World War I (1914–1919)

by: History SparkNotes

The War at Sea

Turkey and the War at Sea

The war at sea soon brought the Ottoman Empire, previously an officially neutral power, into the fray. At the start of the war, the Ottoman Empire, centered on what is now Turkey, had remained neutral but generally was friendlier with the Central Powers than with Britain, France, and Russia. Germany was anxious for more allies, especially in the Mediterranean, and high-placed Ottoman officials—such as Minister of War Enver Pasha—believed that an alliance with Germany could help bolster the faltering empire, then known as the “sick man of Europe.” In a secret treaty signed on August 2, 1914, Turkey promised to aid Germany in the event that Russia attacked Austria-Hungary.

Later that month, two German warships, the Goeben and the Breslau, docked in Constantinople, avoiding pursuit by the British navy. The Ottomans bought the ships and renamed them, incorporating them into the Ottoman navy. The sale was primarily technical, as German crews would be allowed to remain on board and in control of both vessels.

On October 27, the Goeben and the Breslau, now sailing under Ottoman flags,entered the Black Sea, ostensibly to practice maneuvers. On October 29, under the command of German Admiral Wilhelm Souchon (who may have been working in collaboration with Turkish Minister of War, Pasha), the two ships appeared unexpectedly off the Russian coast, fired on several Russian seaports, sank a Russian gunboat and six merchant ships, and set fire to a Russian oil depot. Russia, believing that the attack had come from Turkey, promptly began an invasion of Turkey from the east. Britain and France also responded by attacking Turkish forts along the Dardanelles. Turkey then responded by declaring war on all three. In a single stroke, Admiral Souchon had helped manipulate the Turks into entering the war on the German side.

The Battle of Coronel

Not long after Turkey became involved, the sea war spread even further, to South America. The German East Asia Squadron, a small defensive fleet under Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee, had been based on the Caroline Islands in the western Pacific, near China, when the war broke out in August 1914. However, Spee knew that his ships would never be able to stand up against the Japanese navy, which would soon move against him (Japan had entered the war on August 22). Therefore, the East Asia Squadron fled the area and set forth on a two-month journey across the Pacific Ocean to Chile, which had a large German population and would offer a safer base of operations from which Spee could prey upon British shipping routes.

On November 1, the German East Asia Squadron encountered the British West Indian Squadron, which had been diverted from its patrol duties in South America and the Caribbean specifically to destroy Spee’s forces and remove the threat to British shipping routes. The British squadron, led by Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, consisted of obsolete cruisers ill-matched for a fight with Spee’s faster and better-armed ships. In the Battle of Coronel that ensued, Cradock’s squadron was obliterated, and two ships were lost. Cradock himself perished, along with 1,600 British sailors—the Royal Navy’s first defeat in a hundred years.

The Battle of the Falkland Islands

A month later, on December 8, 1914, the Royal Navy had an opportunity to take revenge on Admiral Spee, whose East Asia Squadron had by this time made its way around Cape Horn and into the South Atlantic. Spee’s task was merely to disrupt British trade and supply routes as much as possible, but he also made a fateful decision to attack the British colony on the Falkland Islands off of Argentina, which he believed would be undefended and an easy victory. Spee’s aims in this attack were to destroy the British coaling station and radio station there, which was critical to British military communications. The mission was a fatal mistake.