Rumours of War
The assassination of an Austrian Archduke would trigger a war that had been building for years. However, as the echoes of the shots died away, it was not immediately obvious that would be a world war.
The Great Powers did not react immediately; ‘We should not be greatly concerned by events in a far-off land of which we know little…’, said one British minister a few weeks later.
Anglo-German relations remained tense but cordial, while the Americans paid no attention. The governments of Europe followed every development in the courts and ministries of their allies and enemies alike, but the general sense that dangerous event must be handled with care seemed more likely to prevent a war than encourage one. Trade and finance continued virtually uninterrupted, and holidaymakers flocked out of the cities towards the seas and lakes in the long, hot July of 1914.
Nevertheless, ships began to move as the political frenzy increased.
There had been a ‘friendship visit’ to Kiel by Royal Navy battleships in early July, closely followed by the festivities and pomp of a Royal review of the fleet at Spithead. However, after the review, the fleet did not disburse. Instead, it headed North.
Fate would lead to a piece of superficially poor timing turning into a success for Britain. In mid-July, the battleship Reshadieh* sailed from Barrow-in-Furness on her maiden voyage to her new home in Turkey. After her departure, her commander was alerted to the threat of war and chose to coal at Cadiz instead of Gibraltar, out of fear that the British might try to hold the ship if he re-entered British waters. In fact, approaches had been made to the Turkish government to buy her back, but Turkey refused to sell, believing that the ship would be vital to her own interests in the Black Sea and Aegean should there be war.
In Turkey itself, the battlecruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau had been on an extended cruise to the country, in a show of German might and friendship for the Ottomans. In late July, however, both ships were abruptly ordered to depart and steam West, reaching Gibraltar on the 31st July. Superficially, this was also a gesture of friendship in return for the British visit to Kiel, but the German Admiralty wanted their valuable battlecruiser coaled and away into the Atlantic as soon as possible. In the afternoon of 1st August, the ships sailed away, and despite British efforts to keep an eye on them using the battlecruisers HMS Inflexible and Indomitable, they were lost in the cloak of night.
Meanwhile in London, a plan to seize the Turkish battleship was proposed when she docked at Gibraltar, but with Anglo-Turkish relations having improved in recent years, and at a high following the delivery of the ship, the Foreign Office advised against it. However, the completion of another battleship for Turkey, the Sultan Osman~, had been delayed at the orders of First Lord Winston Churchill. This and the departure of the Goeben from Turkish waters created an opportunity for the F.O. to seek assurances and guarantees from the Turks. Diplomats were able to point out that Germany was clearly not serious about her relations with Turkey, as evidenced by the abrupt departure of the Goeben, and the inability of the German Empire to guarantee Ottoman possessions in the Near East.
In the Far East, the battlecruisers HMAS Australia and HMS New Zealand called at Singapore before sailing North, steaming around the North of Borneo and towards Japan. Ostensibly, they were simply showing the flag, reminding other colonial powers that Britain was still ‘taking an interest’ in patrolling the sea lanes.
As both telegrams and rumours of war hurtled across Europe, the Admiralty in London were more concerned with the likely future movements of the German East Asiatic Squadron.
Over the next few months, as German attacks on the Russians made spectacular progress, the Turkish government would wonder whether they had made the right choice by declaring their neutrality. They had obtained another battleship (the delayed Osman), and a piece of paper on which Britain effectively did little more than acknowledge the Turks’ right to rule their own Empire. Had their neutrality had been bought too cheaply; perhaps if they had joined the German cause, they too could have been making vast gains at the expense of the Russians?
No-one could ever be certain.
Both real-world ships: