23: New Entries


There were a group of countries that would enter the war after August 1914, in this episodes we look at each of them in turn to find out why the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, Romania, and Italy would enter the war.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 23. Up to this point in the podcast we have discussed the six primary participants in the war Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, Serbia, and Britain. As the war progressed and it dragged on month after month there started to be a group of neutral countries that both sides sought to bring into the war as their allies. These countries were dotted around Europe and both sides wanted them for two reasons strategic positioning and manpower. The first of these was the Ottoman empire with its excellent strategic location between the Mediterranean and Black seas and with its ability to project power in the Middle East. Italy was also highly sought after for its central location in Europe and its sizeable military of a million men. Finally the countries of Bulgaria and Romania for their positions in the Balkans and their ability to have an effect on either side in the conflict. Each of these countries would have its own motivations and goals for joining the conflict, and they would be brought in by the various actions of both sides.

The first country we will talk about today is that of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman entry into the war will have the most immediate effect on our story. A World Undone has this to say about the Ottoman, or Turkey’s, entry into the war “A new reality facing all the combatants was Turkey’s entry into the war—a strange and unnecessary development. Backward and corrupt, economically and militarily feeble, the Ottoman Empire of 1914 was in no position to compete effectively with the great powers of Europe or even to function as a true partner of any of them. And it had much to lose by going the war with any of them. But to the Young Turks who had seized control in Constantinople in 1908 and clung to power in spite of their country’s losses in the Balkan wars, Europe’s August crisis had the appearance of a heaven-sent opportunity. Suddenly the Europeans coveted the Turks as potential allies. This change was as surprising as it was abrupt.” The Ottoman empire had been in decline for century beginning with the Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699, which cost it most of its influence in the Balkans and continued right up to 1913 and defeat in the Second Balkan War. People were known to call the empire the “sick man of Europe.” However, no matter how weak the Empire became it was still the strongest state in the eastern Mediterranean and was therefore important to the war. It also remained, or at least was perceived to be, a military threat to its neighbors, if only due to the historical precedent dating all the way back to Byzantine rule. Turkish ambitions had recently been reignited when the Young Turks came to power before the war and Russia began to become concerned about any growth of Turkish power in the region, especially as it became clear that they might enter the war on the side of the Central Alliance. In fact, the Ottoman’s would offer an alliance to Russia and Germany at the beginning of the war but Russia was confident in a quick and easy victory at this early stage in the war and didn’t want to ally with the Ottomans as it probably would have necessitated territorial concessions in the Balkans in the event of victory. After this refusal of an alliance the Ottomans went back to seeing Russia as a threat. It was well known that Russia wanted to take a warm water port on the Mediterranean and even Constantinople. This would solve Russia’s largest problem which was the fact that the only all-weather port they had was Vladivostok in Siberia. The desire to capture Constantinople was so strong that before the war Britain and France had to insist, to the point of threatening military actions, that Russia not launch a campaign to take possession of it.

The British were also very concerned about Turkey’s intentions in the war, the Ottoman territory stretched all the way to the Persian Gulf where the British held interests. With the discovery of oil in the area this interest only intensified. The British invested heavily in the oil industry in the region and in a company called the Anglo-Persian Oil Company which had the largest refinery on the Ottoman island of Abadan. In the years leading up to 1914 the refinery had essentially become a military outpost. In 1913 Britain had bought a controlling interest in the company as they started to roll out oil-burning Dreadnoughts. As soon as Royal Navy ships started using oil as fuel the Persian oil supply became a strategic matter of national security. This would be the largest cause for British military actions in the middle east, which we will cover in a later episode. For now, we will leave it at the fact that these interests just made the British extremely sensitive to the actions of the Ottomans. Little did they know that right before the war the Ottomans had approached the Germans and on August the second a secret defensive alliance had been signed between them.

