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 15




‘Letting the Goeben Escape’




SMS Breslau, anchored in the Bosphorus

SMS Breslau, anchored in the Bosphorus

Captain Reginald Hall, the Director of the Intelligence Department at the Admiralty from October 1914, maintained in evidence before the Dardanelles Commission that, ‘From very certain information one could definitely say that the entry of Turkey into the war was forced by the guns of Goeben, by Goeben actually arriving there – that the entry of Turkey was by no means a unanimous opinion of the Young Turk party itself.’ When queried on this point, Hall reiterated, ‘Yes, there is unquestionable evidence that their arrival there forced Turkey into the war.’[1]

Despite Hall’s insistence, the question of whether it can be established that the acquisition of the German ships caused Turkey’s entry into the war is fraught with imponderables: for how long could the Ottoman Government have resisted the unrelenting German pressure? What was the possibility of a Russian incursion on Turkey’s eastern frontier which would have resulted in war from another direction? Would the simmering dispute with Greece over the Aegean Islands have dragged the Turks into a wider Balkan conflict? Nevertheless possession of the two ships greatly facilitated the onset of war by ceding to Turkey at a stroke command of the Black Sea; furthermore Admiral Souchon had a degree of latitude available to him in his actions that did not fall to General Liman von Sanders, the head of the German Military Mission to Turkey. The Turkish game of avoiding action for as long as possible was transparent and Souchon certainly hastened its conclusion; as he himself declared, ‘I have thrown the Turks into the powder-keg and kindled war between Russia and Turkey.’[2]

                It has subsequently been argued that the escape of Goeben had ‘no effect on anything very much’ as the Turks had already signed an alliance with Germany.[3] This ignores the developments which occurred in September and October 1914 and which made it feasible that, without the presence of the German ships, Turkey could, if so inclined, have kept out of the war indefinitely. It should be obvious that, despite the fact of the Turco-German alliance on 2 August, little had happened since. On the day after the signing a British Admiral still remained in charge of the Turkish fleet and would continue to do so for another month. Despite a report to the contrary from the Military Attaché, the Turkish mobilization was lethargic, a result in part of dire economic necessity. By September, German hopes that Turkey would participate actively in the war rested with Enver Pasha, the Minister for War, whose position was not strong enough to allow for his taking unilateral action. Enver’s first attempt to force the issue – his authorization to Souchon on 14 September to patrol in the Black Sea in an endeavour to manufacture an incident – soon fell foul of the waverers in the Turkish Cabinet.

                This rebuff was viewed so alarmingly by the Germans that Admiral Guido von Usedom, who had been sent to assist in the defence of the Straits, admitted that the various German technical missions existed ‘only through Enver, and depend on him for results’. Von Usedom further believed that if the waverers gained the upper hand ‘the prospect of working with the Turks will have passed.’[4] As a direct result of this political defeat Souchon, on 20 September, felt able to send only Breslau into the Black Sea and then for a matter of a few scant hours. This merely succeeded in spurring Enver on; the following day, realizing that Turkish authorization of Souchon’s provocative cruises would be unobtainable in the near future, Enver declared that Souchon had a right to maintain German interests, even if these conflicted with Turkish. Further pressure was applied by the Germans early in October when Richard von Kühlmann was dispatched from Berlin with a brief to ensure Turkey’s speedy entry into the war. The options available for him to accomplish this task were, of necessity, limited: a Turkish advance towards Suez, or a Turco-German foray into the Black Sea — only with regard to the latter would the Germans be in complete control.

                When dealing with these arguments, the wider strategic position should not be overlooked; indeed it would come to assume crucial importance. At the Porte during August it appeared as if the German forces would soon achieve the victory that was widely expected. Not until early September was the German advance on the Western Front checked following which, by October, trenches had been dug and the race to the sea had commenced, to be won by neither side. The result was an impending stalemate. Furthermore, while the first encounter with the Russian steamroller had resulted in a crushing German victory, the Austro-German forces had received a check at the First Battle of Warsaw while, further south, the Austrians were being hard pressed by the Serbs. By October, it was no longer possible to assume automatically that the only result of the war would be a German victory. Yet it was the chance to regain territory as a result of a victorious march with the Central Powers that weighed so heavily in the counsels at Constantinople. Once the issue was in doubt, if only slightly, Enver lost a key bargaining point. Worse, if it appeared that the allies might actually be making some headway, the arguments in favour of continuing Turkish neutrality (even if this remained biased in Germany’s favour) would be overwhelming. Enver therefore had little choice but to force the issue before news was received of a setback to German arms.

