Military history

BATTLE

10

Goeben … An Enemy Then Flying”

BEFORE THE LAND BATTLE BEGAN, a wireless message from the German Admiralty to the German Commander in the Mediterranean, Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, flickered through the air in the pre-dawn hours of August 4. It read: “Alliance with Turkey concluded August 3. Proceed at once to Constantinople.” Although its expectations proved premature and it was almost immediately canceled, Admiral Souchon decided to proceed as directed. His command consisted of two fast new ships, the battle cruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau. 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.

Turkey at the time of Sarajevo had many enemies and no allies because no one considered her worth an alliance. For a hundred years the Ottoman Empire, called the “Sick Man” of Europe, had been considered moribund by the hovering European powers who were waiting to fall upon the carcass. But year after year the fabulous invalid refused to die, still grasping in decrepit hands the keys to immense possessions. Indeed, during the last six years, ever since the Young Turk Revolution overthrew the old Sultan “Abdul the Damned,” in 1908, and established under his more amenable brother a government by the “Committee of Union and Progress,” Turkey had begun to be rejuvenated.

The “Committee,” otherwise the Young Turks, led by their “little Napoleon,” Enver Bey, determined to remake the country, forge the strength necessary to hold the slipping bonds of empire, fend off the waiting eagles, and retrieve the Pan-Islamic dominion of the days of Ottoman glory. The process was watched with no relish at all by Russia, France, and England, who had rival ambitions in the area. Germany, late on the imperial scene and with Berlin-to-Baghdad dreams of her own, determined to become the Young Turks’ patron. A German military mission sent in 1913 to reorganize the Turkish Army caused such furious Russian resentment that only concerted effort by the Powers to provide a face-saving device prevented the affair from becoming that “damned foolish thing in the Balkans” a year before Sarajevo.

From then on, the Turks felt creeping over them the shadow of the oncoming day when they would have to choose sides. Fearing Russia, resenting England, mistrusting Germany, they could not decide. The “Hero of the Revolution,” handsome young Enver with his pink cheeks and black mustache worn in upturned points like the Kaiser’s, was the only wholehearted and enthusiastic advocate of a German alliance. Like some later thinkers, he believed in the Germans as the wave of the future. Talaat Bey, political “Boss” of the “Committee,” and its real ruler, a stout Levantine adventurer who could devour a pound of caviar at a sitting, washed down by two glasses of brandy and two bottles of champagne, was less sure. He believed Turkey could obtain a better price from Germany than from the Entente, and he had no faith in Turkey’s chances of survival as a neutral in a war of the Great Powers. If the Entente Powers won, Ottoman possessions would crumble under their pressure; if the Central Powers won, Turkey would become a German vassal. Other groups in the Turkish government would have preferred an alliance with the Entente, if it had been obtainable, in the hope of buying off Russia, Turkey’s age-old enemy. For ten centuries Russia had yearned for Constantinople, the city Russians called Czargrad that lay at the exit of the Black Sea. That narrow and famous sea passage, called the Dardanelles, fifty miles long and nowhere more than three miles wide, was Russia’s only year-round egress to the rest of the world.

Turkey had one asset of inestimable value—her geographical position at the junction of the paths of empire. For that reason England had been for a hundred years Turkey’s traditional protector, but the truth was that England no longer took Turkey seriously. After a century of supporting the Sultan against all comers because she preferred a weak, debilitated, and therefore malleable despot astride her road to India, England was at last beginning to tire of the fetters that bound her to what Winston Churchill amicably called “scandalous, crumbling, decrepit, penniless Turkey.” The Turkish reputation for misrule, corruption, and cruelty had been a stench in the nostrils of Europe for a long time. The Liberals who had governed England since 1906 were the inheritors of Gladstone’s celebrated appeal to expel the unspeakable Turk, “the one great anti-human specimen of humanity,” from Europe. Their policy was shaped by an image half Sick Man, half Terrible Turk. Lord Salisbury’s sporting metaphor after the Crimean War, “We have put our money on the wrong horse,” acquired the status of prophecy. British influence at the Porte was allowed to lapse just at the time when it might have proved beyond price.

A request by Turkey for a permanent alliance with Great Britain was turned down in 1911 through the medium of Winston Churchill who had visited Constantinople in 1909 and established “amicable relations,” as he conceived them, with Enver and other Young Turk ministers. In the imperial style used for addressing Oriental states, he suggested that although Britain could accept no alliance, Turkey would do well not to alienate British friendship by “reverting to the oppressive methods of the old regime or seeking to disturb the British status quo as it now exists.” Superbly surveying the world from his Admiralty post, he reminded Turkey that British friendship would be of value so long as Britain “alone among European states … retains supremacy of the sea.” That Turkey’s friendship or even her neutrality might be of equal value to Britain was never seriously considered by him or any other minister.

In July 1914, with the two-front war 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. An earlier Turkish proposal of alliance that had been left dangling now suddenly looked desirable. The Kaiser in his alarm insisted that “the thing to do now is to get every gun in readiness in the Balkans to shoot against the Slavs.” When Turkey began to haggle over terms, and made a show of leaning toward the Entente, the Kaiser in increasing panic directed his ambassador to reply to the Turkish offer “with unmistakably plain compliance .… Under no circumstances at all can we afford to turn them away.”

On July 28, the day Austria declared war on Serbia, Turkey formally asked Germany for a secret offensive and defensive alliance to become operative in the event of either party going to war with Russia. Within the same day, the offer was received in Berlin, accepted and a draft treaty signed by the Chancellor telegraphed back. At the last moment the Turks had difficulty bringing themselves to the point of tying the knot that would tie their fate to Germany’s. If only they could be sure Germany would win …

While they were hesitating England helpfully gave them a push by seizing two Turkish battleships then being built under contract in British yards. They were first-class capital ships equal to the best of Britain’s, one of which was armed with 13.5-inch guns. The spirited First Lord “requisitioned”—to use his own word—the Turkish warships on July 28. One, the Sultan Osman, had been completed in May and a first installment already paid, but when the Turks wished to bring her home, the British, supplying sinister hints about a Greek plot to attack her by submarine, had persuaded them to leave her in Britain until her sister ship, the Reshadieh, was completed and the two could return together. When the Reshadieh was ready early in July, further excuses for departure were offered. Speed and gunnery trials were unaccountably delayed. On learning of Churchill’s order, the Turkish captain, who was waiting with five hundred Turkish sailors aboard a transport in the Tyne, threatened to board his ships and hoist the Turkish flag. Not without relish the voice at the Admiralty gave orders to resist such an attempt “by armed force if necessary.”

