There has been a strange silence in this part of the world over the centenary of the opening of the Great War on the Ottoman Empire. After the great fanfare surrounding the centenary of the war on Germany and all the nonsense about Ireland having apparently forgotten its part in such a world-historic event nothing has been heard of the war whose effects much more directly affect us today. It seems that its origins are too obscure and the intentions of those who brought it about too difficult to draw attention to.
It is most probable that the fanfare will have to wait until 1915 before more suitable events can be found to explain why Britain, and Ireland, went to war on the Ottoman Turks. But the events of 1915 were a consequence of decisions taken in October/November 1914 and these decisions are well worth considering if we are to make judgement on the consequences of what was set off 100 years ago this week.
A fairly recent book ‘The Ottoman Road to War in 1914’ by Mustafa Aksakal seeks to answer why Turkey joined the Great War. It is part of the Cambridge University military history series and comes from a dissertation written at Princeton. Having looked at this issue from the point of view of Britain’s Great War on Turkey I found this book particularly informative due to the author’s ability to use sources from the Ottoman archives (which requires a knowledge of Ottoman Turkish in the Arabic script).
I came to the conclusion that Britain’s version of events about Turkey’s entry into the war in October/November 1914 was largely a propagandist fiction. I reached this opinion when writing The Rise and Fall of Imperial Ireland a decade ago which helped me develop an understanding of the British geopolitical outlook in the period from the ending of the Boer War up to the Great War. I investigated the issue further in Britain’s Great War on Turkey a few years ago and this confirmed my opinion that the Ottoman participation in the Great War came about largely as the result of British policy in relation to Germany from 1900 to 1914 and England’s desire to add to its territories from the Ottoman region.
Mustafa Aksakal comes at the issue from a different perspective – having set himself the task of understanding why the Ottoman leadership itself decided on entering the war from various archival sources. In the opening pages of his very readable book he gives the gist of his argument, putting it into the political context of history writing in the intervening years:
“Given the war’s disastrous consequences and its human cost to the entire Middle East, it is not surprising that the decision taken by the leadership in 1914 has been roundly blasted by historians and memoir-writers alike. In these accounts Enver Pasha, the War Minister, a hawk in thrall to Germany, more or less single-handedly pushed the Empire into a war it did not want.
Alternatively, intervention has been ascribed to the hair-brained ideas of the tiny inner-circle of the Young Turk leadership who had hijacked Ottoman policy – either because they were corrupted by German gold, blinded by German promises, pressurised by German diplomats, or moved by veracious personal ambition, megalomaniac expansionism, or naiveté, attributable to their below-average intelligence…
And yet, from a global perspective, the Ottomans entry into the First World War can be seen as a reaction against the principal historical forces of the time: the steady expansion of European economic, political, and military control.
This book argues that the Ottoman leaders in 1914 made the only decision they believed could save the Empire from partition and foreign rule. Envisaging outright foreign control in the near East required no great stretch of the imagination. By 1900, Europe’s territorial control… extended to some 85% of the globe’s surface, rendering the Ottoman Empire one of the globe’s last holdouts. For the Ottomans, the path to international security ran through an alliance with one of the great powers… For reasons that will become clear the choice fell on Germany…
The Ottoman Empire did not leap into war at the first opportunity. In fact, much of this book, and perhaps that is its main surprise, examines the great lengths to which the Ottomans went to stay out of the war. Once it became clear, however, that their alliance with Germany would not survive further delay, they embarked upon war confident that only the battlefield could bring the Empire the unifying and liberating experience it so desperately needed.” (pp 1-2).
As Mustafa Aksakal notes, that is the “global perspective” of Ottoman participation in the Great War: The Ottomans were reluctant participants in the war and tried to stay out of it for as long as possible. But the geopolitical ambitions of the Great Powers made a defensive alliance with Germany necessary as a matter of survival for the Ottoman State. And through this the Ottoman Empire, after attempting to steer clear of the European war, became embroiled in the conflict in a vain attempt to preserve itself.
