It was the Revolution in British Foreign Policy conducted by Sir Edward Grey and the Liberal Imperialists between 1906 and 1914 that made the Great War. The single most important political event that made what happened in Eastern Anatolia in 1915 a possibility was the 1907 agreement between England and Russia that prepared the way for Britain’s Great War of destruction on Germany and the Ottoman Empire.
The London Saturday Review put it like this on March 6th 1915, as Britain moved on the Straits:
“The cause of the reversal of the British policy in the Near East, which has passed almost without comment here as on the Continent… plainly lies far deeper than the Austrian ultimatum to Belgrade. The threat to Serbia was a culmination of a steady German thrust toward the East. The main difficulty in the German path to the Near East, the little kingdom of Serbia, was to be got out of the way by Austria; and that ‘necessity’ accomplished, Germany would hae the clear road which she desired to Turkey; where her ambitions have grown since the visit of William II to the late sultan with a grandioseproject of financial, commercial, and ultimately political dominance on the Golden Horn, and eventually through Asia Minor… The tortuous and intricate history of the Anatolian and Bagdad Railways during the last fifteen years is sufficient evidence of the gradual penetration of German influence through Asia Minor. The B.B.B. line – the Berlin, Byzantium, Bagdad – was an instrument of German policy in which millions of German money had been invested, and in whose success the Deutsche Bank in particular was deeply involved…
“British opinion no longer has any misgiving concerning the approach of Russian influence toward Constantinople. Disraeli’s policy was constructed before the first steps had been taken in Egypt. It was conservative, and the times are now revolutionary. Germany’s action has revealed to us the menace of a Near East under Teuton Rule, a menace which would have been far more formidable than anything which the past generation of British statesmen imagined from Russia…
“Since its foundation sixteen centuries ago, Constantinople, by position and natural destiny, has been one of the key cities of the earth. It has been many times attacked and twice conquered. Its second conquest, like its foundation, marked the end of an epoch and changed the history of the world. Its third conquest can do no less.”
This piece, which neatly summed up the revolution in British policy, should not be read as an accurate reflection of German intentions, but rather as the British view of Germany that led it to overturn its long-standing position with regard to the Ottoman Empire. It was said in Disraeli’s time that “the Russians shall not have Constantinople.” But now it was to be presented by Sir Edward Grey to the Tsar in a great reversal of British policy.
The 1907 agreement between Britain and Russia itself at the time did not seem to indicate the catastrophic effects of the process it would lead to. It was largely a settling of affairs between London and the Tsar with regard to the carving out of interests in Persia, which protected the Persian Gulf and British Indian Empire from Russian expansion.
For England the war on Ottoman Turkey, which resulted in the destruction of the Armenian community, came about from a revolutionary change of policy at the start of the 20th century. England had acted as an ally of the Ottoman Empire for most of the century before the Great War when Britain was determined to preserve the Ottoman State as a giant buffer zone between its Indian Empire and the expanding Russian Empire. It was part of what was known as the ‘Great Game’ in England that “the Russians should not have Constantinople” and the warm water port and access to the Mediterranean that this would have given the Tsar.
What completely overturned British relations with Ottoman Turkey was the emergence of Germany as a commercial rival around the end of the 19th Century. Britain had since 1688 practiced a ‘Balance of Power’ policy with regard to Europe. For centuries it had built its Empire by promoting Europe’s division and by giving military assistance to the lesser powers against any power that might be emerging on the continent. Whilst Europe was preoccupied with war England was able to get on with its business of expanding its Empire across the rest of the world.
Britain had the great advantage of being an island and it could influence matters in Europe without risk to its national security. Its chief weapon of war, its “Senior Service”, was the Royal Navy, which established and controlled the world market for Britain. When the continent of Europe was at war the Royal Navy took over markets established by the other European powers and in this way the British Empire went from strength to strength, both economically and in size.