The ships had cost Turkey the immense sum—for that time—of $30,000,000. The money had been raised by popular subscription after their defeats in the Balkan Wars aroused the Turkish public to the need of renovating the armed forces. Every Anatolian peasant had supplied his penny. Although not yet known to the public, news of the seizure caused, as Djemal Pasha, the Naval Minister, not excessively put it, “mental anguish” to his government.

England took no pains to assuage it. Grey, when officially informing the Turks of this simple piece of piracy on the Tyne, felt sure Turkey would understand why England found it necessary to take the ships for her “own needs in this crisis.” The financial and other loss to Turkey—a matter of “sincere regret” to His Majesty’s Government—would, he blandly said, be given “due consideration.” Compensation he did not mention. Under the cumulative effect of the “Sick Man” and “wrong horse” concepts, England had come to regard the entire Ottoman Empire as of less account than two extra warships. Grey’s telegram of regrets was sent on August 3. On the same day Turkey signed the treaty of alliance with Germany.

She did not, however, declare war on Russia, as she was pledged to do, or close the Black Sea or take any action publicly compromising strict neutrality. Having obtained an alliance with a major power on her own terms, Turkey proved in no hurry to help her new ally. Her uncertain ministers preferred to wait to see which way the opening battles of the war would go. Germany was far away, whereas the Russians and British were a near and ever-present menace. The now certain entry of England in the war was causing serious second thoughts. Afraid of just such a development, the German government instructed its ambassador, Baron Wangenheim, to obtain Turkey’s declaration of war on Russia “today if possible ,” for it was “of the greatest importance to prevent the Porte from escaping from us under the influence of England’s action.” The Porte, however, did not comply. All except Enver wished to delay an overt act against Russia until the progress of the war revealed some sign of its probable outcome.

In the Mediterranean gray shapes were maneuvering for coming combat. Wireless operators, tensely listening to their earphones, took down operational orders from far-away Admiralties. The immediate and primary task of the British and French fleets was to safeguard the passage from North Africa to France of the French Colonial Corps which, with its three instead of the normal two divisions, and its auxiliary arms, numbered over 80,000 men. The presence or absence of an entire army corps from its designated place in the line could be decisive upon the French plan of battle, and the war, as both sides believed, would be determined by the fate of France in the opening clash with Germany.

Both French and British Admiralties had their eyes fixed on the Goeben and Breslau as the chief menace to the French troop transports. The French had the largest fleet in the Mediterranean, with a force available for protecting their transports of 16 battleships, 6 cruisers, and 24 destroyers. The British Mediterranean fleet, based on Malta, while lacking dreadnoughts, was headed by three battle cruisers, Inflexible, Indomitable, and Indefatigable, each of 18,000 tons with an armament of eight 12-inch guns and a speed of 27 to 28 knots. They were designed to overtake and annihilate anything that floated except a battleship of the dreadnought class. In addition the British fleet included four armored cruisers of 14,000 tons, four light cruisers of under 5,000 tons, and 14 destroyers. The Italian fleet was neutral. The Austrian fleet, based on Pola at the head of the Adriatic, had eight active capital ships, including two new dreadnoughts with 12-inch guns and an appropriate number of other ships. A paper tiger, it was unprepared and proved inactive.

Germany, with the second largest fleet in the world, had only two warships in the Mediterranean. One was the battle cruiser Goeben, of 23,000 tons, as large as a dreadnought, with a recorded trial speed of 27.8 knots equal to that of the British Inflexibles and an approximately equal firepower. The other was the Breslau of 4,500 tons, a ship on a par with the British light cruisers. Because of her speed, which was greater than that of any French battleship or cruiser, the Goeben “would easily be able,” according to the dire forecast depicted by the British First Lord, “to avoid the French battle squadrons and brushing aside or outstripping their cruisers, break in upon the transports and sink one after another of these vessels crammed with soldiers.” If there was one thing characteristic of British naval thinking prior to the outbreak of war, it was the tendency to credit the German Navy with far greater audacity and willingness to take risks against odds than either the British themselves would have shown or than the Germans in fact did show when the test came.

To be ready to attack the French transports was indeed one reason why the Goeben and her consort had been sent to cruise the Mediterranean after their launching in 1912. At the final moment Germany discovered they had a more important function to perform. On August 3 when the Germans realized the need to bring every possible pressure upon the reluctant Turks to declare war, Admiral Tirpitz ordered Admiral Souchon to Constantinople.

Souchon, a dark, compact, and incisive sailor of fifty, had raised his flag aboard the Goeben in 1913. Since then he had steamed the inland seas and straits of his new command, roamed its coasts and capes, rounded its islands, visited its ports, familiarizing himself with the places and personalities with which he might have to deal in the event of war. He had been to Constantinople and met the Turks; he had exchanged courtesies with Italians, Greeks, Austrians, and French, with all but the British, who, he reported to the Kaiser, rigorously refused to allow their ships to anchor in the same ports at the same time as the Germans. Their habit was always to appear immediately afterward in order to wipe out any impression the Germans might have made, or, as the Kaiser elegantly expressed it, “to spit in the soup.”

At Haifa when he heard the news of Sarajevo, Souchon immediately felt a premonition of war and a simultaneous concern for his boilers. They had been leaking steam for some time, and the Goeben was in fact scheduled to be replaced by the Moltke in October and return to Kiel for repairs. Deciding to prepare for the worst at once, Souchon departed for Pola, after telegraphing ahead to the Admiralty to send him new boiler tubes and skilled repairmen to meet him there. Through July the work proceeded feverishly. Everyone in the crew who could wield a hammer was pressed into service. In eighteen days 4,000 damaged tubes were located and replaced. Still the repairs were not finished when Souchon received his warning telegram and left Pola lest he be bottled up in the Adriatic.