                To accomplish this task his method of attack was two-pronged: a demand for German gold which, when forthcoming, at least invoked a moral debt for Turkey to enter the lists and second, if all else failed, a direct order to Souchon to attack Russian ships. The Turkish demand for T£2 million on 11 October was quickly met by the Germans: all the gold had arrived in Constantinople by 21 October. This was not as conclusive as it might have seemed however, as previous shipments had been sent to little effect. Mallet, the British Ambassador, had already surmised that the Turks might be playing with the Germans, ‘and having obtained from them soldiers, sailors, cannons, supplies, money and promises they are now showing great and increased reluctance to pay the bill.’[5] Similarly, when on 23 October Mallet became aware of the latest shipment of gold, he maintained that this ‘need not indicate immediate declaration of war’.[6] A further complication had arisen for Enver following the death of King Carol of Roumania on 10 October. The removal of the King, an ardent supporter of Austria, cast some doubt on the prospect of Roumania aligning herself with the Central Powers; indeed, the very possibility that she might gravitate towards the allies, when combined with the lack of German progress on the battlefield and the weak position of the Turkish forces, was enough to warrant talk of a Turkish envoy being sent to Berlin to plead for a further six months of neutrality.

                The only sure means by which Enver could force his country into the war rested solely with the command of Admiral Souchon. Enver had little choice — on 25 October 1914 he issued the following order to Souchon:

The entire fleet should manoeuvre in Black Sea. When you find a favourable opportunity, attack the Russian fleet. Before initiating hostilities, open my secret order personally given you this morning. To prevent transport of material to Serbia, act as already agreed upon. Enver Pasha.

[Secret order] The Turkish fleet should gain mastery of Black Sea by force. Seek out the Russian fleet and attack her wherever you find her without declaration of war. Enver Pasha.[7]

Two things should be noted in the above order: first, that Souchon was directed to attack the Russian fleet and second, that the Turkish fleet was to gain mastery of the Black Sea. Clearly, however, the second task would have been beyond the means of the Turkish fleet without the presence of Goeben and Breslau, while Souchon himself decided to go a step further and attack the Russian mainland. Unless Djemal was a consummate actor (always a possibility of course) the Pasha was reported to have been furious when the news of Souchon’s attack was broken to him: he was variously reported to have declared ‘That swine Admiral von Souchon has done this’ and, ‘So be it, but if things go wrong, Souchon will be the first to be hanged.’[8] The implication is clear: between them, Enver and Souchon ensured Turkey’s entry into the war at the end of October 1914. The question remains, could Enver have achieved the same result without the presence of Souchon’s squadron?

                While it is not always productive to indulge in counter-factual, or ‘what if’, scenarios it is difficult to see what options would have been available to Enver if Souchon had not successfully escaped the clutches of Admiral Milne. With recollections still fresh of its poor showing against the Greek Navy in the Balkan Wars, the Turkish fleet, as it stood before Goeben’s arrival, could not have hoped to sortie into the Black Sea with any certain prospect of a successful encounter with the Russian Black Sea Fleet. With this path closed Enver would presumably have pushed for a Turkish advance upon the Suez Canal, yet with this option he faced the resolute objection of General Liman von Sanders who strongly doubted the value of this operation. It is reasonable to presume that Enver might have been placed in the position of having to rely upon a Russian incursion through Persia as a pretext but, with her hands full elsewhere, it is doubtful if the Russians would have been so foolhardy. Otherwise he could have tried to force the Russians’ hands by closing the Dardanelles. Yet, when first approached by von Usedom early in September 1914 with a request to close the Straits and complete the mine barrier, Enver at first demurred as the result might be an Entente ultimatum which could lead to a war that the Turks were then anxious to avoid until assured of Bulgaria and Roumanian non-intervention. Even so, within a month, a new minefield was laid and the Straits were closed — there was no ultimatum. Whether the Russians would have continued to accept this state of affairs if war against Turkey had not broken out in November is problematical; however, as pointed out above, they were hard pressed in the north and could ill afford the opening of a new front.

