[I resolved] to force the Turks, even against their will, to spread the war to the Black Sea against their ancient enemy, Russia.
—ADMIRAL WILHELM SOUCHON, commander of the German dreadnought SMS Goeben
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were murdered by an assassin of Serbian nationality named Gavrilo Princip as the heir to the Habsburg throne of Austria-Hungary conducted a royal progress through the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. At least one other assassin, also of Serbian nationality (although like Princip, a Bosnian and therefore an Austro-Hungarian subject), had evidently been involved in the plot, throwing a fuse-bomb at the royal motorcade about an hour before the fatal shots were fired (in fact, there were seven plotters in all, as would later be discovered). Proclaiming that the “threads of the conspiracy came together at Belgrade,” the hitherto hesitant Habsburg foreign minister Berchtold, after receiving a “blank cheque” of diplomatic support from Berlin, drew up a sharply worded forty-eight-hour ultimatum to Serbia, which was delivered in Belgrade on July 23. When Serbia, having received its own “blank cheque” from Russia, herself having been assured of French backing for a strong line against Austria-Hungary, refused full compliance with Berchtold’s terms two days later, Europe’s military doomsday machine cranked methodically into motion. Serbia and Austria-Hungary mobilized against one another, even as a secret Russian pre-mobilization began in support of Serbia, directed not only against Austria-Hungary but also her German ally. When Tsar Nicholas II decreed Russian general mobilization on July 30, 1914, it seemed only a miracle could avert a European war that would bring in its wake—in the tsar’s own words from the night before, when he had agonized over the decision—“monstrous slaughter.”
Considering the centrality of Ottoman affairs in the First Bosnian Crisis of 1908–9, the Tripolitanian war of 1911–12, and the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, it is curious that, at first glance, Turkey played so little a role in the July crisis of 1914. As recently as the third week of June, the diplomatic chatter in Europe had been focused on the threat of a Third Balkan War between Greece and the Ottoman Empire. But the Sarajevo incident, and resulting diplomatic showdown between the Great Powers, seemed to overwhelm all the recent drama in the Balkans, rendering both Turkey and Greece mere afterthoughts in the Great Power capitals as the countdown to war began.
If we look more closely, however, we can see hints that the Ottoman question remained central to Great Power strategy as the July crisis reached its terrible climax, especially in St. Petersburg and Berlin. As early as June 30, just two days after Sarajevo, Russia’s foreign minister demanded up-to-date information from the Naval Ministry regarding the war-readiness of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Sazonov had himself chaired the February planning conference at which Russia’s military service chiefs had vowed to speed up the arrival of the first “echelon” of amphibious troops dispatched to Constantinople (comprising about 30,000 men, or roughly an army corps, including one division’s artillery component) from mobilization day (M) + 10 to M + 5. As the foreign minister later recalled in his memoirs, the reason for urgency was that everyone present “considered an offensive against Constantinople inevitable, should European war break out.” On June 15, 1914, with tensions between Turkey and Greece peaking, Ambassador Girs had warned Sazonov that Russia must be prepared to launch “immediate counter measures” to seize the Straits if a Third Balkan War broke out. Now, after Sarajevo, with a broader European war appearing possible if not likely, Sazonov asked Russia’s naval minister, I. K. Grigorevich (the “K” stood, appropriately, for the patronymic Konstantinovich), in a “very secret and urgent request,” whether the first Russian troops could now be put ashore at the Bosphorus within “four or five days” of mobilization.
In Berlin, meanwhile, the still undeclared partnership with the Sublime Porte acquired an importance beyond price once the extent of Germany’s diplomatic isolation began to come into focus toward the end of July. On Friday, July 24, the day after Austria-Hungary dispatched her ultimatum to Serbia, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered his ambassador in Constantinople, Wangenheim, to reopen alliance talks. The first Ottoman draft for a bilateral military agreement was wired to Berlin on Tuesday, July 28, only to be drowned out in the clamor over Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia, announced at noon that day. On Friday, July 31, with Russia’s general mobilization under way and signs that Britain was leaning toward belligerence against Germany, things looked so desperate in Berlin that Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg took time to wire to Constantinople, asking Wangenheim whether Turkey, in exchange for Germany signing her draft alliance treaty, was prepared to “undertake some action worthy of the name against Russia.” On Saturday, August 1, after Germany’s ultimatum asking Russia to cease mobilizing had expired, Bethmann’s resistance crumbled further: now he would sign the Ottoman treaty simply on Liman’s assurance that Turkey’s army was “battle-ready,” with no guarantee of action against Russia.
