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 13th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
April 18, 1912: Dire Straits
Since the time of the Trojan War, the narrow straits between Europe and Asia have been crossed by merchants and armies, diplomats and traitors. Simple geography made whoever controlled the straits wealthy and powerful – but also a target for those who sought to wrest possession of the vital area. On April 18, 1912, it happened again.
The Ukraine had exported grain to the rest of the world through the Turkish straits for thousands of years, and the ancient trade continued after the region was absorbed into the Russian Empire: in fact by 1912, 45% of all Russian exports passed through the Bosporus and Dardanelles, including 80% of all grain exports and a sizeable portion of Russia’s growing oil exports from the Caucasus.
The Turks could also deny passage to the Russian Black Sea fleet, bottling up Russian naval power – a strategic capability important not only to Turkey but also Britain, which claimed naval dominance in the Mediterranean. Although the Ottoman Empire was weak and declining, the British still counted on the Turks to keep the Russians out of the Mediterranean –the lifeline to their colonial empire in Asia and Australia (in fact the Turks usually denied entry to all European fleets, which suited the Brits fine, just as long as the Russians were included in the ban).
Sensing the weakness of the eastern realm, in September 1911 Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire with an eye to grabbing the provinces of Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica (now Libya). While their main interest was North Africa, to end the war the Italians knew they had to squeeze the Ottoman Turks close to their capital in Constantinople, which meant attacking the Turkish straits – and causing an international incident.
On April 18, 1912, the Italian navy bombarded Turkish fortifications guarding the entrance to the Dardanelles, the southern straits. The Turkish forts were equipped with modern Krupp guns provided by Germany, but the Italian ships packed more firepower, damaging Turkish forts on both sides of the straits. To keep the Italians from penetrating further, perhaps even to Constantinople itself, the Turks closed the straits -- to all shipping, not just naval forces -- with huge steel chains stretched across the water, complemented by minefields, torpedo boats, and mobile artillery positioned on shore.
As noted, this was guaranteed to lead to an international incident: some 60 merchant ships of all nations, with an average weight of 4,000 tons, passed through the Dardanelles every day – a huge volume of commerce, which now ground to an abrupt halt. The captains of a number of French and Russian vessels affected by the closure complained to their ambassadors in Constantinople, who in turn demanded damages from the Turkish government. The Turks responded, not unreasonably, that the security of their capital took priority over shipping schedules: the ships would just have to wait until the danger from the Italian attacks passed.
The Italian attack was especially provocative because it came two days after representatives from the Great Powers (France, Britain, Germany, Austria and Russia) arrived in Constantinople to offer mediation – and coincided with the first day of the new Turkish parliament, which was expected to discuss peace terms. The Turks hoped that closing the straits might bring international pressure to bear on the Italians to stop fighting; ultimately the straits would remain closed to merchant shipping for almost two weeks. The fact that the Turkish navy was being trained by British officers threatened further complications if the war wasn’t resolved soon.
Still, the main conflict was between Russia and Turkey itself, contributing to the growing international tensions preceding the Great War. For one thing, the Russians began seriously considering ways to secure the straits themselves – an ambition which would involve them in the conspiracy organized by the Balkan states against the Turks. Meanwhile the Balkan states drew encouragement for their bellicose plans from the obvious weakness of the Ottoman Empire, pushing them closer to the First Balkan War in October 1912.