British accounts, which originate in the propaganda output of the war effort, present a number of arguments explaining the Ottoman entry into the Great War. The first one is that the Germans lured the Turks to their doom by diplomatic and political trickery. A second argument centres on Enver Pasha and claims that he worked with the Germans so that Ottoman power could be expanded after a successful war. In other words, like the Kaiser, he desired conquest and world-domination, according to the British version. This argument is sometimes supported by arguing that Enver was a pan-Turanian – wanting to link up all the Turkic peoples in a single state in the region – and therefore wishing to roll back the Russian Empire in the Caucasus to add the Turkic Moslems they had conquered to the Ottoman possessions.
Mustafa Aksakal gives the following verdict on Enver Pasha:
“This re-examination of the German-Ottoman negotiations during August-November 1914 strongly suggests that the image of Enver Pasha as war hawk dazzled by Germany’s military power and pan-Islamist dreams is untenable. By 1914, Enver Pasha, like the majority of the Ottoman elite, perceived the interests of the international system to oppose the continued existence of the Ottoman Empire. And, to the Ottomans, fighting back appeared possible only within the context of an Alliance with the German Empire.
Nor was Enver eager to dive into the war: the Ottomans only entered after three months of foot-dragging, deception and protracted negotiations with Berlin and only after the German-Ottoman alliance came close to rupturing. Once the Ottoman leaders secured the alliance with Germany on August 2, 1914, they focussed their energies on postponing any military engagement. When the Germans… pressed Istanbul for action, the Ottomans repeatedly insisted on the necessity of an alliance with Bulgaria and for more time to complete their mobilisation efforts. It was Germany’s refusal to provide further military aid, and its threat to abandon them and to conclude a separate peace with Russia, that finally drew the Ottomans into war.”(pp.193-4)
The Ottoman Road to War in 1914 argues that the demonisation of Enver Pasha was enhanced by a Show Trial that was conducted by the Ottoman government after the armistice with the Entente in October 1918. This was an attempt to placate the Allied powers so that the terms given to Turkey were not too drastic by putting on trial the former leaders who were implicated in going to war in 1914. The wartime Ottoman leadership were accused of entering the war “without reason and at an untimely moment,” deceiving the chamber of deputies in Istanbul about the real cause and course of events behind the declaration of war and rejecting offers by the Entente governments that may have staved off the war for the Ottoman Empire.
Mustafa Aksakal argues that these Show Trial charges framed the subsequent historical narrative of the Ottoman entry into the First World War. Those who testified depicted Enver as a loose cannon who forced the Ottoman Empire into the war through secret dealings with German agents – and this image of Enver as a single-minded manipulator prepared to join the German side at any price persisted and became the accepted version of events – the Chatham House version. In this way the British were able to confirm the account they had constructed about the Ottoman entry into the war in late 1914 through their diplomatic ‘record’ and impose it on the subsequent historical narrative.
Mustafa Aksakal notes that Britain’s primary purpose in putting the responsibility on the Ottomans for entering the Great War was largely aimed to justify the future partition of the Ottoman Empire and the ruling of the conquered territories and their Moslem peoples by the British Empire.
I agree with Mustafa Aksakal on the following major points from his book: Turkey was not forced or manipulated into the war by Germany; the Ottomans did not enter the war on the basis of an expansionist pan-Turanian dream; Enver Pasha was not responsible individually for bringing Turkey into the war against the wishes of others; the alliance with Germany was primarily a result of the Entente’s intention of destroying and partitioning the Ottoman Empire; and Turkey did what it could to postpone its entry into the war to as late a date as possible, in the gathering crisis which confronted it.
Most of these arguments were the staples of British war propaganda and might be dismissed as such if they had not taken on a life of their own, ever since. And they have also been resurrected recently in a book, ‘The Berlin Baghdad Express’ by Assistant Professor Sean McMeekin of Bilkent University at Ankara and Yale, which has the subtitle ‘The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s bid for world power, 1898-1918.’
