The Ottoman Empire (‘Turkey’ for short) was a major actor on the European scene whose role we have not yet considered. After a century of degeneracy, defeat, and humiliation, when she survived mainly because the European powers saw her existence as necessary to preserve the balance in Eastern Europe, power had been seized in 1908 by a group of young officers (the original ‘Young Turks’) set on modernizing the archaic political and economic system and restoring national prestige. They turned their backs on the Islamic traditions of the Ottoman Empire with its vast sprawling frontiers in Africa and Arabia in favour of a compact ethnically homogeneous Turkey that would eliminate alien elements—Greek, Armenian—within her own territory and sponsor a Pan-Turanian movement that would liberate and unite the thirty million ethnic Turks of the Caucasus, southern Russia, and Central Asia under a single rule.
The Russians viewed the advent of this new regime with understandable alarm, the more so since in Germany it found enthusiastic support. German investment poured into the country, especially for the development of its railways. German diplomats exercised the commanding influence in Constantinople that had been a British prerogative in the previous century, while German officers assisted in the training and re-equipment of the Turkish army—though not in time to save it from humiliating defeat in the First Balkan War of 1912. There is still a special shrine in honour of its German mentors in the Turkish Army Museum in Istanbul.
The British took a relaxed view of all this. Once they had established themselves in Egypt in the 1880s, they had abandoned the thankless task of propping up the Turks as a barrier to Russian expansion. Indeed, they initially saw in the German presence there a useful counterweight against Russia. When Russia became an ally, the Straits linking the Mediterranean with the Black Sea, through which passed a third of all Russian exports, acquired a new strategic importance, but it was assumed that Anglo-French command of the Mediterranean would be enough to ensure safe passage. Further, if the Germans controlled the Turkish army, the British were equally influential in the Turkish navy. Two state-of-the-art battleships had been built for it in British yards, and in August 1914 they were ready for delivery. But when war broke out the British government stepped in and purchased the ships for themselves, thus alienating their chief supporters in Constantinople.
Admittedly the Turks had just concluded a treaty with Germany directed against the Russians, so there could be no guarantee that the vessels would not fall under German control; and the incident might have been forgotten if two German warships, the Goeben and the Breslau, had not successfully evaded British pursuit in the Mediterranean on the outbreak of war and cast anchor off Constantinople on 12 August. Their brooding presence, combined with the stunning successes of the German armies on all fronts, helped persuade the Turkish government to declare war on Russia, and on 29 October the German ships, now flying the Turkish flag, bombarded the Black Sea port of Odessa. At the same time the Turks took the offensive against the Russians by attacking in that historic arena of Russo-Turkish conflict, the Caucasus—an unwise thing to do at the onset of winter, as the 80,000 Turkish losses during the next three months were to testify.