On August 1 he reached Brindisi on the heel of Italy where the Italians, making excuses about the sea being too choppy for tenders, refused him coal. Clearly Italy’s anticipated betrayal of the Triple Alliance was about to become a fact, depriving Souchon of her coaling facilities. He assembled his officers to discuss what should be their course of action. Their chances of breaking through the Allied screen to the Atlantic, while inflicting what damage they could upon the French transports on their way, depended upon their speed, and this depended in turn upon the boilers.

“How many boilers leaking steam?” Souchon asked his aide.

“Two during the last four hours.”

“Damn!” said the Admiral, raging at the fate which crippled his splendid ship at such an hour. He decided to make for Messina where he could rendezvous with German merchant ships from whom he could obtain coal. For the event of war Germany had divided the world’s seas into a system of districts, each under a German Supply Officer, who was empowered to assign all vessels in his area to places where German warships could meet them and to commandeer the resources of German banks and business firms for the warships’ needs.

All day the Goeben’s wireless, as she rounded the Italian boot, tapped out orders to German commercial steamers, calling them into Messina. At Taranto she was joined by the Breslau.

“Urgent. German ship Goeben at Taranto,” wired the British consul on August 2. The view had stirred ardent hopes at the Admiralty of first blood for the British Navy; locating the enemy was half the battle. But as Britain was not yet at war, the hunt could not yet be loosed. Ever on the tiptoe of readiness Churchill on July 31 had instructed the commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne, that his first task would be to aid in protecting the French transports “by covering and if possible bringing to action individual fast German ships, particularlyGoeben.” Milne was reminded that “the speed of your Squadrons is sufficient to enable you to choose your moment.” However, at the same time, and with a certain ambivalence, he was told “husband your force at the outset” and “do not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces.” The last edict was to ring like a buoy’s melancholy knell through the events of the next several days.

The “superior force” Churchill had in mind, as he later explained, was the Austrian fleet. Its battleships bore the same relationship to the British Inflexibles as the French battleships did to the Goeben; that is, they were more heavily armored and armed but slower. Churchill also later explained that his order was not intended “as a veto upon British ships ever engaging superior forces however needful the occasion.” If it was not intended as a veto, then it must have been intended for commanders to interpret as they saw fit, which brings the matter to that melting point of warfare—the temperament of the individual commander.

When the moment of live ammunition approaches, the moment to which all his professional training has been directed, when the lives of men under him, the issue of the combat, even the fate of a campaign may depend upon his decision at a given moment, what happens inside the heart and vitals of a commander? Some are made bold by the moment, some irresolute, some carefully judicious, some paralyzed and powerless to act.

Admiral Milne was made careful. A bachelor of fifty-nine, a polished figure in society, a former groom in waiting to Edward VII and still an intimate at court, son of an Admiral of the Fleet, grandson and godson of other admirals, a keen fisherman, deer stalker, and good shot, Sir Archibald Berkeley Milne appeared a natural choice in 1911 for the Mediterranean Command, the most fashionable, if no longer the premier post in the British Navy. He was appointed to it by the new First Lord, Mr. Churchill. The appointment was promptly, if privately, denounced as a “betrayal of the Navy” by Admiral Lord Fisher, former First Sea Lord, creator of the Dreadnought Fleet, the most passionately vital and least laconic Englishman of his time. His cherished project was to ensure the appointment for the war he predicted would break out in October, 1914, of Admiral Jellicoe, the navy’s gunnery expert, as Commander in Chief.

When Churchill appointed Milne to the Mediterranean, which Fisher believed put him in line for the post he wanted reserved for Jellicoe, his wrath was tremendous. He lashed out at Winston for “succumbing to court influence”; he roared and fumed and erupted in volcanic disgust for Milne as an “utterly useless commander” and “unfitted to be Senior Admiral afloat and practically Admiralissimo as you have now made him.” He referred to him variously as a “backstairs cad,” as a “serpent of the lowest type,” and as “Sir B. Mean who buys his Times second hand for one penny.” Everything in Fisher’s letters, which always carried flaming admonitions to “Burn this!”—happily ignored by his correspondents—appears ten times life size and must be reduced proportionately if they are to be read in any reasonable relation to reality. Neither a serpent of the lowest type nor a Nelson, Admiral Milne was an average, uninspired ornament of the Senior Service. When Fisher discovered that he was not in fact being considered for Commander in Chief, he turned his fiery attentions upon other matters, leaving Sir B. Mean in untroubled enjoyment of the Mediterranean.

In June 1914 Milne, too, visited Constantinople, where he dined with the Sultan and his ministers and entertained them aboard his flagship without concerning himself, any more than did other Englishmen, about Turkey’s possible place in Mediterranean strategy.

By August 1, after receiving Churchill’s first warning, he had assembled at Malta his own squadron of three battle cruisers and the second squadron of armored cruisers, light cruisers, and destroyers commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge. Early on August 2 he received a second order from Churchill, saying, “Goeben must be shadowed by two battle cruisers” and the Adriatic “watched,” presumably against the appearance of the Austrian fleet. The specific order to send two battle cruisers after the Goeben clearly envisaged combat, but Milne did not obey it. Instead he sent the Indomitable and Indefatigable along with Troubridge’s squadron to watch the Adriatic. Having been informed that the Goeben had been seen that morning off Taranto heading southwest, he sent one light cruiser, the Chatham, to search the Strait of Messina where he reasoned the Goeben would be and where in fact she was. The Chatham left Malta at 5:00 P.M., ran through the Strait at seven next morning and reported back that the Goeben was not there. The search had missed by six hours, Admiral Souchon having already left.

