An Unheeded Warning

hms_erinA letter to The New Age in its edition of 6 January 1916 is very interesting. It explains how Britain drove the Ottomans over to Germany’s side in the Great War. It does not suggest that this was intentional, rather that it was a blunder, foreseen, but not avoided. Blunders, foreseen, but not avoided, may not be blunders at all, of course. They may be intentions, later disguised as blunder when intentions prove to have been mistaken.

If Sir Edward Grey, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill wanted Russia in the Great War against Germany they needed Ottoman Turkey in the enemy ranks to present the Tsar with his reward for the lend of the Russian Steamroller. That reward was Constantinople, which was formally agreed to be the Tsar’s property in the secret Constantinople Agreement of 1915. This represented a great change in British Foreign Policy since England had spent a century denying the Straits to the Tsar and threatening him with war declaring: “The Russians shall not have Constantinople.”

In the years before the Great War the Young Turks entered into a naval agreement with Britain in which British dockyards took orders for Turkish battleships, under the supervision of Winston Churchill and the Admiralty, 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. And so if it was said that Turkey had a military alliance with Germany in 1914 it could be equally said that she had a naval alliance with England.

The Turks gave England extraordinary positions of influence in the Ottoman State – positions that no other country with concern for its sovereignty would offer. They had entrusted to Britain the most vital components of the defence of their capital – the reorganisation of their navy under Rear-Admiral Douglas Gamble and Admiral Arthur Limpus and a English Naval Mission, and the modernisation of the arsenal at the Golden Horn (Turkey’s only source of munitions) by Armstrong and Vickers. Admiral Limpus offered advice to the Turkish Admiralty on such matters as the location of mine fields in the Straits and mine laying techniques as well as torpedo lines.

It is not surprising that the British took on this constructive work, even though their long term ambition was to destroy the Ottoman Empire. It countered German influence at Constantinople, gave the English a unique, inside knowledge of the defences of the Turkish capital and the Turkish Navy – and made sure that the Russians, French and Germans did not possess such influence or information themselves. And when the English naval mission left those in charge of it were the first to suggest to Winston Churchill that Constantinople should be attacked, with all the inside information they had obtained.

So the last thing on the minds of the Turks was to wage war on Britain – for to have had this intention and to have entrusted England with such expert knowledge of the defences of the Turkish State would have been like the proverbial Turkey voting for Christmas.

The belief was promoted that England desired Turkey to remain neutral in the war and diplomatic activity was engaged in to cultivate this impression for the record. Britain is very good at covering its tracks and using diplomats to lay false trails before moving full steam ahead in the opposite direction.

However, there are a number of weaknesses in the British case. Firstly, 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, Britain began to engage in highly provocative behaviour towards the Ottomans. The major example of this was the seizure by Winston Churchill of two battleships being built by the Royal Navy that were being paid for by popular subscription in Turkey. These was seized illegally and confiscated without compensation by the British – effectively signalling that the naval alliance with Turkey was over. It left the Turks defenceless against Russia in the Black Sea or the Greeks in the Aegean, who the British also built battleships for. And only one power was willing to shore up the defences of Istanbul in the absence of the battleships from Britain.

Here is the letter published in The New Age in 1916 giving details of the warning sent to Asquith, Grey and Churchill before War had even been declared on Germany:

“Dear Sir,-As the Foreign Office has withdrawn the official censorship on discussion of foreign affairs in the Press, and as the expedition against Constantinople has now been disembarked, there is no reason why the origin of the disasters which have occurred to Britain in the East should not be placed upon public record for the information of those who have suffered by this terrible calamity.

“What was the situation on the outbreak of the European War so far as Turkey was concerned? Turkey was well disposed towards Britain and France and the Central Powers ; but most distrustful of the motives of the Russian Government. At an early stage, public opinion in Turkey regarded the originator of the war as the Russian military party. Turkey’s own condition was somewhat precarious. The two Balkan wars had injured her military prestige and her naval strength was weak in comparison with that of Greece. To remedy the latter state of things, two powerful ships had been ordered from Armstrong, Whitworthand Co., and these vessels were almost ready for delivery on August I, 1914,when war broke out between Russia and Germany. On learning that Britain had determined to intervene, the present writer sent the following memorandum to Mr. Asquith under the date of August 3, 1914.The document speaks for itself in its reasoning :- 3rd August, 1914.

“To the Right Hon. H. H. Asquith, K.C., M.P. Dear Sir,-

“The Turkish Battleship Contracts.

“I have the honour to draw your immediate attention to the following points to be considered by His Majesty’s advisers on the question of whether or not the right of pre-emption, presumably contained in the above contracts,under which the “Osman I” and other vessels are now being constructed by Messrs. Armstrong, Whitworthand Co. for the Turkish Government, should be formally exercised by the British Government. The chief consideration in favour of taking over these vessels is that they would afford a pro rata strengthening of the naval forces at the disposal of the British Admiralty. But, in view of the relative gun and unit power of the British and Allied navies compared with the navies of the Central Powers, I trust that undue weight will not be given to this purely naval factor, to the exclusion of the weighty political arguments in favour of maintaining the contractual obligation undertaken by the contractors towards the Imperial Ottoman Government.

“The arguments against the seizure of these vessels are most important in my judgment.