The general argument of McMeekin’s book is an extension and elaboration of the work of the Director of Britain’s war-time Ministry of Information/Wellington House, John Buchan, suggesting that the Kaiser wished to use Islamic resentment over foreign rule to destabilize the empires of his enemies and conquer the world through an opportunistic appeal to Moslems.
This, of course, is the general plot of Greenmantle, the sequel to the famous Thirty Nine Steps. But then again much of the publishing of Wellington House was a blending of fiction writing with political propaganda and it was accomplished through the efforts of novelists and historians gathered together in secret conclave at the start of the war in the cause of patriotic duty.
There should be nothing surprising in the discovery that the Kaiser’s hoped that Moslems would rise up against their Christian occupiers (and if anything that is something to be said for the Kaiser, rather than against him!) That was the general fear that the Kaiser would have read about in a multitude of books written in England before the war. But that is a world away from the notions of a German/Islamic/Jewish/Freemason plot in take over the world that obsessed Buchan and many of his contemporaries in Britain and its embassies in Istanbul and the Near East.
The Ottoman Road to War in 1914 dismisses this version of history as false through an examination of the Ottoman, Russian and German archives and correspondence which shows, according to Mustafa Aksakal, that Turkey’s entry into the Great War to have been largely the consequence of Western intervention in the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire.
In June 1914, after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, European war looked likely. The Ottoman government was presented with a dilemma regarding the desirability of alliance.
The best scenario for the Ottomans after the Balkan Wars was to stay out of the war and use the opportunity to rebuild their shattered forces and dire financial position. However, failing that, it was calculated that the Ottoman Empire might procure an ally that would guarantee its security during and after the war.
The Ottoman Empire again turned to the Entente powers to guarantee its security. There were good reasons to approach the Entente powers since they presented the greatest threat to the Ottoman Empire and would be useful to it in the post-war situation in a situation of a different balance of power. But the Ottomans found Britain, France and Russia again unwilling to conclude a deal owing to the terms of the Entente and the objectives they had set themselves as part of the war on Germany.
The Russian desire to have control of Constantinople was fundamental to the Entente. This was because Britain was an island nation and it was primarily a sea power. It did not have a large army and it had been traditionally opposed to military conscription. It would have been impossible for Britain to have defeated Germany by itself. Therefore, it needed the large French army and the even larger Russian army to do most of the fighting on the continent for it. The Russian army was particularly important and it was seen to be like a ‘steamroller’ that would roll all the way to Berlin, crushing German resistance by its sheer weight of numbers.
The problem for Britain was that the Russians (unlike the French who wanted to recapture Alsace/Lorraine after their loss in 1871) had no real reason to fight Germany. Therefore, something had to be promised to the Czar for his help in destroying Germany. That something was Constantinople. That fact should always be therefore borne in mind when people suggest that Turkey brought the war on itself. The fact of the matter was that in order to defeat Germany Britain had to promise Constantinople to Russia and in order for the Russians to get Constantinople there had to be a war on Turkey.
Since the time of Peter the Great Russia had sought to obtain freedom for its shipping from the Black Sea to the Aegean and Mediterranean. The reason for this urge, first of all, was geographical. Russia’s northern coast is icebound for most of the year. Its Baltic Coast was difficult to emerge from, due to length of passage and interference of other Powers, particularly by the Royal Navy. And its Siberian seacoast was too far from the important part of Russia, to the West, to make it valuable as a trade route.
Russia aspired to be a power in the world for a century before 1914 at least. But the vast Czarist Empire with a population of around 150 million was severely impeded in its industrial and commercial development at a time when the world market was developing and the process of economic growth was essential to global power. In a world that had been globalized by the Royal Navy, to be a world power Russia had to become a sea power. And it was impossible to be a sea power with only one port and with the rest of the country’s vast territory hemmed in by ice and hostile foreign navies.