He had reached Messina the previous afternoon just as Italy declared her neutrality. Again refused coal by the Italians, he was able, however, to take on two thousand tons provided by a German merchant shipping firm. He requisitioned, as a tender, a merchant steamer, the General of the German East Africa line, after debarking her passengers who were given the price of a railroad ticket as far as Naples. Having received no orders as yet from his Admiralty, Souchon decided to put himself in a position to taste action at the earliest moment after hostilities should begin and before superior forces could prevent him. In the darkness, at 1:00 A.M. on August 3, he left Messina, heading west toward the Algerian coast where he planned to bombard the French embarkation ports of Bone and Philippeville.

At the same hour Churchill sent a third order to Milne: “Watch on mouth of Adriatic should be maintained but Goeben is your objective. Follow her and shadow her wherever she goes and be ready to act upon declaration of war which appears probable and imminent.” When he received this, Admiral Milne did not know where the Goeben was, the Chatham having lost her. He believed she was heading west to attack the French transports, and from a report he had received of a German collier waiting at Majorca he concluded that she would thereafter make for Gibraltar and the open sea. He now detached the Indomitable and Indefatigable from their watch on the Adriatic and sent them westward to hunt for the Goeben. All day of August 3 the Goeben, steaming westward from Messina, was followed by her hunters, a day’s distance behind.

At the same time the French fleet was steaming across from Toulon to North Africa. It should have left a day earlier, but in Paris on August 2 occurred the unhappy collapse of the Naval Minister, Dr. Gauthier, after he was discovered to have forgotten to send torpedo boats into the Channel. In the uproar that followed, the orders to the Mediterranean fleet suffered. Messimy, the War Minister, became possessed by a need to hasten the arrival of the Colonial Corps. The embarrassed Dr. Gauthier, endeavoring to cover his lapse in the Channel by jumping to the opposite extreme of belligerency, proposed to attack the Goeben and Breslau before a declaration of war. “His nerves were on edge,” President Poincaré thought. The Naval Minister next challenged the War Minister to a duel, but after fervent efforts by their colleagues to separate and calm the combatants, he embraced Messimy in tears and was persuaded to resign for reasons of health.

French uncertainty over the British role, which had not yet been declared, further complicated matters. At 4:00 P.M. the Cabinet managed to compose a more or less coherent telegram to the French Commander in Chief, Admiral Boué de Lapeyrère, which informed him that the Goeben andBreslau had been sighted at Brindisi, that as soon as he received the signal for the opening of hostilities he was to “stop them,” and that he was to protect the transports by covering them, not by convoy.

Admiral de Lapeyrère, a forceful character largely responsible for bringing the French Navy out of its rusty obsolescence, promptly decided to form convoys anyway, since, in his view, the “doubtful” role of the British left him no choice. He started his fires at once and got under way at four o’clock next morning, a few hours after Souchon left Messina. During the next twenty-four hours the three squadrons of the French fleet steamed southward bound for Oran, Algiers, and Philippeville while the Goeben and Breslau were coming westward toward the same destination.

At 6:00 P.M., August 3, Admiral Souchon’s wireless told him that war had been declared on France. He pressed forward, as did the French, but his speed was greater. At 2:00 A.M. on August 4 he was approaching his goal and the climactic moment of fire, when he received Admiral Tirpitz’s order to “proceed at once to Constantinople.” Unwilling to turn back without, as he wrote, “tasting that moment of fire so ardently desired by us all!” he kept on course until the Algerian coast came in view in the early morning light. He thereupon ran up the Russian flag, approached within range, and opened fire, “sowing death and panic.” “Our trick succeeded brilliantly,” enthused one of his crew who later published an account of the voyage. According to the Kriegsbrauch, or Conduct of War manual issued by the German General Staff, “The putting on of enemy uniforms and the use of enemy or neutral flags or insignia with the aim of deception are declared permissible.” As the official embodiment of German thinking on these matters, the Kriegsbrauch was considered to supersede Germany’s signature on the Hague Convention of which Article 23 prohibited the use of disguise in enemy colors.

After the shelling of Philippeville—and of Bone by the Breslau—Admiral Souchon turned back for Messina by the way he had come. He planned to coal there from German merchant steamers before setting course for Constantinople 1,200 miles away.

Admiral de Lapeyrère, hearing of the bombardment by wireless almost at the moment it was happening, assumed the Goeben would continue westward, perhaps to attack Algiers next, on her way to break out to the Atlantic. He forced his speed in the hope of intercepting the enemy “if he presented himself.” He detached no ships to scout for the Goeben because, as he reasoned, if the enemy appeared he would be given battle; if he did not appear he would be of no further immediate concern. Like everyone else on the Allied side, Admiral de Lapeyrère thought of the Goebenpurely in terms of naval strategy. That she might perform a political mission, profoundly affecting and prolonging the course of the war, neither he nor anyone else ever considered. When the Goeben and Breslau did not again appear across the French path, Admiral de Lapeyrère did not seek them out. Thus on the morning of August 4 the first opportunity was lost. Another was immediately offered.

At 9:30 that morning the Indomitable and Indefatigable which had been steaming west all during the night encountered the Goeben and Breslau off Bone as the German ships were heading east back to Messina. If Grey had sent his ultimatum to Germany the night before, immediately following his speech to Parliament, Britain and Germany would then have been at war and the cruisers’ guns would have spoken. As it was, the ships passed each other in silence at 8,000 yards, well within range, and had to be content with training their guns and omitting the customary exchange of salutes.

Admiral Souchon, bent on putting as much distance between himself and the British as he could before hostilities opened, sped off, straining his ship to the last ounce of speed his boilers could attain. The Indomitable and Indefatigable turned around and made after him, determined to keep in range until war should be declared. Their wireless, like a huntsman’s bugle sounding a find, reported the position to Admiral Milne, who immediately informed the Admiralty, “Indomitable and Indefatigable shadowing Goeben and Breslau, 37.44 North, 7:56 East.”

The Admiralty quivered in an agony of frustration. There, in the same waters that washed round Cape Trafalgar, British ships had the enemy within range—and could not fire. “Very good. Hold her. War imminent,” telegraphed Churchill, and rushed off a “most urgent” minute to the Prime Minister and Grey suggesting that if the Goeben attacked the French transports, Milne’s cruisers should be authorized “at once to engage her.” Unfortunately, when reporting their position, Admiral Milne had neglected to say which way the Goeben and Breslau were going, so that Churchill assumed they were heading west with further evil intent upon the French.

