The Outbreak Of World War I And Ottoman Empire

The Straits of Çanakkale and Bosporus, which always have been very dear to the Turkish nation owing to their political importance and geopolitical position, have always been under threat throughout the history, a fact that hardly changes. Having control over them means having a say over the region. This is why Russia and United Kingdom along with many other states, which wanted to influence the global politics, always desired to capture the Straits.

This never-ending fight between the states became inevitable with the outbreak of World War I. Although the Ottoman Empire initially wanted to become allies with France and United Kingdom before the outbreak of the war since she had considered this as a recipe for recovery from the economic and political gridlock she was in, her attempts failed and she aligned with Germany which was another party to the war. This way, the Ottoman Empire made it clear on which side she was against United Kingdom and Russia which always wanted an offensive on the Straits all the time. During the World War I, the Allied Powers planned to capture the Straits and sent their fleets towards Dardanelles in order to render Ottomans ineffective and enable Russia to pass through the Straits easily yet they were defeated unexpectedly. Undoubtedly this situation was an unexpected result for the Great Powers but it was also a result Turkish nation’s struggle for survival . Throughout the history, there have been wars that Turkish nation won numerous times. Each war strengthened the sense of belongingness among the people and the national unity during pre-war increased exponentially. Each battle holds a deep place in the nation’s memory and these memories get more valuable as the time passes.

The sentiments and feelings emerged as a result of the Çanakkale War in 1915 are still alive although a century has passed. Because Çanakkale is a place, where a nation that was wanted to be erased from the memories and to be wiped off the map, struggled for existence and said 'I won't be destroyed'. The Çanakkale War was not only the struggle of the gallant Turkish soldiers fighting day and night but it was also a war of those who were behind the front-lines. It was a war fought by mothers too, whose husbands and children were fighting in the front-line. Therefore, the fight was not only put up in trenches but also at home, in the farm fields, in every part of life and in Anatolia region altogether. This heroic saga was written by the whole nation.

The first spark of the World War I was caused by Austria Hungary Crown Prince Archduke Fransuva Ferdinant’s assassination by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. This incident would be the start of the greatest war of our history which could be described as 'two bullets and millions of dead people'.

The Central and Allied Powers, which had been consistently in conflict with each other in the past, did not hesitate even for a moment to burn the world with that spark. It was impossible for the Ottoman Empire to ignore the fire erupted around it and an agreement was made on 2nd August 1914. Two German ships, Goeben and Breslau, escaping from the British navy sought shelter in the Ottoman Empire by passing the Strait of Dardanelles. The Ottoman Empire took a stance that an impartial state would not have done. United Kingdom and France demanded the ships to leave the territorial waters in 24 hours or to be handed over to them. Mr. Cavid stated that, after the talks, it was decided that the ships were to be disarmed or to leave immediately but the ambassador had not accepted this offer so he had promised to write to the Emperor about purchasing them.

By announcing the ships were purchased, the impartiality of the Ottoman Empire was maintained. Ottoman Flag was raised on the ships and it was declared that they were purchased for 80 million marks and the crew was put on Turkish uniforms. Geoben was renamed to ‘Yavuz’ and Breslau was renamed to ‘Midilli’. Since the ships bombarded the Russian docks, the Ottoman Empire officially entered the war. (11 November 1914)

The Straits And The War Of Dardanelles

Having a geopolitical leverage, the importance of Dardanelles and Istanbul Straits increased exponentially during wartime. Controlling the both straits meant having authority over not only the whole southern Russia’s economic life and the state itself, but also the political, commercial and some military activities of the coastal states in Black sea. This would also enable control over sea transportation and naval forces of the said states. Dominating the straits became an effective aspect of control on the commercial activities of nearby states.

United Kingdom's desire to keep Mediterranean region safe -which was located on the Far East transportation routes- was increasing the importance of the Straits for the British. The opening period of Çanakkale front was not a decision taken in one day but it was a decision taken due to lots of reasons. When one analyses the opening process of the front, s/he can see that lots of interrelated incidents had happened beyond parties' control. Yet, this process should be evaluated from the viewpoint of Western states by considering belligerents' political, financial and even social expectations and goals with regards to the Eastern Question, Egypt and the Straits. What was important for this fight which was taking place on Turkish soil was the question that who would control the Straits and Istanbul in the future.

Under these circumstances and with the increasing importance of the Straits and restrictions on both military and commercial activities it became necessary for United Kingdom to launch a military offensive on the Straits. On the other hand, some possible negativities during such a comprehensive operation and not having a consensus among the Allied Powers, particularly among the British statesmen, delayed the military action. British military history lists the reasons of the opening of Çanakkale front as follows:

‘It was necessary to benefit from Russia's unlimited human power in order to gain the upper hand against enemy. To this end, Russia required equipment, weapon, ammunition and financial assistance. Unless the control of the Straits had been taken, necessary assistance would not have been provided and a real cooperation against militarily powerful Germany could not have taken place. Even only this aspect was enough to approve the policy.

If the operation had been successful, the political results would have been invaluable. The danger posed by Egypt would be eliminated, Balkans would be assured to join the Triple Entente, Arabs' tentative situation and Italians' suspicions would be ended. The opening of Straits would also provide financial benefit. Russia's food storage would become available to Mediterranean region and the food problem of Western countries would be solved. Russia's financial situation would get better, 120 piece merchant ships (350.000 tonnes) piled in Black Sea docks would be rescued and the Triple Entente would get opportunity to make use of them.

In addition to this, Russia used all the ammunition it had during the war. It did not have any chance to re-supply. The possibility of a Russian offensive would decrease considerably unless the Strait of Dardanelles was opened. The Allied Powers knew that a decisive result could be obtained in the western front. The sea route, which had a vital importance for Russia, was required to be opened. It was also essential to make a deal with Balkan States during the war.

Furthermore, one should not forget Churchill's insistence that the Straits could only be passed by the navy to reach to Istanbul. It was Churchill who prepared several reports on the possible military outcomes of an attack on the Gallipoli peninsula and encouraged military action on the Strait. It might be fair to say that Churchill was another reason that the front was opened.

In brief, British, with the War of Dardanelles, would both set the course of war and provide assistance to their ally, Russia, as well as they would drive Turks away from their soil back to the Central Asia.’