World War I Centennial: Mission Implausible

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 14th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

April 30, 1912: Mission Implausible

In the years leading up to the First World War, the European Great Powers competed in a number of ways, ranging from colonies to armaments to trade and finance. One of the most important arenas, from both a military and symbolic standpoint, was the common practice of sending military advisers to lesser powers to help them upgrade their backwards, poorly trained forces to European standards (or at least something approaching them). If these missions worked out, the relationship could be transformed into a long-term alliance, with officers from the Great Powers even commanding foreign military units during wartime.

It’s no surprise, then, that 1912 found Britain and Germany both eagerly angling to send military advisers to the ailing, beleaguered Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire occupied a key strategic position along the Russian Empire’s southern flank, meaning the Turks could bottle up the Russian navy in the Black Sea; they also controlled Asia Minor, the only land bridge to Asia and the Middle East outside Russia, and therefore an important trade and transportation corridor (where Germany, France, and Britain were also competing for contracts to finance and build railroads and other infrastructure).

As the world’s preeminent naval power, Britain was the natural choice to provide advisers who could modernize, train, and possibly even help command the Turkish navy. The first British “naval mission” to Turkey, under the command of Admiral Douglas Gamble, lasted from February 1909 to March 1910, and was followed by a second under Vice-Admiral Hugh Pigot Williams, from April 1910 to April 1912.

But reforming the Turkish navy wasn’t an easy job, to put it mildly: Gamble confronted what an associate described as an “indescribable mess” and complained about disorganization and lack of financial support from the government, although he did succeed in leading the Turkish navy on maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean. His replacement, Williams, had bad relations with the Turkish government; ominously, the Turks began purchasing destroyers from German shipyards after the British refused to sell them two dreadnoughts. In 1912 rumors spread that the Turks would be turning over the naval mission to Germany, but the British rallied and succeeded in winning a third (and final) appointment as naval advisers to Turkey.

The New Naval Mission Arrives

The Turks wanted Gamble back, but he was in poor health and didn’t relish the idea of returning to bureaucratic battle in Constantinople. Instead they got Admiral Arthur Limpus, whose naval mission arrived in Turkey on April 30–just as the total impotence of the Turkish navy had been demonstrated by the Italian bombardment of the Dardanelles, resulting in the closing of the Turkish straits (a critical trade artery) for two weeks. The British were hesitant about sending British officers to help the Turks during a war with Italy, since the Italians might consider this a violation of Britain’s declared neutrality, but the alternative–letting the Germans take over the Turkish navy–was even worse.

Limpus wasn’t able to help the Turkish navy fight the Italians, and indeed the goal of putting the Turkish navy on an equal footing with any of its European rivals was a long shot at best (in actuality the Brits probably didn’t try too hard, in order not to antagonize Russia). However, Limpus did manage to persuade the Turks to refurbish and upgrade their decaying port and dockyard facilities–not coincidentally furthering British business interests in the region while he was at it. To rebuild the naval facilities on land, Limpus formed a special public corporation, the “Societe Imperiale Ottomane Co-interessee des Docks et Chantiers” (all international organizations had French names at this time, but it was definitely a British entity). The Societe promptly awarded the contracts to Armstrong Vickers, a British company, giving German competitors like Krupp the cold shoulder.

The appearance of a close, increasingly friendly relationship between Britain and Turkey could only serve to stoke German paranoia about an international conspiracy to “encircle” the Fatherland, making the German government and military even more desperate to “break through” this encirclement by any means necessary. As a result, Germany would raise the stakes in its competition with Britain and France for influence in the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans–through commercial initiatives but also militarily, if need be.

Indeed, although Britain was the logical choice for naval advice, Germany was the clear leader in military affairs on land, and already had a long-standing role providing military advisers to the Turkish army–foreshadowing their alliance in the Great War to come.

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