The Straits 1915/16 dur­ing the Battle of Gal­lipoli

This will be a very long post and take some time to fin­ish, approx­im­ately until the sum­mer of 2019. Please be wel­come to book­mark it. Quo­ta­tions will be lis­ted after com­ple­tion on the bot­tom of the text.


Russia’s geo­pol­it­ic­al issues are mostly of geo­graph­ic nature, the inac­cess­ib­il­ity of much of Siber­ia, the end­less dis­tances and the per­en­ni­al prob­lem of her ports – both for trade and mil­it­ary pur­poses. Before the con­struc­tion of the port of Mur­mansk in 1915, there were only two Rus­si­an ports in the north-west: Arkhangel­sk and St. Peters­burg (later renamed Pet­ro­grad). Arkhangel­sk, how­ever was use­less in the winter, and the usab­il­ity of St. Peters­burg was eas­ily con­trolled by an even­tu­al block­ade of the Kat­tegat Strait by Ger­many. The Pacific ports suffered from trans­port han­di­caps – although the Trans-Siberi­an Rail­way was more or less func­tion­ing by the time of the Russo-Japan­ese War in 1904/05, it was single track only and its capa­city was low. There were, how­ever, ice-free ports avail­able in the Black Sea ...

The Franco-Prus­si­an War of 1870/71 brought two prin­cip­al changes in the stra­tegic equi­lib­ri­um of the con­tin­ent; one clear and imme­di­ately vis­ible, the oth­er lat­ent, cir­cum­spect, and slow in its con­sequences. Num­ber One was the emer­gence of a new, pos­sibly dom­in­ant, power on the con­tin­ent – Wil­helmine Ger­many - which every­body had to take note of; Num­ber Two was the emer­gence of anoth­er, pos­sibly dom­in­ant, European power – an indus­tri­al­ized and mod­ern­ized Rus­si­an Empire – of which few took notice.

Franco-Ger­man enmity had become a pre­dict­able factor of the new European real­ity; revanchism was to remain the French Right’s battle cry for the fore­see­able future. That France’s desire for revenge could not be ful­filled without out­side aid was also clear; both her stag­nant pop­u­la­tion and rel­at­ive indus­tri­al under­per­form­ance – at least if com­pared to Ger­many – illus­trated her weak­ness. She could not endanger Ger­many unless in con­cert with Rus­sia, but this aven­ue Bis­mar­ck had blocked.

If Franco-Ger­man ten­sion was the west­ern centre of European polit­ics after 1871, the oth­er two were in the East, con­sist­ing of the tri­angles Con­stantinopleSt. Peters­burgVienna and Con­stantinople – Lon­don – St. Peters­burg. These were the centres of atten­tion of all European powers – except per­haps for Ger­many, which was far away and could not hope to profit from a break­up of the Otto­man Empire. They paid mind­ful­ness to the decay of the Turk­ish realm and stood ready to pick up the pieces. Tri­angle One defined the Balkans, the scene of Aus­tro-Rus­si­an dis­putes over the future inher­it­ance, and Tri­angle Two incor­por­ated Meso­pot­amia and Per­sia, the pieces over which Rus­sia and Great Bri­tain expec­ted to haggle after the demise of the Otto­mans.

Bis­mar­ck was only too aware of the quandar­ies of the situ­ation, and thus had provided for the“Re-Insur­ance Treaty”, which held Rus­sia to neut­ral­ity in the case of a new Franco-Ger­man war regard­less of ori­gin, and thus banned the spectre of Ger­many hav­ing to fight a two-front war. But after his retire­ment in 1890, the Re-Insur­ance Treaty, the pièce de résist­ance of his for­eign policy, was simply allowed to expire through the legendary stu­pid­ity of Wil­helm II, new Chan­cel­lor Leo von Caprivi and the new Sec­ret­ary of State Bieber­stein; the lat­ter did not even inquire in St. Peters­burg wheth­er the Czar desired a pro­long­a­tion of the com­pact. The Rus­si­an court, per­plexed, could only inter­pret Berlin’s silence as a sign of inex­plic­able Ger­man hos­til­ity, and began to look for a new ally in the West. France was ready and will­ing.

To dis­cern that both the European and Asi­an bor­der­lands of the Otto­man Empire were the most volat­ile areas of the respect­ive inter­na­tion­al rela­tions did not require the applic­a­tion of proph­ecy, and someone should have noticed that Rus­sia was the attract­or that figured in each pos­sible crisis scen­ario, but no one did, and few care today; as Sean McMeekin notes, “as for what Russia’s lead­ers hoped to accom­plish by going to war in 1914, most his­tor­ies of the con­flict have little to say, bey­ond vague mut­ter­ings about Ser­bia and Slavic hon­our, treaty oblig­a­tions to France, and con­cern for Russia’s status as a great power.” (12)

It is indic­at­ive of a habitu­al geo­pol­it­ic­al super­fi­ci­al­ity that even gen­er­al his­tory works of the era do not enlight­en the curi­ous lay­man what, for example, French, Brit­ish, Aus­trali­an and New Zea­l­and troops sought at the Gal­lipoli Pen­in­sula, i.e. the Dard­anelles, in 1915/16. There were no Ger­mans, nor Aus­tri­ans, and the land­scape was not very attract­ive.

To pre­vent a Franco-Rus­si­an rap­proche­ment had been Bismarck’s pri­or­ity, but as we had the oppor­tun­ity to observe, the Ger­man For­eign Office was far too pre­oc­cu­pied after 1890 with intern­al strife and incom­pet­ence to notice the signs of the times; the fail­ure was aggrav­ated by the fact that the two dec­ades after 1890 were the years in which the fate­ful sys­tem of alli­ances developed and pet­ri­fied.

Early signs of trouble came from south-east­ern Europe and the Balkan Pen­in­sula, the crit­ic­al tri­angle between Vienna, Con­stantinople and St. Peters­burg. Slavic hot­heads instig­ated loc­al insur­rec­tions from the mid-1870s on; some were home-grown, as in Bul­garia, where, Luigi Alb­ertini remarks, more than two hun­dred revolu­tion­ary com­mit­tees could be coun­ted in 1872, (13) and some were kindled by Ser­bi­an agents. Rus­si­an expan­sion­ism and Slavic eth­no­cen­tri­city con­cer­ted, foun­ded upon age-old Russo-Turk­ish and Aus­tro-Slavic enmity; encour­aged, per­haps, by the Rus­si­an gen­er­als’ impres­sion that both Turks and Aus­tri­ans were mil­it­ar­ily inferi­or, “beat­able”, so to say. Luigi Alb­ertini sums up the Rus­si­an designs on the Turks as fol­lows:

Rus­si­an ambi­tions in the Balkan Pen­in­sula were of ancient date. [FN5] Eight wars at least she had waged on the Turks either to take their ter­rit­ory or to help Ortho­dox Slavs and Greeks to throw off the Turk­ish yoke. In the recent Crimean War Rus­sia had come up against Aus­tri­an hos­til­ity. For­get­ful of ser­vices rendered by the Tsar in 1849, when Nich­olas I had saved Fran­cis Joseph’s throne by send­ing Rus­si­an troops to smoth­er the Hun­gari­an revolt, Aus­tria had main­tained an unfriendly neut­ral­ity dur­ing this war, and at the Con­gress of Par­is in 1856 had helped to deprive Rus­sia of part of Bessar­a­bia.