In the decade prior to the Great War the Russian desire to get hold of Constantinople increased. This happened because of the great Russian expansion in the Caucasus which expanded the economy but which also increased Russia’s dependence on the Black Sea Straits for exports. Nearly half of all of Russia’s exports went through the straits by 1912. Coupled with this the decline of the Ottomans in Europe presented the unnerving possibility that another Power might manage to exploit the situation to establish a presence on Russia’s southern border, along the Black Sea, or even at Constantinople itself.
The problem of the Straits was exposed to Russia when the Ottomans closed access to the Black Sea for a couple of weeks during the Libyan War. After its invasion of the last Ottoman territory in Africa Italy bombarded targets on the Ottoman Aegean and Levantine coastlines and in response Turkey closed the Straits. The impact upon Russia was severe as its grain exports, on which industrialisation depended, fell by half.
Much of the driving force behind Britain’s Great Game against the Czar emanated from it’s insistence at blocking Russia’s need for port facilities to ensure its economic development. This was neatly summed up in the musical hall hit ‘the Russians shall not have Constantinople.’ But now that the Great Game was up, after the settling of British accounts with Russia in 1907, and the priority was to enlist the Russian steamroller against Germany the basis of the issue of Constantinople changed.
Britain decided to play on Russia’s worries with regard to the Straits in order to hold out the prospect of awarding Constantinople to the Czar as a reward for employing his forces against Germany in a future war.
Michael Reynolds’s Shattering Empires provides revealing information on the Ottoman road to war in relation to Russian designs on the Straits and the seizure of the Ottoman Battleships:
“The Ottomans and outsiders alike recognised that the question of the next onslaught against the Empire was when, not if. In order to survive even into the near future, the Empire had to obtain outside support. Germany was the most logical choice of ally. It was powerful and a rival of Britain, France, and Russia, and held no immediate pretensions to Ottoman territory. Ties between Berlin and Istanbul were already good, and in May 1913 the Ottoman government requested by Berlin to provide a military mission to help train and reorganise its army.. . There was nothing in particular unusual about the agreement; Britain already had a naval mission in the Ottoman Empire and the French were training the Ottoman gendarmerie… But the announcement that Liman von Sanders would take command of the army corps responsible for defending the Straits provoked a scandal. The idea of a German in control of the Straits was intolerable for Saint Petersburg… In February 1914 Russia’s Council of ministers met to review the options for taking the Straits… the optimal time to seize the Straits, they concurred, would be during a general European war. Nicholas II approved the councils plan on 5 April 1914, committing Russia to the creation of the forces it needed to seize Istanbul and the Straits. In the meantime, Saint Petersburg’s task was to avoid a general European war and blunt the Ottoman’s efforts to bolster their own fleet. Istanbul had ordered two dreadnoughts from Britain, scheduled for completion in 1914, and was attempting to purchase a third from Chile or Argentina. These two or three warships would give the Ottoman’s supremacy on the Black Sea onto at least 1917 when Russia would launch four planned dreadnoughts. St. Petersburg attempted to prevent the Ottomans from acquiring dreadnoughts by pre-emptively purchasing those ordered by Chile and Argentina and by pressurising London into slow construction of the vessels ordered by the Ottomans. Sazonov succeeded in the latter, and when World War I broke out right before their scheduled delivery, Britain would claim them as its own in a move that produced large and unforeseen ramifications.” (Shattering Empires – The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918, p.41)
It is sometimes argued by British historians that England desired Turkey to remain neutral in the Great War. However, there are good reasons to doubt this argument. For one thing, whilst Turkey had little to gain in entering the war it was necessary from Britain and Russia’s position that the Ottoman Empire should be engaged in the conflict. How else was Constantinople to be got for the Russians?
Secondly, The Young Turks, who had overthrown the Sultan, Abdul Hamid, in 1908, were mostly admirers of Britain and France. Many of them had been educated in London and Paris and had got their political ideas from there. They wished to disentangle Ottoman Turkey from the German connection and to establish closer ties with Britain, France and even the Russians to secure the future of the Ottoman state.