                If Enver could not have forced the issue in the way he did, and Turkey thereby remained neutral, within a month the news from all fronts would have been less than reassuring and certainly would have emphasized the fact that there was little expectation of a quick German victory. The Bulgarians, for example (also wooed by Germany), waited until October 1915 before deciding that prospects were then more encouraging — at which they entered the lists on the side of the Central Powers. If Turkey had held out until that time it could not be said with all certainty that they would have joined the Bulgarians. With the memory of the Balkan Wars still undimmed and Bulgaria now facing the Serbs might Turkey not have used this opportunity to stab the Bulgarians in the back, in the way that, in the Second Balkan War of 1913, the Roumanians had so successfully done? Would much have changed if Turkey had maintained her shaky neutrality into 1915? It is difficult to imagine that the agonizing of the British Cabinet over the stalemate on the Western Front in December 1914 would not still have taken place. New troops were becoming available, including the Empire contingents, and there would still have been anxious debate in London before they were dispatched, as Churchill complained, to chew barbed wire in Flanders. In that case, presumably, Lloyd George’s suggestion of an attack upon Austria would have been canvassed more thoroughly though, as Hankey pointed out at the time, this presupposed either co-operation with the Serbian army (which would be difficult without Greek entry into the war) or a campaign through Montenegro, ‘and neither campaign would be easy to carry out.’

                Further, if the Dardanelles remained closed even though Turkey continued her neutrality (and this was always a distinct possibility), there would have been heavy pressure applied by the Allied Powers to force a re-opening. At any time an ‘incident’ might have occurred off the Straits. All these suppositions were rendered irrelevant by Souchon’s actions in the Black Sea on 29 October 1914. Germany had supplied the means and on that morning Souchon achieved the end. Souchon’s disregard for Enver’s orders revealed fully who was in control at the Porte. Before then, in his last letter from Constantinople on 8 September, Admiral Limpus had speculated that feeling was running against the Germans: ‘It may be’, he informed Churchill,

that the Germans have gone too quickly. This is a people that will not tolerate being driven beyond a certain point, though they made be led almost anywhere. A revolt against the German domination may come at any moment. The only question is — have the Germans got too firm a grip to be ousted. Personally I think not. Patience, and events unfavourable to Germany, coupled with resentment against German presumption, may yet cause the Turks to discuss with Great Britain, or France, the means of ridding themselves of their present masters. But I still think that any marked German success, or the sight of Roumania joining the Germans, would determine the Turks to give way and join the Germans too.

However, as Limpus admitted, the omens were not good: already Djemal, ostensibly the Minister of Marine, was almost a ‘nonentity’ as the Turkish Navy was ‘under the real control’ of Enver and the Germans. Despite this, Limpus believed that ‘even without menaces, patience and the logic of events will make it difficult for the Germans to persuade the Turks to make an irretrievable false step.’[9] Where persuasion failed, Souchon acted. Without Goeben how different it might have been.


Following the escape, various statements were subsequently made, first in anticipation of the witchhunt that was bound to follow, then in explanation or justification of British policy and Admiralty performance, thereby creating a maze of tangled motives and apologia to be sifted through. The simplest explanation, voiced soon afterward, was that the German ships had escaped through a combination of Admiralty bungling and Foreign Office lassitude compounded by the ineptitude of the commanders on the spot. Neither Churchill, Grey nor Milne was, however, keen to be the scapegoat; of the three Churchill was the best placed to deflect any criticism directed against himself. At the Cabinet at which the British declaration of war against Turkey was debated, the First Lord’s colleagues had decided that the catalogue of naval disasters since the start of the war, including the escape of Goeben, was ‘not creditable to the officers of the navy.’ The lamentable performance of Churchill’s Admiralty was not questioned and the search was on for culprits — preferably as far away from Churchill as possible.[10]

                Churchill’s enmity towards the Turks can be explained by two actions both, coincidentally, initiated by him on 30 July 1914. That afternoon the First Lord not only drafted the infamous ‘superior force’ telegram to Milne but also decided that the two Turkish dreadnoughts being built in British yards should be embargoed. In the latter action, to be fair, it is hard to see what other option was available to Churchill. He could have done nothing — only to be then vilified as Sultan Osman, which was almost complete, steamed out of the Tyne, not to the south but, as a result of Enver’s suggestion, due west to a German port. Or, in the event that Enver’s offer of the ship to the Germans was not whole-hearted, to see the ship steam out to Constantinople with the ever present risk of a pre-emptive Greek strike and the probable outbreak thereby of Turco-Greek hostilities just at the moment when the adherence of the Greeks to the Entente was being so actively sought. How could Venizelos have explained away the fact that Britain, the supposed protector of Greece, had delivered up to their bitterest foe the most powerful fighting unit in the eastern Mediterranean? Cynically, as all the attention was focused on Sultan Osman which was in a more advanced state, perhaps the wisest course might have been to have arranged for an ‘accident’ to befall the ship during her trials which would seriously delay completion. As it was, the Turks turned the pre-emption to their own advantage and it is not difficult to imagine the effect upon the First Lord of witnessing cable after cable arriving from Constantinople bearing witness to the anger generated by the seizure. It was just as well that Churchill’s first instinct, to send Sultan Osman (now HMS Agincourt) as the new flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron – which would have been a crass error of judgment – was not acted upon.