The Growth of Rus­sia 1613 – 1914

Hav­ing reached the Black Sea in the eight­eenth cen­tury, Rus­sia hence­for­ward aspired to free access to the Medi­ter­ranean. But the Straits were in Turk­ish pos­ses­sion, and entry to them was reg­u­lated by inter-nation­al agree­ments unfa­vour­able to Rus­sia. The Black Sea was a mare clausum [FN6] and its key was in oth­er hands. Still, older than the Rus­si­an aspir­a­tion to the Straits was the aspir­a­tion for Con­stantinople. [FN7] The cross was to be raised on the Church of Santa Sophia as sym­bol of the pro­tec­tion giv­en by Rus­sia to the Balkan Chris­ti­ans and of her aid in their lib­er­a­tion. (14)

[FN5] Alb­ertini explains: “In 1833, by the Treaty of Unki­ar-Ske­lessi, Rus­sia had achieved the clos­ing of the Dard­anelles to enemy fleets seek­ing to pen­et­rate to the Black Sea. This clause was mod­i­fied by the Treaty of Lon­don of 1840 and the Straits Con­ven­tion of 1841, which denied the Straits to ships of war wheth­er enter­ing or leav­ing the Black Sea, a prin­ciple con­firmed by the Treaty of Par­is of 1856, which fur­ther for­bade both Rus­sia and Tur­key to have war­ships in the Black Sea. After the denun­ci­ation of this clause by Rus­sia in 1870, the Treaty of Lon­don had with­drawn the veto, but had for the first time admit­ted the prin­ciple that for­eign war­ships might enter the Black Sea in time of peace, if the Sul­tan deemed it neces­sary for the safe­guard­ing of the oth­er clauses of the Treaty of Par­is. Thus, Rus­sia could not pass her Black Sea fleet into the Medi­ter­ranean, while the Sul­tan could admit enemy fleets into the Black Sea, a com­plete reversal to the dis­ad­vant­age of Rus­sia of the prin­ciple of the closed Straits.” (16) [FN6] Lat­in: a “closed sea” [FN7] Sean McMeekin com­ments that Con­stantinople had been called “Tsar­grad” by Rus­si­ans for cen­tur­ies; the town from where, after suc­cess­ful recon­quista from the Muslims, the Tsar would reign over a “Second Rome”, a new Ortho­dox Chris­ti­an Empire. (17)

The Balkan after the Treaty of Ber­lin 1878

The devel­op­ment of Pan-Slav­ism in the 1860s added to the volat­il­ity of the region, for the enthu­si­asts of some ima­gin­ary eth­nic unity deman­ded the estab­lish­ment of a great­er Slavic con­fed­er­a­tion, which was to include “Rus­sia, Bul­garia, Czechoslov­akia, Con­stantinople with the Straits, a Serb-Croat-Slov­ene realm cor­res­pond­ing approx­im­ately to Yugoslavia, and in addi­tion Greece, Romania and Hun­gary.” (15) It would appear thus, that Greek, Romani­ans and Hun­gari­ans would become invol­un­tary Slavs, and in addi­tion, one might argue that there were few Slavs in Con­stantinople who urgently expec­ted their lib­er­a­tion. But Pan-Slav­ism found its most enthu­si­ast­ic adher­ents in the south: neither the Poles, who longed to have their state back, which had been divided up by Rus­sia, Aus­tria and Prus­sia in the three suc­cess­ive divi­sions of the late eight­eenth cen­tury, nor the Czechs, who aspired to their own state in Bohemia and Moravia, even­tu­ally togeth­er with the Slov­aks a bit fur­ther east, were keen on a uni­on with south­ern Slavs, for they were only too keenly aware of the eth­nic and reli­gious divi­sions of the Balkan.

Eth­no­lin­guist­ic Map 1910

There exis­ted with­in the south­ern Slavs liv­ing in Aus­tria-Hun­gary a quite numer­ous fac­tion which would accept the recently quite lib­er­al Habs­burg reign and aspired to little more than, say, lim­ited home rule and decent rep­res­ent­a­tion in the admin­is­tra­tion of the realm. The Aus­tri­an heir appar­ent, Arch­duke Fran­cis Ferdin­and, was essen­tially open to their sug­ges­tions, but the good will of the con­struct­ive fac­tion came to naught because of the intransigence of the Hun­gari­an nobil­ity – in some respects, the Slavs were less of a prob­lem to Aus­tria than the Hun­gari­ans, who, by skil­ful nego­ti­ation, had cre­ated for them­selves a very advant­age­ous pos­i­tion in the Aus­tro-Hun­gari­an Aus­gleich of 1867.

Luigi Alb­ertini sum­mar­izes the res­ult of the bar­gain:

[By the Aus­gleich] … the Empire was divided into two rigidly sep­ar­ated States; on the one hand Aus­tria with the Hered­it­ary Crown lands formerly belong­ing to the Holy Roman Empire and the later acquis­i­tions Galicia and Dal­ma­tia, and on the oth­er Hun­gary togeth­er with Transylvania and Croa­tia, from which Fiume was detached and placed dir­ectly under Hun­gary.

Each of the two states was to have its own Con­sti­tu­tion, Gov­ern­ment, and Par­lia­ment. Com­mon to both states were the Min­is­ters for War, For­eign Affairs, and Fin­ance, the lat­ter in so far as he admin­istered the rev­en­ues cov­er­ing defence and dip­lo­mat­ic expendit­ure. While legis­la­tion and the budget came under the sep­ar­ate par­lia­ments, their joint interests were to be dealt with by stand­ing com­mit­tees called Del­eg­a­tions nom­in­ated annu­ally by the respect­ive Par­lia­ments. For mat­ters con­cern­ing com­merce and cus­toms, the two gov­ern­ments were to con­clude sep­ar­ate agree­ments every ten years.