Meanwhile, Russian statesmen were gearing up for an armed clash with Turkey, which they assumed would follow immediately on the outbreak of war in Europe. On July 27, two days after Serbia rejected Vienna’s ultimatum but one day before Austria-Hungary declared war on her, Russia’s chief of army staff, N. N. Yanushkevitch, issued top secret orders to Nikolai Yudenich, chief of staff at Russia’s Caucasian Army command in Tiflis, to mobilize against the Ottoman Empire. That same day, Girs sent a top secret memorandum to Sazonov warning that if Russia backed down against the Austro-Germans in Europe, it would signal such dangerous weakness in Constantinople and across the Near East that “[we] might be forced to take the initiative ourselves in waging war [against Turkey].” On July 29, even as Tsar Nicholas II was hesitating, Hamlet-like, over whether to issue the final, irreversible order for general mobilization (he actually did issue it around 9:00 p.m., only to change his mind and rescind the order less than an hour later), Yanushkevitch was assuring Yudenich that he should proceed with the mobilization of the Caucasian Army according to variant 4, for a European war in which “Turkey does not at first take part.” On July 30, after the tsar had finally overcome his scruples and given the fateful general mobilization order, Sazonov wired urgently to his ambassador in London, Count Benckendorff, that he intervene to cut off the imminent handover of the dreadnoughts Sultan Osman I and Reshadieh to the Ottoman Empire (Turkish crews were in fact scheduled to take them over on August 2). Back in May, Benckendorff had requested to His Majesty’s foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey—very, very carefully—that this be done, only for Grey and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to object on the grounds that Britain’s government did not have the right to interfere in private business contracts. Now, with European war about to break out in a matter of days, if not hours, Sazonov could not afford to stall any longer. “These ships,” he insisted that Benckendorff admonish Churchill and Grey, “must be retained in England.”
As if reading Sazonov’s mind (although in fact knowing nothing of the latest Russian request, which had not yet reached him), Winston Churchill now injected himself into the story with one of his most controversial actions in a career full of them. On Friday, July 31, with Russia’s general mobilization under way (although he apparently did not know this either) and Germany about to issue her ultimatum to St. Petersburg, the First Lord of the Admiralty ordered English naval crews to board the dreadnoughts Sultan Osman I and Reshadieh, so as to prevent Turkish crews from raising the Ottoman flag. With this flagrantly illegal act, Churchill bought Britain added insurance against the German High Seas Fleet in the war that now seemed unavoidable (to him, at least). He also, entirely unwittingly, fulfilled one of Russia’s primary strategic objectives—denying the Ottoman navy its lusted-for dreadnoughts, with which she might seize control of the Black Sea from her—while offering a priceless gift to hawks in the Ottoman government, not to mention German leaders trying desperately to bring Turkey into the war.
Enver Pasha was not a man to let an opportunity like this slip by. With German chancellor Bethmann’s terms for signing a formal alliance with Turkey having softened, in his increasing desperation, from a promise of “action worthy of the name” against Russia on Friday, July 31, to Turkey merely being “battle-ready” by the following afternoon, the Ottoman war minister decided to split the difference. Saturday morning, Enver learned that British crews had forcibly commandeered the two Ottoman dreadnoughts (although Churchill’s action had not yet been endorsed by the British cabinet, nor announced publicly). Thinking fast, on Saturday afternoon Enver promised Ambassador Wangenheim that in exchange for a generous alliance treaty, he would turn over to Germany the Sultan Osman I (the idea was to dock it at a German port on the North Sea—though how it would evade the massive British fleet en route was left unsaid, as was the fact that the ship, as Enver knew, was no longer his to dispose of!)
