going command of their Fleet by your hoisting your flag in a British ship we will place one at your disposal. Meanwhile remain at your post and do your utmost to prepare the Greek Navy.[48]

And there Kerr might have remained had not a bout of malaria removed him from the undoubtedly difficult position he found himself in and forced his return to London in the late summer of 1915 where, despite his credentials, there was no offer forthcoming for his re-employment. Although, by that time, Churchill was no longer at the Admiralty, it is difficult not to imagine that in the general search for scapegoats following the Gallipoli fiasco Kerr was tainted by virtue of his unhelpful reply to Churchill’s telegram of 4 September which virtually scuppered any chance of Greek involvement and an early assault on the Dardanelles. And, though the full story of the Admiral’s highly ambivalent performance during the escape of Goeben and Breslau was yet to emerge, Battenberg (as has been shown) clearly believed that the Foreign Office had begun a whispering campaign against Kerr. Still technically employed by the Greeks, the prospect of his return to Athens filled them with alarm. As the First Sea Lord made clear in January 1916: ‘Mark Kerr was to have started [for Greece] on Monday [31 January] but was stopped at the last moment by the Greek Govt. who preferred giving him 2 months’ full-pay leave to having him with them.’[49]

                In desperation, having almost given up hope of serving in the Navy during the War, Kerr sought (with Admiralty permission) an interview with Sir William Robertson, the Chief of the General Staff, ‘with the hopes of getting employment in the Army as a lieutenant or captain of a company, or as a flying officer in the Royal Flying Corps.’[50] Battenberg also pleaded on Kerr’s behalf, writing to Admiral Hamilton:

As you probably know Mark Kerr is at last clear of the Greek business. I am very glad, as I was responsible for sending him out there. Needless to say he is eating his heart out at being unemployed while we are at war. Opinions may differ as to his worth. With an experience ranging from 1st Lieutenant to Flag Capt. I have a very high opinion of his worth as a Sea Officer…I have recommended him generally to my successor in office, but I hesitate to make any concrete proposals to the First Sea Lord — To you, as an old friend, I should however like to submit an idea which has occurred to me…Churchill & I decided to establish an aerial force (headquarters Dunkirk) for the express purpose of destroying Zeppelins before they could cross the Channel & attack us. I have no knowledge whatever as to what there is now in this force (if it still exists), or who is in charge of it. Mark Kerr is a certified airman and an experienced & skilful pilot…Were he put in charge of an adequate force for conducting air raids from a continental base we should see great results.[51]

Kerr’s eventual salvation came from an unlikely source: Winston Churchill. Churchill, who had been serving in France, returned to London early in March 1916 and decided to participate in the forthcoming naval debate in the Commons. His speech was trenchant in its criticisms of Admiralty policy — ‘Not very patriotic of Churchill,’ Hankey recorded, ‘but he said a lot of true things’[52] — however, the effect was completely overshadowed by his bizarre suggestion that Fisher should be recalled as First Sea Lord.[53] Inevitably, the question of Churchill’s judgment was raised once more and, equally inevitably, the subject of the Dardanelles.[54] Nevertheless, Churchill now determined that his immediate future lay in the political arena and not in France and, the day after his speech, he asked Kitchener to be relieved of his command.[55] This would take some time, and it was not until early May that Churchill returned to London ready to begin combat of a different kind.