Though the word Aus­gleich means “equal­iz­a­tion” and the com­prom­ise assured equal rights to both sides, Aus­tria was to con­trib­ute 70% of the joint expendit­ure and Hun­gary only 30%, which, as Fried­jung [Hein­rich Fried­jung, then Pro­fess­or at the Uni­ver­sity of Vienna] observes, was equi­val­ent to a “trib­ute oblig­a­tion” from Aus­tria to Hun­gary, of which the Hun­gari­ans were wont to boast. (18)

In his role as King of the Hun­gari­ans, Emper­or Fran­cis Joseph was bound by the res­ol­u­tions of the Hun­gari­an par­lia­ment, and thus, as the Aus­tri­an his­tor­i­an Vikt­or Bibl observed, the Mag­yars had the upper hand in gov­ern­ment­al prac­tice:

Not two sov­er­eign Par­lia­ments were to deal with joint busi­ness; not the King of Hun­gary and the Emper­or were to base them­selves on agree­ment between the two states. Solely the Hun­gari­an Par­lia­ment and Min­is­ters impose their will as law on the entire Mon­archy, includ­ing Aus­tria; the King of Hun­gary as execut­or of the Hun­gari­an nation­al will is abso­lute mas­ter of Aus­tria. (19)

Eth­ni­cit­ies of Aus­tria-Hun­gary

And so it had come to pass that most of the south­ern Slavs of the Empire had come under the Hun­gari­an thumb, from which they received little kind­ness. It was the small, semi-autonom­ous prin­cip­al­ity of Ser­bia, tech­nic­ally a province of the Otto­man Empire, which, rely­ing on Rus­si­an pro­tec­tion in the case of fail­ure, felt elec­ted to pro­pel Pan-Slavic dreams toward their even­tu­al ful­fil­ment. After rais­ing an insur­gency against the Turk­ish over­lords in Bos­nia 1875, the Ser­bi­an ruler Prince Mil­an urged Con­stantinople to entrust his state with the gov­ernance of the errant province. When the Sul­tan denied the motion, Ser­bia and Montenegro declared war on the Turks on June 30, 1876. By Septem­ber, they were defeated, and the Serbs asked their putat­ive pro­tect­or, Tsar Alex­an­der II, to inter­cede on their behalf and to arrange an armistice. Rus­sia eyed the pos­sib­il­ity to have found in the Serbo-Turk­ish war a prop­er excuse to attack the Otto­mans them­selves, but this could not be done unless Aus­tri­an neut­ral­ity could be obtained.

Dip­lo­mat­ic missives were exchanged between Vienna and St. Peters­burg, and des­pite Aus­tri­an con­di­tions that, in Albertini’s words, were “tan­tamount to [Rus­sia] fight­ing for the bene­fit of Aus­tria-Hun­gary,” (20) a mil­it­ary con­ven­tion and polit­ic­al agree­ment was signed in Bud­apest in early 1877, and Rus­sia declared war on the Otto­man Empire on April 24. The Con­ven­tion of Bud­apest awar­ded Bos­nia and the Her­ce­gov­ina to Aus­tria and assured her that no great­er Slavic state was to be foun­ded in the Balkans as a res­ult of Russia’s future endeav­ours.

Even­tu­ally, Rus­sia won a con­fused cam­paign, and in March 1878 exac­ted from Tur­key the Treaty of San Stefano. The agree­ment estab­lished a geo­graph­ic­ally gen­er­ous, sup­posedly inde­pend­ent Bul­garia on Turkey’s door­step, which, how­ever, could fool no one as to its being a “Rus­si­an out­post towards Con­stantinople”. (21) In addi­tion, the com­pact not only bestowed full inde­pend­ence on Ser­bia, Montenegro and Romania but also provided autonomy, under Aus­tro-Rus­si­an “super­vi­sion”, to Bos­nia and Her­ce­gov­ina.

All that, of course, dir­ectly viol­ated the Con­ven­tion of Bud­apest and also was far more than Great Bri­tain was will­ing to tol­er­ate – for it turned out that Rus­sia and Aus­tria had clandes­tinely agreed to “lib­er­ate” Con­stantinople, which would become a “Free City”. Now an Anglo-Rus­si­an con­flict threatened over the San Stefano Treaty, and Aus­tria espied an oppor­tun­ity to rene­go­ti­ate her terms with Rus­sia. For her bene­vol­ent neut­ral­ity, she now deman­ded not only Bos­nia and the Her­ce­gov­ina, again, but added parts of Montenegro and of the large Bul­gari­an state the San Stefano Treaty had just cre­ated. It was all too obvi­ous to sus­pect that Aus­tria envi­sioned a road for her­self all the way down to Salonika and the Aegean Sea; on August 6, 1878, Count Juli­us Andrassy, then Austria’s For­eign Min­is­ter, admit­ted in a let­ter to the King of Wuerttem­berg that the pos­ses­sion of these lands “enables us in the event of a col­lapse of Tur­key to be as near as pos­sible to the scene, to safe­guard our interests.” (22)

With Aus­tria enter­ing the race for the Straits – for a nav­al base in Salonika, fur­nished with the prop­er ships, could eas­ily close the Straits inde­pend­ently of Turks or Rus­si­ans or the Brit­ish – the situ­ation became opaque, impen­et­rable, while the stakes increased. Great Britain’s new For­eign Min­is­ter Lord Salis­bury real­ized this, and, assisted by Bis­mar­ck, whose back chan­nels in St. Peters­burg had informed him about the Aus­tro-Rus­si­an col­lu­sion, invited the European powers to a con­tin­ent­al con­gress to adju­dic­ate all pending mat­ters, which opened in Ber­lin on June 13, 1878.

Final meet­ing at the Reich Chan­cellery on 13 July 1878, Bis­mar­ck between Gyula Andrássy and Pyotr Shuvalov, on the left Ala­jos Káro­lyi, Alex­an­der Gorchakov (seated) and Ben­jamin Dis­raeli

After a lot of horse-trad­ing and pres­sure brought to bear by Bis­mar­ck and Lord Beacon­sfield, i.e. Ben­jamin Dis­raeli, the con­gress even­tu­ally entrus­ted Bos­nia and the Her­ce­gov­ina to Aus­tri­an occu­pa­tion, while uphold­ing tit­u­lar Turk­ish suzer­ainty over these provinces. In addi­tion, Aus­tria reserved the right to inter­cede in the San­jak of Novi­baz­ar, the strip of ter­rit­ory sep­ar­at­ing Ser­bia and Montenegro, if the Otto­mans were unable to guar­an­tee a com­pet­ent admin­is­tra­tion of the province, which remained under their sov­er­eignty.

The prob­lem of the Straits, how­ever, could not be addressed sat­is­fact­or­ily; for Eng­land and Rus­sia could not find a com­prom­ise. (23) State­hood and inde­pend­ence were gran­ted to Romania, Ser­bia and Montenegro, the lat­ter two receiv­ing addi­tion­al ter­rit­or­ies. Rus­sia appro­pri­ated Armenia and reoc­cu­pied Bessar­a­bia. The island of Cyprus Great Bri­tain had secured from Tur­key on June 4, ten days before the Con­gress began; that she attemp­ted to keep the acquis­i­tion secret – in vain, when the news went around the world on July 8 – was only more water on the mills of those who were wont to com­plain about “Per­fi­di­ous Albion” and her hypo­crisy. The bot­tom line, how­ever, was that every­body had profited “at the expense of Tur­key, to which up to 1878 had belonged Bos­nia, Herzegov­ina, Bessar­a­bia, Armenia, and Cyprus, and under whose sov­er­eignty till then had stood Ser­bia, Montenegro and Romania.” (24)

This short descrip­tion of the events giv­ing rise to the Con­gress of Ber­lin has been chosen to serve as an impres­sion of the man­ner in which European dip­lomacy was cus­tom­ar­ily handled; in the best case, its double and triple lay­ers of deceit could be repaired by the efforts of reas­on­able and skil­ful men like Dis­raeli and Bis­mar­ck; under the aegis of less­er dip­lo­mat­ic tal­ents, acci­dents happened galore, as may be read in detail in Luigi Albertini’s mag­num opus.