“(I) The political sympathies of the Turkish Government are most evenly balanced between the contending sides. Though Turkish sentiment may be possibly somewhat more favourable to GreatBritain and France than to the Central Powers, the course and causes of the two Balkan wars, combined with past historical events, have made the anti-Russian feeling in Turkey the predominating factor which will certainly govern any decision at the present time.

“(2) The peculiar circumstances connected with the ordering of these war vessels should not be overlooked, and it may be convenient to recall them to your recollectAiotn.the conclusion of the second Balkan war, owing to the weakness of the Turkish Navy, there was a fear in the Ottoman Empire that the Kingdom of Greece might be tempted to utilise her superior sea power in a manner adverse to Turkish interests in the AEgean Sea in the immediate future. By means of a great patriotic agitation a national subscription was raised throughout the Ottoman Empire to defray the cost of two war vessels of a gun power sufficient to redress the Turkish naval inferiority in the event of complications arising with Greece. The funds having been secured by this unique method of individual subscription,the order was placed in Great Britain and the vessels were approaching completion when the European crisis developed in July, 1914. The outbreak of war has much increased the alarm felt in Turkey at the condition of the Turkish Navy, and undoubtedly the Ottoman Government and the Turkish people are relying upon the British contractors to fulfil their engagements with all speed.

“(3) As you may be aware, the mechanism of modern war vessels is so delicate and so complicated that the Turkish officers will require training for some considerable period before they can handle these new ships with the efficiency needed in the operations of active service. In these circumstances, as a matter of necessity, the vessels will have to be sent out manned by British crew?, who will presumably be under the direction of the British Naval Mission now resident at Constantinople. (4) Your advisers have much fuller information than I have of the present disposition of any hostile warships, but the advantages accruing to Great Britain and her Allies from having in the Dardanelles powerful war vessels manned by British crews and officers are too plain to require demonstration in the existing crisis in Europe. Obviously these vessels could prevent the exercise of any unfair pressure on the Ottoman Government by the officers of the German Military Mission, or by the German Ambassador. Further, this policy would have the indirect effect of closing up a means of escape for any isolated hostile vessels that may be cruising now in the waters adjacent to Turkish territory. Should any such vessels once secure admission to the Dardanelles, I need hardly dwell upon the momentous consequencetshat will ensue and the handicap that will be imposed upon British diplomacy at the Porte by the actual happening of this untoward event.

“On these grounds, I urge you not only to prevent any seizure of these vessels, but to press the First Lord of the Admiralty and his Board to hasten the departure for the Dardanelles of either the contract vessels or substitutes of equivalent value, so that the pro-Ally influences may have a potent means at hand of checking the intrigues certain to be resorted to by the representatives of the Central Powers.

“It must not be understood from the terms of this letter that I see any reason for British intervention in the war, but Ihave written in this strain and with this urgency because I have some knowledge of the facts of the situation in Turkey, and because I believe that no sacrifice is involved in this measure of precaution commensurate to the results likely to be achieved by adopting this quite legitimate plan, for preserving the status quo in Turkey.

“I am addressing a letter couched in similar terms to

“the Foreign Secretary, Sir E. Grey.
“Yours very truly, C. H. NORMAN.

“Whether this letter went into the waste-paper basket at No. 10,Downing Street only Mr. Asquith and his secretaries can tell us; but it will be recognised now why the initial error in the Turkish tragedy was Mr. Churchill’s conduct in grabbing the Turkish war vessels. It was the kind of flashy proceedings to be expected from Mr. Churchill; and there are some elements which point to Mr. Lloyd George as being a party to this disastrous transaction was Chancellor of the Exchequer and must have been consulted on the financial aspect of this deal, which has turned out to be so costly to the Empire. The whole story only shows the obtuseness of Mr. Asquith and Sir E. Grey, and the smart dodges of men like Churchill and Lloyd George are the elements which have weakened the efforts of Great Britain at every turn in this war, with the results that are open for the world to see. Whether Lord Kitchener, Lord Fisher, or Mr. Winston Churchill, or the Cabinet as a whole, must bear the brunt of the responsibility for dispatching military expeditions to Turkey, future inquiry alone can establish ; but that Mr. Winston Churchill alone must shoulder the responsibility for initiating the questionable tactics that inflamed Turkish opinion against Great Britain is beyond all question-while Mr. Asquith and Sir E. Grey cannot pretend that they were not warned of the possibilities underlying the easy policy of seizure.

“One other word on Turkey and the Dardanelles. The expedition against Constantinople was undertaken at the request of and under the pressure of the Russian Government. That is now admitted. The British people should really appreciate that it is the presence of Russia in the Allied combination that is its source of weakness. The suspicion that Constantinople was to be handed over to Russia turned Bulgaria against the Allies and has kept Roumania and Greece neutral. In the spring, unless some restraint is put upon the Russian agents in Sweden and Finland, Sweden may be added to the enemies of the Allied Powers. A large body of European opinion looks upon the Russian Government as mainly responsible, for the war; and very little sympathy is expended upon France and Britain, as those two States are regarded as having only themselves to thank for their folly in putting their foreign policy at the mercy of Russian diplomacy. Unpleasant as these things may be, they are hard facts. It is high time that those in authority in Britain and France recognised the difficulties that have been created by the Russian Alliance, especially as its military value is now completely discounted, while the probability of Russia being able to effect anything substantial in the spring is distinctly remote.

“C. H. NORMAN

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