                Before Churchill could seriously contemplate a full return to mainstream political life he had first to lay to rest the ghost of Gallipoli and this, he believed, could only be achieved by full publication of the relevant documents relating to the origins of the campaign. It was not a request likely to endear him to the Government. Coincidentally or not, and Kerr certainly believed it was no coincidence,[56] the former head of the Greek Navy suddenly found himself offered the command of the Adriatic Squadron, much to the chagrin of his fellow officers.[57] Meanwhile, Churchill continued in his demand for publication, which he hoped would show that the decisions reached in January 1915 had been collective and that Kitchener, for one, also bore a heavy measure of responsibility.[58] On 1 June it was announced in the Commons that documents would be laid before Parliament as soon as possible. Unfortunately for Churchill, within days Kitchener had been drowned and his reputation was thus saved, preserved in aspic by a Government now unwilling publicly to criticize the man many of them privately had come to regard as a liability.[59] ‘Fortunate was he’, Churchill muttered, ‘in the moment of his death.’[60] By mid-June Asquith had decided against the publication of the minutes of the War Council; by July that no documents at all would be published, citing security grounds. But something had to be done and so it was no surprise that Asquith went down that well trod path of politicians wishing to bury the past: the inquiry. On 20 July Asquith announced that he would set up a Select Committee ‘to inquire into the conduct of the Dardanelles’ operations.’ Kerr’s presence would, for a variety of reasons, have been embarrassing to say the least and it was extremely convenient that he was then all but forgotten in his Adriatic backwater — out of reach of the probing questions of the Dardanelles Commissioners. Judging by the following evidence, Churchill had just as much reason as others to be grateful for Kerr’s absence:

q. 1115:  And the military force which you first contemplated was a Greek military force? Churchill: There was a moment when M Venizelos offered the co-operation of Greece in a very sweeping manner. Whether he could have carried it out I do not know.

q. 1116:  Did you ask the Greeks for plans?  Churchill: Did I? No, I did not.[61]

q. 1117:  Did you have them offered?  Churchill: I have no knowledge of it. Of course, that is really a War Office matter. Let me make it quite clear that I am seeking only to use those documents to prove the fact that one was not so ignorant of the past study of this subject as to go for a purely naval attack unless one was sure that there were no other practicable means. More than that I do not seek to prove. The Foreign Office however thought it necessary to decline the Greek offer at that time…[62]

When Kerr returned home again on 31 August 1917, long after the Dardanelles Commission, the Admiralty transferred him within two days to assist in the formation of the Royal Air Force. Although Kerr subsequently became Deputy Chief of the Air Staff ‘certain differences on matters of strategy [as Kerr put it] with the Chief of the Air Staff made it advisable’ for him to seek a lesser command in Salisbury, away from the intrigues and squabbles of London.[63] This was not quite the view of his superiors: as the then First Lord noted in a draft letter to the Secretary of State for the Royal Air Force, ‘it has been found desirable to use the abilities of Rear-Admiral Mark Kerr in an important Command elsewhere.’ Preferably as far away from Whitehall as possible.[64]

                After the war, when in correspondence with the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence, Kerr believed he had stumbled upon the beginnings of a cover-up:

I enclose you copies of such telegrams that I have got [he answered a request from Captain Inglefield]. I believe that memory is short lived, and probably most people will have forgotten that Mr Winston Churchill, giving evidence…stated that he did not know that a Greek plan had ever been asked for or offered. There are no copies of these telegrams to be found in the Foreign Office or in the legation at Athens. Mr Churchill asked me for my copies some time ago, but I wrote to the Foreign Office as I did not wish to part with mine. It was then I found out that the Foreign Office copies had vanished. I have refrained from publishing these telegrams for fear of stirring up trouble which would not assist our country or empire…If by publishing them we could repair the incalculable damage done by the infernal mess of the Gallipoli Expedition, I would welcome sandwich men walking up and down with them all over the Empire…[65]

                Later, in 1927, Kerr had a mild swipe at the system of awarding honours and decorations: he had received the Order of the Saviour (2nd Class) from the Greeks in June 1914 and, while in command of the Adriatic Squadron, the decoration of St Maurice and St Lazarus from the Italians, but no British honour was awarded him after 1913. In this, and his various subsequent postings, his friendship with Constantine had cost him dear, a fact which was not lost on Compton Mackenzie:

No consideration for his own career ever allowed him to abate in the slightest degree his advocacy of the King’s case. It may be pointed out that although after leaving Greece he was given the command of the Adriatic Squadron and later became Deputy-Chief of the Air Staff, his last British honour is the Companionship of the Bath given to him in 1913. I have never heard his seamanship criticized, so that political indiscretion must presumably be the reason for this conspicuous neglect to recognize his services.[66]

