The Ottoman Empire

Page 4 – Ottoman Empire enters the First World War

On 31 July 1914, Tsar Nicholas II ordered the full mobilisation of the Russian Army in response to Germany’s obvious preparations for war in the east. Enver Pasha, the Ottoman Minister for War, reacted by ordering the full mobilisation of the Ottoman Army. On 2 August he signed a secret treaty with the German Ambassador. Although this was essentially a defensive military alliance, calling on each party to come to the other’s aid against an attack by Russia, it revealed Enver Pasha’s view as to who was the Ottoman Empire’s most important friend – and who was its most bitter enemy.

While Enver was the de facto leader of the pro-war faction in the ‘Young Turk’ government, he was opposed by the Prime Minister, Sait Halim, who was convinced that the empire’s best option was to remain neutral. He was outraged that Enver had overstepped his remit as Minister for War by signing the secret defence treaty with Germany. But in the political battle that followed, Sait was outmaneuvered. Enver gained the crucial support of Cemal Pasha, the Minister of Marine (responsible for the Ottoman Navy), and Talât Pasha, the Minister of the Interior (responsible for the paramilitary Jandarma – a 40,000-strong force modelled on the French gendarmerie).

Also in Enver’s favour was pro-German sentiment in the Ottoman Army, at least among its officers. This reflected the close professional contact between the Ottoman and German officer corps. Since the first German military mission to the Ottoman Army after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–8, German officers had often been attached to the army in an advisory or training role and some of the best Ottoman officers had attended staff colleges in Germany. Ottoman officers admired the German Army’s professionalism and traditions, and, like many foreign observers at the time, were convinced that it was the best in the world.

By the same token, the Royal Navy was clearly the world’s pre-eminent naval power, and a British military mission was helping modernise and develop the Ottoman Navy. Unfortunately for the British, the navy was the junior service in the Ottoman military hierarchy. To make matters worse, on 5 August, a day after declaring war on Germany, the British government decided to requisition two Ottoman battleships nearing completion in British shipyards for wartime service with the Royal Navy. The decision aroused anger across the Ottoman Empire, as the ships had already been paid for by public subscription.

A few days later the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau appeared off the Dardanelles, after evading the French and British fleets in a daring dash through the Mediterranean. They requested passage through the straits to Constantinople. After delicate negotiations – and over Sait’s objections – they were allowed to proceed. A week later the two warships – complete with their German crews – were officially ‘transferred’ to the Ottoman Navy and renamed the Yavuz Sultan Selim and Midilli. The British refused to recognise the transfer unless the German crews were removed, and the Royal Navy blockaded the entrance of the Dardanelles to enforce this demand.

This rapid escalation in tension quickly led to the withdrawal of the British mission to the Ottoman Navy. In late August, General Liman von Sanders, head of the German military mission to the Ottoman Empire, was appointed commander of the Ottoman First Army (whose remit included the Gallipoli Peninsula). Rear-Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, the German naval commander of the Goeben and Breslau, was appointed by Cemal Pasha to command the Ottoman Navy. Although the Ottoman Empire was still ostensibly neutral at this point, Cemal then appointed German Vice-Admiral Guido von Usedom as ‘Inspector-General of Coastal Defences and Mines’. Von Usedom’s job was to help the Ottoman Army strengthen the coastal defences along both the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. He arrived in Constantinople on 19 August with a specialist military team of 500 German officers and men. These actions did not go unnoticed in the Allied capitals.

The pro-war faction in the Ottoman government knew that the Germans wanted to bring the empire into the war as quickly as possible. Through such blatant manipulation of the military mission arrangements in favour of Germany, Enver, Cemal and their supporters were clearly signalling where their sympathies lay. By provoking an increasingly belligerent response from the Allied powers, they made it harder for Sait to argue the case for continued neutrality.

But as the weeks dragged by, Enver grew impatient. On 25 October 1914, without consulting any of his ministerial colleagues, he ordered Admiral Souchon to take the Ottoman fleet, including the German-crewed ships, into the Black Sea to attack the Russians. The fleet carried out surprise raids on Theodosia, Novorossisk, Odessa and Sevastopol, sinking a Russian minelayer, a gunboat and 14 civilian ships. On 2 November, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire. France and the British Empire, Russia’s wartime allies, followed suit on the 5th. Enver Pasha had succeeded in bringing the Ottoman Empire into the First World War on the side of the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Whether he would be as successful in achieving his principle war aim – pan-Turkic expansion into Central Asia at Russia′s expense – was another question.

How to cite this page

'Ottoman Empire enters the First World War', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30-Jul-2014