18/3/1915 [Gallipoli] The Allies attempt to force the Straits

Britain, France and Russia have been discussing how to carve up the Ottoman Empire. The Allies are confident that Turkey is on its last legs and that one determined blow will knock it out of the war.

And now Britain and France launch the blow they hope will finish off the Ottoman Empire. British ships have been bombarding the forts guarding the entrance to the Dardanelles for nearly a month. Today a Franco-British naval force (in which Britain has provided most of the ships) attempts to force its way through the Straits, from there to sail through the Sea of Marmara to the Bosphorus and Constantinople, the Turkish capital. The Dardanelles are defended by minefields, gun batteries and forts, but the Allies expect that their minesweepers will be able to clear a way through while the battleships’ guns knock out the Turkish shore batteries.

But things do not go according to plan. The battleships are unable to silence the Turkish guns and the Allied minesweepers are unable to operate effectively under enemy fire. Bouvet, a French battleship, hits a mine and sinks in a couple of minutes, with the loss of some 660 of its crew of 710 men. The British battleships Irresistible and Ocean also hit mines and sink, though their crews are successfully evacuated.

The Allied naval force is commanded by Vice-Admiral John de Robeck. Rather than see the rest of his fleet destroyed, he orders a withdrawal.

Back in London, naval minister Winston Churchill wants de Robeck to resume the attack tomorrow. But Jacky Fisher, the commander of the British navy, thinks a purely naval assault on the Straits is doomed. Lord Kitchener, the war minister, and the Prime Minister, Henry Herbert Asquith, agree to halt naval operations.

The British do not abandon their plans to force passage through the Straits. The prospect of decapitating the Turkish Empire and reopening the trade routes to Russia is too enticing. Now, though, they realise that if the Straits are to be forced, they will need to land an army on the Gallipoli peninsula to seize and hold the Turkish positions there, to prevent the enemy from firing on minesweepers. Planning for this invasion now begins.

image source (Wikipedia)

2/8/1914 Britain will defend Belgium and the French coast

In London, Grey tells Cambon that Germany’s occupation of Luxembourg will not trigger British intervention. Cambon is disgusted.

Meanwhile, Herbert Henry Asquith’s weekend has been ruined. The 62 year old prime minister had planned to slip away with Miss Venetia Stanley (26), but the crisis is keeping him in London. Today is Sunday and he is having to chair another cabinet meeting, in which the divisions between the pro- and anti-interventionists are at boiling point.

At the meeting, a secret Anglo-French naval agreement is revealed; the French are sending their fleet to the Mediterranean in the expectation that Britain’s fleet will defend their north coast. After some hesitation, the cabinet agrees to honour this agreement, though it does lead to one resignation.

After some further tense discussions it is more or less decided that the invasion of Belgium would represent a casus belli.

Dramatis Personae

31/7/1914 Britain asks about Belgium

Foreign Secretary Edward Grey is coming under pressure from France to clarify Britain’s position. The cabinet meets, but the anti-interventionists are still too strong for Grey, Churchill and Asquith to adopt a forceful international position. Still, the cabinet does not definitively adopt a position against intervention either, which prevents Grey’s resignation and the possible collapse of the government.

The cabinet does agree that Grey should ask France and Germany whether they will be respecting the neutrality of Belgium.

Churchill, meanwhile, issues orders to seize the two battleships being built in Britain for the Turkish navy. He is probably not acting in response to Russia’s request to deny these ships to Turkey. He just wants them for the British navy.

Dramatis Personae

29/7/1914 The Russians lose faith in the Germans

The British government is divided. A minority, including Churchill, Grey and Prime Minister Asquith, favour siding with Russia and France in the event of a European war, but most are for neutrality. At this stage any definite decision risks splitting cabinet and bringing an end to the government. A definite decision is therefore avoided.

Wilhelm meets with Bethmann Hollweg, Falkenhayn and Tirpitz (the naval minister) in Potsdam. Time seems to be running out and the Kaiser berates the chancellor for his incompetent management of policy. Nevertheless, with diplomatic efforts still in train it is deemed too soon to declare Kriegsgefahrzustand, let alone start mobilising the army.

Bethmann Hollweg suggests handing over the fleet to Britain to buy its neutrality. To Tirpitz’s relief, the Kaiser baulks at this suggestion.

The Russians learn of Austria-Hungary’s shelling of Belgrade in the late afternoon. Sazonov meets Pourtal├Ęs again. So much for Germany’s restraint of its ally! The German ambassador now advances the line sent to him by Bethmann Hollweg, that Russia should halt its military preparations lest Germany itself mobilise. Sazonov takes this as threat and accuses Germany of pushing Austria-Hungary into belligerence.