It seems clear that, having finally decided upon a course of action, Kerr would not deviate; easily influenced initially he also possessed, in greater measure than average, a capacity for self-deception — Kerr could convince himself of anything. As a corollary to this was a predisposition, evident throughout his career, to an exaggerated appraisal of his own opinions. For example, it was Kerr who, allegedly, first evolved a theory to explain the almost mystifying collision that overtook Admiral Tryon in Victoria in the Mediterranean in 1891,[67] which was then used by other writers, most notably Oscar Parkes.[68] In October 1911 Kerr wrote an article on Trafalgar for The Nineteenth Century and After which, according to him, dispelled forever the erroneous idea as to how the battle was fought.[69] Elsewhere, this article – written to refute the theory of Sir Julian Corbett – has been termed less than impressive.[70] On 11 October 1917 Kerr presented a memorandum to the President of the Air Board which, he claimed, was known at the Air Board simply as ‘The Bomb Shell’[71] and proved influential in setting up an Air Ministry; this claim is derided by Captain Roskill as ‘a considerable exaggeration’.[72] Is it not plausible therefore that, for a few crucial days early in August 1914, an impressionable, egotistical officer who suddenly found himself in possession of vital information which could affect the course of the war, might not have taken it upon himself to decide how that information was to be used? What other explanation is there for Kerr to have kept his silence when, if not by 4 August certainly by the 7th, he must have known that Souchon was heading for the Dardanelles? Having been convinced by the King that neutrality was the only course open to Greece, Kerr could have reasoned that, with the German ships safely through the Straits, the possibility of Greece now attacking Turkey was out of the question. Unable to attack Turkey, worried always about Bulgaria, the only option available then was neutrality. Similarly, why send a reply to Churchill’s telegram of 4 September which he must have known could only have resulted in Greek participation in the projected Dardanelles campaign being declined?

                Kerr had decided that he owed a greater loyalty to the Greeks than to his own service and his own country. In coming to this momentous decision it must always be borne in mind that, at the time, Kerr could not have imagined the fateful consequences of his action. Yet, although Souchon’s squadron should, by rights, have been interned, Greek intelligence must have left Kerr in no doubt that the predominating influence at the Porte was German and that, therefore, the Turks would probably make use of their unexpected gift if, as seemed likely, the Ottoman Empire soon entered the war. What he could not have been expected was that the Turks would show a marked reluctance to enter the lists until forced to do so by Souchon and the guns of Goeben, with the connivance of the rabidly pro-German Turkish War Minister, Enver Pasha. If the Turks could have held out for a few more weeks, by which time a stalemate had developed on the Western Front, the Serbs were pushing back the Austrians, and, following Coronel, the last serious German naval threat outside the North Sea had been removed, even Enver might have thought twice before committing his country to a conflict where an assured victory for the Central Powers was no longer guaranteed. For this, Kerr bears a heavy responsibility.

                The irony is that, for a number of different reasons, Venizelos also desired that the German ships should escape. Again, no other interpretation of his action in allowing the Bogados to sail with her precious cargo is tenable. Venizelos also knew Souchon’s destination and kept quiet about it. Once at their destination, the German ships, he could have reasoned, would have precipitated a quick breach between Turkey and her neighbours under the influence of Turkey’s German allies. With Turkey in the war it would have made sense for the Entente, as they planned, to seek active Greek participation. Venizelos could then name his terms, not least of which would be the fulfilment of long-standing Greek aspirations to large slices of the Ottoman Empire. What Venizelos did not count on, what robbed him of his glorious goal, was the reluctance of the Turks to enter the lists. By the time the Turks were forced into the war by Souchon and Enver Pasha Venizelos had lost his chance to march, hand-in-hand, with the Entente Powers.Please click to go to the top of this page





[1]    Rendel, Notes.

[2]    Elliot to Grey, no. 191, 2 September 1914, PRO FO 371/1901.

[3]    Elliot to Grey, no. 198, 4 September 1914, PRO FO 371/2140.