We shall now attempt to con­cen­trate the next twenty-five years or so of European power polit­ics, each of them as com­plic­ated and decept­ive as the events that led to the Con­gress of Ber­lin – and some worse – in a form that hope­fully allows us to sep­ar­ate wheat from chaff. Essen­tially, we shall fol­low the inter­play of the Great Powers, mind­ful that the rap­id soci­olo­gic­al and eco­nom­ic changes of the indus­tri­al age exer­ted lim­it­a­tions on gov­ern­ment­al options than had been unknown only dec­ades earli­er – fear of social­ism, for one.

The Con­gress of Ber­lin had not only addressed ques­tions of the Balkans but many oth­er points of interest, and one of its res­ults had been that Bis­mar­ck and Dis­raeli had gran­ted France “a free hand in Tunis,” (25) for they much favoured to keep France busy in the Medi­ter­ranean instead of court­ing Rus­sia. Licence for France, how­ever, irked Italy, which felt a need to acquire new pos­ses­sions; why exactly, nobody knew, for she was rather under­developed and would be expec­ted to do her home­work first, but she seemed to labour from a case of the afore­men­tioned psy­cho­lo­gic­al desid­erata of suc­cess­ful imper­i­al­ism.

In 1880, France invaded Tunisia and estab­lished a pro­tect­or­ate over the region, but because at this time Glad­stone and the con­ser­vat­ives were in power in Eng­land, far more scep­tic­al to French acquis­i­tions in Africa than Dis­raeli and Lord Salis­bury had been, Italy thought she might enlist Brit­ish aid for her own designs on Tunisia. But Eng­land was loath to replace a French threat to her Medi­ter­ranean pos­i­tion with a poten­tially worse Itali­an one and Rome got nowhere. Hav­ing arrived there, only an under­stand­ing with Ger­many could help, but then Bis­mar­ck was no friend of Italy, which he accused of pur­su­ing a “jack­al policy”. (26) Thus it took anoth­er eight­een months of horse-trad­ing before, on May 20, 1882, Ger­many, Aus­tria and Italy signed the First Treaty of the “Triple Alli­ance”, val­id for five years.

Black and white photo of the sig­na­tures to the treaty of the Triple Alli­ance, 1882, Gust­av Kál­noky, Aus­tria-Hun­gary, Hein­rich von Reuss, Ger­many, and Carlo di Robil­ant, Italy

The con­tract began with the sol­emn assur­ance that the parties “have agreed to con­clude a Treaty which by its essen­tially con­ser­vat­ive and defens­ive nature pur­sues only the aim of fore­stalling the dangers that might threaten the secur­ity of their States and the Peace of Europe.” (27) Because it was exactly such con­ser­vat­ive, peace­ful and defens­ive agree­ments that proved unable to stop the con­flag­ra­tion of 1914, we shall have a look at a few of its clauses, sum­mar­ized by Luigi Alb­ertini:

The High Con­tract­ing Parties mutu­ally prom­ised peace and friend­ship, pledged them­selves to enter into no alli­ance or engage­ment dir­ec­ted against one of their States and to exchange views on polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic ques­tions of a gen­er­al nature that might arise, [and] prom­ised mutu­al sup­port with­in the lim­its of their own interests (Art­icle I).

Aus­tria and Ger­many under­took in the case of unpro­voked attack by France to go to the help of Italy with all their forces. The same oblig­a­tion was to devolve upon Italy in the case of an aggres­sion by France on Ger­many without dir­ect pro­voca­tion (Art­icle II).

If one or two of the High Con­tract­ing Parties, without dir­ect pro­voca­tion on their part, should chance to be attacked and engaged in war with two or more Great Powers not sig­nat­or­ies of the treaty, the cas­us foeder­is would arise sim­ul­tan­eously for all the High Con­tract­ing Parties (Art­icle III).

In the case that one of the three allies was forced to make war on a Great Power, not a sig­nat­ory to the Treaty, which threatened its secur­ity, the two oth­ers would main­tain bene­vol­ent neut­ral­ity, each reserving to itself the right, if it saw fit, to take part in such a war at the side of its ally (Art­icle IV). (28)

Pro­pa­ganda poster

The attent­ive read­er will have iden­ti­fied two prob­lems: the first in the clause that applies if one of the sig­nat­or­ies is “… forced to make war …“ which entirely leaves open the ques­tion under which con­di­tions this might be the case. Second, some scen­ari­os were left out; for example, the con­tract would not apply if Aus­tria would be attacked by Rus­sia alone. The alli­ance was, of course, dir­ec­ted against France; Bis­mar­ck, whose opin­ion of the Itali­ans had not much improved, saw the pur­pose of the Triple Alli­ance less in win­ning Italy but in pre­vent­ing her from asso­ci­at­ing with France [and when exactly that happened in 1915, Bismarck’s voice thundered from the grave “I told you so!”]. By 1888, Romania had essen­tially joined the Triple Alli­ance, and the situ­ation at this time is often regarded as Bismarck’s new, post-1871, con­tin­ent­al equi­lib­ri­um: France was isol­ated, and Bis­mar­ck him­self would ensure that the interests of Rus­sia and Aus­tria on the Balkan would not col­lide. Great Britain’s interests would profit from a sta­bil­iz­a­tion of the con­tin­ent as well and Russia’s aspir­a­tions on the Straits were, for the moment, impeded by Romania.

After some mend­ing of socks, the Triple Alli­ance was renewed on Feb­ru­ary 20, 1887 on identic­al terms, except for the addi­tion of an Aus­tro-Itali­an pro­tocol that attemp­ted to reg­u­late the parties’ interests in the Balkan, and a Ger­man-Itali­an agree­ment in which Italy reas­sured her­self of Ger­man assist­ance in the case of a clash with France in cent­ral or west­ern North Africa. (29)

Bis­mar­ck saw room for a fur­ther improve­ment of the status quo if Great Bri­tain and Italy were to come to an under­stand­ing against France, and when Franco-Brit­ish rela­tions in regard to Egypt had taken one more dive after the French Prime Min­is­ter Frey­cinet pub­licly declared “that France could not allow Egypt to pass per­man­ently under Eng­lish rule because ‘he who is mas­ter of Egypt is in large part mas­ter of the Medi­ter­ranean,’ ” Lord Salis­bury began to make over­tures to Italy. (30) Alb­ertini remarks that he “had got to the point of half wish­ing for anoth­er Franco-Ger­man war to put a stop to French vex­a­tions.” (31) In the spring of 1887 Italy and Great Bri­tain signed an agree­ment regard­ing the reten­tion of the status quo and pledging mutu­al sup­port in Africa, an under­stand­ing Aus­tria joined in late March 1887 to the chag­rin of the aggress­ive Hun­gari­an fac­tion. But it seemed not to have come to Italy’s atten­tion that her planned occu­pa­tion of Tripoli, which belonged to the Otto­mans, might con­sti­tute a change of this status quo, and when the Itali­an For­eign Min­is­ter Crispi wrote to Salis­bury to inform him of the plan which would, as he said, solely anti­cip­ate a sim­il­ar French plan, Salis­bury made clear that Brit­ish sup­port would not extend to such adven­tures. He wrote back:

