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  • Writer's pictureShaun Lewis


It is a well-known fact that on 4th August 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany. However, it is less well-known that events taking place earlier that day might have prevented Turkey from joining the war on the side of the Germans. But for a failure by the Royal Navy, there might not have been a need for the Gallipoli campaign and Churchill might have remained as First Lord of the Admiralty. The Ottoman Empire might not have been carved up and such countries as Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon would not have been formed. Nor would I have had the background story for my novel, The Custom of the Trade, on the submarine campaign in the Dardanelles!

Immediately prior to the outbreak of war, Churchill ordered the seizure of two Dreadnought-class battleships being built on Tyneside for the Turkish Navy. The two ships were renamed HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin. Payment for the two ships had been made by the Ottoman Empire and the cancellation of the sale caused resentment amongst the Turkish population at large and the pro-British members of the Cabinet. Secretly, however, the Turks had already unsuccessfully sought an anti-Russian alliance with Germany and offered to sell the ships to the Germans, unaware that Britain might enter the brewing European war. Germany responded by offering the Ottomans the battlecruiser Goeben and cruiser Breslau as replacements for the two sequestered Dreadnoughts.

On 3rd August, Goeben, under the command of Admiral Souchon, and Breslau shelled ports in French Algeria. France and Germany were at war, but Britain was still neutral. Souchon then received orders to proceed to Constantinople and the following morning came into contact with two Royal Navy battlecruisers under the command of Admiral Milne, the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Fleet. Churchill feared an attack on the French fleet and ordered Milne to attack the German ships in such an eventuality, but the Cabinet overruled any offensive action prior to the expiration of the ultimatum that evening. Henceforth began a cat and mouse game as the Royal Navy attempted to maintain contact with Souchon’s ships whilst he pulled out the stops to evade his shadows. His men and machinery were worked beyond their normal limits such that four stokers were killed by scalding steam and several more fainted through the heat and exertion. As darkness fell, in the days before radar and satellite surveillance, the Royal Navy lost contact with the Germans off Sicily.

Even so, on 6th August, Souchon’s ships were detected by a squadron of cruisers and destroyers of the Mediterranean Fleet under the command of Admiral Troubridge. Even though Britain and Germany were now at war, Troubridge broke off contact on the grounds that he was under orders not to engage a superior force (his cruisers were slower, carried lighter armour and were armed with smaller guns than the Goeben even though his force was numerically larger). Troubridge was later court martialled and acquitted for this decision, but never again offered sea command.

I describe the thrilling pursuit in my next novel, On the Wings of the Wind, but as this is not published until January 2020, a better and more detailed account can be obtained in Barbara Tuchman’s, The Guns of August. Suffice to say, the Germans entered Constantinople safely. Two months later, the presence of these two powerful ships with German crews was instrumental in persuading Turkey to join the war on the side of the Germans.

Despite Turkey’s presence in the war, the Gallipoli campaign might still have been avoided had the Admiralty’s Director of Naval Intelligence, Captain ‘Blinker’ Hall, succeeded in his plan to bribe Turkish ministers with up to £4M to break off the alliance with Germany. Again, I refer to this in my upcoming novel, but more information can be obtained in my blog of 30 April 2019.

SMS Goeben

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