[4]    Letter by Kerr, 27 March 1922, Kerr Correspondence, PRO Adm 137/4178.

[5]    Kerr, The Navy in My Time, pp. 182-3.

[6]    Letter by Kerr, 27 March 1922, Kerr Correspondence, PRO Adm 137/4178; Kerr, The Navy in My Time, pp. 189-90.

[7]    Leon, Greece and the Great Powers, p. 52.

[8]    Mallet to Grey, no. 707, 5 September 1914, PRO FO 371/2141.

[9]    Buchanan to Grey, 6 September 1914, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 94.

[10]  Elliot to Grey, no. 203, 6 September 1914, PRO FO 286/573.

[11]  Mallet to Grey, no. 715, 6 September 1914, PRO Adm 137/800.

[12]  Grey to Churchill, 6 September 1914, ibid.

[13]  Churchill to Grey, 6 September 1914, ibid., p. 95.

[14]  Churchill, World Crisis, p. 282.

[15]  Kerr, The Navy in My Time, p. 183.

[16]  Leon, Greece and the Great Powers, pp. 64-7.

[17]  This was the same day that the hapless German minister, Quadt, chose to present Streit with the Turkish ultimatum treating the islands’ question as a casus belli: it was little wonder that Streit’s reaction was ‘violent’.

[18]  Kerr, The Navy in My Time, pp. 184-5.

[19]  Venizelos to the King, 7 September 1914, quoted in, Mélas, Ex-King Constantine and the War, pp. 240-4.

[20]  Ibid.

[21]  King Constantine to Prime Minister Venizelos, 7 September 1914, quoted in, Mélas, Ex-King Constantine and the War, pp. 245-6.

[22]  Venizelos, The Vindication of Greek National Policy, pp. 77-8.

[23]  Constantine to Venizelos, 7 September 1914, quoted in, Mélas, Ex-King Constantine and the War, pp. 245-6.

[24]  Rendel, Notes, 7 September 1914.

[25]  Elliot to Grey, no. 204, 8 September 1914, quoted in, Theodoulou, Greece and the Entente, p. 57.

[26]  ‘I warned Grey,’ Constantine declared in 1921 to Beverley Nichols. ‘I warned your Foreign Office, not once but half a dozen times, that Bulgaria was arming against you, that she was not to be trusted, that she was about to throw in her lot with Germany. I was not heeded…’ Nichols, Twenty-five, p. 125.

[27]  Grey to Elliot, no. 193, 11 September 1914, Theodoulou, Greece and the Entente, p. 57; Rendel, Notes.

[28]  British vacillation later proved useful to the King’s efforts to redeem his reputation. The Greek offers of assistance, Constantine subsequently maintained, were refused by Grey because ‘it was important not to froisser Bulgaria, not to annoy King Ferdinand!’ Nichols, Twenty-five, p. 125.

[29]  Elliot to Grey, no. 205, 9 September 1914, PRO Adm 137/4178. The original draft of this telegram can be found at FO 286/573 [my emphasis].

[30]  Minutes by Clerk, Nicolson and Grey, 9 September 1914, PRO FO 371/2140/46344.

[31]  First Lord’s Minutes, 9 September 1914, Naval Historical Library.

[32]  Venizelos to Benteres, 16 February 1931, quoted in, Theodoulou, Greece and the Entente, p. 41.

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

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

[35]  Elliot to Grey, no. 198, 4 September 1914, ibid.

[36]  Elliot to Grey, no. 201, 5 September 1914, ibid.

[37]  Constantine to Venizelos, 7 September 1914, quoted in, Mélas, Ex-King Constantine and the War, p. 245

[38]  Albertini, The Origins of the War of 1914, vol. I, p. 612.

[39]  Churchill, The World Crisis, pp. 282-3.

[40]  Rendel, Notes, 10 September 1914.

[41]  Churchill to Grey, 23 October 1914, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 214.

[42]  Rendel, Notes, entry for 1 November 1914.

[43]  Grey to Erskine, 1 December 1914, Grey mss., PRO FO 800/63.