“Winston with all his war paint on,” as Asquith put it, “is longing for a sea fight to sink the Goeben.” Asquith was willing to let him have it, but the Cabinet to which he unfortunately mentioned the matter, refused to authorize an act of war before the ultimatum should expire at midnight. Thus a second opportunity was lost, though it would have been lost anyway because Churchill’s order was contingent upon the Goeben attacking the French transports, a goal she had already forsaken.

Now began a desperate chase across the calm summer surface of the sea with Admiral Souchon attempting to outdistance his pursuers and the British attempting to keep him in range until midnight. Driving his ship to its utmost, Souchon brought it up to 24 knots. Stokers who ordinarily could not work in the heat and coal dust for longer than two hours at a time were kept shoveling at an increased pace while bursting tubes scalded them with steam. Four died between morning and evening while the pace was maintained. Slowly, perceptibly, the space between prey and pursuers widened. The Indomitable and Indefatigable, also suffering from boiler trouble and understaffed furnaces, were not keeping up. In the afternoon they were joined in the long, silent chase by the light cruiser Dublin commanded by Captain John Kelly. As the hours wore on, the gap increased until at five o’clock the Indomitable and Indefatigable dropped out of range. Only the Dublin followed, keeping the Goeben in sight. At seven o’clock a fog descended. By nine, off the coast of Sicily, the Goeben and Breslau disappeared in the gathering gloom.

At the Admiralty all during that day Churchill and his staff “suffered the tortures of Tantalus.” At 5:00 P.M. the First Sea Lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg, observed there was still time to sink the Goeben before dark. Restrained by the Cabinet decision, Churchill could not give the order. While the British waited for the midnight signal, the Goeben reached Messina and coal.

When dawn broke the British, now at war and free to fire, could not get at her. From the Dublin’s last report before contact was lost, they judged she was at Messina, but in the meantime a new obstacle had intervened. An Admiralty order informing Milne of Italy’s declaration of neutrality instructed him to “respect this rigidly and not to allow a ship to come within six miles of the Italian coast.” The veto, which was designed to prevent some “petty incident” from causing trouble with Italy, was perhaps an excessive caution.

Prohibited by the six-mile limit from entering the Strait of Messina, Admiral Milne put a guard at both exits. As he was convinced that the Goeben would again head west, he himself on his flagship Inflexible, together with the Indefatigable, guarded the exit to the western Mediterranean while only a single light cruiser, the Gloucester, commanded by Captain Howard Kelly, brother of the Dublin’s commander, was sent to patrol the exit to the eastern Mediterranean.* Also because he wanted to concentrate his strength to the west, Admiral Milne sent the Indomitable to coal nearby at Bizerte instead of further east at Malta. Thus none of the three Inflexibles was in a place where it could intercept the Goeben if she went east.

For two days, August 5 and 6, Milne patrolled the waters west of Sicily with the fixed idea that the Goeben intended to break westward. The Admiralty, which likewise could think of no other course for the Goeben but to break through Gibraltar or hole up at Pola, did not disapprove his arrangements.

During these two days, until the evening of August 6, Admiral Souchon was coaling against difficulties at Messina. The Italians were insisting on the laws of neutrality that required him to depart within twenty-four hours of his arrival. The coaling, which had to be done from German merchant steamers whose decks had to be ripped up and railings torn away to permit the transfer, was taking three times as long as usual. While the Admiral argued points of law with the port authorities, every man in his crew was pressed into shoveling coal. Though encouraged by extra beer rations, band music, and patriotic speeches by the officers, the men kept fainting from exertion in the August heat until blackened and sweat-soaked bodies lay all over the ship like so many corpses. By noon on August 6 when 1,500 tons had been taken on, not enough to reach the Dardanelles, no one was left capable of further effort. “With a heavy heart,” Admiral Souchon ordered loading to stop, a rest for all hands, and readiness for departure at five o’clock.

Two messages had reached him at Messina which increased his peril and faced him with a critical decision. Tirpitz’s order to go to Constantinople was suddenly canceled by a telegram saying, “For political reasons entry into Constantinople inadvisable at the present time.” The reversal was caused by divided counsel in Turkey. Enver had given the German ambassador permission for the Goeben and Breslau to pass through the mine fields guarding the Dardanelles. Since their passage would clearly violate the neutrality that Turkey was still publicly maintaining, the Grand Vizier and other ministers insisted the permission must be withdrawn.

Tirpitz’s second message informed Souchon that the Austrians could give no naval help to Germany in the Mediterranean, and left it up to Souchon to decide for himself where to go in the circumstances.

His boilers, Souchon knew, could not give him the speed necessary to run through the heavy enemy screen in a dash for Gibraltar. He rebelled against holing himself up in Pola, dependent on the Austrians. He decided to make for Constantinople regardless of orders to the contrary. His purpose, in his own words, was quite definite: “to force the Turks, even against their will, to spread the war to the Black Sea against their ancient enemy, Russia.”

He ordered steam up for departure at five o’clock. All on board as well as on shore knew the Goeben and Breslau were preparing to run a gauntlet against heavy odds. All day excited Sicilians crowded the quays selling postcards and last souvenirs to “those about to die” and hawked extras headlined “In the Claws of Death,” “Shame or Defeat,” “Voyage to Death or Glory.”

Expecting to be pursued, Admiral Souchon deliberately chose to leave while it was still light so that he might be seen steering northward as if for the Adriatic. When night fell he planned to change course to the southeast and elude pursuit under cover of darkness. As he lacked enough coal for the whole voyage, everything depended on his being able, unseen, to make rendezvous with a collier which had been ordered to meet him off Cape Malea at the southeast corner of Greece.