One of the events that sent the Ottomans far closer to the Germans was an incident involving two ships. Before the war Britain was helping to modernize the Ottoman navy, this was part of bringing them closer to the British to secure the Middle East and British interests there. The Ottoman’s would pay 11 million pounds for two brand new dreadnoughts that would be built in England and then delivered to Turkey on completion. This action was really popular among the citizens of the empire, it was so popular that most of the money needed to purchase the ships was actually paid for through a public fund-raising drive. When the war did start Turkey hadn’t came out in support of either side and this left the British in a bit of a bind. With the uncertainty of Turkey’s position in mind on July 28th the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill announced that Britain would put a hold on both ships that were close to being completed. In hindsight this decision seems quite logical. The British weren’t sure what the Ottomans were going to do so if the ships would have been delivered it may well be delivering two perfectly modern ships into enemy hands. Somehow, before making the decision to withhold the ships, nobody had thought to discuss it with Turkey and maybe try to broker a deal that would put the two ships on the block to trade for Turkey signing an alliance with the Entente. While this is something that could be discussed as part of the what-if category of the war there is at least some likelihood that if the British would have asked, Turkish leadership would have welcomed the deal. There were parts of the Turkish government in July that wanted to side with the Entente, seeing it as a great way to secure Turkish interests in the Balkans.

This blunder by the British gave the Germans a unique opportunity which they were well positioned to take advantage of. While the British had been helping the Ottoman navy the Germans had been assisting their army. The Ottomans had long admired the German military and in the decades before the war had requested German military advisors as consultants. As early 1822 the Prussians had begun playing a role in training the Ottoman army and this would continue into the war. On August 10th two German ships arrived at the Dardanelles requesting entrance from the Turkish government. The two ships were named the Goben and the Breslau and they were German warships that had just been raiding the coast of Algeria and they had British and French ships hot on their heels. When they arrived the German advisors of course insisted that the ships be admitted while the British and French demanded a quick refusal. The Ottomans first tried to delay the decision as long as possible, but with the ships in danger the Germans were very insistent that a decision be made immediately. A few days later the Goben and Breslau were allowed to steam north to Constantinople. On their arrival the Germans gave the two ships to the Ottoman empire, although this was something of an empty gift because the ships kept their German crews and commanders and they still took orders from German high command. In any case there was absolutely no chance that the ships could have been brought back home anyway, the Mediterranean was ruled by the British and French ships and any sortie out of the Dardanelles would have ended far before the ships reached Gibraltar. Even after this gesture was made by the Germans the Ottomans still refused to openly commit to the war.

There were elements within the Ottoman government that wanted to quickly enter the war on the side of the Germans. These elements were led by the Minister of War named Enver Pasha. In late October Enver and other elements of the Ottoman government sent some Turkish ships, including the renamed Goben and Breslau in a raid against Russian Ports on the Black Sea. During the raid the ships shelled three Russian cities including the cities of Odessa and Sebastopol. The rest of the Ottoman government was shocked and frantically assured the Russians that the Ottoman Empire renamed neutral in the war. The Russians answered back, in no good mood for sure, and told the government that the only way to prove their good faith was to completely expel the Germans from the country. After this went without response on November 2nd Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France followed suit on the 5th. The Ottomans found themselves in a war, something they weren’t completely adverse to, they had a few goals that they wished to accomplish in the fighting, reduce Russian involvement and power in the Balkans, reverse the territorial and prestige losses of the two Balkan wars, curtail British and Russian expansion in the Middle East and Central Asia. Enver Pasha hoped to accomplish these goals with a giant two pronged offensive one through Syria and into Egypt with the aim of capturing the Suez Canal and another offensive against the Russians in the Causcuses. We will deal with both of these offensives later, but needless to say the Ottoman empire would play a large role in the events of the war in the middle east for the rest of the duration.