During the 19th century Britain’s traditional opponent in Europe was France and her traditional rival in Asia was Russia. Both these Powers represented the main rivals to British power in the world. However, in the early years of the 20th Century England gradually came to the conclusion that Germany was the coming power to be opposed. Therefore, it was decided to overturn the Foreign Policy of a century and to establish alliances with England’s traditional enemies, France and Russia, so that Germany could be encircled and then when war came about Britain would join the conflict and destroy Germany as a commercial rival. Although this process was begun under the Unionist Government of Arthur Balfour the prime movers were a Liberal Imperialist cabal within the leadership of the British Liberal Party.
The alliance that Britain entered into with Russia in 1907 was the single most important event that made a great war on Ottoman Turkey inevitable because of why Britain needed Russia against Germany.
As has been noted, Britain was an island nation and it was primarily a sea power. It did not have a large army and it had been 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 in any future war with Germany. The Russian Army was particularly important because it made for the crucial second front that would encircle Germany and make a British naval blockade effective. The Russian Army was described in England as 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 to the Germans in 1871) had little real reason to fight Germany. Therefore, something had to be promised to the Tsar for his help. That something was his heart’s desire, Constantinople.
This fact should always be borne in mind when it is suggested that Turkey brought the war on itself. The Turkish decision to enter into alliance with Germany and enter the war was taken within the context of the feeling that it was very difficult to avoid being a victim of the war that was being arranged in London and St. Petersburg. The fact of the matter was that in order to defeat Germany Britain had to first infer and ultimately promise the Tsar that it would no longer stand in his way of taking Constantinople. And in order for the Russians to get Constantinople there had to be a war on Ottoman Turkey.
Turkish historians are not alone in having overlooked the role of the famous British statesman, Maurice Hankey in these events. Hankey not only helped plan and organise the war on Germany from around 1904 but also conducted extensive spying operations on behalf of Royal Naval Intelligence in the summer of 1907 based on the contingency that Britain would soon be at war with both Germany and the Ottomans.
Hankey and his colleagues scrutinized the harbours and naval defences of the Ottoman Empire from Syria, through to Smyrna and Istanbul, up to Trabzon on the Black Sea. He surveyed, in particular, the coastal defences of the Dardanelles with an amphibious landing at Gallipoli in mind, to follow up a report of the Committee of Imperial Defence entitled ‘The Possibility of a Joint Naval and Military Attack upon the Dardanelles’ which had been produced in December 1906. And it was Hankey as Secretary to the CID who first proposed to the British War Cabinet in December 1914 that the pre-war plans should be put into operation as soon as possible.
The alliance with Russia was obviously the main factor that spelled trouble for the Ottoman Empire. But it was not the only factor that encouraged Britain to overturn her traditional foreign policy.
Britain began to show an increasingly aggressive attitude in relation to Istanbul as Germany showed interest in the Ottoman Empire. What worried Britain about the German involvement with the Ottoman Empire was that it was not the parasitic relationship of the other Imperialist powers. The German objective seems to have been to rejuvenate and modernize the Ottoman Empire, partly through the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, in exchange for commercial rights there. England and Russia had seen the Ottoman Empire as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and they had been waiting around for his death but now they looked on as Germany threatened to revive the ‘sick man’, and dash their dreams of conquest.
This great reorientation of British Foreign Policy had serious consequences for not only the Ottoman Turks but also for the Armenians. The Russian State was inherently expansionary due to geopolitical reasons. It wished to secure the area south of the Caucasus mountains because of a fear that other Imperial Powers, particularly Britain, might occupy it. The Armenians were the means to this end since there were no other communities in the area which could provide justification for a Russian occupation of territory there. Prior to 1907 it was the Russians alone who wished to use the Armenians as their instrument but the Armenians always had to consider the likelihood that if they rose in revolt against the Ottomans Britain would restrain the Russians from taking advantage of the situation – and any uprising would be inevitably crushed without foreign help.