Between November 1908 and June 1914, according to Lord Kinross, the Young Turk Government made at least six attempts to establish defensive alliances with Britain, Russia and France – but all were rejected. Then some humiliating economic concessions were granted to Britain along with recognition of British control in the Persian Gulf and Kuwait in an attempt at placating the aggressors. England was granted a monopoly on navigation of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Mesopotamia and it was agreed that the Berlin/Baghdad Railway should not terminate at Basra and have two British directors on its board.
Furthermore, as part of this conciliating process, and as a token of general goodwill, the Young Turks entered into a naval agreement with Britain in which British dockyards took orders for two Turkish battleships and a British naval mission was established at Constantinople. By 1914 the size of this naval mission was as large as the German military mission, and they were looked on as a counter-balance to each other by the Turks. In this way Turkey had a naval alliance with England alongside its military alliance with Germany.
Therefore, the Ottoman Government gave England extraordinary positions of influence in the Ottoman State along with the entrusting to Britain the most vital components of the defence of their capital.
So the last thing on the minds of the Ottomans was to wage war on Britain.
The view that Britain wished the Ottomans to remain neutral is undermined by the highly provocative behaviour that it began to engage in toward Istanbul. The major example of this was the seizure by Winston Churchill of the two Turkish battleships being built by the Royal Navy that were being paid for by popular subscription. These was seized illegally and confiscated without compensation by the British – effectively signalling the end of the naval alliance with Turkey.
Hussein Rauf Bey, who had been in London to collect the battleships, went to the British Embassy in Istanbul immediately on his return. He pleaded with the British to provide compensation for the seizure of the ships so that the Ottomans had an alternate source of finance to the German offer. Rauf reasoned that this was the only way in which the considerable pro-Entente element at Istanbul could be strengthened. However, upon being rebuffed he concluded: “England made every effort to get Honduras, Paraguay and Greece into the war on the side of the Allies, but for us she had no word.” (Clair Price, The Rebirth of Turkey, p.70)
According to Reynolds this was a significant part of the British procurement of the Russian steamroller against Germany. For a number of years Russia had protested the British building of these Turkish ships – which could be used against England’s ally in the Black Sea. But the useful purpose of this contract from Britain’s position becomes clear with Reynolds’s revelation. How the contract served England was as part of the naval alliance at Istanbul that gave Britain an inside knowledge of the defence of the Straits and a controlling position with regard to Russia. In this naval alliance and its ship-building aspect Britain had the key to Russian designs on the Straits and if the Czar did not become forthcoming with his steamroller Britain could lock the Straits to him. The slowing up of the building these ships was a useful demonstration of the power of the hand on the key.
In August 1914 the Russians obliged in the war with Germany and the battleships were confiscated by Churchill.
But as Reynolds points out it is difficult not to conclude that the manner of their seizure was designed to give the maximum provocation to the Turks and to drive the Turks toward Germany.
Enver Pasha was the first CUP leader to calculate the facts of the situation that was developing and he approached the Germans on the question of alliance in July. He realised that the British alliances with Russia and France removed all restraint on the Czar for seizing Istanbul. And the European war provided the cover for a general attack of the Christian Powers on the Islamic territories and Turkey itself.
But it was Enver’s chief objective to use the discussions with the Entente powers as an incentive to Germany to conclude an alliance that would, first and foremost, safeguard Ottoman neutrality and guarantee its security in the future.
On 2nd August Enver, Talaat and the Grand Vizier signed a secret alliance with Germany that gave a German guarantee of Ottoman integrity for five years in return for an Ottoman commitment to assist Germany if Russia declared war on it. However, the intention from the Ottoman point of view was to delay joining the war for as long as possible with the hope of it finishing before German patience ran out. Therefore, continued obstacles were put up by the Ottomans to their entry into the conflict such as the time needed for full mobilisation, the entry of Bulgaria into the war on the German side etc. Although Russia had already declared war on Germany the Ottomans declared armed neutrality and played for time with the Germans.