After comparing this offer to Bethmann’s latest instruction that he insist only that Turkey show herself “battle-ready,” Wangenheim decided that Enver had met the chancellor’s terms. At 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 2, 1914, the ambassador therefore wrote his signature alongside that of Said Halim Pasha, the Ottoman grand vizier and foreign minister, on a secret bilateral defense treaty, valid until December 31, 1918, in which Turkey promised to join Germany if the latter went to war with Russia on behalf of Austria-Hungary, in exchange for a promise by which “Germany obligates itself, by force of arms if need be, to defend Ottoman territory in case it should be threatened.” Wangenheim also promised to expedite to Berlin Enver’s urgent request that Germany’s Mediterranean squadron, composed of SMS Goeben and her support cruiser, the Breslau, be ordered to Constantinople. Unaware that he had been deceived by the Ottoman war minister into signing a devious treaty on false pretenses, Wangenheim wholeheartedly seconded Enver’s idea, pointing out helpfully to Berlin that “with the Goeben, even an [Ottoman] landing on Russian territory would be possible.” On hearing the news, Liman von Sanders then issued mobilization orders for the German officers in his military mission to the Ottoman army, now seventy-one strong.
Not unreasonably, Liman, along with Moltke at the German army command and Grand Marshal Tirpitz at the Admiralty, concluded that Wangenheim had won a binding pledge from Enver that the Ottoman Empire would shortly enter the war against Russia. This erroneous belief was bolstered by the fact that Enver had decreed Ottoman general mobilization against Russia on Saturday, August 1 (an order confirmed by the Turkish cabinet on Sunday), and then ordered, on Monday, August 3 (though without cabinet authorization), the mining of the northern entrance to the Bosphorus and the southern entrance to the Dardanelles. Moltke, with his hair-trigger mobilization plan, requiring a lightning advance on Paris, already falling behind schedule owing to Russia’s secret early mobilization and Belgium’s decision to resist the German violation of her territory, began bombarding Wangenheim with requests for prompt Ottoman intervention against Russia—and, he hoped, Britain and France as well. Once a state of war between France and Germany was confirmed on Monday afternoon, August 3, it became imperative for the German Admiralty to find a safe anchorage for SMS Goeben and the Breslau before Britain declared war and the superior Allied Mediterranean fleet blew them out of the water. Disinclined to look Churchill’s gift horse in the mouth and believing in Enver’s promises, Tirpitz ordered Souchon, in the small hours of Tuesday, August 4, 1914, to proceed forthwith to the Ottoman capital.
Admiral Wilhelm Souchon had been born for this moment. The idea of sending his powerful warship into the Bosphorus to contest Russian control of the Black Sea was not a new one. In fact Souchon had docked there back in the first week of May, making such a strong impression in the Ottoman capital that CUP leaders like Cami Baykut began openly clamoring for the Goeben to be impressed into Ottoman service. The warm welcome Souchon had received in Constantinople provided a striking contrast to his reception in other Mediterranean ports of call, where the long-dominant British fleet was in the habit of docking the minute he left in order to erase any positive impression he made (or as the kaiser liked to say, to “spit in the soup”). The Russians knew all about Souchon too. In the wake of the Liman affair in January, Sazonov had lodged warnings in Berlin that the Goeben must not be impressed into Ottoman service. With Russia’s Black Sea Fleet still two years or more away from launching its first operational dreadnought, the arrival of any dreadn’ought-class vessel in Ottoman territorial waters threatened to tip the naval balance on the Black Sea in Turkey’s favor, rendering well-nigh impossible any Russian amphibious strike on the Bosphorus.
When Souchon decoded his orders from Berlin just past 3:00 a.m. on Tuesday, August 4, 1914, he was approaching the French Algerian port of Philippeville, where colonial troops were embarking for the western front. Having learned at 6:00 p.m. on Monday, while steaming southwestward from Sicily, of the German declaration of war on France, he was at last nearing his target and could already, as he later recalled, “taste that moment of fire so ardently desired by us all!” Disregarding Tirpitz’s summons to Constantinople—for now—Souchon continued on course for Philippeville. Just past 6:00 a.m., SMS Goeben opened fire on the French troopships while the Breslau shelled the nearby port of Bone. Although the shelling did not cause significant casualties or great physical damage to either the troopships or the port, the German attack concerned the French fleet commander, Vice Admiral Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère, enough that he ordered his squadron to form escort convoys, a laborious process that would take several days. By thus delaying the dispatch of French Algerian soldiers to the front, Souchon had succeeded in his object. Satisfied, he withdrew his ships and turned back toward Sicily, hoping to coal there before proceeding to Constantinople, some 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) distant.