The Armenians complained that the Great Power rivalry over influence in the Ottoman Empire was the thing that prevented their relief. The Russians also complained that they were stopped in assisting the Armenians because of the Cyprus Convention of 1878 between Britain and the Ottoman Sultan. This guaranteed a British war on Russia if the Czar moved into Ottoman territory, in return for the Sultan’s agreement of Cyprus being occupied by Britain. Russian movement into the eastern Ottoman provinces was only possible with British permission, because there would be harsh consequences for the Tsar without this.
The pre-War Armenian revolts illustrate this point very well. In 1894-6 The Armenian nationalists believed they had got signals that the intervention of the Great Powers would take place if they could provoke the Ottomans into a harsh reaction. They attempted to do this but found that Britain had not changed its position at this point and Russia, therefore, could not act. In 1909 in Adana there were further raised expectations of foreign intervention amongst Armenian groups. However, Britain needed the preservation of the Ottoman Empire until Russia was prepared to advance against Germany in a European war. The result was disaster for the Armenians after they had initiated killings in the hope of foreign intervention only to be left to face the consequences of their actions from their neighbours, alone.
Britain’s strategic reorientation in relation to France and Russia set off a chain of events that led to a great destabilisation, beginning with the Tripolitan War, in which England signalled it was not prepared to honour its previous treaties in relation to the Ottoman Empire. This led on to the Balkan Wars and the general conclusion among the Great Powers of the imminent demise of the Ottoman State.
W.T. Stead, the famous English journalist, had called for the revolution in British Foreign Policy that happened in 1907. He campaigned for it for twenty years. His political ambition was to bring about an alliance between England and Russia which he felt was the only way of securing the future peace of Europe and Asia, and copper-fasten the Indian Empire. In 1888 he went to St Petersburg for a personal audience with the Czar.
In 1907 Stead got his heart’s desire with the Anglo-Russian agreement. But no sooner had it been signed than he noticed that strange things began to happen that seemed to threaten the peace and security of the world, which he had campaigned for as a good Liberal. He began to describe this process but then he went to the U.S. on a speaking tour on the Titanic and was drowned.
In 1911 Stead published ‘Tripoli and the Treaties; or Britain’s duty in this war.’ This was a book protesting against Italy’s invasion of Ottoman Libya and asking why Britain was not lifting a finger to protest or prevent it. Stead was outraged that Britain was unprepared to defend the International Treaties it had signed up to in 1856, 1871 and 1878 which guaranteed the integrity of the Ottoman Empire and was failing to follow through on its pledges to go to war to defend it.
Stead was a Liberal and no sympathiser with the Ottomans. He described himself as having written more against the Ottoman Turks than any man alive. He had always seen the British defence of the Ottoman Empire as a hypocrisy founded on primarily an anti-Russian position and as a Gladstonian Liberal he had been in favour of a “bag and baggage” policy toward the Turks in Europe.
Stead saw something momentous in Sir Edward Grey’s ‘appeasement’ of the Italians when previous British Foreign Secretaries had always threatened war with much greater Powers for the same principles in Foreign Affairs.
Stead complained that the Treaty of Paris (1856) had been described by Gladstone as “the public law of Europe.” It was reaffirmed at the Conference of London in 1871, and again re-enacted at the Berlin Congress of 1878. Britain took the leading part in 1856, in 1871, and in 1878 in defining and in defending this “public law of Europe”. It was invoked time and again by successive Foreign Ministers of both British ruling parties to resist any Power interfering in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire. It was used repeatedly to silence the repeated demands made by Liberals in England that something drastic should be done to punish massacres of Armenians.
Stead noted that the doctrine of the European Concert formally embodied in the Treaty of Paris was that no unilateral intervention was permissible and any intervention must be collective. The Powers constituted themselves a Board of Trustees for the protection of the Ottoman’s estate and bound themselves by solemn treaty to abstain from any isolated action. That remained the recognised public law of Europe on which the peace and security of the modern State system depended. It guaranteed the integrity of the Ottoman Empire and it expressly prescribed that in the case of any dispute arising between any of the signatories and the Ottoman Government, no recourse shall be had to war until the other signatory Powers have had an opportunity to settle dispute by mediation.