                There is no doubt that the Admiralty bungled the chase of Goeben and Breslau. Churchill’s early instructions were vague or contradictory; during the first part of the chase no information useful to Milne was supplied by London; when Milne did, eventually, begin his leisurely pursuit he was put off the track by the fiasco of the Austrian ‘war’ telegram; then, almost certainly because it was a weekend, it took the War Room Staff close to 24 hours to realize that Milne had given up the chase before ordering him back on the scent, but with no clue to offer except one provided by Milne himself two days previously. With regard to Troubridge’s fateful decision not to attempt the interception Churchill must have been aware before too long that his ‘superior force’ telegram would come under close scrutiny and would, in all probability, be claimed by Troubridge as the reason why he could not attack the German ships. Yet a court martial of Troubridge might show the Admiralty, and Churchill in particular, in a less than favourable light.

                The fact that Churchill might have been forced to accept a share of the blame also explains his hostility to Mallet after the Ambassador had reported to the Foreign Office that ‘There is already an impression that, by manner of detaining Turkish men-of-war, and by letting the Goeben escape we are largely responsible for the present difficulties’.[11] Churchill took this almost as a personal affront. In its simplest terms, by October 1914 Churchill bore the Turks a heavy grudge and, as such, his action in launching the fatuous premature naval bombardment at the Dardanelles on 3 November was no more than the reaction of a spoiled child striking out blindly after being forced to face up to the consequences of its actions. Similarly, Mallet’s intemperate outburst also could be ascribed to pique, as Souchon’s arrival had made the Ambassador’s mission of attempting to keep Turkey neutral that much more difficult if not – as, perhaps, he came to realize – impossible. Clearly Mallet blamed the Admiralty for this unwarranted complication, but could he have also meant that the ships had been allowed to escape as a matter of policy?

                In September 1914 the able Commander of the German Naval Base (Etappenkommando) at the Porte, Hans Humann, picked up a whisper from the Swedish Minister to the effect that, in an unguarded moment, Mallet had confessed that Britain had conspired to let in Goeben and Breslau ‘because she had a “lively interest” in not allowing the Straits to fall into Russian hands.’[12] This theory was based upon the fact that the presence of the two modern ships would forestall a Russian seaward descent upon Constantinople. Before making too much of this it should, of course, be pointed out that this ‘excuse’ conveniently saved Mallet the embarrassment of having to admit that the ships had escaped by virtue of superior German strategic awareness and British bungling on a massive scale, all of which, additionally, occurred while Mallet was away from his post on leave in the belief that nothing would happen on the international scene. On the other hand, it is not difficult to find other references, all implying that the escape was not a blunder but a deliberate act of policy. On 10 August – the day Souchon finally reached the Dardanelles – a discussion took place in the Quai d’Orsay between Ponceau and the Russian Ambassador Isvolsky at which mention was made of Turkish fears concerning Russian designs on the Straits. In that case, Ponceau mused, ‘it might be advantageous for us to draw Turkey to the number of our enemies in order to make an end of her.’ The plan thus envisaged was that the presence of the German ships would give the Turks no option other than to join the Central Powers so that, when eventually defeated, there would be, as Doumerge confirmed, ‘nothing to prevent us in the liquidation of the war, in settling the question of the Straits conforming to our views.’[13] Whatever the French might have said to Isvolsky, these views might not necessarily have encompassed a Russian occupation of Constantinople.