The interests of Great Bri­tain as also those of Italy do not per­mit that Tripol­it­ania should have a fate sim­il­ar to that of Tunisia. We must abso­lutely guard against such an even­tu­al­ity when it threatens us. …

If Italy were to occupy Tripoli in time of peace without France hav­ing taken any aggress­ive meas­ure, she would expose her­self to the reproach of hav­ing revived the Near East­ern ques­tion in very dis­ad­vant­age­ous con­di­tions.” (32)

On the east­ern side of the Triple Alli­ance, Aus­tria seemed to con­tem­plate war with Rus­sia over Ser­bia and Bul­garia. Kal­noky, the new Aus­tri­an For­eign Min­is­ter, approached Bis­mar­ck with his gen­er­als’ wish to cla­ri­fy the exact con­di­tions under which the cas­us foeder­is under the Aus­tro-Ger­man Alli­ance of 1879 would arise. The prob­lem was that the Rein­sur­ance Treaty was secret and had to remain so and hence Bis­mar­ck had to pre­var­ic­ate. The Aus­tro-Ger­man Alli­ance, he replied, provided for Ger­man assist­ance in the case of a Rus­si­an attack on Aus­tria, but not for an Aus­tri­an attack on Rus­sia, as he thought to have made clear to the Aus­tri­an Ambas­sad­or in Ber­lin in Janu­ary 1886:

If Rus­sia attacks Aus­tria-Hun­gary, Ger­many will come to her assist­ance with all her forces, but it is not pos­sible to let Ger­many play the role of aux­il­i­ary army to increase Aus­tro-Hun­gari­an influ­ence on the Danube. Not a mem­ber of par­lia­ment would be found to vote even a single mark for such a pur­pose.” (33)

In a speech to the Reich­stag on Janu­ary 11, 1887, Bis­mar­ck had pub­licly cla­ri­fied, with an eye on the Hun­gari­an hot­heads that:

Our rela­tions with Aus­tria-Hun­gary are based on the con­scious­ness of each one of us that the whole exist­ence of each as a Great Power is a neces­sity to the oth­er in the interests of European equi­lib­ri­um; but these rela­tions do not, as they are inter­preted at times in the Hun­gari­an Par­lia­ment, rest on the prin­ciple that one of the two nations puts itself and its whole strength and policy com­pletely at the ser­vice of the oth­er.

This is an utter impossib­il­ity. There exist spe­cific­ally Aus­tri­an interests which we can­not under­take to defend, and there are spe­cific­ally Ger­man interests which Aus­tria can­not under­take to defend. We can­not each adopt the other’s spe­cial interests.” (34)

Aus­tria had become the prob­lem in both the Triple Alli­ance – for per­petu­al Aus­tro-Itali­an ten­sions – and the Dreikais­er­bund, due to her fre­quent spats and spars with Rus­sia. In the winged words of Nor­man Stone, “Aus­tria-Hun­gary was try­ing to act the part of a great power with the resources of a second-rank one.” (35) It was a sign of the respect Bis­mar­ck com­manded in all European cap­it­als that he was able to bal­ance the diver­ging interests of Germany’s allies as long as he was in office. But, as Luigi Alb­ertini com­men­ted, “Bismarck’s resig­na­tion in March 1890 pro­duced a sense of dis­may all over Europe. His author­ity and prestige, the ven­er­a­tion which sur­roun­ded him, the fear he inspired, were bey­ond com­pare,” and observed that “the youth­ful sov­er­eign who had dropped him [Wil­helm II] had no policy of his own, and a sin­is­ter influ­ence on Ger­man for­eign rela­tions was exer­cised by the tor­tu­ous Hol­stein who, in his hatred for Bis­mar­ck, reversed all the latter’s dir­ect­ives.” (36)


Germany’s life­line to St. Peters­burg rup­tured quickly. Only three months after Bismarck’s dis­missal, the Rus­si­an Ambas­sad­or Shuvalov showed up in Ber­lin to renew the Rein­sur­ance Treaty for anoth­er six years, but encountered dis­in­terest bor­der­ing on hos­til­ity. Still, both Tsar and the Pan-Slavs remained scep­tic­al of Par­is, the former for its repub­lic­an­ism, the lat­ter because they relied on Ger­many to keep Aus­tria in check on the Balkans. Yet French per­sever­ance began to pay off. Par­is offered to float numer­ous Rus­si­an loans at advant­age­ous con­di­tions, sold weapons cheaply, and endeared the Tsar by arrest­ing a few of the more obnox­ious Rus­si­an anarch­ist émigrés that lived in France, of the sort that had assas­sin­ated the Tsar’s fath­er Alex­an­der II in 1881. In August 1890, the French Chief of the Gen­er­al Staff Bois­def­fre was invited to the Rus­si­an sum­mer man­oeuvres and there was intro­duced to his Rus­si­an col­league Obruchev and the Min­is­ter of War. Yet again it seems that it was Italy that unblocked the mutu­al sus­pi­cions between Par­is and St. Peters­burg, when her new Prime Min­is­ter Rudini noti­fied par­lia­ment of the 1891 renew­al of the Triple Alli­ance “in a form which cre­ated the impres­sion that it had been in some meas­ure joined by Eng­land.” (37)

This was an omin­ous mis­take, for if it were true, Rus­sia had no choice but to entice France, Albion’s old enemy, as a coun­ter­weight, and in this age of secret treat­ies one could not check wheth­er it was true or not. Thus, Rus­sia ini­ti­ated tender dip­lo­mat­ic over­tures to France which ended, in sum­mer 1891, in an invit­a­tion to the French fleet to a vis­it at Kron­stadt, Russia’s prin­cip­al nav­al base in the Balt­ic, on the door­steps of St. Peters­burg, at the occa­sion of which the French Ambas­sad­or Laboulaye pro­posed that the two nations enter an agree­ment to fur­ther the con­tin­ent­al peace.

A memor­andum was drawn up with rather unseemly haste, and on August 27, 1891, the French gov­ern­ment sanc­tioned a let­ter delivered by the Rus­si­an Ambas­sad­or in Par­is, which stated that the Tsar had approved the fol­low­ing out­lines:

1. With the aim of defin­ing and con­sec­rat­ing the “Entente Cor­diale” which unites them, and in the desire to con­trib­ute by com­mon accord to the main­ten­ance of peace, which forms the object of their most sin­cere desires, the two Gov­ern­ments declare that they will con­cert on all ques­tions of a nature to endanger gen­er­al peace.

