A hundred years ago today, two German warships, the Goeben and the Breslau, put into port at Constantinople (Istanbul) and promptly enlisted, crews and all, in the Ottoman Turkish Navy. That may seem an odd thing to do at the start of a war in which the Ottoman Empire was, at that point, neutral, and there’s quite a tale of derring-do, incompetence and naval warfare attached.
The Goeben was a big, dangerous ship, a modern battlecruiser designed for attacking prowess, heavy on armament, light on armour and quick for its size. The Breslau was a light cruiser, a faster escort for attacks on smaller targets. Both were in the Mediterranean, taking on fuel at the then neutral Italian port of Messina, when war with France broke out on 3 August, and they sailed south to interfere with French troop movements from its North African colonies. On the way back the following day they passed close to Royal Navy warships, but war between Britain and Germany hadn’t yet been declared and no shots were fired. War came a few hours later, and sent the German ships running east for their lives, hopelessly outnumbered and effectively surrounded by an enormous Royal Navy presence in the Mediterranean.
What followed was a wild ride for the German ships, but also a revealing snapshot of naval warfare in 1914. Despite the presence of on board radio, communication over long distances remained shaky, and the German ships fled for Constantinople on the basis of a false rumour that Turkey had joined the War on Germany’s side. Shadowed by smaller British warships, Goeben and Breslau dodged and wove their way east, successfully avoiding the three British forces in a position to intercept them. They were helped by the risk-averse approach of British admirals, who found better things to do or defensive undertones in standing orders whenever the opportunity to fight arose, but they received no help at all from the expensive but inert Austro-Hungarian Navy based in the Adriatic.
Both navies were later accused of timidity, a charge regularly levelled at the commanders of big surface craft throughout the War, but their behaviour said less about their command capabilities, more about the massive cost and prestige attached to major warships at the time. It took a very brave man to chase glory at the risk of losing something so valuable, especially when something as cheap as a torpedo or a mine could send it to the bottom.
Once the German ships reached Constantinople and found it neutral, they had only twenty-four hours’ grace before international law required them to put to sea. By staying as part of the Turkish Navy – far and away the best part – they were spared almost certain destruction, scored an effective point in Berlin’s campaign for an alliance with the Ottoman Empire and survived as a thorn in the side of the Allies when that goal was achieved. That said, and despite the undoubted propaganda victory the episode delivered for Berlin, Goeben and Breslau had minimal military impact on the rest of the War. They did achieve some success against Russian shipping and coastal installations in the Black Sea, but only between long spells under repair after damage by mines. When peace with Russia brought them back to the Mediterranean in 1918 they again fell foul of mines, which sank the Breslau and forced the Goeben to hole up in Constantinople, reduced to the inactive deterrent role that was the lot of most big warships throughout the First World War.