                The assiduous wooing of Greece similarly led to the belief that the British desired to put the Greeks in Constantinople for the sole purpose of keeping the Russians out.[14] The general conviction amongst the British naval forces in the Mediterranean at the time was epitomized by Lieutenant Parry who recorded:

The skipper…heard from Major Findlay, the Governor of Malta’s A.D.C., today [9 October]; & he said that our Government was all out to avoid war with Turkey, unless their hands are forced. If we do declare war on Turkey we shall have to throw the Turk out of Europe, Russia will then step in & demand what she has longed for for years, i.e. Constant[inople], & the Bosphorus & Dardanelles & this is what we have been trying to prevent during the last 100 years. Although the Russian steamroller is most useful for crashing into Germany & Austria, we are just as suspicious of them as ever; & so its to our own interest to keep the poor old ‘sick man’ of the Crimean War in his little but most important corner of Europe. I entirely believe this last story; and the idea about Mark Kerr is by no means unlikely too.[15]

Admiral Kerr’s involvement, and the possibility of his leading a Greek force to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula (as proposed by Churchill) was, then, an open secret.

                The theory that the escape of the German ships was deliberate is not new: it was broached, for example, in 1957 by W. W. Gottlieb in his Studies in Secret Diplomacy during the First World War. Gottlieb argued that fundamental British and French opposition to seeing the Russians in Constantinople explained why Goeben and Breslau were ‘allowed to reach’ the Golden Horn, there to augment Turkish arms.[16] This hypothesis was investigated again in 1971 by Ulrich Trumpener in his article The Escape of Goeben and Breslau: A Reassessment. Although Trumpener could find no evidence to support this conclusion he stated ‘it is now beyond doubt that the Greek Government played an important (and highly ambivalent) role in the entire affair.’[17] As the evidence produced herein indicates, if there were a conspiracy afoot to see the German ships in Constantinople it originated not in London or Paris, but in Athens.


The British Foreign Office was fatally misled on the political situation in Constantinople by the over-optimistic reports of Mallet who believed, on the basis of his own powers of personal persuasion if little else, that at best he could swing Turkey over to the allied side and, at worst, he could guarantee neutrality. Despite this, the theory that the escape was engineered to bolster Turkish defences, or even assure that she sided with Germany – in which case the country could be dismembered (something, after all, one could not do to an ally) – ignores the comments of Asquith and the actions of Grey. The Foreign Secretary was eager to maintain Turkish neutrality for as long as possible to avoid upsetting Muslim feeling in India and Egypt; he made his position on this known to the French and Russians as early as 15 August.[18] The Russians were also separately informed on 13 August that, should Turkey accrue Russian territory as a result of a successful attack, the position would be rectified in the terms of peace. Indeed, during that week a series of assurances and warnings were given regarding Turkish territorial integrity of which it has been said that ‘These statements may not have amounted to a clear promise to deliver Constantinople and the Straits to Russia in the event of a Russo-Turkish war, but they went a long way towards it.’[19]

                Grey, however, was somewhat ahead of Sazonov; late in September the Russian Foreign Minister, more concerned with carving out a slice of Germany and Austria-Hungary, was still talking about allowing the Turks to remain in Constantinople. Sazonov would have been content with free passage of the Straits for all time, subject to certain conditions: no forts being permitted on the shores of the Dardanelles; an international commission to police the Dardanelles and Sea of Marmora with its own naval forces; and a Russian coaling station at the entrance to the Bosphorus.[20] These were, though, Sazonov’s personal thoughts and did not necessarily reflect the prevailing mood in Petrograd where Ambassador Buchanan had reported a few days previously that ‘Opinion seems to be gaining ground that it can only be at the expense of Turkey that Russia can obtain any material as the result of the war, for it is not regarded as adding to her strength that she should acquire territory on her western frontier…M Sazonof’s references to the Dardanelles question in his conversations with me have been merely academic, but they left the impression that the Russians will insist on settling this question once and for all, though they will not raise the question of the status of Constantinople.’[21] No sooner had Sazonov’s desiderata been announced than the Turkish closure of the Straits following the incident of 26 September, when a Turkish torpedo boat was turned back into the Straits by the patrolling British squadron, put the fate of Constantinople firmly back on the agenda.

