Dreadnoughts and Crosses – How battleships brought the ANZACS to Gallipoli
By Robert Hamlin
Part 1 – The South American Arena
4.00 am on Sunday, 20 December 2015 marked the centenary of the last man leaving ANZAC cove at the end of the Gallipoli campaign. By the time the Allies evacuated the peninsula after just over eight months of fighting, each side had lost just under 60,000 dead. By the military standards of other battles in World War I these losses were small. Despite this, for three combatant countries, the young dominions of Australia and New Zealand and the yet to be born Turkish Republic, the battle was a seminal national event.
For this reason the details of the battle itself are well known and have been repeatedly re-enacted in print, video and film. What has received slightly less attention is how the Allies and the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire came to be enemies in the first place. The Ottoman Empire was not part of the deadly twin daisy chains of alliances and obligations that dragged all the other great imperial powers of Europe into an involuntary state of war in the days after the Austro Hungarian Empire chose to attack Serbia. The Ottomans had the luxury of choice. They could join the Allies, or they could join the Central Powers. Or, they could not join in at all – the eminently sensible option favoured by the then Sultan, Mehmed V.
The convoluted and sometimes ridiculous story of how the Ottoman Empire eventually did get involved on the side of the Central Powers, and thus became one of New Zealand’s ‘enemies’, makes for interesting reading. It involves pride, greed, incompetence, insubordination, brilliant opportunism and desperate decisions made in haste with little information. Above all it involves battleships, the great floating fortresses that so disastrously possessed the minds of men both great and small in the first decades of the twentieth century. Battleship mania was a truly global phenomenon. Thus this story begins not in Europe or Asia, but in South America some eight years before the First World War broke out.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the four-cornered battleship building race between Germany, Britain, the USA and Japan was well established. With their greater shipyard capacity, this was a race that the USA and Britain should have won comfortably. However, they were hampered by their political systems. The governments of Germany and Japan, where democracy was tightly delimited, were able to pursue their naval build up steadily and in a carefully planned manner. In the USA and Britain public opinion and short-term political expediency made this impossible. Periods of complacency when shipyards were starved of orders for battleships alternated with periods of panic, when they were literally drowning in them.
This created an intolerable situation in British and American shipyards. Dreadnought battleships were at the limits of the technology of their day. Their construction required massive fixed installations served by enormous and highly skilled workforces that simply could not be assembled and dispersed at will. If a race-winning dreadnought building capacity was to be maintained, somehow the demand for them within these two democracies had to be smoothed out. Then, as now, it was realised that exporting these cutting-edge weapons of war to third countries was one way in which this could be done. As a result, both Britain and the USA became vicious rivals in the international export market for dreadnought battleships. The most skilled and unscrupulous salesman of their day fanned out from the British and American yards, backed by enormous budgets and the full diplomatic capacities of their respective governments.
The happiest hunting ground for these dreadnought salesmen was South America. Nowhere in the world had changed politically as much as this continent had in the nineteenth century. In 1800 the continent was sleepily divided between the declining empires of Spain and Portugal. By 1900 all this had been swept away and replaced by a series of young, prickly and increasingly wealthy republics. The largest of these: Brazil, Chile and Argentina had a particularly volatile relationship with one another, in which diplomatic tension, military posturing and sporadic minor actions created an ideal environment for battleship selling.
In Part 2, the activities of the international dreadnought salesmen across three continents create a ludicrous but potentially explosive situation.
Part 2 – The battleship barterers
Once they had identified South America as the prime market for British and American battleships, the Edwardian dreadnought builders got straight to work. By various adroit manoeuvrings, the British and American sales representatives succeeded in selling no less than seven dreadnoughts to these three countries in less than three years. The process started with Brazil agreeing to buy three dreadnoughts from Britain in 1906; with two to be constructed immediately, and a third to be laid down once the first two had been completed. Argentina and Chile promptly responded by each ordering two larger ships: Chile’s from Britain, and Argentina’s from the United States.
However, the fever rapidly abated, and by 1908 the South American ardour for battleship building was cooling in the face of the staggering costs and risks of escalation. In the case of Brazil, an additional chill was provided by a major naval mutiny and the collapse of the rubber and coffee export commodity markets that had been expected to pay for the ships. As a result Brazil attempted to extricate itself from its commitment to build the third ship that it had ordered. The British fought hard to avoid this, and eventually their efforts were successful. However, the witches’ brew of conflicting commercial and political agendas that eventually preserved the deal also produced what was the most ridiculous design ever executed in the dreadnought era.
The Rio de Janeiro was built for show. The Brazilian government were determined that if they were going to have to pay for this unwanted battleship, then it should be the most impressive yet seen in South America. The choice lay between bigger guns or more turrets. Turrets won the day, and the Rio de Janeiro shipped seven, in a period when every other nation was standardising on four. This meant a big ship, but Brazil’s maintenance facilities were limited, which meant that the big ship had to be narrow and tremendously long. Finally the capacity for the officers to entertain in style and live in comfort had a far higher priority than other navies. The Rio de Janeiro had far larger internal spaces and far fewer watertight bulkheads than her equivalents. All of these requirements, plus a respectable top speed, meant that something had to give, and that something was armour. Rio de Janeiro had armour that was barely more than half the thickness of her contemporaries.
Perhaps as the Rio de Janeiro took shape on the slipway it became increasingly obvious that she looked more ridiculous than imposing. Whatever the reason, the Brazilian government decided to get rid of her. In late 1913 she was put up for sale while still incomplete, and sold to the Ottoman Empire for just under six million dollars – a respectable sum for that time. The Rio de Janeiro became the Sultan Osman I. The Brazilians, no doubt highly relieved, departed from the scene. The deal may have been facilitated by the fact that the ever-active British dreadnought salesmen had already sold another larger and far more capable dreadnought, the Reşadiye, to the Ottomans two years previously.
Although Sultan Osman I was the weaker unit of the two new Turkish ships, the situation within the Ottoman Empire at the time of its acquisition endowed it with a much greater political importance to the Turks. The Ottoman Empire, the ‘sick man of Europe’ had been in retreat for half a century. Provinces in the Balkans and North Africa that had been Turkish for centuries had fallen away. The retreat had been accompanied by a sequence of mass murder and ethnic cleansings that had left millions of Turks dead and millions more displaced and destitute within the areas that are now modern Turkey.
The Turks were aware that this process was not complete, and that the Ottoman Empire’s neighbours harboured further expansionist ambitions that would potentially leave the Turkish nation partitioned and bereft of any territory or secure identity. This was a national rather than simply a government realisation. As the government was both chaotic and destitute, the Turkish nation raised the money to buy the Sultan Osman I, largely by public subscription and a myriad of small collections in coffee shops and the like. Special ‘navy donation medals’ of various grades were struck and given to larger donors. It was an act that both presaged and represented the popular will that would lead the Turks to victory at Gallipoli in 1915 and to a secure independence in 1923. The significance of the gesture was reinforced by the name that was given to her – that of the Ottoman Empire’s founder.
In Part 3, British misjudgements over the sale of the two battleships turn a possible ally into a potential foe.