Michael Reynolds writes the following:
“What divided the Ottoman leadership was not disagreement over the ultimate ends of policy – the preservation of their state – but rather the tactical question of how best to achieve the external security that would make it possible to carry out the deep and wide ranging internal reforms the Empire required for survival. All recognised the Empire’s tremendous weakness and that expressions of good intent, conventions, and notions of international law ultimately counted for little and indeed at times served as tools that the strong used to exploit the weak. The Empire needed a great power patron that could provide some degree of protection. They differed, however, over how to respond to the outbreak of war in Europe. Enver identified Germany as the best potential patron on account of its geopolitical compatibility and the likelihood of winning the war, and believed it would be better to act sooner while the Ottoman Empire’s offer of an alliance still held value. Once he obtained that alliance, he delayed the entry into the war in the hope that the war would be over before the Ottomans would have to join in. Enver was no pacifist, but he understood the sorry state of the Ottoman army.
The plans and thinking of Russian diplomats and military officials even before the war demonstrated Enver’s assessment of the Empire’s strategic dilemma – that if it did not act now when it had a chance of joining a victorious coalition it would be snuffed out sooner or later – was sound.
St Petersburg’s desire for the Ottoman Empire to stay out of the war was equivocal. Some officials welcomed Ottoman entrance into the war as an opportunity to destroy at once and for all and fulfil Russia’s ambitions in the Straits and Anatolia. Those who preferred to keep the Ottomans out of the war did so because they believed that it was more important to concentrate on defeating Germany, not because they lacked ambitions in the Ottoman lands.” (Shattering Empires – The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918, pp. 114-5)
Reynolds makes it clear that the minority in Russian governing circles who wished the Ottoman Empire to remain neutral in the Great War were calculating that it could be picked off more easily in the aftermath of the war by the victorious Entente.
In Mustafa Aksakal’s book the point is made that French Foreign Ministry thinking with regard to the Ottoman Empire was similar to that of their Russian allies. It was divided between those who wished to issue a guarantee of territorial integrity to the Ottomans to obtain their neutrality – so that it could be ripped up after the war and those who wanted to take an aggressive line to drive Turkey into the ranks of the enemy.
The Ottomans actually acquired a note from the Russian Ambassador at Istanbul advising his government to keep the Turks neutral until the Straits could be seized. So any guarantee offered by the Entente was seen in Istanbul as an empty promise designed to isolate the Ottomans and deter them from German protection.
The occasion for the British declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire was an obscure incident in the Black Sea in October 1914 where two formerly German ships engaged Russian ships that were apparently attempting to lay mines on the approaches to Istanbul.
The opportunity of finding a cause of war against Turkey developed after the Royal Navy forced two German ships trapped in the Mediterranean into neutral Constantinople in early August. The German crews, faced with the prospect of destruction at the hands of the British if they re-entered the Aegean, handed the ships over to the Turks. The Turks accepted them in place of the two battleships owed to them by Britain.
Churchill laid a blockade on the Dardanelles to prevent the ships coming out. This, in itself, was an act of war against Turkey which the Ottoman government could have used for the occasion for war if it had so desired.
Then Churchill organised a series of meetings in the first days of September to discuss a pre-emptive strike on Constantinople – to “Copenhagen” the city, as Nelson had done in destroying the Danish fleet in its port in neutral Denmark in 1801 before a declaration of war.
The Goeben and Breslau were therefore enlisted in the Ottoman navy as compensation for the two battleships seized by Churchill and in order to save them from the Royal Navy, which had chased them into the Straits and laid a blockade across their escape. The German ships had retained their German officers upon being signed over to the Ottoman crews and having been trapped at Istanbul had no where to go but the Black Sea.