The entry of the Ottoman empire into the war also brought with it a new dimension. The empire was the seat of the Muslim Caliphate and it brought the threat of pulling a religious dimension into the war, something that it was free of. On November 11th Sultan Mehmed V declared a holy war and sent out a call to all Muslim under British, French, or Russian rule to rise up in insurrection against their leaders. The effect that this call had was small, almost infinitesimal. There were many North African Muslim regiments in French service who went right on fighting the Germans and the British army also had many Muslim Units, some of which would even end up fighting the Turkish troops in the middle east. Mehmed V’s holy war, while notable for the possibilities that it could have introduced into the war, ended up being a flop.

Even with some of the problems that the Empire had in the decades leading up to the war the military was still held in high esteem by the other countries of Europe. The resilience and fighting spirit of the Turkish troops was certainly never doubted, although some of the other ethnicities within the Empire were a bit less dedicated to the fighting. In the years before the war the Young Turks had also spent a lot of time and money undergoing a program of modernization for the military. The army in 1914 had four primary armies that were based in Istanbul, Baghdad, Damascus, and Erzinjan. These armies were composed of 36 divisions which were weaker in artillery than most of the European armies but what artillery they did have were modern and their compliment of machine guns was equal in number to the more modern armies of Europe. The supply and administration also left something to be desired, even after the endless efforts of German advisors led by General Liman von Sanders, who will make a very important comeback in later episodes of History of the Great War. One thing that could never be doubted was the abilities of the Turkish soldiers and time and time again they would show their ability, even when poorly supplied, to march and fight with vigor. One practice that would hold them in good stead on the modern battlefield was the digging of entrenchments which they had been putting a strong emphasis on for years.

There were two big prizes in the neutral race, the first was the Ottoman empire which we have already discussed the second was Italy. From a geographic perspective Italy was perfectly positioned to have maximum impact for both sides, with its central location in the Mediterranean. As we discussed way back in the first few episodes the Italians had an alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary before the war that was strictly a defensive alliance, then during political maneuvering of July 1914 the Italians were completely excluded from the discussions. Their allies didn’t want anything to do with them and Britain and France knew they had an alliance with Germany. When the war started Italy claimed that the war wasn’t defensive because Austria-Hungary had invaded Serbia and they used this fact to weasel their way out of their treaty obligations with the Central Powers. Italy’s foreign minister, Antonio di San Giuliano wanted nothing to do with the war and he was the primary voice in opposition to entering it. However, San Giuliano would die in October 1914 and Italy’s future would be put in the hands of the Italian Prime Minister Antonio Salandra. Salandra had a very different mindset than Giuliano, he believed that Italy’s neutrality was a negotiable asset that could be sold to the highest bidder.

The bidding war over Italy would be for an army of over a million men and both sides believed that if they could bring Italy into the war on their side it would mean a certain victory. The Entente believed very firmly that throwing a million Italians against either Germany or Austria-Hungary would result in their almost instant collapse. In March negotiations between Sir Edward Grey and the Italian Ambassador in London began and they would continue for over a month as the British made greater and greater offers in an attempt to persuade the Italians. Britain was in a very good position in these negotiations because they could offer all kinds of things that the Italians wanted that the French and British neither possessed or even wanted. Everything that was being offered during the negotiations were pieces of the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires. On the offering block was the Austro-Hungarian lands on the south side of the Alps, some Aegean Islands, and pieces of the Balkans, Africa, and Asia Minor. This was a very hefty price to pay and fortunately for the British their enemies were the ones who were going to pay it. The only negative in these negotiations was the threat posed to the Russian aspirations in the Balkans region and the only way that this could be balanced out was by promising Constantinople to the Russians and vast swaths of the Ottoman empire in central Asia. This was a reasonably small concession, but one that went against over a century of British policies. The Germans didn’t share these same luxuries. They found themselves in a tough spot when trying to offer anything of value to the Italians. Most of what Italy wanted was also coveted by the Austrians or was already owned by them. Due to this problem the Germans had to lower their aim in the negotiations and just shoot for keeping Italy neutral, instead of trying to bring them into the war. The German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg did throw out the idea of giving parts of Silesia to Austria-Hungary in exchange for concessions to Italy, but this suggestion was put in the insane category by the other German leaders. Austro-Hungarian leadership also briefly, very briefly, considered getting Italy to mediate an eastern peace. On the Italian side Salandra was loving the bidding war, Salandra and Italy had literally nothing to lose during the process. It seems that early in the process he decided that he would side with the Entente, they were just offering the far greater deal, however he continued to feign a move toward the Central powers so that he was able to extract a greater price from the Entente. When Salandra thought he had reached the opportune moment he made Italy a party in the Treaty of London that bound the Entente together. He promised to enter the war within a month, and in exchange he basically got everything he wanted. On May 23rd Italy would declare war on Austria-Hungary, although Germany was left out of this declaration.