Now the hard part began. While the panic he had sowed at Philippeville and Bone had dissuaded the French commander from pursuing him, Souchon had still to reckon with the British Mediterranean fleet, headed by three large battle cruisers, the imposingly named Inflexible, Indomitable, and Indefatigable, all of the “Invincible” type launched in 1907. While none of the three was current dreadnought class—each displaced only 18,000 tons, compared with the 23,000 tons of SMS Goeben (itself just barely registering as a last-generation dreadnought)—the British battle cruisers mounted eight 12-inch guns and could make 25 or 26 knots, as fast as all but the latest dreadnoughts. In theory, the Goeben, launched in 1911 and mounting ten 11-inch guns, could run its 5,200-horsepower engines, at full thrust, to a speed of 28 or 29 knots. But, as Souchon (although not his British pursuers) was painfully aware, with three of his twenty-four boilers out of action and others leaking, his ship was incapable of such a feat. On Monday, August 3, Churchill, by way of Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne, commander of Britain’s Mediterranean fleet, had ordered HMS Indomitable and HMS Indefatigable to hunt down SMS Goeben and then “follow and shadow her wherever she goes.” At 10:32 a.m. on Tuesday, August 4, following the shelling of Philippeville and Bone, the lookouts on the Indomitable, proceeding toward Algeria in a belated attempt to repulse Souchon’s attack, caught sight of the Breslau off the starboard bow, “steering to eastward at high speed.” Within seconds, the Goeben was spotted off the port bow—bearing almost directly at the Indomitable. Both ships were in firing range, but, as Britain and Germany were not yet at war, Captain Kennedy, commander of the Indomitable, could do little but turn to starboard, cutting off Souchon’s attempted pass and forcing him to diverge slightly from his course. Souchon had dodged his first bullet.
He was not safe yet, however. With Indefatigable joining the chase, the mood at the British Admiralty was ebullient. Churchill, who, owing to a garbled transmission, mistakenly thought Souchon was heading southwest, toward Algeria, wired just past noon that Admiral Milne was to “hold” the German ships and to engage them if they “attacked French transports,” after giving “fair warning.” Even this somewhat equivocal order, however, was rescinded two hours later, after Churchill was rebuked in the cabinet: now Milne was to hold his fire until war was declared on Germany. Adding uncertainty to these confusing orders, back on July 31, Churchill had instructed Milne to “husband your force at the outset” and that it must “not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces.” Unaware of the difficulties Souchon was having with his boilers, Churchill and his fleet commanders still thought of her as the fastest, most powerful ship in the Mediterranean. Milne therefore had every reason for caution.
Whether or not the British were authorized to engage him, Souchon could not afford to be complacent. Hoping to outrun the Indomitable and Indefatigable to Messina, the nearest “neutral” port on the leeward side of Sicily, Souchon ran his boilers at full capacity all afternoon, nearly killing his stokers in the process but inching the Goeben up to nearly 23 knots and slowly distancing himself from his pursuers. At around 4:00 p.m., the British warships fell out of firing range. At 4:35 p.m., with a thick fog descending, the Goeben and Breslau disappeared from Milne’s view off the Sicilian coast. By the time Britain’s ultimatum to Germany (demanding that she evacuate Belgian territory) expired without a positive reply at midnight (11:00 p.m. London time), creating the state of war that would finally have allowed the British to fire, Souchon was well out of range, approaching the neutral waters of the Straits of Messina. Under the laws of neutrality, after docking at Brindisi, he would have only twenty-four hours in port.
A furious diplomatic struggle now began over the fate of SMS Goeben. To begin with, Souchon was enraged that the Italian authorities were “shameless enough in their treachery” to put him on the clock, despite Italy being nominally a member of the Triple Alliance alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary. Showing where the true sympathies in the country already lay, the port authorities even refused him coal. Souchon had to waste precious time wiring the Foreign Ministry in Rome to overcome local obstruction. With no other German warships in the Mediterranean, the only chance for an escort lay with the Austrian Adriatic fleet at Pola. But Souchon’s plea that she “come and fetch Goeben and Breslau from Messina as soon as possible,” wired to the Austrian Admiralty at 2:00 a.m. on August 5, went nowhere. Admiral Milne had posted British warships at both entrances to the Straits of Messina, observing the “six mile” rule of neutrality, but ready to fire as soon as Souchon’s ships breached the limit. The Austrians saw nothing to gain from risking an engagement, not least because Austria-Hungary and Britain were not yet at war. Adding to Souchon’s frustration was a cryptic message from Tirpitz in Berlin, wired on Wednesday, August 5, but deciphered only at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, that “at the present time [your] arrival in Constantinople not yet possible, for political reasons.”