When the Goeben and Breslau came out of the eastern exit of the Strait of Messina they were immediately seen and followed by the Gloucester, which was patrolling outside. As the Gloucester was a match for the Breslau but could have been knocked out of the sea by the heavy guns of the Goeben at 18,000 yards, she could do no more than keep the enemy in sight until reinforcements came up. Captain Kelly telegraphed position and course to Admiral Milne who, with all three battle cruisers, was still patrolling west of Sicily, and followed to seaward of the Goeben. As darkness fell, toward eight o’clock he changed course to landward in order to keep the Goeben in the light of the moon as it rose on his right. The maneuver brought him within range but did not tempt the Goeben to fire. In the clear night the two dark shapes, dogged by a third, ran steadily northward, their smokestacks, owing to inferior coal taken on at Messina, blotching the moonlit sky with black clouds, which rendered them visible at a long distance.

Admiral Milne, on learning that the Goeben had left Messina by the eastern exit, stayed where he was. He reasoned that if the Goeben continued on her given course she would be intercepted by Admiral Troubridge’s squadron which was watching the Adriatic. If, as he was inclined to believe, her course was a feint and she should turn west after all, his own battle cruiser squadron would intercept her. No other possibility occurred to him. Only one ship, the light cruiser Dublin, was sent east with orders to join Troubridge’s squadron.

Meanwhile Souchon, unable to shake the Gloucester, could not afford to lead a false course any longer if he was to reach the Aegean on his available coal. Shadowed or not he must alter course to the east. At 10:00 P.M. he turned, at the same time jamming the Gloucester’s wave length in the hope of preventing his change of course from being reported. He did not succeed. Captain Kelly’s wireless, signaling the change of course, reached both Milne and Troubridge about midnight. Milne then set out for Malta where he intended to coal and “continue the chase.” It was now up to Troubridge, in whose direction the enemy was coming, to intercept him.

Troubridge had taken up his station at the mouth of the Adriatic under orders to “prevent the Austrians from coming out and the Germans from entering.” From the Goeben’s course it was clear she was heading away from the Adriatic, but he saw that if he steamed south at once he might be able to head her off. Could he, however, hope to engage her on terms offering a valid hope of victory? His squadron consisted of four armored cruisers, Defence, Black Prince, Warrior, and Duke of Edinburgh, each of 14,000 tons, with 9.2-inch guns whose range was considerably less than the range of the Goeben’s 11-inch guns. The Admiralty’s original order, forwarded to him apparently as an instruction by his superior, Admiral Milne, precluded action “against superior forces.” Failing to receive any orders from Milne, Troubridge decided to try to intercept the enemy if he could do it before 6:00 A.M. when the first light of dawn in the east would give him favorable visibility and help to equalize the disadvantage of range. He set off at full speed southward shortly after midnight. Four hours later he changed his mind.

As naval attaché with the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese War, Troubridge had learned respect for the efficiency of long-range fire. Besides enjoying the correct lineage from a great-grandfather who had fought with Nelson at the Nile and a reputation as the “handsomest officer in the Navy in his younger days,” he “believed in seamanship as a soldier of Cromwell believed in the Bible.” Churchill valued him sufficiently to appoint him to the newly created Naval War Staff in 1912. But seamanship and excellence in staff work do not necessarily aid a commander when he faces imminent and deadly combat.

When by 4:00 A.M. Troubridge had not yet found the Goeben, he decided he could no longer hope to engage her under favorable circumstances. He believed that in daylight the Goeben, if intercepted, could stand off outside his range and sink his four cruisers one after another. While she was engaged in this feat of marksmanship and slaughter, he evidently saw little opportunity for any one of his four cruisers and eight destroyers to reach her by gunfire or torpedo. He decided she was a “superior force” which the Admiralty had said he was not to engage. He broke off the chase, so informed Milne by wireless and, after cruising off the island of Zante until 10:00 A.M., still hoping for one of Milne’s battle cruisers to appear, he finally put into the port of Zante preparatory to resuming his watch for the Austrians in the Adriatic. Thus a third opportunity was lost, and the Goeben, carrying her tremendous cargo of fate, steamed on her way.

At 5:30 A.M. Milne, still crediting the Goeben with intent to turn back to the west, signaled Gloucester “gradually to drop astern to avoid capture.” Neither he nor the Admiralty yet thought of the Goeben as a ship in flight, far more anxious to avoid combat than to court it, and exerting all her skills and speed to reach her distant goal. Rather, under the impression of the Philippeville raid and the years of mounting apprehensions of the German Navy, the English thought of her as a corsair ready to turn and pounce and roam the seas as a commerce raider. They expected to bring her to bay one way or another, but their chase lacked an imperative urgency because, always expecting her to turn, they did not realize she was trying to get away to the East—specifically to the Dardanelles. The failure was less naval than political. “I can recall no great sphere of policy about which the British Government was less completely informed than the Turkish,” Churchill admitted ruefully long afterward. The condition was rooted in the Liberals’ fundamental dislike of Turkey.

By now it was full daylight of August 7. Only the Gloucester, ignoring Milne’s signal, was still following the Goeben as, rejoined by the Breslau, she approached the coast of Greece. Admiral Souchon, who could not afford to meet his collier within enemy view, became desperate to shake off his shadow. He ordered the Breslau to drop back in an attempt to ride off the Gloucester by passing back and forth in front of her as if laying mines and by other harassing tactics.

Captain Kelly, still expecting reinforcements, became desperate on his part to delay the Goeben. When the Breslau dropped back to intimidate him, he determined to attack her with intent to force the Goeben to turn around to protect her, regardless of whether she was a “superior force” or not. In true damn-the-torpedoes style he opened fire, which was returned by the Breslau. As expected the Goeben turned and fired too. No hits were scored by anyone. A small Italian passenger steamer en route from Venice to Constantinople, which happened to be passing, witnessed the action. Captain Kelly broke off action against the Breslau and dropped back. Admiral Souchon, who could not afford to spend precious coal on a chase, resumed course. Captain Kelly resumed his shadowing.

For three more hours he held on, keeping the Goeben in sight until Milne signaled imperatively, forbidding him to continue the pursuit beyond Cape Matapan at the tip of Greece. At 4:30 in the afternoon, as the Goeben rounded the Cape to enter the Aegean, the Gloucester at last gave up the chase. Free of surveillance, Admiral Souchon disappeared among the isles of Greece to meet his collier.