However, Edward Grey had allowed the Italian Government to seize Tripoli, part of the Ottoman Empire, without offering any of the other signatories of the Treaty of Paris an opportunity to settle the dispute by mediation. This was, according to Stead, a gross breach of treaty faith and a deliberate violation of the public law of Europe.
Whilst Lord Granville in 1871 and Lord Salisbury in 1879 had defended the public law of Europe with threats of war against mighty powers Grey confined himself to a Declaration of Neutrality. Stead did not see this as an adequate response. Great Britain was the great Power that had taken the leading part in framing the treaties which embodied the public law of Europe with regard to the Ottoman Empire and fought the Crimean War and threatened many more to do so in the past.
What Stead was describing was Britain preparing the way for the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the presenting of the great prize of Constantinople to the Tsar in return for an alliance ultimately aimed at destroying Germany.
England’s objective in fighting the (1854-56) had been to preserve the Ottoman Empire in order to prevent Russia from becoming a naval power in the Mediterranean after gaining Constantinople. The Bosphorus/Dardanelles was strategically important for Britain because it controlled the passage between Europe and Asia and the passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The war in the Crimea ended, as Britain desired, in a treaty that banned passage through the Bosphorous and Dardanelles to all naval units – which for all practical purposes meant Russian naval units. That effectively bottled up the Russian Southern fleet in the Black Sea.
The Peace of Paris of 1856 that England insisted upon guaranteed the political integrity of Turkey and forced Russia to remove her claim to be sole protector of the Slavs in the Balkans, conferring it, instead on a combination involving the French, British and Sardinians and extending it into the Ottoman territories in Asia.
In 1871, during the Franco-Prussian War Russia intimated that she no longer felt bound by the Black Sea clauses of the Treaty of Paris but Lord Granville, Foreign Minister in Gladstone’s Government, threatened Russia with war and forced her to sign up to the Treaty of London of that year where the principle was established that no nation could contract out of a treaty without the agreement of the other contracting parties to that arrangement. And as we have seen Britain blocked Russia in 1878 with the Tsar’s forces camped at the gates to Constantinople. Stead describes these events, contrasting the position taken by Britain with Sir Edward Grey’s appeasement in 1911.
Threatened in Europe and in Asia with war by sea and land, and menaced also by Austria, Russia consented to recognise Britain’s interpretation of the Treaty of Paris, and submitted her treaty at San Stefano to be revised, mutilated, and transformed by the Congress of Berlin. Among the articles re-enacted and confirmed were VII and VIII, which asserted the principle of collective dealing with the Porte, which guaranteed the independence and integrity of the Ottoman Empire, and which bound each of the contracting Powers to afford the co-signatories an opportunity of mediation before having recourse to force. At British insistence this public law of Europe was accepted by all the Powers, including Italy.
But Sir Edward Grey neither protested against Italy nor warned her of the consequences of her breaking the law of Europe, or even offered his services as mediator between Italy and Turkey. Stead concluded that there had been an undeclared revolution in Britain’s traditional policy that would lead to a collapse in security and the established order of things, leading to great instability.
Dr. Pasdermadjian, the Armenian revolutionary, refers to the dispiriting effects the earlier British policy had on the Dashnaks that ultimately pushed them into a reform agenda in conjunction with the Young Turks: “The Anglo-Turkish convention of 1878, by which the administration of Cyprus was transferred to Great Britain, established a sort of British protectorate over Asia Minor, and while it resulted in the withdrawal of the Russians from Erzereum, it did not in any way benefit the Armenians… In a sense, the Berlin treaties and the Cyprus convention have done more harm than good. They raised hopes in the minds of the Armenians which were not realized…”
Lord Salisbury, British Prime Minister, had famously warned the Armenian revolutionaries that should forget producing provocative acts to encourage Great Power intervention against the Ottomans because they could expect no help from Britain. In a colourful phrase Salisbury said that he could beat fie or six Sultans every time on the open seas but he could not get the Royal Navy across the Taurus Mountains. Since Britain was also checking the only military force that could produce an Armenian national entity, Tsarist Russia, there were no prospects of an Armenian Insurrection being successful.