Undeterred by these bad tidings, Souchon pressed his men to the limit of their powers. With no hope of rescue, the Goeben and Breslau would need enough coal to race through what he could only assume was a heavy British screen. So Souchon pressed every hand available into the effort, exhorted on by “music in the form of martial airs, extra rations, stirring speeches, the example of those officers who worked with them, and my own encouragements.” On the quay, Sicilian touts hawked souvenirs and postcards to the Germans who, as in the old Roman gladiatorial salute, were “about to die.” On and on Souchon’s men labored, with dozens of men collapsing from exhaustion or sunstroke in the August heat. When one stoker fell, he was hustled belowdecks and another was pressed into his place. Other coalers, beginning to slip, were “plied with cool drinks and baths.” But time was short, and only 1,580 tons of coal could be loaded onto the Goeben, and 495 tons onto the Breslau, before the last man standing collapsed Thursday afternoon, August 6. It was not enough to reach the Dardanelles. But it would have to do. Souchon gave his men a much-needed rest and ordered them to prepare for departure at 5:00 p.m.
Although Ottoman permission to enter the Dardanelles had been withdrawn, Souchon did have one other option. After rounding the boot of Italy, he could head up the Adriatic to hole up at Pola with the Austrian fleet—the same one that had refused to rescue him. But doing this would have consigned Souchon, and his beloved Goeben, to a passive war “waiting on events,” penned in by the superior British fleet. Accepting such a fate would have gone against every grain of his stubborn, irascible character. And so Souchon decided, entirely of his own volition, “not to waver from my duty to break out into the eastern Mediterranean . . . hoping that I could later reach Constantinople and thereby be able to bring the war into the Black Sea.”
Souchon’s plan, though foolhardy, was not entirely senseless. Expecting to be followed anyway, he made sure to depart before nightfall, so that the British spotters would see him heading northward up the Adriatic. Once darkness fell and he—hopefully—fell out of enemy sight, he would “make a wide turn to starboard, surreptitiously”—heading east toward the Greek islands, where a German collier was waiting at Cape Malea to resupply the Goeben and Breslau with enough coal for the onward journey to Constantinople. Still, Souchon knew that he would need to continue his run of good luck if he was to evade his pursuers.
His British opponents proved more than obliging. At the Admiralty, Winston Churchill was so little clued in to the importance of Constantinople that he had commandeered the powerful dreadnoughts Ottoman strategists had been dreaming of for years—for the purchase of which a public subscription had been opened, to great popular fanfare. Neither Churchill nor Admiral Milne so much as suspected the possibility that Souchon might make a dash for the Dardanelles. Milne was so certain the Goeben would head west, for Gibraltar and the open waters of the Atlantic, that he posted only a single light cruiser, the Gloucester, at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Messina (although he did have a squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge guarding the Adriatic in case Souchon headed for Pola, consisting of four armored battle cruisers, with eight destroyers held in reserve).
When Souchon exited the Straits of Messina early on the evening of Thursday, August 6, the inferior Gloucester could do little more than follow at a safe distance, radioing the German position (whenever Souchon did not succeed in jamming it) to Admiral Milne, who passed it on to the Adriatic squadron. Troubridge, in ideal position to intercept Souchon, set out southward just after midnight, hoping to engage the Goeben and Breslau before first light at dawn. When, around 4:00 a.m., he had still not found them, Troubridge had second thoughts. His destroyers, sent off to coal, had still not come up. Fearing that all four of his (slightly) inferior battle cruisers could be blown out of the water by the guns of SMS Goeben in a daylight encounter, and with Churchill’s orders not to engage “superior forces” echoing in his ear, Troubridge called off the chase. Souchon had escaped another bullet.