                Sazonov had already outlined Russia’s preliminary war aims, which consisted of the partition of the German colonies, with a share for Britain, France and Japan; the break-up of the Hapsburg Empire with Russia, Roumania, Serbia and Italy sharing the spoils; a redistribution in the Balkans; and, for France and Russia, large chunks of Germany. These aims had limited appeal in London and depended for their realization on the military defeat of the Central Powers, a situation which would become more complex with the entry of Turkey into the war as this threatened to impinge directly upon British interests.[22] To attempt to reconcile the conflicting interests of the Entente Powers as the situation in the Ottoman Empire deteriorated British eyes turned to Constantinople. Asquith had written on 31 October that ‘Few things would give me greater pleasure than to see the Turkish Empire finally disappear from Europe, & Constantinople either become Russian (which I think is its proper destiny) or if that is impossible neutralised and made a free port.’[23]

                If Britain did have a genuine sphere of interest, which it wanted maintained at all costs, it was in Southern Persia and Mesopotamia: to guarantee this Grey was prepared to sacrifice Constantinople. The Russian plans to attack Turkey through Persia caused immediate alarm when they became known in Whitehall. The day after the British declaration of war against Turkey in November 1914 the Russian Ambassador in London was notified by Sazonov that the launching of his country’s offensive would, of necessity, violate Persian neutrality. Grey was concerned on two fronts: the threat of Muslim agitation, and the possibility that the offensive might spread to include British political and oil interests in Mesopotamia. The Foreign Secretary took the initiative on 9 November in suggesting to Sazonov, through Ambassador Benckendorff, that, with the defeat of Germany, the fate of Constantinople and the Straits could not but be decided other than in conformity to Russia’s interests.[24] No less a personage than the King then entered the fray by informing Benckendorff on 13 November that, ‘In regard to Constantinople, it is clear that it must be yours.’ The following day Grey confirmed his message to the Russians with, however, one important rider: while the conduct of the Turkish Government would ‘render inevitable the complete solution of the Turkish problem, including the question of the Straits and Constantinople, in agreement with Russia’ this solution could only come after the defeat of Germany and ‘independently of a prior breakup of the Turkish state, which is possible as a result of march of military operations.’[25] But just such a ‘march of military operations’ was already under way, as the Foreign Secretary well knew — planning for the dispatch of the Indian Expeditionary Force had begun in September.

                On 26 September the Military Secretary of the India Office had warned Lord Crewe that war with Turkey might eventuate in ‘a few weeks or even days’ but that this was not, in itself, a great concern unless the Turks enlisted the support of the Arabs. ‘In that case’, argued Sir Edmund Barrow, ‘they will probably proclaim a Jehad and endeavour to raise Afghanistan and the Frontier tribes against us, which might be a serious danger to India and would most certainly add enormously to our difficulties and responsibilities.’ Barrow suggested sending a signal to the Arabs ‘before war breaks out or it may be too late’ and proposed that the best way to achieve this was ‘to send a force from India to the Shatt-el-Arab at once…On arrival the troops can be landed on Persian soil at Muhammerah or at Abadan Island, ostensibly to protect the oil installations, but in reality to notify the Turks that we meant business and to the Arabs that we were ready to support them…If war breaks out it will be necessary to occupy Basra at once’.[26] Crewe issued the necessary orders on 3 October and the expeditionary force sailed from Bombay and Karachi on 16/17 October to Bahrein, there to await further developments. This last-minute timidity resulted from the Viceroy’s misgivings that Britain should not be seen as the aggressor; the Turks had to strike the first blow even if this gave them the opportunity to attack the undefended oil installations.[27] Orders to advance were issued on 30 October, then retracted following renewed hesitation, only to be re-issued on 2 November; landings took place some days later and, within weeks, the key strategic town of Basra had been taken.[28] In his talks with the Russians, Grey had been speaking from a position of strength.


The Straits and Constantinople had become a suitable bait to lure Russia away from interfering in Persia, with the additional bonus of giving the Russians something worthwhile to fight for. This consideration was particularly important to Grey following disturbing rumours from Buchanan that a section of the Russian Foreign Ministry was seeking a negotiated peace with Germany.[29] Sazonov had his own private ideas as to what Russia could hope for at the end of the war — even if his dreams of acquiring further Polish-speaking territory lay as shattered as the Russian armies in the field. Souchon’s violent manoeuvre on 29 October changed that. ‘Turkish action’, Buchanan reported Sazonov as saying that day, ‘would unroll the whole Eastern question and entail final settlement of question of Straits. For this reason war is likely to be welcomed by large section of Russian public, who were afraid that Russia would gain no solid advantages from the war with Austria and Germany.’[30]

