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German ships Goeben and Breslau reach Constantinople

After eluding their British pursuers—not once but several times—in a dramatic chase through the Mediterranean Sea, the German cruisers Goeben and Breslau safely anchor off the Dardanelles—the waterway connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara and the only passage from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea—at five o’clock on the afternoon of August 10, 1914, and are subsequently escorted by the Turks to safety in Constantinople.

When World War I broke out in August 1914, Germany had only two warships stationed in the Mediterranean: the battle cruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau, both under the command of Wilhelm Souchon. Souchon, having heard over wireless radio on the afternoon of August 3 that Germany had declared war on France, was preparing to engage the French fleet in the Mediterranean when the order came at 2 a.m. on August 4 from the chief commander of the German navy, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, to head for Constantinople instead. Germany had decided to put every possible pressure on Turkey, with whom it had signed a treaty of alliance the day before, to declare war on the Allies. With Turkey on its side, Germany would control the Black Sea passage and effectively cut Russia off from the other Allies, as well as its supply routes. A landing of Souchon’s ships at Constantinople, it was reasoned, would help force Turkey out of its neutrality and into active participation in the war.

Meanwhile, the British Royal Navy, focusing on the Goeben and Breslau as the leading threat to the transport of French colonial troops from North Africa to France, had already ordered its Mediterranean fleet, commanded by Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne, to locate and track the two German ships, particularly the swift and powerful Goeben. As war had not yet been declared in Britain, Milne’s fleet could pursue, but not attack. On the morning of August 4, the British ships Indomitable and Indefatigable, unexpectedly encountered the Goeben and Breslau off the coast of Algeria. Neither ship fired, but each trained their guns on the other and their crews neglected to make the customary mutual salute. A chase ensued, as Indomitable and Indefatigable followed the two German ships toward Messina, Italy, where Souchon planned to obtain coal from German merchant steamers anchored there before making the trip to Constantinople, 1,200 miles away. The Goeben and Breslau outran their pursuers, pulling out of sight close to the end of that day.

Souchon maneuvered his ships into neutral Italian waters and anchored off Messina; the British ships, observing international law, did not pursue him. Thinking Souchon was either going to try to return to port in the Adriatic Sea or make an attempt to reach the western Mediterranean—and thus the Atlantic Ocean—Milne sent the Indomitable and Indefatigable west of Messina to block his path, never guessing the German ships were actually heading east, to Turkey. While refueling with difficulty in Messina, Souchon received a telegram canceling the order to go to Constantinople, as the Turkish leaders had rescinded permission for the Goeben and Breslau to pass through the Dardanelles. Under pressure from Italian authorities to leave immediately and knowing the British ships—their country now openly at war with Germany—were waiting for him in the Mediterranean, Souchon decided to head for Constantinople anyway, deciding “to force the Turks, even against their will, to spread the war to the Black Sea against their ancient enemy, Russia.”

When the Goeben and Breslau left Messina they were seen and pursued by only one light cruiser, the Gloucester. Equal to the Breslau in speed and gun power but easily outmatched by the Goeben, the Gloucester engaged in a brief trade of gunfire but mostly simply trailed the German ships as they headed in the direction of the Adriatic Sea, which a British squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Ernest Troubridge had earlier been sent to monitor in case of action by the Austrian navy. On the morning of August 7, in a massive opportunity lost, Troubridge declined to pursue the Goeben, believing that the ship, if intercepted, could use its 11-inch guns with their superior range—compared to the 9.2-inch guns on Troubridge’s ships—to destroy his four cruisers one after another. Troubridge justified his withdrawal by citing the order the British Admiralty had given the Mediterranean fleet not to engage “superior forces”—an order certainly intended not to prohibit action against the Goeben itself but against the Austrian navy if it appeared to accompany the German ships to safety.

Thus the Goeben and Breslau sped on, pursued only by the Gloucester. On the afternoon of August 8, with the Goeben poised to enter the Aegean Sea, the Gloucester gave up the chase, leaving Souchon free to meet up with another fuel ship in the Greek Isles and head on to Constantinople. The Turkish leader, Enver Pasha, under pressure from German authorities, finally agreed to allow the ships to enter the straits, and to fire on any British pursuer who tried to come after them. At nine o’clock on the evening of August 10, the Goeben and Breslau entered the Dardanelles.

The Goeben and Breslau were repaired, renamed and taken into the Turkish navy—on October 29, 1914, they took part in the attack by the Turkish fleet—commanded by Souchon—on Russia’s ports in the Black Sea, marking the Ottoman Empire’s official entrance into the First World War.

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