Lucky in his principal antagonists, Souchon had still to reckon with Captain Howard Kelly, commander of the Gloucester, an Irishman nearly as stubborn as he. In a classic illustration of the importance of temperament in the fluid situation of combat, Kelly was just as determined to exceed his orders as Troubridge was to shirk them. After learning that his Adriatic squadron had broken off the chase, Milne had wired Kelly, at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, August 7, that he was “to drop astern and avoid capture.” Displaying irascibility worthy of the man he was chasing, Kelly refused to pull back, even though Troubridge had left him utterly exposed to the Goeben’s superior guns. At midday on Friday, Souchon, unable to outrun the Gloucester in the Goeben owing to his leaking boilers (and the inferior coal loaded at Brindisi, which caused his ships to belch black smoke), ordered the Breslau to draw his pursuer away, figuring that the British captain would prefer to follow a ship more his size. By 1:30 p.m., the Goeben had begun to distance herself, although the Gloucester had closed to 11,500 yards behind the Breslau. At 1:35 p.m., Kelly ordered his six-inch fore guns to fire from the bow. At least one hit was scored (although it did little damage). The Breslau fired back a series of ranging shots, which missed, but threw up a tremendous spray all around the Gloucester. Souchon, aboard the Goeben, now reversed course and fired off a torpedo salvo at the Gloucester from long range, which likewise missed. As if terrified that his renegade captain might actually damage a German ship, Milne now ordered Kelly to back off, ordering that he not proceed past Cape Matapan into the Aegean, lest he risk an ambush in the Greek islands. Souchon had escaped once again.
Meanwhile, the political struggle in Constantinople was heating up. In the initial rush of enthusiasm after the conclusion of the German alliance treaty on August 2 and Wangenheim’s promise to send him the Goeben, Enver had not only mined the upper Bosphorus but ordered the requisitioning of Russian merchandise in Ottoman ports, including oil and grain. Once Said Halim Pasha got wind of this on Wednesday, August 5, however, he objected to the illegal requisitions just as furiously as the Russian embassy did. The grand vizier was concerned, in the first instance, that no agreement with Bulgaria had been reached to ensure the safety of Thrace in case Turkey and Russia went to war. But he was hardly in a rush to come to terms with Sofia. Playing a subtler game than his young, headstrong war minister, Said Halim Pasha reasoned that, with SMS Goeben and Breslau surrounded by hostile squadrons patrolling the Mediterranean, Souchon really had nowhere else to go but Constantinople. While the Germans were coaling at Brindisi, the grand vizier decided to put the squeeze on. Before the Ottoman government would allow Souchon’s ships free passage through the Dardanelles, he informed Ambassador Wangenheim on Wednesday, August 5, Germany must satisfy six conditions, including support for the abolition of the Capitulations—the holy grail of Ottoman diplomacy for decades—and firm pledges to help Turkey recover Aegean islands from Greece and to expand her Caucasian border eastward so as to “place Turkey into direct contact with the Muslims of Russia.” It was this piece of diplomatic blackmail that lay behind the cryptic wire Souchon had received from Tirpitz on Brindisi, informing him that his arrival in Constantinople was not yet advisable for “political reasons.” Under duress, and not wishing to jeopardize Souchon’s precarious position still further, Wangenheim agreed on Thursday, August 6.
Souchon, unaware of these negotiations and knowing only that matters in Constantinople remained murky, made his rendezvous at Cape Malea on Friday evening, August 7, with his collier, the Bogadir, which had adopted Greek disguise to evade detection. A second collier, the General, had also rejoined him after setting off in a separate direction from Messina. Had he known that the supercautious Admiral Milne had called off British pursuit, Souchon might have coaled his ships right at Cape Malea. Instead he ordered his colliers to follow him deeper into the Aegean until they found a deserted coastline that seemed safe from enemy view, off the island of Denusa. All weekend on Saturday and Sunday, August 8–9, 1914, the Goeben and Breslau took on coal while keeping a steam up, in case they would be forced to depart on short notice. A special lookout post was erected at the highest point on the island to keep watch for the British. Souchon was now less than two hundred miles from the mouth of the Dardanelles, a distance he could cover in a day’s steaming—if permission to enter was granted. But he could not risk wiring Constantinople, because a signal strong enough to reach the Ottoman capital would betray his position to the British fleet. With the political situation still unclear, Souchon once again chose the boldest course of action, dispatching the General Saturday night to the Ottoman port of Smyrna (Izmir) to transmit the following message to Captain Hans Humann, German naval liaison at the Ottoman Admiralty:
Urgent military necessity requires an attack on the enemy in the Black Sea. Go to any length possible to arrange for me to pass through Straits immediately with the permission of the Turkish government, without formal approval if necessary.
