I’m about halfway through Barbara Tuchman’s exceedingly excellent The Guns of August; World War I had always been a gap in my 20th century history, and I’ve always heard good things about the book. I’m really happy to say that it justifies the hype. It’s fascinating and – weirdly – hilarious. The more I read, the stronger my impression that Europe in 1914 was under the collective rule of one of the biggest gang of boobs in history, and that if World War I didn’t have such a horrible body count associated with it, it would rank as one of the great comedic acts of mankind.
Consider the case of the German battleship Goeben and her companion, the cruiser Breslau.
At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, Goeben and Breslau were stationed in the Mediterranean. Shit hits the fan. War breaks out. Because of a network of pacts, you abruptly have a situation where noted world powerhouse Serbia is allied with Russia who’s allied with France who’s allied with England, opposing Austria-Hungary and their allies the Germans. The Ottoman Empire is neutral as things start out. They don’t like the Russians much, but they have a longstanding relationship with England, and there are a lot of German sympathizers in the Turkish military. They could go either way. And they’re strategically important, since all of the good warm-water ports supplying Russia depend on shipping traffic through the Dardanelles.
So. The Ottomans, a crucial swing state that could go either way. What do the British do to win them over? They seize a couple of completed battleships that they’d been building for the Ottomans. Ace diplomacy there.
The Germans, meanwhile, think that they see a way to push the Turks off the fence. Goeben and Breslau, they figure, should speed to Constantinople and ask to be allowed into the port; if the Turks let them in the Germans figure, they can use this as proof that the Turks are on their side etc. So the German admiral commanding the ships puts the pedal down and streaks East across the Med (the British fleet immediately deploys to the West, convinced that that must be where the wily Germans are really headed).
Mind you, Goeben and Breslau are old-timey coal-powered ships whose engines are fuelled by dudes shovelling coal into them at all times. They haul such ass towards Constantinople that a couple of guys on the Goeben dropped dead from the effort (you have to think that engine room morale took a hit there; you also have to wonder what it was like for the German officers back home tasked with informing the next of kin that their loved ones had died in a shovelling-so-the-ship-could-go-fast effort).
Goeben and Breslau reach the field of sea mines guarding the port of Contantinople and ask to be let in; German-sympathising elements let them through. According to the German plan, then, everything’s set and the world’s going to just assume that the Ottomans are pals with the Germans.
But caution takes over among the Ottoman decision-makers, and they concoct a fantastic cockamamie story. You see, they say, they aren’t sheltering German ships. It turns out that they’d been planning on buying those ships, and the German admiral was just expediting delivery! To support this story – and for some reason, the Germans on the spot play along with this – the ships start flying the Ottoman flag AND THE GERMAN CREWS ARE MADE TO WEAR FEZZES TO MAKE THEM LOOK TURKISH.
Shockingly, all of this clever maneuvering didn’t really crystallize world opinion one way or the other about where exactly the Ottomans stood. So the now Fez-wearing German admiral decided to take things up a notch, and took his “Turkish” ships with beFezzed crews out into the Black Sea and shelled some Russian ports while flying the Ottoman flag. Voila! Turkey’s in the war on the German side.
This really happened. World War I… it was fucking ridiculous.