The Turkish fleet at Buyukdere
One potential advantage possessed by the Ottoman Empire was the command of the Black Sea, and the not inconsiderable fleet that was available to exercise it. The Turks had acquired a number of vessels that would have been the envy of any navy. The most powerful of the ironclads was the Messudieh, built by Thames Iron Works and commissioned in December 1875. Of just under 9,000 tons, she was armed with twelve ten-inch muzzle-loading rifled guns and three seven-inch muzzle-loaders. On her trials she achieved a speed of just under 14 knots. She was originally to have been joined by a sister ship, launched as the Mahmoudieh but subsequently renamed Hamidieh; this vessel was, however, compulsorily purchased by the British government and entered the Royal Navy as HMS Superb. Described as ‘one of the most formidable vessels of her class afloat,’ the Messudieh had a belt of 14 inch armour plate.
In addition there were the four ironclads of the Osmanieh class, three of which were built by R Napier and Son and one by Thames Iron Works. These were of 6,400 tons, and were armed with one nine-inch muzzle-loader and 14 eight inch muzzle-loaders. Named Osmanieh, Azizieh, Orkhanie and Mahmoudieh, they were protected by a belt of 4.5 inch armour, and had a speed of 13.5 knots. There were also ten other ironclads, five wooden steam frigates, eleven wooden corvettes, two wooden gun vessels and eleven gunboats. Seven of the gunboats were armoured, and these constituted the flotilla based on the Danube.
In terms of numbers, a Daily News correspondent reckoned that Turkey had ‘one of the finest fleets in the world,’ sufficient for a comprehensive blockade of the Russian coast:
Properly watched, not a vessel ought to be allowed to escape out of a Russian port; and although there is a fine fleet of merchant steamers at its disposal, the Turks ought to be able to prevent the Russian Government from sending any supplies to its various corps d’armée except overland.
The commander of the Turkish navy was a flamboyant Englishman. Hobart Pasha, as he was known, was the son of the Earl of Buckingham. He was born in 1822, and served in the Royal Navy for over thirty years. He saw service against Russia in the Baltic during the Crimean War but later, having reached the rank of post captain, he was according to the procedure at that time obliged to remain on shore for four years to await assignment to an appropriate command. Bored with this, during the American Civil War he became an extremely successful blockade-runner, operating under the pseudonym of ‘Captain Roberts.’ After the war ended, he went on a tour of Europe, and found himself in Constantinople, where he greatly impressed the Grand Vizier, Fuad Pasha, and was as a result offered the post of Naval Adviser to the Turkish government, a post that had just become vacant on the retirement of Admiral Sir Adolphus Slade. Hobart’s acceptance of the post seriously annoyed the Admiralty, where the assignment of an officer to the post was regarded as being in the gift of the British government.
Hobart was a man of enquiring mind, and was particularly struck by the potential of the torpedo as a naval weapon. Not long before the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War, while on a visit to his home in England he had conducted experiments with torpedoes on the village pond. Hobart was a man of strong opinions, which he usually expressed with more force than tact. In command of the Turkish fleet he achieved some success off Crete during the insurgency there; but he has been described as ‘a reluctant and intolerant administrator.’
The fact that the Turkish fleet possessed so many large units owed a good deal to the personality of Sultan Abdul Aziz. Always a man of extravagant tastes, he had been hugely impressed by the British fleet which he saw in the course of a visit to England in 1867. After receiving him at Windsor, Queen Victoria took him on a fast train to Portsmouth, where she appointed him a Knight of the Garter, and where he watched the ships of her fleet pass before him. The Queen was greatly impressed by the Sultan, and wrote to her daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia, to describe the Portsmouth visit:
Our Naval Review was a very fine sight in spite of the most awful weather – and really it was an act of great dévouement to my Oriental Brother to go out in it and to have to go in and out in of boats in a horrid swell which always frightens me so… The poor Sultan was not comfortable and had to lie down a good deal below.
In spite of the discomfort he had endured, the Sultan returned home with the conviction that he must have a fleet to be proud of. He had always been interested in naval affairs, and was convinced of the value of a strong navy. His succession to the sultanate had given him the opportunity to indulge his interests:
On tasting power he rapidly fell into extravagant ways, including spending large sums on the armed forces. Unfortunately, although he was intrigued by new technology, he was not sufficiently educated to discriminate between a practical invention and a visionary scheme, and so was prey to every projector and salesman. This weakness extended to warship procurement, and the Sultan’s whims burdened the navy with warships it did not need and could not effectively use.