Back in Constantinople, Ottoman negotiators, with their negotiating leverage vis-à-vis the Germans increasing by the day, were thoroughly enjoying themselves. Even Enver, despite his earlier rashness, was cottoning to the game. On Wednesday, August 5, the same day the grand vizier was putting the screws on Ambassador Wangenheim, while Souchon was torturing his stokers in the heat of Brindisi, the Russian military attaché in Constantinople, Generalmajor M. N. Leontiev, called on Enver at the Ottoman War Ministry. What the war minister told him was astonishing. In exchange for Russia signing a five- or ten-year defensive alliance with the Ottoman Empire and helping to broker a new Balkan settlement at the expense of Vienna (the idea was for Turkey to regain western Thrace from Bulgaria and several Aegean islands from Greece, with Greece compensated with Albania, and Bulgaria given parts of Macedonia by Serbia, who would herself win Bosnia-Herzegovina), Enver promised to withdraw the IX and XI Corps of the Ottoman Third Army from eastern Turkey, so as to allow Russia to send the Army of the Caucasus to reinforce her European fronts against Austria and Germany. The day such a treaty was signed, this supposedly Germanophile Ottoman war minister promised Leontiev, he would expel Liman von Sanders and the entire German military mission from Turkey.
To this day it is not known how serious Enver’s trial balloon for a Russian-Ottoman alliance was. It does not seem to have originated with the Ottoman Foreign Ministry, although Said Halim Pasha eagerly took up Enver’s idea as soon as he heard of it, as did Talât, at the Interior Ministry (notably, in that Talât had himself traveled to Livadia, on the Crimea, back in May, accompanied by Ambassador Girs, to propose something broadly similar to Tsar Nicholas II). All weekend from Friday, August 7, to Sunday, August 9, 1914, even as Admiral Souchon, holed up at Denusa, was desperately waiting for permission to enter the Dardanelles, a series of increasingly detailed alliance talks proceeded in Constantinople between Ottoman diplomats and Ambassador Girs, with Leontiev meeting Enver on the side. Whether or not Enver’s offer had been made in good faith, it was certainly so taken by Girs and Leontiev, who both recommended that Sazonov take up the Ottoman proposal.
On Sunday, matters came to a head. At about noon, Admiral Milne, after delaying pursuit once again owing to an erroneous report that Austria had declared war on England (thus threatening, in very theoretical theory, to descend on the Adriatic and cut his squadron off from Malta), resumed chasing the Goeben with his three main battle cruisers (although he would not actually reach the Aegean until nearly midnight). Souchon’s urgent request, wired to Humann from Smyrna early Sunday morning and decoded in Constantinople around the same time Milne was renewing pursuit, drove home to the Ottoman government that time was running out on the Goeben. Still the grand vizier stalled, fobbing off Ambassador Wangenheim with a story about an impending Ottoman-Greek-Romanian neutrality pact which must not be prejudiced by the arrival of an armed German warship. Although Said Halim Pasha did not, for obvious reasons, mention this, alliance talks with Russia were also nearing their climax on Sunday—Ambassador Girs sent two urgent wires to Sazonov this day requesting that he sign immediately (alas, Sazonov received his own urgent message this afternoon, from Yanushkevitch at Russian military headquarters, advising that alliance talks with Turkey must be cut off before they were leaked to the press, lest they be interpreted across the Near East “as a sign of [Russian] weakness”). In order to keep his options open a little longer, Said Halim Pasha suggested to Ambassador Wangenheim that Souchon be allowed into the Dardanelles—but only if the Goeben was disarmed and converted into an “Ottoman” ship “by means of a fictitious sale.” It was not, exactly, an invitation. But it was all Souchon was going to get.
