How did the Ottomans really enter WWI?
SMS Göben, renamed Yavuz by the Ottomans, is seen in this German military archive photo while anchored at İstinye Bay in Istanbul’s Bosphorus in 1914.“Enver [Pasha] had wanted to stand back and let the Great Powers destroy one another. But his attempt to do so via secret deals with both Germany and Russia was ruined by the independent-minded German commander who sailed off with two warships and bombarded the Russian port of Sevastopol.”
This is a paragraph from BBC History magazine’s April issue, reviewing “The Fall of the Ottomans” by Eugene Rogan, which is in line with the traditional narrative about how the Ottoman Empire, then led by de facto Commander-in-Chief Enver Pasha, “suddenly” entered World War I due to a fait accompli of a German admiral in October 1914.
Recently revealed historical documents which have not been translated into English yet, however, partly refute this traditional narrative, providing sound evidence to prove that Enver had actually ordered the German commander to attack Russia on the Black Sea, albeit without setting an exact timing.
Earlier this year, journalist Murat Bardakçı, an expert on Turkish history, published the diaries of Hafız Hakkı Pasha, an Ottoman general who was appointed by his classmate Enver to lead the Turkish offensive against the Russians in the Caucasus from December 1914 to January 1915.
The diaries, consisting of two notebooks, were written between Oct. 26, 1914, and Jan. 23, 1915, which is 23 days before Hakkı Pasha’s death from typhus following the disastrous Caucuses offensive.
Turning to Germany over rebuffs
When he began writing these diaries, Hakkı Pasha was on his way to Germany via the Balkans for coordination meetings about the delivery of German military supplies which the Ottomans had recently ordered. The trip itself was a clear hint that the Sublime Port would enter the war on Germany’s side soon as the logical conclusion of the secret deal signed between the two states on Aug. 2, 1914.
The administration of the empire, which had been reduced to “The Sick Man of Europe” after consecutive military defeats in previous decades, was initially reluctant to enter another war. The sultan had never approved of the alliance with Germany as advocated by Enver, while several other pashas actively worked to partner with Britain or France instead.
Both of these latter European powers rebuffed the Ottomans’ overtures, though. When Britain “requisitioned” without compensation two almost completed Ottoman battleships in British shipyards, it was the final straw for the Turks.
On Aug. 15, 1914, the Ottomans cancelled their maritime agreement with Britain. The next day, after being pursued by British battleships in the Mediterranean for two weeks, German battlecruiser SMS Göben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau were allowed to anchor off Istanbul.
Drawing the ire of Russia by allowing them to cross Turkey’s officially neutral Dardanelles Straits, Enver Pasha thought he had found the most feasible solution: The Ottomans announced they bought the German battleships, renaming them the Yavuz and the Midilli, while retaining their German personnel.
Adventure-loving Enver Pasha
At first, it looked like a win-win situation for all, perhaps except Russia. For Britain, a threat was removed from the Mediterranean. For Germany, two battleships were saved and could continue their operations by merely raising an Ottoman flag while winning many Turkish hearts which had broken by the Britons. The Ottomans, on the other hand, were content the void left by the unfulfilled military promise of Britain was filled, as the two German battleships would be of vital importance to balance the Russian navy on the Black Sea.
After its offensive in France came to a halt in September as the Austro-Hungarians retreated against the Russians, Germany saw a neutral Ottoman Empire was not enough anymore; the Turks should attack the Russians in the Caucasus and fight with Britain in the Middle East, which would divide the power of Berlin’s main foes.
With the adventure-loving Enver Pasha in charge, the Ottomans were easily persuaded by the Germans. Wilhelm Souchon, commander of the SMS Göben and the SMS Breslau, was appointed the Ottoman navy’s commander-in-chief on Sept. 2, 1914, and the Turkish straits were officially closed to all international shipping on Sept. 27, 1914, as a snipe at Russia, which was relying on the key waterways for most of its imports and exports.
From this point on, the traditional narrative simply tells us that Souchon waywardly raided the Russian ports and sunk their ships on Oct. 29, 1914, pushing the Ottomans into the war through a fait accompli in favor of his homeland. Russia declared war on the Ottomans on Nov. 2, 1914, while Britain and France followed three days later. According to both General Erich Ludendorff, then co-head of the German military, and British historian Ian F.W. Beckett, the Ottoman entry into the war would prolong it by two years.
But could a single foreign admiral, with an “independent-mind” as BBC History puts it, really push an empire into the Great War, affecting the entire global theatre?
Hakkı Pasha’s diary and an instruction in German
On the day that Souchon’s fleet attacked Russia on the Black Sea, Hakkı Pasha, who immediately broke his trip to Germany short over the crisis, in a diary entry titled “How We Entered the War” wrote:
“An order was prepared for the [Ottoman] navy’s commander-in-chief [Souchon]: ‘Establish domination on the Black Sea by destroying the Russian fleet.’ I was keeping this order in my safe. It would be delivered [to Souchon] when it is necessary and on time. However, before I leave [for Germany], the minister [Enver Pasha] wanted to take it. ‘I will hand it to Souchon in a closed envelope and want him to open it when necessary,’ he told me. I was suspicious. I beseeched to keep it, but he didn’t listen. In the end, it turned out in a completely different way, as Souchon - with his German mentality - opened the envelope himself, did it his way and pulled us to an ill-timed war. Now it is time to work with heart and soul to reach safety out of this situation.”
As cited in Bardakçı’s latest book, Turkish scholar Ali Kaşıyuğun’s PhD thesis published in 2014 at Kahramanmaraş Sütçü İmam University revealed the original German-language copy of Enver Pasha’s order to Souchon in the Turkish military archive.
“The Turkish fleet will establish naval domination on the Black Sea. To achieve it, search and destroy the Russian fleet where ever it is and without declaring war,” the German text said. A handwritten annotation by Hakkı Pasha on the German order states that it was “written by the instruction of Minister [Enver] Pasha and translated [into German] by myself.”
‘The death of 100,000 innocents’
In the first weeks of his diaries, Hafız Hakkı Pasha sounded upbeat, repeatedly stressing the importance of displaying “bravado” in the face of challenges like the ones the Ottoman Empire then faced in an “ill-timed” war.
As he led the Ottoman army in the east, he generally praised the empire’s ally Germany and seemed to be broadly agreeing with Enver’s decisions to invade the Caucasus. But he sometimes voiced complaints over the insufficient support to his troops provided by Souchon’s battleships or the “chaos” the presence of German officers in the Ottoman military headquarters created.
After the Ottoman army’s embarrassing defeat at the Battle of Sarikamish against the Russian army and its local allies, namely Armenian, Georgian and Caucasus Greek volunteers, Hakkı Pasha’s tone completely changed. In December 1914 and January 2015, his diary entries bluntly slammed Enver Pasha.
“Ah Enver! Ah! By launching this winter campaign and ordering the 9th Corps to attack, you caused the death of 100,000 innocents. God forgive you,” he wrote on Jan. 16, 1915.
In short, unlike what many Western historians still suggest, Enver Pasha had never “wanted to stand back” at the outset of World War I and his “bravado,” encouraged by many of his comrades, could have still lead to the unnecessary death of thousands even without an “independent-minded German commander.”