The Black Sea incident that provided the cause for war is an unusually obscure event and it was difficult to find a detailed account of it published in English – despite the fact that many detailed accounts exist about the events leading to the war on Germany.
Mustafa Aksakal attempts to piece together the events that led up to the incident in The Ottoman Road to War. The gist of his account is as follows: In mid-September the Ottoman Turks came under enormous pressure from the Germans to make good the alliance they had secretly signed by joining the war. The Germans let the Ottomans know that they were in real danger of squandering any claims to a role in peace negotiations at war’s end – which was a veiled threat to Istanbul that German protection would be withdrawn without consequent action. The German Admiral Souchon requested authorisation to take the two battleships into the Black Sea on manoeuvres. The Ottoman cabinet fearing that the Germans would engage Russian ships and involve them in the war vetoed this proposal.
Towards the end of the month the Germans renewed their pressure and enquired if the Ottoman mobilisation had been completed. The Ottomans complained that without a substantial loan from the Germans mobilisation would have to be halted since the Ottoman Treasury could only sustain the army at that point on half pay. The Germans agreed to put aside 2 million Ottoman pounds on condition that Istanbul authorise a naval attack on Russia by the two battleships. Aksakal claims that Cemal, Talaat, Halil and Enver all agreed to the Black Sea operation on this basis.
However, having countenanced the German proposal the Ottomans then began a series of delaying tactics to prevent its occurrence. This involved trying to sow the seeds of doubt in German minds as to the wisdom of such an operation. Firstly, they argued that an attack on Russia would bring Italy into the war on the side of the Entente. Secondly, they tried to convince the Germans that a naval attack upon the Russians would not be enough for the Moslem populations of the region to rise up against their British, French and Russian occupiers. What was also needed, they argued, was military action against Egypt and the Russian Caucasus, which the Ottoman army was at present unprepared and unready ready for.
The Ottoman stalling tactics failed to deter the Germans who desired a new front in the war for Russia to deal with to take the pressure off their Eastern front.
Admiral Souchon put to sea in late October but agreed to wait for an order from Enver before engaging the Russian minelayers to the North of the Straits. Orders in Turkish had been placed in envelopes that were to be given to the Turkish crews upon Enver’s signal to ensure that the Turkish crews did not see it all as a German initiative and then disobey the German officers. Enver insisted that Souchon wait for his order in case he did not obtain cabinet approval for the operation, whereupon Enver was to signal for a cancellation. In a final twist Enver sent no order at all and Souchon decided to act on his own initiative in attacking a Russian minelayers and gunboats and then proceeded to bombard some Russian ports from where the vessels emanated.
In Istanbul the incident was seen as a case of Russian aggression and it was presented as an attempt to cut off the Ottoman fleet in the Black Sea that was guarding the Northern Turkish communications along its shore. Enver stated in a report to the cabinet that the Russian intention was to draw the Ottoman fleet in the Bosphorus out onto the mines after its Black Sea fleet was attacked. However, a conciliatory statement was sent to the Russians from the Grand Vizier promising an enquiry and suggesting a demilitarisation of the Black Sea to avoid further incidents.
The Russians, however, ignored the Ottoman conciliation and declared war.
Mustafa Aksakal argues that Enver’s account of the incident was false and the Russians were deliberately attacked by Admiral Souchon in order to bring on the war – whether Enver gave the order or not. He suggests that Enver and other members of the cabinet realised that they could not hold back from the war any longer with German patience running out and vital financial assistance needed for the defence of the Empire – which was inevitably going to be attacked by the Entente anyway. It was therefore a question of fighting with German assistance or being left in the lurch to resist the Entente alone.
His argument is that Enver and his comrades, who had decided that war was inevitable and who saw the importance of the German alliance for the long-term security of the Ottoman Empire against the Entente predators, required an incident for which the Russians would be blamed to win over the rest of the cabinet, CUP and Turkish people for the war effort – for which most were disinclined.