[44]  Elliot to Grey, 2 December 1914, Grey mss., ibid.

[45]  Kerr, Land, Sea, and Air, p. 181.

[46]  Elliot to Grey, no. 114, 5 March 1915, PRO Adm 137/1089.

[47]  Admiralty minute, 9 March 1915, PRO Adm 137/1089.

[48]  Churchill to Kerr, personal and secret, 9 March 1915, ibid.

[49]  Sir Henry Jackson to de Robeck, 28 January 1916, given in, Halpern, The Royal Navy in the Mediterranean 1915-1918, document 39, pp. 85-6.

[50]  Kerr, Land, Sea, and Air, p. 204.

[51]  Battenberg to Hamilton, 19 March 1916, Hamilton mss., NMM HTN 125.

[52]  Hankey, diary entry for 7 March 1916, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. ii, p. 1442.

[53]  Gilbert, Churchill, vol. III, pp. 716-22.

[54]  See, for example, the speech by Commander Carlyon Bellairs, ibid., p. 723.

[55]  Churchill to Kitchener, 8 March 1916, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. ii, p. 1443.

[56]  Kerr, Land, Sea and Air, p. 205.

[57]  For example, de Robeck to Limpus, 12 May 1916: ‘Considering [Kerr] has been sick or supposed to be for months it appears a wicked appointment.’ Given in, Halpern, The Royal Navy in the Mediterranean 1915-1918, document76, pp. 145-7; see also, Thursby to Limpus, 20 May 1916, ibid., document 78, p. 149.

[58]  Fisher also was pressing for publication.

[59]  Major-General Callwell was later to informed Sir Ian Hamilton that it would be ‘quite impossible to publish correspondence and telegrams…because they must give away Lord K if the story is fairly told. The tragedy of the ‘Hampshire’ simply precludes publication at present. As the Prime Minister has promised papers and Churchill asks for them, something must be laid on the table of the House, and the documents which Churchill proposed, if modified as I propose, will do no great harm to anybody except the Admiralty people, and they will I suppose be consulted.’ Callwell to Hamilton, 5 July 1916, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. ii, pp. 1525-6.

[60]  Gilbert, Churchill, vol. III, pp. 777-81.

[61]  If pressed, Churchill could presumably argue that it was not the Greeks he had asked for plans, but Admiral Kerr.

[62]  Report of Dardanelles Commission, PRO Cab 19/33.

[63]  Kerr, Land, Sea, and Air, p. 294.

[64]  Draft Letter, Sir Eric Geddes to Sir William Weir, c. 20 May 1918, in, Capt. S W Roskill (ed.), Documents Relating to the Naval Air Service, 1908-1918, Navy Records Society, (London, 1969), pp. 668-70.

[65]  Kerr to Inglefield, 12 June 1922, PRO Adm 137/4178 [my emphasis].

[66]  Compton Mackenzie, First Athenian Memories, pp. 45-6.

[67]  Kerr, The Navy in My Time, p. 31. For a recent explanation of the sinking see the article by Richard Hough in the Daily Telegraph of 26 June 1993.

[68]  Oscar Parkes, British Battleships, p. 338.

[69]  Kerr, Land, Sea, and Air, pp. 69, 176-7.

[70]  Donald Schurman, Julian S Corbett, p. 128, note 1.

[71]  The memorandum is printed in Land, Sea, and Air, pp. 289-91.

[72]  Capt Roskill (ed.), Documents Relating to the Naval Air Service, p. 563.



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

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As the range of our activities is so diverse, we have a number of different websites. The site you are currently viewing is wholly devoted to the first of the three non-fiction books written by Geoffrey Miller, and deals specifically with the escape of the German ships Goeben and Breslau to the Dardanelles in August 1914. The main Flamborough Manor site focuses primarily on accommodation but has brief details of all our other activities. To allow for more information to be presented on these other activities, there are other self-contained web-sites. All our web-sites have a LINKS page in common, which allows for easy navigation between the various sites. To find out where you are, or to return to the main site, simply go to the LINKS page.


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