Nonetheless, it did mean that in 1877 the Turks had a formidable weapon in their hands which could and should have had the effect pointed out by the correspondent of the Daily News.
Its overall size may be judged from the fact that its Navy List for 1876 recorded it as possessing a total of 132 vessels and 18,292 officers, seamen and marines. In building up such a force, the Turkish government had called upon the services of a number of overseas officers, whose contribution was, however, not as effective as might have been hoped, as has been pointed out by the historians of the Ottoman Navy:
The Sultan was also unfortunate in his technical advisers, most of whom were recruited in Britain. With the exception of the long serving Slade, who was mainly employed on naval staff work, and Henry S Wood, who took over command of the naval school at Heybeliarda, they were generally adventurers who were ill-equipped, or ill-disposed, to deal with the obstructionism of the navy ministry.
This was perhaps not a problem confined to the Turkish navy; the chaotic and corrupt administration and low morale of its officers and men was a more general reflection of the style and behaviour of the Turkish government.
So far as major naval units were concerned, the Russian navy could not compare with its adversary. In 1877 it possessed only seven seagoing ironclads, and six of these were in the Baltic. One, the elderly Petropavlovsk, was at Spezia in southern Italy, where she remained, taking no part in the war. In the Black Sea the Russians had not taken advantage of the removal of the Black Sea clauses to build up their naval resources to an effective level. There, they had the extraordinary and quite useless circular ironclads, the Admiral Popov and Novgorod, which if they had served any purpose at all would have been as floating forts. For the rest, Fred T Jane summarised the Russian situation:
In the Black Sea there was nothing; or rather, there was worse than nothing, a number of old tubs of no fighting value whatsoever. About twenty merchant steamers were purchased and armed, and a number of torpedo boats (launches we should call them nowadays) were sent across country by rail from St Petersburg, but practically at the outbreak, and in the early stages of the war, Russia was worse off than she would have been without a fleet at all. For the consequent forced inactivity, as in the case of the Petropavlovsk at Spezia, might be assumed to have a fatal effect on the morale of the men. Inaction soon neutralises the finest fleet, and its effects are likely enough to spread to the military in a long campaign.
Ironically, considering Hobart’s interest in torpedoes, it was to be the Russians who made most use of these weapons. Even before the war, their development of the torpedo was generally regarded as noteworthy:
In those days the torpedo was a new weapon, and though possessed by all Powers, was more associated with the name of Russia than any other. These torpedoes the Turks were supposed to be particularly afraid of, and this has been put forward as a reason for their extraordinary inactivity; actually, however, circumstances, lack of ammunition, or defects in machinery, may be considered more probable causes.
The weakness of the Russian navy in the Black Sea was principally due to the government’s reluctance to spend very much on building up an ironclad fleet there. In addition, the redevelopment of Sebastopol’s shipbuilding capacity was not, by 1877, very far advanced. The only vessels built for operation in the Black Sea after the removal of the restraints of the Treaty of Paris in 1871 had been the absurd circular ships designed by Admiral Popov. No attempt was in fact made to employ them in 1877 since they were, as Fred T Jane put it, ‘unique curios of naval architecture – nothing more.’ He described what happened on their trials:
Such mobility as they had was soon heavily discounted. On a trial cruise they went up the Dnieper very nicely for some distance, till they turned to retire. Then the current caught them, and they were carried out to sea, whirled helplessly round and round, every soul on board hopelessly incapacitated by vertigo.
It might have been expected that with such a pronounced advantage at sea, the Turks would, in the period leading up to what was seen as a virtually inevitable war, do all they could to prepare their navy for the coming struggle. Clearly the Russian strategy would be based on an invasion of Bulgaria, and the Turkish fleet would, or could, have a big part to play in resisting it. Hobart was sent to the Danube delta to advise on the situation, and when he got there was at first optimistic:
It was soon made clear to me that much could be done, in the way of defending that great estuary, had nautical experience and the splendid material of which the Turkish sailor is made of been properly utilised. But alas! I found that, contrary to the views of His Majesty the Sultan a line of action was followed showing that pigheaded obstinacy and the grossest ignorance prevailed in the councils of those who had supreme command in that great river. I found that my advice and that of competent Turkish officers, in comparatively subordinate positions like myself, was entirely ignored.