                Grey had neglected to inform the French of his November promise to the Russians, an omission Sazonov was keen to rectify to add further legitimacy to the pledge. Acting under instructions, Ambassador Bertie saw Delcassé, the French Foreign Minister, on 21 November to give him Grey’s reasons for communicating with Sazonov on the subject without prior consultation with the French Government. Delcassé also received Grey’s assurances, which he considered ‘satisfactory’, that Grey had ‘no wish to precipitate decisions to secure special advantages for England during the war’, and that he recognized, ‘that all definitive changes must be subject to agreement between the Allies when peace is made.’ For what it was worth, Delcassé was of the opinion that Russia did not desire possession of Constantinople, but only free passage in and out of the Black Sea, however:

If Russia claimed special privileges for the passage of the Straits such advantages will naturally be claimed by the other Riverains of the Black Sea, Roumania and Bulgaria and could not with justice be denied to them. Unless all the Powers be put on an equality in regard to the Straits, Russia in the possible event later on of differences between herself and the Mediterranean Powers Greece, Italy, France, Spain and England, will have the enormous advantage of being able to send ships of war into the Mediterranean to prey on her adversaries commerce with the Dardanelles as a safe harbour of refuge and as a base as has been the case for Germany with her ships Goeben and Breslau.[31]

The French uneasiness about Russian aims did not faze the Foreign Secretary and he was not overly keen to support Churchill’s proposals when the question of action against Turkey was further debated on 25 November at what became the first meeting of the ‘War Council’ following Asquith’s desire to have ‘a small conclave on the Naval and Military situation.’[32]

                At this meeting Churchill suggested that the defence of Egypt should begin at the Gallipoli Peninsula. An attack there, he argued, if successful, ‘would give us control of the Dardanelles, and we could dictate terms at Constantinople.’ This was, he admitted (perhaps remembering Callwell’s strictures), ‘a very difficult operation requiring a large force’ and, if found to be impracticable, a feint at Gallipoli should be considered to mask an attack on the Syrian coast. Kitchener was cool towards these ideas but when Churchill suggested that, in any case, transports should be collected as an initial measure, Grey promptly sided with Kitchener. There was already a large shortage of tonnage for mercantile purposes, Grey pointed out, and it was not expedient to aggravate this; what he did not mention was the apprehension which a British assault on the Dardanelles would cause in Petrograd. Lord Fisher, now in full swing again, sought to avoid the shipping problem by asking whether Greece could not perhaps undertake an attack against Gallipoli on behalf of the allies — which meant that either Churchill had not briefed the old Admiral fully on the discouraging reply received from Athens when Churchill first sought assistance from that source, or else Fisher believed it was worth another try. But Greek aspirations towards Constantinople were even more unsettling to the Russians, and Grey was quick to sidestep the question, explaining

that there was not much hope that Greece or Roumania could co-operate effectively with the Allies unless they were assured that Bulgaria would remain neutral. None of the Balkan States trusted the Bulgarian declaration of neutrality, nor would they feel satisfied in taking action unless Bulgaria was actually committed to hostilities with Turkey. Bulgaria desired certain portions of Macedonia and Thrace, of which she considered that Greece and Serbia had unjustly deprived her after the war between the Balkan States and Turkey. The attitude of Serbia and Greece held out no hopes of an accommodation between the several Balkan States. In these circumstances [I do] not think we ought to count on the co-operation of Greece.[33]

                Grey’s actions, therefore, which included his pledge to Sazonov and his coolness towards Greek participation, combined with his constant anxiety regarding Muslim disturbances and the paramountcy of British interests in Southern Persia and Mesopotamia all point towards the supposition that the Foreign Office was not involved in a conspiracy to allow the German ships to escape. The last thing Grey wanted was a scramble amongst the Powers to partition the Ottoman Empire following its collapse; for this reason he would have been loathe to adopt the cynical French strategy of actively seeking to throw Turkey into the arms of the Triple Alliance to be able, then, to do away with her after the hoped-for Entente victory. Furthermore, if the presence of the German ships in the Bosphorus diverted Russian attention away from Constantinople the most probable result was likely to have been a Russian strike at Turkey through Persia which was to be avoided at all costs. If, then, the Foreign Office is generally exonerated of everything but bungling (and in particular by the failure to pass on information), what of the Admiralty?





[1]    Proceedings of the Dardanelles Commission, questions 4904-5, PRO Cab 19/33.

[2]    Souchon to his wife, 29 October 1914, quoted in, Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, p. 64.

