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A fugitive ship, an ocean of bloodshed


The Ship That Changed the World, by Dan Van Der Vat

August 1914, by Barbara Tuchman

ON August 3, 1914, the eyes of the world were on Germany as its armies stood poised to invade Belgium and France, precipitating the First World War.

Meanwhile, 1,300 miles away in the Mediterranean, another drama was unfolding which at the time seemed just a sideshow . . . the escape of the German warship Goeben to the Turkish capital Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Amid the vast literature of 1914-1918, the episode is probably little remembered these days. But Dan Van Der Vat’s masterful, thrilling account and Barbara Tuchman’s condensed version  – part of her magisterial overview of the war’s opening – tell the tale magnificently.

The pivotal role of the Goeben in bringing Turkey into the war arguably prolonged the global conflict by two years, at a cost of millions of lives. It also possibly helped enable the Russian Revolution and left a strife-torn geopolitical legacy in the Middle East that haunts us to this day.

Yet it all might have been prevented had the Royal Navy shown more dash and daring as it strove in vain to catch and destroy the fugitive ship.

The Goeben, a 23,000-ton big-gun battlecruiser and its smaller companion, the light cruiser Breslau, were steaming west across the Mediterranean on August 3 when at 6pm a radio message told them Germany and France were at war.

Rear-Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, aboard the Goeben, powered his ships towards Algeria to attack French troop-carrying vessels.  

But at 2am on August 4, another message brought a startling change of plan. Germany had secretly concluded an alliance with the Ottoman Empire – Turkey – and both ships were ordered to turn round and sail immediately to Constantinople.

Although France had declared war, Britain had not. Later that day, it would issue an ultimatum to Germany, but it would not expire until midnight on August 4. 

However, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, ordered the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet to shadow the two German warships, and the fleet commander, Admiral Sir Archibald Berkeley Milne, despatched the battlecruisers Indomitable and Indefatigable westwards.

But by then, after briefly bombarding two Algerian embarkation ports, Goeben and Breslau were already steaming back east on the 1,500-mile voyage to Constantinople.  

Astonishingly, at 9.30am on August 4, they were spotted by Indomitable and Indefatigable, which were coming the opposite way in pursuit. 

The German vessels were only about five miles distant, well within range, and the British warships trained their guns on them. But they could not open fire. They were not at war. Instead, their crews could only watch in frustration as Goeben and Breslau slid past them towards the east.

Indomitable and Indefatigable turned to follow. However, as the day wore on, they were outpaced as Souchon piled on speed, despite four of his stokers being scalded to death when overworked boiler tubes exploded.

By 5pm, the British battlecruisers had lost sight of their quarry. The light cruiser Dublin kept the fugitives in view until 7pm, when they finally disappeared into a fog bank near Sicily. Five hours later, Britain declared war on Germany.

On August 6, Goeben and Breslau were reported to be coaling in the Strait of Messina, which separates Sicily from mainland Italy. But because Italy had declared neutrality and imposed a six-mile maritime limit, British ships were forbidden by the Admiralty from approaching. The Germans had no such qualms.

The mindset of the British was a formidable handicap. Turkey was still officially neutral and although German influence there was known to be strong, it never occurred to anyone that Souchon was making for Constantinople. 

The Admiralty believed he would once more turn west, or go north to the Adriatic to join the Austrian fleet, even though Austria had not yet declared war.

So Milne stationed his powerful battlecruisers along the northern exit of the Messina strait – the route to the western Mediterranean – and left only the light cruiser Gloucester to guard the southern exit. At 5.10pm on August 6, the German ships slipped out of the southern exit.

Gloucester shadowed the Goeben and Breslau as they steamed north towards the Adriatic, but the move was a feint. Soon after, the German ships turned south across the Ionian Sea, heading for the Aegean and on to Constantinople.

Now came the most controversial incident of the whole saga. Rear-Admiral Ernest Troubridge, whose squadron was patrolling the mouth of the Adriatic, realised that if he went south with his force, he might intercept the German ships off the west coast of Greece.

He set off in pursuit with his four armoured cruisers and eight destroyers. But Troubridge was a troubled man. He had no battlecruiser to challenge Goeben, and at the back of his mind was a warning by Churchill to the Mediterranean Fleet not to engage a superior enemy force. 

Churchill later claimed that by ‘a superior force’ he had meant the Austrian fleet, not two German warships fleeing across the high seas. Troubridge, however, was not to know this.

He feared that once he caught up with Goeben, the battlecruiser would simply sit out of range of his ships and pick them off one by one. Its 11in guns could throw a shell eight miles, while the British range was a mere five. Goeben was also faster and better armoured.

Troubridge agonised. Dreading he would ‘make the name of the Mediterranean Fleet stink’, if he did not fight, he signalled to his squadron that he intended to attack the German ships.

Through the early hours of August 7, doubts continued to torture him. He considered his only chance was to engage Goeben and Breslau in half-light around dawn, hoping the weather would be murky and he could close in on the Germans.

But 4am, Troubridge came ‘reluctantly’ to the conclusion that conditions were not right – visibility was too extensive. He called off the chase. A colleague later found him sobbing uncontrollably in his cabin.

Goeben and Breslau thus had a free run into the Aegean, through the Dardanelles and on to Constantinople, arriving there on August 10. Despite Admiralty anger over the escape, the British were not unduly worried, believing they had simply bottled up a dangerous enemy ship in a neutral port.

The Germans, desperate to bring the wavering Ottoman Empire into the war, had other ideas. In an audacious move, they ‘sold’ Goeben and Breslau to the Turkish navy on August 16. The ships were given Turkish names and Turkish flags, but the crews remained German, albeit now wearing the fez.

Two months of frenzied diplomatic activity ensued as the Allies tried to keep Turkey out of the war. But the issue was finally decided on October 20, when Souchon unilaterally sailed Goeben and Breslau into the Black Sea on a purported exercise and bombarded Russian ports, including Odessa and Sebastopol. Russia declared war on Turkey and the Western powers followed.

In November, Milne and Troubridge were officially cleared by the Admiralty of any fault, Troubridge after a court martial. But neither was given a sea command again. As the war ground to a halt in the trenches, the dire consequences of Goeben’s escape gradually accumulated. 

General Erich Ludendorff, head of the German Army, believed the entry of the Turks extended the conflict by two years. Had they stayed neutral, countless deaths would have been avoided and Russia might perhaps have averted political turmoil and revolution. If the Ottoman Empire had not subsequently collapsed, the fate of its Middle East possessions might have been different.

But, as Barbara Tuchman writes: ‘Thereafter, the red edges of war spread over another half of the world. Turkey’s neighbours, 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 Vladivostok, 8,000 miles from the battlefront. With the Black Sea closed, her exports dropped 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.’

How different it might have been but for the failure of one man to bring Goeben to battle come hell or high water. 

Dan Van Der Vat’s verdict on that man is scathingly direct: ‘When all is said and done, there is no escape from the judgment that Rear-Admiral Ernest Troubridge should have had a go.’

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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