Before 1907 Gladstonian Liberal sentiment urging intervention in the Ottoman territories by the British Government on behalf of Christian minorities always ran up against the fundamental position of the British State in checking Russian expansion. Even Liberal governments chose not to act when they were in power, despite their anti-Turk orientation. When out of power they urged intervention and in power they did nothing. However, the revolution in British Foreign Policy from 1907, brought about by the Liberal Imperialists in order to re-orientate the British State and prepare it for a war against Germany, changed everything.
However, it was the Balance of Power policy that led to the Great War, rather than a philanthropic intervention on behalf of Christians which proved the fatal Imperial intervention for the Armenians. This is a very important distinction to make because it meant that the war Britain fought was not to establish an Armenian state or even autonomy. This made the Armenians merely a useful military ally or an instrument of propaganda for the British Government. It meant, consequently that the Armenians gained an unreliable ally which would let them down if there was no British interest at the end of the war in establishing an Armenian state.
It should be noted that the Armenians were incapable of establishing a state within Ottoman territories through their own efforts alone. They were too small a minority within the territory they claimed for their state. Only Russian military power, unchecked by Britain, could fulfil their objectives. So where does that statement leave the events of 1914-5?
However, Sir Edward Grey changed all this. He made possible the Armenian Insurrection of 1914 through the British alliance with Russia he developed into a Great War on the Ottoman Empire. Only through this great revolution in British Foreign Policy were the catastrophic events of 1915 possible.
It would have been noticed in 1911/12 that the British protectorate over the Ottoman Empire was being withdrawn and anything was now possible. It was no co-incidence that the arrangement between the Young Turks and the Dashnaks started to unravel in 1911/12 in the wake of the Balkan Wars. This was the point at which the effects of the 1907 Agreement between England and Russia started to become really apparent to the wider world and the signal was sent out that Britain would now tolerate a gradual whittling away of the Ottoman Empire, something it would previously have opposed by war.
By 1914 England was in alliance with the Tsar and all restraint was removed from Russia and the Armenian nationalists. Mayhem and mutual killings were instigated in the Ottoman Empire by the Entente Powers to bring about its collapse and to facilitate the absorption of its parts into the empires of Britain, France, Russia and others. In a general war situation which threatened the very existence of the State in which the Armenians lived and which forced them to choose between it and their deliverance by the Great Powers catastrophe for either them or for local Moslems was always going to be the most likely outcome.
For British Liberals intervention on behalf of the Armenians indeed proved, as George Curzon warned 20 years before, “a fatal philanthropy.” But the reason Britain became an ally of Armenian nationalists was never to do with philanthropic reasons. Britain became an ally in the Armenian cause because of Balance of Power geopolitical objectives in relation to Germany and Imperial aggrandisement in the area. Once the alliance with Russia was made to make war on Germany the liquidisation of the Ottoman Empire it made inevitable meant that Britain would be advancing into the Ottoman territories. Britain felt it required to do this in order to safeguard its Indian Empire, from its Russian ally, and its other allies, with whom it would carve out the spoils of war.
The Philanthropic spirit toward the Armenians was kept up in Britain during the Great
War by Liberals such as James Bryce, Arnold Toynbee and T.P.O’Connor. It encouraged the Armenians and made them believe they would be rewarded for the military service they provided the Allies in destroying the Ottoman State. The problem was that this support was primarily moral, and utilised mainly for reasons of propaganda. But Britain could not and would not fight for Armenia. It was a sea power and had little available military forces on the ground. And once Tsarist Russia collapsed the Armenians were left alone to hold the front – which they failed to do.
This inevitably led to a betrayal of the Armenian cause on Britain’s part. However, the catastrophe of 1915 originated with the Revolution in British Foreign Policy and its effect on Tsarist Russia and the Armenian revolutionaries.