[3]    John Charmley, Churchill, The End of Glory, (London, 1993), p. 99. Note: Charmley also maintains that ‘if Churchill’s advice to attack the ship in Italian territorial waters was followed, there might well have been a major diplomatic incident.’ At no time did Churchill advocate such a course of action; he backed Battenberg fully when the First Sea Lord enjoined Milne to respect Italian neutrality rigidly. Then, when it was belatedly realized that this placed an unnecessary restriction on Milne the order was rescinded, but only to the extent that, if Goeben went south from Messina, Milne was now authorized to follow ‘irrespective of territorial waters’. There was no order to attack.

[4]    Report of von Usedom, 16 September 1914, PRO Cab 45/215.

[5]    Mallet to Grey, no. 895, 30 September 1914, PRO FO 371/2140/54620.

[6]    Mallet to Grey, 23 October 1914, quoted in Kurat, p. 308.

[7]    Enver to Souchon, 25 October 1914, quoted in, Jackh, The Rising Crescent, pp. 116-7.

[8]    Eastern Construction Committee to Churchill, 17 November 1914, enclosing report by Mr James Stewart, PRO Adm 137/881. See also, Ryan, The Last of the Dragomans, p. 105; Beaumont, typescript autobiography, p. 438. Dr Stuermer, Two War Years in Constantinople, p. 235, footnote.

[9]    Limpus to Churchill, 8 September 1914, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 102-3.

[10]  Asquith to the King, 4 November 1914, PRO Cab 41/35/57 [my emphasis].

[11]  Mallet to Grey, 11 September 1914, Grey mss., PRO FO 800/80.

[12]  Weber, Eagles on the Crescent, p. 75.

[13]  Howard, The Partition of Turkey, p. 98.

[14]  Ibid., p. 125.

[15]  Parry, diary entry 9 October 1914, IWM 71/19/1.

[16]  Gottlieb, Studies in Secret Diplomacy during the First World War, pp. 42 ff.

[17]  Trumpener, Reassessment, p. 172.

[18]  Grey to Bertie, no. 533, 15 August 1914, PRO FO 371/2138.

[19]  Michael Ekstein, “Russia and the Straits, 1914-1915”, in Hinsley (ed.), British Foreign Policy Under Sir Edward Grey, p. 426.

[20]  Robert Kerner, Russia, the Straits and Constantinople, p. 406.

[21]  Quoted in, William Renzi, Great Britain, Russia and the Straits, 1914-1915, (JMH, vol. 42, 1970), p. 4.

[22]  C. Jay Smith, 1914-1915 Straits Agreement, pp. 1021-5.

[23]  Asquith to Venetia Stanley, 31 October 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 196, pp. 299-300.

[24]  Howard, The Partition of Turkey, p. 120; Renzi, Great Britain, Russia and the Straits, 1914-1915, p. 6; Kerner, Russia, Straits & Constantinople, p. 407; Michael Ekstein, “Russia and the Straits, 1914-1915”, in Hinsley (ed.), op. cit., chapter 25 passim.

[25]  C. Jay Smith, The 1914-1915 Straits Agreement, pp. 1031-2; Grey expressed himself somewhat differently to Buchanan who was informed that the inevitable settlement in agreement with Russia would ‘of course be effected after Germany is defeated and whether or not Turkish rule is overthrown in the course of present hostilities.’ Quoted by Ekstein, “Russia and the Straits, 1914-1915”, in Hinsley (ed.), op. cit., p. 429.

[26]  Quoted in, C. Jay Smith, The 1914-1915 Straits Agreement, p. 1024.

[27]  V. H. Rothwell, Mesopotamia in British War Aims, (Hist Jnl, XIII, 2, 1970), pp. 288-9.

[28]  Marian Kent, “Asiatic Turkey, 1914-1916”, in Hinsley (ed.), op. cit., p. 438.

[29]  David French, British Strategy and War Aims, 1914-1916, pp. 44-5.

[30]  Buchanan to Grey, 29 October 1914, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 234.

[31]  Bertie to Grey, 22 November 1914, Grey mss., PRO FO 800/56A.

[32]  Asquith to Lloyd George, 24 November 1914, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 275. Present for the inaugural meeting were: Asquith, Lloyd George, Churchill, Fisher, Grey, Balfour, Kitchener, Wolfe Murray and Hankey in his capacity as secretary.

[33]  Meeting of War Council held 25 November 1914, minutes, PRO Cab 42 1/4; see also, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 276-80.



First Class Battleship HMS Commonwealth

Ships of the Victorian & Edwardian Navy :


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

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HMS Berwick : Original artwork © 2004 Geoffrey Miller
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