The Italian military would prove itself to be unprepared for the war when it came. The men were ill-equipped and undertrained and the commanders would prove almost completely incapable of command. They would not have even remotely close to the impact that the Entente thought that they would. The first major Italian act of the war would be to march 600,000 men into Northern Italy to attack against the Austrian border at the Isonzo River. They would begin attacks in June and there would be total of 4 battles by the end of 1915, we will be back to discuss them all in a few months.

The Balkan country of Bulgaria was in a similar position to Italy. They had been neutral since the start of the war but they were being wooed by both sides, the attempts to get Bulgaria to enter the war only intensified after Italy joined the Entente as Bulgaria was seen as the next largest prize. Bulgaria would bring with it an army of more than half a million men and much like Italy, Bulgaria was primarily motivated to give these men to whichever side could give it the most once the war was won. The British and Sir Edward Grey tried just about everything they could get the Bulgarians on their side but they found themselves handicapped in much the same way that Germany had been with Italy. The Bulgarians wanted one thing, Serbian territory, and that was exactly what Britain couldn’t give since they were Serbia’s ally. The Germans on the other hand could give the Bulgarians everything they wanted, the territory taken from them during the Second Balkan War by Serbia. In early September Bulgaria would officially enter the war on the side of the Central Powers. Not only did this bring another country into the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary it also made Greece and Romania, the last two coveted neutral countries less likely to come in on the side of the Entente. We won’t be discussing Greece today, but they will get their time in the spotlight later this year.

The last country we will talk about today is Romania, even though they wouldn’t enter the war until summer 1916, they are probably worth discussing now. Romania was ruled by a King that wanted to join the Germans in the war, being a member of the same royal family as the Kaiser can do that to people. Romania had in fact signed a secret treaty in 1883 that much like the Italians obliged them to enter a war if Austria-Hungary was attacked. When the war actually started they were able to skinny out of it just like the Italians. They did this against the wishes of the King because the public and the politicians strongly favored the entente. After discussions with the Entente the Romanians were able to extract a deal that involved getting parts of Transylvania after the war. During the war they would also get military supplies from the Entente and guarantees that the Entente would launch attacks during 1916 against Bulgaria and against the Ottomans so that Romania wouldn’t have to fight alone on two fronts. Romania would finally declare war on August 17, 1916 and they would bring with them an army of over 600,000 men.

With the entry off Romania the great European Neutral race would be at an end. Italy and Romania would find themselves comfortably on the side of Britain, France, and Russia with nice territorial gains waiting for them on the other side of the war. Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire joined Germany and Austria-Hungary and had equally as appealing gains waiting for them should their side win. All four of these countries will play a role in coming episodes and we will encounter our first episode with one of them next week as the Ottoman Empire attacks through the Caucasus against Russia. While you are waiting for the next episode you can follow the History of the Great War at twitter.com/historygreatwar, facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar, or historyofthegreatwar.com. Also, I would once again ask that if you enjoy the show you drop a review on iTunes, or Stitcher, or wherever you are receiving this podcast from. And with that, I will talk to you again next week.