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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Sunday Ship History: The German cruisers that changed the world


On August 10, 1914, the German battle cruiser Goeben successfully completed her escape from the British Navy and anchored in Turkish waters as reported here. The dramatic escape that began on August 4, 1914, had ramifications that are with us today. In her remarkable work, The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman devotes a chapter to this ship, stating, "No other single exploit of the war cast so long a shadow upon the world as the voyage accomplished by their commander during the next seven days."

At the time, Turkey was neutral and having a hard time deciding a side. "Fearing Russia, resenting England, mistrusting Germany, they could not decide." Tuchman writes.
In July 1914, with a two-front looming before them, the Germans suddenly became anxious to secure the ally who could close the Black Sea exit and cut Russia off from her allies and their supplies."
England did itself no favors in its relations with the Turks- "While they [Turkey] were hesitating England helpfully gave them a push by seizing two Turkish battleships then being built under contract in British yards." Turkey was most unhappy but still was not completely commited to a German alliance.

In the run up to war, the French were concerned about transporting their troops from France's North African colonies to France across the Mediterranean...And the the two German cruisers in the Med, the Goeben and the Breslau were perceived as threats. The German ships moved to attack Algeria but before major harm was done, received orders to move to Constantinople (now Istanbul). They were now pursued by British battle cruisers.

The race was on.

The Germans won by arriving Dardenelles on August 10 where the Turks invited them in. As Tuchman puts it:
At nine o'clock that evening, August 10, the Goeben and Breslau entered the Dardenelles, bringing, as long afterward Churchill somberly acknowledged, "more slaughter, more misery and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship."
Shortly after their arrival, the Turks asked that the ships be disarmed, the Germans refused. Then the ships were announced to have been "sold" to the Turks seemingly as replacements for the two battleships seized by the British. The Turkish public loved it and the Germans became very popular in Turkey.

Turkey still remained neutral, though it began making demands to maintain that neutrality. Even Russia was willing to give up the idea of capturing the Dardenelles for the benefit of keeping Turkey out of the war. But...despite some sabre rattling by Churchill, Lord Kitchener vetoed a torpedo boat attack, on the ground, "England could not afford to alienate the Moslems by taking the offensive against Turkey."

Then the ships, still under German command but with some Turkish warships in company, sailed into the Black Sea and attacked the Russian port of Odessa and a couple of more places for good measure. The Goeben sailed back into the waters splitting Constantiople, a nice move that effectively prevented Turkey from disavowing the atack on Russia- because the seats of power of the Turkish government were now within the range of the cruiser's guns. Russia declared war on Turkey and was joined by its allies.

The closure of the Black Sea precluded easy resupply of Russia. "With the Black Sea closed, her exports dropped by 98 per cent and her imports by 95 per cent."

But the longer term consequences of the Goeben's cruise are felt today:
The cutting off of Russia with all its consequences, the vain and sanguinary tragedy of Gallipoli, the divsion of Allied strength in the campaigns of Mesopotemia, Suez, and Palestine, the ultimate breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent history of the Middle East, followed from the voyage of the Goeben
At the start of the World War I, the Ottoman Empire controlled most of the Middle East, including Palestine. In 1917, Britain offered up the Balfour Declaration,
...[W]hich promised to help establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Great Britain was given a mandate of Palestine in 1920 by the League of Nations, in part to implement the Balfour Declaration.
We all know how that promise has been playing out over the past 89 years...


A couple of ships, a narrow escape, and a world changed forever.

UPDATE: Bloody Gallipoli.

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