Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: December 5, 1914

Two ships from the German navy had an outsize part in the history of the First World War: the Goeben and Breslau. Our coverage in the December 5, 1914, issue gives a description of them—size and guns and whatnot—and hints at their place in the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean, but neglects their most significant role in the Great Game of espionage and skullduggery that went hand-in-hand with the official diplomacy leading up to the Great War.

SMS Goeben, a German battle-cruiser transferred in 1914 to the navy of the Ottoman Empire under diplomatically dubious circumstances and renamed the Yavûz Sultân Selîm. The ship here flies the Ottoman flag. Image: Scientific American, December 5, 1914

The background here is that within the diplomatic muddle leading up to the war, different factions within the crumbling Ottoman Empire leaned at different times to joining the Central Powers (Germany or Austria), or the Allies of the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia), or remaining neutral. When war broke out between Britain and Germany, the British Admiralty (headed by Winston Churchill) fearing the lean toward Germany, had decided to confiscate two large battleships being built by British shipyards for the Ottoman Empire. These ships had been partly paid for by public subscriptions in Turkey, so their confiscation was met by much outrage by those who had footed the bill.

On the outbreak of war, the German naval vessels Goeben and Breslau were steaming in the Mediterranean, tasked with attacking French troop transports. They evaded the British fleet in pursuit of them, and then (depending on who you might have asked) were sold, lent, or given to the Ottoman navy. The transfer of the ships considerably enhanced the effective power of the Turkish navy, and also did much to persuade the Turks that the Germans were their friends.

Here’s what we said about these ships 100 years ago:

“At the outbreak of the war, two of the most powerful battleships afloat were completing in British yards; one, the Sultan Osman I, and the other, the Sultan Mehmet Richard V, built directly for the Turkish navy. These two vessels were, of course, taken into the British navy on the declaration of war. The loss to Turkey was partially made good by the Germans, when the battle-cruiser Goeben and the scout-cruiser Breslau took refuge in the Dardanelles. It was reported that these two ships were sold to Turkey. Their German officers and crews remained aboard, apparently awaiting the developments which were shortly to come. When Turkey entered into the war these ships became immediately active as part of the Turkish fleet.”

“The Goeben alone, with her powerful battery of ten 11-inch, 50-caliber guns, and twelve 6-inch; her excellent protection of an 11-inch armor belt, and her high speed of 28 knots, is worth more to Turkey than the whole of the rest of her navy. The Breslau, moreover, of 4,550 tons and 28 knots, protected with a 3 1/2-inch belt and mounting twelve 4-inch guns, is worth more to Turkey in the work of commerce destroying than the two or three protected cruisers which she possessed when the war opened.”

SMS Breslau, a German light cruiser transferred to the Turks in 1914 and renamed the Midilli. Image: Scientific American, December 5, 1914

The ships, however, retained their German officers and crews. At the end of October, for reasons that remain murky, these two ships, renamed Yavûz Sultân Selîm, and Midilli, and flying the flags of the Ottoman Empire as ships in the Ottoman navy, but still under the command of German officers and crewed by German sailors, steamed across the Black Sea to attack the Russian port of Novorossisk. The damage inflicted was of minor importance to the Russian war effort, but the outrage was enough to nudge the Russians into declaring war against the Ottoman Empire, which basically meant that latter entity, crumbling but still populous and large, was brought into the war on the side of Germany.

The Yavûz remained in the Turkish navy, and was on active service until 1950.

Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on the technology of the naval balance of power. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi