Back to the grind

Lots going on, so not lots happening here.

One small matter that has occupied my declining intellect these recent days is my total ignorance of “the Eastern Question”.

It must have occupied my time at school, intruded into those long hours acquiring Leaving Cert History in the dusty rooms of the High School (then at the top of Harcourt Street). Yet … near total mental void.

If pressed, I suppose I could rattle off the good bits of Chesterton:

White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross,
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.
Being honest, I didn’t manage line 7 to 10 from memory without a prompt. Though that, in itself, may be a brag.

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It’s a long while, too, since I read John Julius Norwich’s Short History of Byzantium. That didn’t particularly stay with me, either — unlike his History of Venice, which I still rate as a tour-de-force.

Then along came a thread on politics.ie, starting from the Dardanelles affair, but rapidly developing. Predictably a general tone was anti-British and, specifically, “let’s get Churchill”. Both of those flavours have something going for them; but simplicity has never been my strong point.

I have had a go, previously here, and on politics.ie, to try and decipher what actually happened in the run-up to the attempted landing, and the doings of two Irish seamen: Admiral Sir Sackville Carden, from Templemore in the County Tipp, and Admiral John de Robeck, from Naas in the County Kildare.

This re-visit I became more interested in the curious way in which the Turks attached themselves to Berlin.9780805088090So I located David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace, and became much more informed.

Essentially I was unravelling two parallel chronologies:

  • One is happening between the Sublime Porte and Berlin, as the C.U.P./Young Turks have Enver Pasha soliciting an arrangement. Fromkin (writing in the late 1980s) conceded that “details of how the Ottoman Empire and Germany forged their alliance remained obscure” and skates over this in his Chapters 4 and 7.
  • The other is all about doings in the Admiralty in London, with Churchill as First Lord and calling the shots (quite literally).  This is Fromkin’s pages 54-61 and Chapter 6: Churchill seizes Turkey’s Warships.

In 1912 someone in the British naval bureaucracy had come up with contingency plans, in the event of war, to take over any foreign vessels being constructed in British yards. So Churchill could claim he was merely applying a previous decision. Fromkin casts doubts on this:

  • his only source is Churchill himself;
  • in late July 1914, there were other, smaller, ships were being built for Chile, Greece, Brazil and the Netherlands, but the two Ottomans were the sole focus, until the First Sea Lord pointed out a broader picture. On the other hand the two Ottomans were ready for sea: the Reshadieh (later HMS Erin) had been ready for a year, but — incredibly — the Turks didn’t have a dock to receive her.

I found myself making notes, and came up with this:

Towards a meeting of minds

☛ 22 July 1914: Enver Pasha “made his approach” to Hans von Wangenheim. The “approach” was rejected: “Apparently he was unable to persuade the German ambassador that the Ottoman Empire had anything of sufficient value to give in return.” [My stress: it’ll regurgitate.]

What makes me reconsider my assumptions is a recognition that the Ottomans, not the Germans, are making the advances, with the C.U.P./Young Turks — Russians to the north, Bulgarians to the east, Greeks to the south, and Italians messing in the Aegean and North Africa — anxious for a major power protector.

☛ 23 July 1914: the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia. From here until 4 August (when the lines between Central Powers and the Triple Entente are complete) everything seems up-in-the-air.
☛ 24 July 1914: Kaiser Wilhelm II overruled Ambassador von Wangenheim, and declared for an Ottoman alliance “for reasons of expediency”.
☛ 28 July 1914: the Ottoman leaders sent Berlin a draft of a treaty of alliance. It seems that only Prince Said Halim, as Grand Vizier and Foreign Minister, Talaat Bey, the Interior Minister, and Enver Pasha, the War Minister, were in the loop. Despite assurances given to Berlin that the C.U.P./Young Turk Central Committee had approved the offer, the Central Committee and (more significantly) Djamal Pasha, the Minister of the Marine, were kept ignorant.
☛ 28 July 1914: Churchill asks Prince Louis Battenberg (First Sea Lord) and Sir Archibald Moore (Third Sea Lord) to “formulate plans in detail” to seize the two Ottoman ships. Moore asked legal opinion of the Foreign Office, and was told such seizure would be illegal except in case of war itself, with the rider that the Ottomans should be persuaded to sell.
☛ 29 July 1914: the Foreign Office warned the Admiralty that Sultan Osman I was bunkering, and — although not finished out — was preparing for sea. This is when we can be assured the Turks had fully sussed what was happening. Churchill immediately personally ordered the constructors to retain both Ottoman ships, and sent security to guard the vessels and prevent the raising on them of an Ottoman flag (which would secure ownership under international law).
☛ The German Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg had been consistently cool about a deal with the Turks. When the General Staff told him, 31 July 1914, to issue the order to go to war, Bethmann Hollweg was still telling Ambassador von Wangenheim not to sign anything, unless “Turkey either can or will undertake some action against Russia worthy of the name”.
☛ Also 31 July 1914: the business of the Ottoman ships came to Cabinet, which accepted Churchill’s argument in case of war. Churchill sent naval detachments to board the ships. The Ottoman ambassador called at the Foreign Office to demand an explanation, but was told it was all just for the time being.

A busy day

☛ 1 August 1914, midnight: Churchill gave formal written instructions that Moore mobilise the fleet, to Vickers that the two ships had to be detained, while the Admiralty intended negotiations for their purchase. This was the first time Churchill had made any move on those other foreign ships under construction, nearly a week after Moore had drawn them to his attention.

1 August was also the day the Constantinople negotiations came to a head. The Ottomans did not want any kind of active involvement in waging war: the Germans were anxious they should. Even so, an agreement was reached, and signed the following day (2 August). Article 8 was an obligation that the treaty remain an absolute secret. Article 4 gave the C.U.P./Young Turks the assurance they required: “Germany obligates itself, by force of arms if need be, to defend Ottoman territory”. Turkey would remain neutral between Serbia and the Austro-Hungarians: curiously the wording seems to allow the Turks not to intervene under any treaty between Germany and Austro-Hungary, while allowing the German military mission to exercise “effective influence” over the Turkish army.

There were some very peculiar doings this day, not least over the Sultan Osman I. Much later a document emerged that shows on 1 August Enver and Talaat had offered von Wangenheim that Turkey would hand over the ship to Germany. British intelligence reported, a fortnight later, that the Kaiserliche Marine had been salivating over the potential addition to the fleet, and very severely discountenanced when Churchill forestalled it.

Who’s the sucker here?

Of course, in making that seductive, possibly decisive — but essentially empty — offer, the anything of sufficient value to give in return, Enver Pasha knew the British had seized the ship.

Now it becomes just “fall-out”

☛ 3 August 1914: the Admiralty began those formal negotiations to acquire the two ships. A Foreign Office cable was received in Constantinople that evening. By that stage, the Ottoman government had ordered general mobilisation, but also declared neutrality. The treaty with Germany remained a deep secret, and Enver Pasha was still suggesting Turkey might combine with the Triple Entente.
☛ 4 August 1914: Sir Edward Grey further telegraphed the Turkish government, saying he was sure the Turks would understand the British position (!) and offered “further consideration” to appropriate compensation.

And that, folks, is how an old man profitably occupies a weekend afternoon.

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Filed under High School, History, Naval history, politics.ie

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