2. In the case that this peace were actu­ally in per­il, par­tic­u­larly in the case that one of the two parties were men­aced by aggres­sion, the two parties under­take to con­cert in advance meas­ures to be taken imme­di­ately and sim­ul­tan­eously if the even­tu­al­ity con­tem­plated should actu­ally arise.” (38)

Ele­ment­ary scru­tiny, how­ever, tells us that the interests of the pro­spect­ive endors­ers of the agree­ment were far from over­lap­ping, and the declar­a­tions of peace­ful intent can­not obscure their dif­fer­ent motiv­a­tions: France hoped to enlist Rus­si­an aid without which she could not hope to over­come Ger­many; yet Russia’s prob­lem was not Ger­many but Great Bri­tain, that blocked her designs on the Straits and expan­sion toward the Cau­cas­us and Per­sia. Thus, it took an addi­tion­al twenty months of hag­gling and bick­er­ing until the Entente Cor­diale was finally signed in Janu­ary 1894, and the Franco- Rus­si­an pact that Bis­mar­ck had feared was real­ity. Even then, the for­eign policy aims of the two sig­nat­or­ies were far from identic­al, and it was less the inco­her­ent polit­ic­al invoc­a­tions than the mil­it­ary agree­ment that became import­ant. In the first two para­graphs, the arrange­ment laid out the fol­low­ing scen­ari­os for out­right defence or mobil­iz­a­tion in a crisis:

1. If France is attacked by Ger­many, or by Italy sup­por­ted by Ger­many, Rus­sia will employ all forces at her dis­pos­al to attack Ger­many. If Rus­sia is attacked by Ger­many, or by Aus­tria sup­por­ted by Ger­many, France will employ all the forces at her dis­pos­al to com­bat Ger­many.

2. In the case in which the forces of the Triple Alli­ance or of one of the Powers form­ing part of it were mobil­ized, France and Rus­sia at the first announce­ment of the event and without need of pre­lim­in­ary agree­ment will imme­di­ately and sim­ul­tan­eously mobil­ize the whole of their forces and move them as near as pos­sible to their fron­ti­ers.” (39)

Bismarck’s night­mare had become real­ity.

The oper­at­ive memor­andum that fol­lowed the pro­tocol laid down the num­ber of troops that were to be com­mit­ted against Ger­many; France would dis­patch 1.3 mil­lion men and Rus­sia between 700,000 and 800,000. In addi­tion, the gen­er­al staffs of the nations were to meet at spe­cified inter­vals to har­mon­ize oper­a­tion­al plan­ning and pre­pare troop coördin­a­tion, there would be no sep­ar­ate peace, and the Entente would last, in strict secrecy, as long as the Triple Alli­ance exis­ted. (40)

Czar Nich­olas II at Franco-Rus­si­an Man­oeuvres 1901

Again, the treaty was tech­nic­ally defens­ive, but, as in the Triple Alli­ance, some pos­sible scen­ari­os made little sense or ten­ded to pro­voke ill-advised com­plic­a­tions. If, for example, Aus­tria were to mobil­ize against Rus­sia in a Balkan con­flict, France would also be obliged to mobil­ize. Since France and Aus­tria had no com­mon bor­der, this move would not only make no mil­it­ary sense but would lead to Ger­man mobil­iz­a­tion, which in turn might well pro­voke the war that the alli­ance was sup­posed to avoid. As Luigi Alb­ertini observed, “the French endeav­oured to rem­edy this incon­gru­ity, but ended by resign­ing them­selves to the con­sid­er­a­tion that, in an Aus­tro-Rus­si­an con­flict, France and Ger­many could not stand aside.” (41)

This was of course all too true, as 1914 would prove, and it is exactly the smart approv­al of the likely scen­ario that makes one doubt very much the hon­esty of the French government’s asser­tions that she was driv­en into the war of 1914 invol­un­tary, solely because of her treaty oblig­a­tions to Rus­sia. Essen­tially, the Franco-Rus­si­an alli­ance guar­an­teed that revanche for 1870/71 would occur in the near future; all that remained was to find a suit­able pre­text and to determ­ine a suit­able date. [FN1] What was true in 1894 became more true twenty years later: on May 29, 1914, the Amer­ic­an Pres­id­ent Wilson’s envoy to Europe, Col­on­el House, wrote his mas­ter that “whenev­er Eng­land con­sents, France and Rus­sia will close in on Ger­many and Aus­tria.” (42)

[FN1] The present author, how­ever, dis­putes Luigi Albertini’s sub­sequent opin­ion that “it would be wrong to ima­gine that the Franco-Rus­si­an Alli­ance was con­cluded by the French with a view to an impend­ing revanche or by the Rus­si­ans to real­ize their aspir­a­tions in the Balkans and Far East. What both sought was to end their isol­a­tion.” (44) In real­ity, France was not isol­ated any more than Great Bri­tain, which saw no need to engage in ques­tion­able alli­ances then; both had extens­ive colo­ni­al interests that guar­an­teed them a major voice in glob­al polit­ics inde­pend­ent of alli­ances. In addi­tion, French Repub­lic­ans were much more sym­path­et­ic to lib­er­al Eng­land than to reac­tion­ary Rus­sia. Rus­sia was assured of non-inter­ven­tion by the powers that coun­ted – which did not include Aus­tria-Hun­gary, who could not threaten Rus­sia on her own – and pro­tec­ted by her vast­ness that had defeated even Napo­leon – as long as she did not attempt to go for Con­stantinople and the Straits. Yet by expos­ing Ger­many to a poten­tially immob­il­iz­ing two-front war, she might gain the oppor­tun­ity to fight and decide in her favour what Sean McMeekin called the “War of the Otto­man Suc­ces­sion”. (45)

Wheth­er out­right war or mobil­iz­a­tion, neither side had illu­sions about the decis­ive­ness of the pro­spect­ive mil­it­ary meas­ures, nor were they unaware that the defens­ive char­ac­ter of the treaty might change in time.

The chau­vin­ists of both coun­tries expec­ted much more from the alli­ance than did the Gov­ern­ments which con­cluded it. Moreover, in later years, like the Aus­tro-Ger­man alli­ance, it lost its strictly defens­ive char­ac­ter to adapt itself to oth­er ends; and the gen­er­als who nego­ti­ated the mil­it­ary agree­ment per­fectly under­stood the con­sequences of the mobil­iz­a­tions con­tem­plated in the agree­ment.

