The trigger that caused Turkey to be dragged unwillingly into the First World War was when Germany, unbidden, sent two battleships to replace two dreadnoughts that Britain had confiscated. Details of the events and the diplomatic exchanges between Russia, Constantinople and London that led to this historic moment lie in The National Archives at Kew. Justin Olmstead, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Central Oklahoma, spent four solid weeks “without a lunch break” combing the archives to unravel the story, presenting his results in a talk at the archives at Kew yesterday.
The seized ships, Reshadieh and Sultan Osman I, had, with British encouragement, been ordered and paid for by the Ottoman government and were built by Armstrong Whitworth in Newcastle. Just before their launch in the summer of 1914 Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered the vessels to be requisitioned without compensation, which particularly angered the people of Turkey as they had been paid for by voluntary public subscription. The seizure of assets belonging to a country with whom Britain was not at war had no legal basis, and the memos from the archive show the search for a justification in the lead up to the decision. Ultimately, they settled on the catch-all Salus populi suprema lex esto — the good of the nation is above the law.
The talk was introduced by Dr Juliette Desplat, a French Middle-East specialist who speaks Turkish and Arabic, and can read Ottoman Turkish. Articles on her National Archives blog are based on documents in the collection, such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed 100 years ago in May.
(Pictured above is Reşadiye, requisitioned for the Royal Navy and renamed HMS Erin. Sultan Osman I was named HMS Agincourt. Both ships saw action and survived the First World War.)