One aspect of this book that I am uncomfortable with is the implicit suggestion that by entering the Great War Turkey was in some way responsible for the Middle East as it developed after the war. Mustafa Aksakal does not attempt to develop this notion as a full-blown argument, as ‘The Berlin Baghdad Express’ by Sean McMeekin does, but it is implied in a number of places within the book. For instance, on page 1 Aksakal says: “Given the war’s disastrous consequences and its human cost to the entire Middle East, it is not surprising that the decision taken by the leadership in 1914 has been roundly blasted by historians and memoir-writers alike.” And on the back cover it is stated: “The Ottoman leadership sought the German alliance as the only way out of a web of international threats and domestic insecurities, opting for an escape whose catastrophic consequences for the empire and seismic impact on the Middle East are felt even today.”
Now, Aksakal, in my view, is expressing two contradictory ideas here. Firstly, he argues that the geopolitical designs of the Great Powers are the primary cause of Ottoman participation in the war. Secondly, he states that the Ottoman decision led to the creation of the modern Middle East and its myriad problems.
It is ridiculous to lay the blame for the Middle East on the Ottomans on the basis of the Black Sea incident. If the Entente were intent on war and a carving up of the Ottoman Empire, which Aksakal believes they were, and all the empirical evidence shows to have been the case, the responsibility for the incident is neither here nor there.
The old, largely peaceful, Middle East died with the Ottoman Empire and the new Middle East of Palestine, Iraq etc. was entirely a creation of Britain, and to a lesser extent France.
Historians, even those that are sympathetic to the Turkish position, do not attribute enough responsibility to the British State for the Ottoman involvement in the war, in my opinion. They tend to ignore the wider context of the war and get tied up in the diplomatic detail, which can be very confusing – and intentionally so. The British State is expert at diplomacy, at covering its tracks and producing a narrative that, if it does not exonerate it, sufficiently confuses people into tacit acceptance of the British position.
In the British account who fired first in the Black Sea brought down the catastrophe on the region. Britain’s hands are always clean.
Mustafa Aksakal mentions the Ottoman declaration of war on Russia, France and retain on 10th November as if it was a choice. But that was a week after the Royal Navy had begun bombarding the Dardanelles, a British army had invaded the Ottoman territories at Basra and the Russians had sent their forces into Erzurum. It was also nearly a week since Britain and France had joined Russia in declaring war on the Ottomans.
An account of the war must take in much more than the decision-making process within the Ottoman elite. It must take into account the historical relationship between the Ottoman Empire and the West and the great change in British policy that was made between 1904 and 1907 that led to the reorientation against Germany. It must also take into account the perception of the Ottoman/German relationship that emerged in England in relation to this reorientation and which manifested itself so markedly in the hostility directed toward the Berlin-Baghdad Railway.
It is only within this historical and geopolitical context that the Ottoman road to war can become understandable beyond the details and manoeuvrings of diplomacy.
This is because the Ottoman decision to go to war took place in a context imposed by the Entente upon the government at Istanbul that gave them very little room to manoeuvre – and intentionally so. They were “damned if they do, and damned if they don’t” in the old British saying. And, of course, if they had somehow managed to have avoided entering the war we will never know what would have happened – although, an understanding of the war intentions of the Entente would give us a very good indication.
In late 1914 the Ottomans were confronted by a number of massive extraneous events including a British understanding with Russia that left the field clear for the annexation of Istanbul and the division of the desirable parts of the Ottoman Empire between the Western Imperialist powers, a European war that could provide for a radical restructuring of Europe and its Asian hinterland, and the probable destruction of the Ottoman’s only substantial ally.
Within this vast, over-bearing context the Ottoman leadership struggled to find a way out of its predicament and various points of view emerged at Istanbul. One point of view won out – not because of the deviousness of its proponents or their political trickery nor indeed because it was the majority view. But because it was the only course of action that was left to the Ottoman State as events took their course. All other possibilities were carefully closed off to Istanbul, despite all the wishful thinking and diplomatic efforts to avoid it.