Gen­er­al Obruchev in the course of nego­ti­ations remarked that “to his idea the begin­ning of French and Rus­si­an mobil­iz­a­tion can­not now be regarded as a peace­ful act; on the con­trary it is the most decis­ive act of war; i.e., would be insep­ar­able from an aggres­sion”. Bois­def­fre, like­wise, said to the Tsar: “Mobil­iz­a­tion is declar­a­tion of war. To mobil­ize is to oblige one’s neigh­bour to do the same. Mobil­iz­a­tion causes the car­ry­ing out of stra­tegic trans­port and con­cen­tra­tion. Oth­er­wise, to allow a mil­lion men to mobil­ize on one’s fron­ti­ers without at once doing the same one­self is to for­feit all pos­sib­il­ity of fol­low­ing suit, is to put one­self in the pos­i­tion of an indi­vidu­al with a pis­tol in his pock­et who allows his neigh­bour to point a weapon at his head without reach­ing for his own.” To which Alex­an­der III replied: “That is how I too
under­stand it”
. The import­ance and the con­sequences of this judge­ment were to come to the fore on July 25, 1914 when Rus­sia was to be the first Power to order mobil­iz­a­tion. (43)

Franco-Rus­si­an Manœuvre at Chalons 1906

Now Great Bri­tain found her­self the odd man out, but her tra­di­tion­al equan­im­ity, or inde­cis­ive­ness, had pre­served her so far from hav­ing to jeop­ard­ize her glob­al aims by con­tin­ent­al oblig­a­tions. But she had to pro­tect the Medi­ter­ranean life line that con­nec­ted her to Egypt and the Near East and for this reas­on was inter­ested in oppos­ing French influ­ence in the west­ern part of the Medi­ter­ranean by friend­ship with Italy that would bring the neces­sary author­ity to bear in Her Majesty’s name; yet, alas, her aver­sion to make bind­ing com­mit­ments won the day, and Italy declined free ser­vices. But Eng­land might be left in a dubi­ous pos­i­tion if, for instance, France and Rus­sia were to coöper­ate in seiz­ing Con­stantinople and the Straits. Such a scen­ario seemed pos­sible after their alli­ance had become known, but Great Bri­tain declined to join the Triple Alli­ance pre-empt­ively over this scen­ario, although her Prime Min­is­ter Rose­bery acknow­ledged that “in such a case we should require the assist­ance of the Triple Alli­ance to hold France in check.” (46)

When Great Bri­tain exten­ded feel­ers to Ger­many over such a scen­ario, she was rebuffed by Kais­er Wil­helm II, who, from tra­di­tion­al friend­ship to Rus­sia as well as anti­pathy to Eng­land made it clear that a Rus­si­an seizure of Con­stantinople and the Straits would, in his opin­ion, not con­sti­tute a cas­us belli for Ger­many; the interest of Aus­tria could be main­tained by giv­ing her Salonika as a com­pens­a­tion. It was the remainder of Bismarck’s old policy of divid­ing the Balkans into two spheres of influ­ence for Rus­sia and Aus­tria, and presid­ing over them as arbit­rat­or. But Wil­helm was not Bis­mar­ck and thus the nos­tal­gic endeav­our tanked.

When ten­sions increased in South Africa between Boers and Brit­ish­ers in 1895, Wil­helm II eas­ily man­aged to upset Great Bri­tain with his ill-advised Kruger tele­gram of Janu­ary 3, 1896, in which he con­grat­u­lated the Boer Pres­id­ent to his accom­plish­ments in driv­ing out Eng­lish raid­ers (“I express to you my sin­cere con­grat­u­la­tions that you and your people, without appeal­ing to the help of friendly powers, have suc­ceeded, by your own ener­get­ic action against the armed bands which invaded your coun­try as dis­turbers of the peace, in restor­ing peace and in main­tain­ing the inde­pend­ence of the coun­try against attack from without.”). A few months earli­er he had deman­ded in a con­ver­sa­tion with the Brit­ish Mil­it­ary Attaché in Ber­lin that Eng­land “take up a clear pos­i­tion either with the Triple Alli­ance or against it”, adding that “the former altern­at­ive would require a form­al under­tak­ing such as was cus­tom­ary between con­tin­ent­al Powers, i.e. sealed and signed guar­an­tees.’ ” (49) The same invit­a­tion he exten­ded in writ­ing to the new Prime Min­is­ter Lord Salis­bury in Lon­don on Decem­ber 20, 1895, who, how­ever, failed to acknow­ledge receipt. Giv­en that Wil­helm knew Britain’s dis­in­clin­a­tions to form­al alli­ances per­fectly well, one is left to won­der about his state of mind.

Mean­while, Italy’s Prime Min­is­ter Francesco Crispi com­plained to Bülow, then Ambas­sad­or in Rome, that “France makes war on us every­where. Whatever may be said about the Triple Alli­ance being con­cluded to main­tain peace, for us it has been the oppos­ite. For us the Triple Alli­ance is war. Our pos­i­tion is intol­er­able. And I repeat, for us this state of affairs is worse than war.” (50) There was, of course, no true war going on, except for a few ruffled feath­ers in Italy’s excit­able nature, but Crispi’s com­plaint depicts the psy­cho­lo­gic­al afflic­tions of the imper­i­al age. In reply, Chan­cel­lor Hohen­lohe poin­ted out that the alli­ance was a defens­ive league to main­tain peace, not a clique of rob­bers. (51) Italy’s frus­tra­tion con­tin­ued, although she was able to come to an agree­ment with France over Tunisia in late 1896.

In the Balkan, Aus­tria con­tin­ued the attempts to enlarge her domain of influ­ence fur­ther east than Bismarck’s old divi­sion of influ­ence spheres had sug­ges­ted, chiefly driv­en by her State Depart­ment that was occu­pied by a Rus­sophobe Hun­gari­an camarilla; the res­ult, increas­ing ten­sions with Rus­sia, irrit­ated Ber­lin, which made clear that it would not sup­port an Aus­tri­an strike at Con­stantinople. Aus­tria then attemp­ted to enlist England’s aid, but, again, Salis­bury replied in the name of Her Majesty’s gov­ern­ment that “it was impossible to take any engage­ment involving an oblig­a­tion to go to war“and Vienna got nowhere.” (52)

Bernhard von Bülow

A change in the Ger­man gov­ern­ment brought the replace­ment of For­eign Min­is­ter Marschall von Bieber­stein by Bülow and the appoint­ment of Alfred von Tirpitz to the post of Sec­ret­ary for the Navy in June 1897. These sub­sti­tu­tions would prove fate­fully import­ant, for not only were here the ori­gins of Germany’s nav­al race with Eng­land, but the notori­ous Pan- Ger­man League, foun­ded in 1893, began to exert polit­ic­al influ­ence as well.


Alike many nav­al officers of the time, Tirpitz had become a fol­low­er of Alfred Thay­er Mahan, an Amer­ic­an nav­al cap­tain, whose book “The Influ­ence of Sea Power Upon His­tory” had become a mil­it­ary best­seller. It argued that, as England’s example proved, it was neces­sary for an empire to main­tain sea power, that is, a battle fleet super­i­or to her com­pet­it­ors, to pro­ject glob­al influ­ence and pro­tect its eco­nom­ic interests. Tirpitz rel­ished the idea very much, not in the least because it would much improve the prestige of the Ger­man navy, that is, his own office, which up to then had been a small depart­ment for coastal defence. Tirpitz had Mahan’s book trans­lated and dis­trib­uted to every­body he knew.