Some eight hours later, shortly after midnight, having coaled and made repairs, Admiral Milne with the Inflexible, Indomitable, Indefatigable, and the light cruiser Weymouth left Malta heading east. Proceeding at 12 knots, perhaps because he thought speed at this stage was a waste of coal, his pursuit was unhurried. At two o’clock next afternoon, August 8, when he was about halfway between Malta and Greece, he was brought to a sharp halt by word from the Admiralty that Austria had declared war on England. Unfortunately the word was an error by a clerk who released the prearranged code telegram for hostilities with Austria by mistake. It was enough to make Milne abandon the chase and take up a position where he could not be cut off from Malta by the possible emergence of the Austrian fleet and where he ordered Troubridge’s squadron and the Gloucesterto join him. One more opportunity was lost.

They remained concentrated there for nearly twenty-four hours until noon next day when, upon learning from an embarrassed Admiralty that Austria had not declared war after all, Admiral Milne once more resumed the hunt. By this time the Goeben’s trail, since she was last seen entering the Aegean on the afternoon of August 7, was over forty hours old. Trying to decide in what direction to look for her, Admiral Milne, according to his own later account, considered four possible courses the Goeben might take. He still thought she might attempt to escape westward to the Atlantic, or might head south to attack the Suez Canal, or might seek refuge in a Greek port or even attack Salonika—two rather exotic suppositions in view of the fact that Greece was neutral. For some reason he did not credit Admiral Souchon with intent to violate Turkish neutrality; the Dardanelles as a destination did not occur to Admiral Milne any more than it did to the Admiralty at home. His strategy, as he conceived it, was to keep the Goeben bottled up in Aegean “to the north.”

“To the north” was, of course, exactly where Souchon was going, but as the Turks had mined the entrance to the Straits he could not enter without their permission. He could go no further until he had coaled and communicated with Constantinople. His collier, the Bogadir, was waiting in Greek disguise at Cape Malea as ordered. Fearing to be discovered, he ordered it to make for Denusa, an island farther inside the Aegean. Unaware that the British chase had been discontinued, he lay low all during the day of August 8 and crept in to the deserted coast of Denusa only on the morning of the 9th. Here, all day, the Goeben and Breslau coaled while steam was kept up in their boilers so that they might depart on half an hour’s notice. A lookout post was erected on a hilltop to keep watch for the British who were then five hundred miles away keeping watch for the Austrians.

Admiral Souchon did not dare use his wireless to communicate with Constantinople because a signal strong enough to cover the distance would have at the same time betrayed his location to the enemy. He ordered the General, which had followed him from Messina along a more southerly course, to go to Smyrna and from there transmit a message to the German naval attaché in Constantinople: “Indispensable military necessity requires attack upon enemy in Black Sea. Go to any lengths to arrange for me to pass through Straits at once with permission of Turkish Government if possible, without formal approval if necessary.”

All day of the 9th Souchon waited for an answer. At one moment his wireless operators picked up a garbled text, but its meaning could not be deciphered. Night came without a reply. By this time Milne’s squadron, having discovered the Austrian error, was advancing toward the Aegean again. Souchon decided, if no answer came, to force the Dardanelles if necessary. At 3:00 A.M. of August 10 he heard the wireless signals of the British squadron as it entered the Aegean. He could wait no longer. Just then a different series of syncopated buzzes came over the earphones. It was the General, at last, transmitting the Delphic message: “Enter. Demand surrender of forts. Capture pilot.”

Uncertain whether this meant him to make a show of force to save Turkish face or whether he would have to force his way through, Souchon left Denusa at dawn. While all day he steamed north at 18 knots, all day Admiral Milne cruised across the exit of the Aegean to prevent him from coming out. At four that afternoon Souchon sighted Tenedos and the plains of Troy; at five he reached the entrance to the historic and impregnable passageway under the guns of the great fortress of Chanak. With his crew at battle stations and every nerve on board stretched in suspense, he slowly approached. The signal flag, “Send a pilot,” fluttered up his mast.

That morning there arrived at Constantinople the small Italian passenger steamer which had witnessed the Gloucester’s action against the Goeben and Breslau. Among its passengers were the daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren of the American ambassador Mr. Henry Morgenthau. They brought an exciting tale of the boom of guns, puffs of white smoke, and the twisting and maneuvering of faraway ships. The Italian captain had told them that two of the ships were the Goeben and Breslau which had just made their notorious exit from Messina. Mr. Morgenthau, having occasion to meet Ambassador Wangenheim a few hours later, mentioned his daughter’s story, in which Wangenheim displayed “an agitated interest.” Immediately after lunch, accompanied by his Austrian colleague, he appeared at the American Embassy where the two ambassadors “planted themselves solemnly in chairs” in front of the American lady and “subjected her to a most minute, though very polite, cross-examination .… They would not permit her to leave out a single detail; they wished to know how many shots had been fired, what direction the German ships had taken, what everybody on board had said and so on .… They left the house in almost jubilant mood.”

They had learned that the Goeben and Breslau had escaped the British fleet. It remained to obtain Turkish consent to let them through the Dardanelles. Enver Pasha, who as War Minister controlled the mine fields, was more than willing but he had to play a complicated game vis-à-vis his more nervous colleagues. A member of the German Military Mission was with him that afternoon when another member, Lieutenant Colonel von Kress, was urgently announced. Kress said that the commander at the Chanak reported the Goeben and Breslau requesting permission to enter the Straits and wanted immediate instructions. Enver replied he could not decide without consulting the Grand Vizier. Kress insisted that the fort required an answer at once. Enver sat perfectly silent for several minutes, and then said abruptly, “They are to be allowed to enter.”

Kress and the other officer, who had unconsciously been holding their breaths, found themselves breathing again.

“If the English warships follow them in are they to be fired on?” Kress next asked. Again Enver refused to answer, pleading that the Cabinet must be consulted; but Kress insisted that the fort could not be left without definite instructions.

“Are the English to be fired on or not?” A long pause followed. Finally Enver answered, “Yes.”