At 1:00 a.m. on Monday morning, August 10, 1914, the General, from Smyrna, wired the following message to the Goeben: “Enter and demand surrender of the Dardanelles forts.” Two hours later, while he was still mulling over this strange instruction, Souchon picked up wireless signals from the British squadron, entering the Aegean in force. At 6:00 a.m., having received no clarification of his instructions, he decided he could wait no longer, setting off for the Dardanelles. Toward noon, when he was about halfway there, Souchon decoded another wire, sent overnight from the Admiralty in Berlin: “It is of the greatest importance, that the Goeben enter the Dardanelles as soon as possible. Acknowledge.” Neither this nor the transmission from Smyrna specified that permission to enter had been granted by the Ottoman government, for the excellent reason that it had not, in fact, been given. Souchon could only guess what this meant: was he to force his way in or simply put on a show of doing so in order to give the Turks an excuse for letting him in? At any rate, he would soon find out, as, on current course, he would reach his destination by nightfall.
In a week of mounting tension, the afternoon of Monday, August 10, was the most dramatic yet. At 4:00 p.m., steaming at a steady 18 knots toward the Dardanelles, Souchon sighted Tenedos and Imbros. The fate of SMS Goeben and the Breslau, along with the German campaign to force the Ottomans to honor the terms of the August 2 alliance treaty and enter the war against Russia, now depended on the reaction of the southern shore batteries at Cape Helles and Kum Kale once Souchon’s ships came into range. Would they fire? Having received no clear orders from the War Ministry, as soon as the German ships were sighted approaching just past 7:00 p.m., the commander at the great fortress of Chanak (Çanakkale) wired Constantinople for instructions. Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, meeting with Enver at the War Ministry, recalled the conversation that followed. Enver initially refused to give an answer without first consulting the grand vizier, but Kress pressed hard for a decision. Enver then fell silent for what seemed to Kress like an eternity. At last he said, “They should be allowed to enter.” Kress was still not satisfied. “If English warships come in after the [Goeben],” he demanded to know, “will they be fired upon?” Again Enver hedged, protesting that he could not possibly decide a critical matter of war and peace without consulting the other ministers. But Kress insisted on an answer. “In that case,” Enver replied at last, “yes.” At 9:00 p.m., a Turkish torpedo boat sent out to meet the Goeben gave the long-awaited signal, “Follow me.” With a sense of profound relief, Souchon followed the Turkish pilot through a safe channel of the well-mined Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmara.
News of the arrival of SMS Goeben in Ottoman territorial waters was instantly telegraphed across Europe. Following a week that had seen Souchon narrowly escape the incompetent pursuit of a vastly superior British fleet, the coup was almost immediately recognized as a critical blow to the Entente position in Constantinople. To be sure, we have to be wary of the distortions of hindsight in accounts published long after the fact, which give off a strong whiff of literary license. At the time, Milne and Churchill continued their borderline-farcical misreading of the situation, issuing orders that the Dardanelles be blockaded at the mouth in case Souchon tried to come out. Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, a bit more perceptively but still all but dripping with condescension, told the cabinet, “As we shall insist that the Goeben should be manned by a Turkish instead of a German crew, it doesn’t much matter: as the Turkish sailors cannot navigate her—except on to rocks or mines.”
British insouciance aside, there is no mistaking the critical nature of Enver’s decision to let in the German ships and block entry to British and (by implication) French warships—a decision confirmed at 10:00 p.m. in a wire from Humann to the German Admiralty in Berlin. For good measure, Ottoman shore batteries allowed in two German civilian support ships Tuesday morning, including the General (fresh in from Smyrna) and the Rodosto, even while the growing armada of British and French vessels arriving in Besika Bay to watch the Dardanelles could only drop anchor and wait.
Whether or not the Ottomans had entered the war, they had clearly breached the laws of neutrality—and let a very powerful wolf into the diplomatic sheepfold at the Sublime Porte. As Souchon wired Tirpitz on August 12, 1914, “The Turkish government has welcomed the Goeben and Breslau with enthusiasm. Collaborative work with the Ottoman fleet is proceeding. I intend to begin operations in the Black Sea as soon as possible. Please send ammunition immediately. There is enough coal here.” With or without Turkish permission, Souchon was ready to bring the war into the Black Sea against Russia.