He was anti-Brit­ish, too, which put him in the emperor’s good graces; a feel­ing that was largely recip­roc­ated in Eng­land. Luigi Alb­ertini cites the “Sat­urday Review” of Septem­ber 11, 1897, which argued that “in all parts of the earth Eng­lish and Ger­mans jostle each oth­er. Were every Ger­man to be wiped out tomor­row, there is no Eng­lish trade, no Eng­lish pur­suit, that would not imme­di­ately expand”, and recom­men­ded that “Ger­mania est del­enda”. (53)

Numer­ous Itali­an, Aus­tri­an and Ger­man appeals to Eng­land in the last dec­ade or so, invit­ing her to the Triple Alli­ance, had failed to impress her much, but from 1898 on the situ­ation reversed itself; now White­hall sought Ger­man atten­tion. At the same time, renewed Rus­si­an scep­ti­cism over the Entente with France led the Tsar to pro­pose a con­tin­ent­al alli­ance of all powers against “the ambi­tion, the implac­able ego­ism, and the avid­ity of Eng­land.” (54) A Bis­mar­ck might have been able to square this dip­lo­mat­ic circle; Wil­helm, the old Chan­cel­lor von Hohen­lohe and Bülow were not.

Sud­denly China appeared in the Ger­man focus. When Gen­er­al Obruchev arrived from St. Peters­burg with some anti- Eng­land pro­pos­als in the autumn of 1897, Bülow suc­ceeded, while stalling Obruchev’s ori­gin­al mis­sion, to win the Tsar over to assist Ger­many in the acquis­i­tion of a com­bined port, trad­ing post and coal­ing sta­tion on the Pacific Coast. With the Tsar’s con­niv­ance, tak­ing advant­age of the weak­ness of the Chinese gov­ern­ment, Ger­man troops landed at Jiao Xian in China’s Shan­dong pen­in­sula, over which they acquired a ninety-nine-year con­ces­sion in March 1898 (Tsingtao). The Rus­si­ans, mean­while, had obtained their own Pacific har­bour in Port Arthur, which became the prin­cip­al port for their Far East­ern fleet after they had thrown out some nosy Brit­ish­ers. Rus­si­an admir­als had read Mahan’s book as well.

Ger­man Tsingtao, Postcard,about 1910

In the eyes of Her Majesty’s gov­ern­ment, the Rus­si­an activ­it­ies were quite close to poach­ing in England’s own back garden, for Great Bri­tain con­trolled more than eighty per­cent of the Chinese trade. She was not likely to allow Rus­si­an expan­sion – the Ger­man colony was too small to mat­ter. In the Medi­ter­ranean, Aus­tria-Hun­gary and Italy, to a degree, coun­ter­ac­ted the spread of Rus­si­an influ­ence, but who could aid Brit­an­nia against Rus­sia in the Far East?

In the opin­ion of Joseph Cham­ber­lain, head of the Brit­ish Lib­er­al Uni­on­ists and Sec­ret­ary for the Colon­ies, it might be Ger­many. Unlike Salis­bury, he saw dangers in England’s isol­a­tion. Already French exped­i­tions probed the White Nile from the south and had estab­lished a base near Fashoda (today’s Kodok in the Sudan). Cham­ber­lain used Salisbury’s absence from the For­eign Office on account of a spa vis­it to Europe after March 25, 1989 to advance his ideas, but, not being a dip­lo­mat, it would seem that he approached his plead­ings to Ger­many, as Luigi Alb­ertini com­men­ted, “in the man­ner of a busi­ness deal.” (55) Strangely enough, after all earli­er Ger­man over­tures to Eng­land, now it was Bülow who pre­var­ic­ated, cit­ing con­cerns over Germany’s rela­tion to Rus­sia, which might suf­fer from a flirt with her mor­tal enemy. Bülow sum­mar­ized his pos­i­tion in writ­ing to Wil­helm that we “must hold ourselves inde­pend­ent between the two; be the point­er on the scales, not the pen­du­lum swinging from left to right.” (56)

When Salis­bury returned to White­hall in late April 1898, he had to find out that Cham­ber­lain had mean­while made his demand of an alli­ance with Ger­many pub­lic, for instance in a speech on May 13 in Birm­ing­ham. Chamberlain’s reas­on­ing, how­ever, failed to con­vince Salis­bury and the issue remained open. Sud­denly Wil­helm took action, when ...

… on 30 May 1898, the Kais­er took the step of writ­ing to the Tsar telling him that three times in the last few weeks Eng­land had talked of an alli­ance, the last time requir­ing the answer with­in a brief time lim­it. As the Triple Alli­ance, Japan, and the United States were all to be included, the alli­ance could only be dir­ec­ted against Rus­sia.

I beg you to tell me what you can offer and what you will do if I refuse.”

Before answer­ing, the Kais­er wanted to know the Tsar’s pro­pos­als. Let the lat­ter not hes­it­ate on account of France which could enter into any com­bin­a­tion he desired. By this indis­cre­tion, the Kais­er offered the pro­spect of reviv­ing the old Con­tin­ent­al league against Eng­land. The Tsar, how­ever, did not rise to the bait, but answered on 3 June that a few months earli­er Eng­land had made attract­ive pro­pos­als to him too, and that he was not in a pos­i­tion to answer the ques­tion wheth­er or not it was advant­age­ous to Ger­many to accept these repeated Eng­lish offers. (57)

Wil­helm II

At this point, the read­er might be excused if the sus­pi­cion arose that any sys­tem that depended on puerile aris­to­crats who habitu­ally engaged in piss­ing con­tests was doomed to end in glob­al war. Wil­helm and his advisors con­cluded that “any agree­ment with Eng­land would appear dir­ec­ted against Rus­sia and would lessen the secur­ity of Ger­many to east and west, while any agree­ment with Rus­sia would appear dir­ec­ted against Eng­land and would lessen the chance of colo­ni­al acquis­i­tions.” (58) The com­puls­ive­ness of imper­i­al­ist reas­on­ing reared its head again; had Bis­mar­ck been in office, he would have coun­selled that, in the worst case, a treaty with Rus­sia might cost a few thou­sand square miles of tor­rid Afric­an steppe, but would pre­vent the anni­hil­a­tion of the Fath­er­land.

In the autumn of 1898, through Las­celles, her Ambas­sad­or in Ber­lin, Eng­land put the quite unheard-of pro­pos­i­tion on the table – appar­ently secured by Cham­ber­lain in a cab­in­et vote – that the two coun­tries could reach agree­ment on mutu­al assist­ance if either one were attacked by two oth­er Powers, but Bülow again pre­vailed in coun­selling against it by writ­ing to Wil­helm, in a vari­ation of his old theme, that, by declin­ing any alli­ance with Eng­land or Rus­sia, “Your Majesty can be present as arbit­er mundi at the eighti­eth birth­day cel­eb­ra­tions of H.M. Queen Vic­tor­ia.” (59) That no one would ask notori­ously unre­li­able Wil­helm to assume this role nev­er entered Bülow’s mind.

Next: Clash in the Sudan

(© John Vin­cent Pal­at­ine 2015/19)

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