At the entrance to the Straits, 150 miles away, a Turkish destroyer put out from shore and approached the Goeben, watched in tense anxiety by every eye on deck. A signal flag fluttered briefly and was recognized as “Follow me.” At nine o’clock that evening, August 10, the Goeben andBreslau entered the Dardanelles, 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.”

Instantly telegraphed round the world, the news reached Malta that night. Admiral Milne, still probing among the Aegean islands, learned it at noon next day. So little did his superiors understand the mission of the Goeben that they instructed him to establish a blockade of the Dardanelles “in case the German ships came out.”

Prime Minister Asquith’s comment on the news was that it was “interesting.” But, he wrote in his diary, “as we shall insist” on the Goeben’s crew being replaced by Turks who will not be able to navigate her, “it does not much matter.” To “insist” appeared to Asquith to be all that was necessary.

Allied ambassadors at once insisted, furiously and repeatedly. The Turks, still hoping to hold on to neutrality as a bargaining counter, decided to ask the Germans to disarm the Goeben and Breslau “temporarily and superficially only,” but Wangenheim, invited to hear this proposal, absolutely refused. After further agitated discussion, one minister suddenly suggested: “Could not the Germans have sold us these ships? Could not their arrival be regarded as delivery under contract?”

Everyone was delighted with this superb idea which not only solved a dilemma but dealt the British poetic justice for their seizure of the two Turkish battleships. With Germany’s agreement, announcement of the sale was made to the diplomatic corps, and shortly thereafter the Goeben andBreslau, renamed the Jawus and Midilli, flying the Turkish flag and with their crews wearing Turkish fezzes, were reviewed by the Sultan amid the wild enthusiasm of his people. The sudden appearance of the two German warships, as if sent by a genie to take the place of the two of which they had been robbed, put the populace in transports of delight and invested the Germans with a halo of popularity.

Still the Turks postponed the declaration of war for which Germany was pressing. Instead, they themselves began demanding from the Allies an increasing price for their neutrality. Russia was so alarmed by the Goeben’s arrival at the doors of the Black Sea that she was willing to pay. Like the sinner who renounces lifelong bad habits when in extremity, she was even ready to renounce Constantinople. On August 13 Foreign Minister Sazonov proposed to France to offer Turkey a solemn guarantee of her territorial integrity and a promise of “great financial advantages at the expense of Germany” in return for her neutrality. He was actually willing to include a promise that Russia would abide by the guarantee “even if we are victorious.”

The French agreed and “moved heaven and earth,” in the words of President Poincaré, to keep Turkey quiet and neutral and to persuade Britain to join in a joint guarantee of Turkish territory. But the British could not bring themselves to bargain or pay for the neutrality of their onetime protégé. Churchill, at his “most bellicose” and “violently anti-Turk,” proposed to the Cabinet to send a torpedo flotilla through the Dardanelles to sink the Goeben and Breslau. It was the one gesture which might have carried weight with vacillating Turks and the only gesture which could have prevented what ultimately happened. One of the keenest and boldest minds in France had already suggested it on the day the Straits were violated. “We should go right in after them,” said General Gallieni; “otherwise Turkey will come in against us.” In the British Cabinet Churchill’s idea was vetoed by Lord Kitchener, who said England could not afford to alienate the Moslems by taking the offensive against Turkey. Turkey should be left “to strike the first blow.”

For nearly three months, while the Allies alternately blustered and bargained and while German military influence at Constantinople daily increased, the groups within the Turkish government disputed and wavered. By the end of October, Germany determined that their endless procrastination must be brought to an end. Turkey’s active belligerency, in order to blockade Russia from the south, had become imperative.

On October 28 the former Goeben and Breslau, under Admiral Souchon’s command and accompanied by several Turkish torpedo boats, entered the Black Sea and shelled Odessa, Sevastopol, and Feodosia, causing some civilian loss of life and sinking a Russian gunboat.

Aghast at the fait accompli laid at their door by the German Admiral, a majority of the Turkish government wished to disavow it but was effectively prevented. The operating factor was the presence of the Goeben at the Golden Horn, commanded by her own officers, manned by her own crew, disdainful of restraint. As Talaat Bey pointed out, the government, the palace, the capital, they themselves, their homes, their sovereign and Caliph, were under her guns. Dismissal of the German military and naval missions which the Allies were demanding as proof of Turkey’s neutrality, they were unable to perform. The act of war having been committed in the Turks’ name, Russia declared war on Turkey on November 4, followed by Britain and France on November 5.

Thereafter the red edges of war spread over another half of the world. Turkey’s neighbors, Bulgaria, Rumania, Italy, and Greece, were eventually drawn in. Thereafter, with her exit to the Mediterranean closed, Russia was left dependent on Archangel, icebound half the year, and on Vladivostok, 8,000 miles from the battlefront. With the Black Sea closed, her exports dropped by 98 per cent and her imports by 95 per cent. The cutting off of Russia with all its consequences, the vain and sanguinary tragedy of Gallipoli, the diversion of Allied strength in the campaigns of Mesopotamia, Suez, and Palestine, the ultimate breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent history of the Middle East, followed from the voyage of the Goeben.

Other sequels were as bitter if less momentous. Meeting the censure of his comrades, Admiral Troubridge demanded a Court of Inquiry which ordered his trial by court-martial in November, 1914, on the charge that “he did forbear to chase H.I.G.M.’s ship Goeben, being an enemy then flying.” On the basic issue, whether he was justified in regarding the Goeben as a “superior force,” the Navy, for its own sake, acquitted him. Though he performed further service in the war, he was never again, owing to feeling in the fleet, given a command at sea. Admiral Milne, recalled on August 18 in order to leave the Mediterranean under French command, came home to be retired. On August 30 the Admiralty announced that his conduct and dispositions in regard to the Goeben and Breslau had been made the subject of “careful examination” with the result that “their Lordships approved the measures taken by him in all respects.” Their Lordships, who had been blind to the importance of Constantinople, did not seek a scapegoat.

* The Strait of Messina runs north and south with the northern exit giving on the western Mediterranean and the southern exit on the eastern Mediterranean. For the sake of geographical clarity these are referred to as the western and eastern exits respectively.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!