Railways Pt. 3



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode 13. This episode is our third on the topic of railways during the war and this episode will focus strictly on one railway project, although it is a big one. This project is the Berlin to Baghdad railway which was a joint project by Germany and the Ottoman Empire both before and during the war. In fairness it was not a project to build a railway from Berlin to Baghdad, because the railways from Berlin to Constantinople already existed. Instead it was a project to build a railway from Istanbul to Baghdad and then onto Basra on the Person Gulf. This was a large undertaking that would have to deal with the problematic terrain and the uncertain political situations in the Middle Eastern deserts at this time in history. However there were big upsides for both parties participating in construction. For Germany they had several benefits, or objectives, when pouring the amount of money they did into construction. The first was that it would provide them a direct route for Middle Eastern oil to find its way to central Europe. This would keep it off the seas, and thereby keep it away from the Royal Navy which was sure to play havoc with any oceanic shipping in the case of a war. The second reason was that it would simply allow Germany to play a larger role in the Eastern Asian trade routes. This railway would allow them to siphon off a good amount of the trade that went on British ships, and also some German ships around the Cape of Good Hope or through the Suez Canal. This would have economic benefits for both German businesses but also the Ottoman empire. The third reason for German was to simply solidify their presence in the Ottoman Empire and in the Middle East. This was something that had been growing in the decades before the war, and the railway was seen as a logical next step in the process. For the Ottomans they would definitely be benefiting out of the deal, if they could pull it off economically. By getting economic backing from the Germans the Ottomans were able to possible complete this huge project that they never would have been able to by themselves. If it could have been completed, and without the war starting. It could have greatly increased their influence in the parts of the empire far from Istanbul, which were under the growing influence of the British Empire. While this all could have worked out so well, in the end it would be a long and expensive process which would fail. However the story behind the failure of this huge engineering project, hampered as it was by international and internal politics and geographical realities makes for an interesting story.

It is impossible to tell the story of the project without also discussing international reaction to it, so that is where we will start. The entire situation was only possible to begin with because of how the other powerful countries of Europe had treated the Ottomans in the decades before the war. For the British, after 1882 and their invasion of Egypt their relationship between London and Constantinople had soured greatly, this was just amplified by the continued growth of British power in the Persian Gulf. For the French the tension had grown while Paris had been continuing to buddy up to Russia. They believed that this was the only way to stand against Germany, but from the Ottoman perspective they knew that this meant that the French would be forced to support Russia’s desire for conquests in the Black Sea, and of their capital itself. All of these actions gave the Germans the easy door to getting to Ottomans on their side because in reality they just had not other option, especially when it came to getting help against Russian territorial desires. When it became known to the other countries that the Germans and Ottomans were beginning work on the railway the British were gravely concerned that this would effect their economic leadership in the Persian Gulf, the Russians were greatly concerned anything good happened for the Ottomans and the French were gravely concerned anytime anything good happened for Germany. They all believed that this would help the two countries, and they could not know the difficulties that they would have trying to make it happen and there were both economic and military concerns if they should pull it off. On the economic side there was a serious concern about the railway taking trade away from the British, especially the trade into Central, Eastern, and Northern Europe which had previously been serviced through the Suez canal. On the military side the railroad would provide several benefits to both Germany and the Ottomans. As we have already mentioned the availability of oil for Germany would be great for them but it would also give the Ottomans greatly increased ability to move troops and material throughout their empire. In 1914 the Ottoman Empire based in Constantinope was only barely connected with all of its holdings in the Middle East. There were huge tracts of desert that made it difficult to exert any real power over the Persian Gulf areas, as seen in the fact that the British in many ways had more real power on the Gulf than the Ottomans in 1914. In our previous podcasts we have discussed how this made it difficult for the Ottomans to fully utilize these areas, and their populations for the war, well the railway might have helped rectify that situation at least a little bit. This was also a problem in the Levant, although less so due to the lower geographical distance. A railway would allow the Ottomans to project power far better from the capital and this would play a role in determining the course that the rails would take, even when it did not make as much sense from an engineering perspective. One key concern was to keep the rails away from the Mediterranean out of fear that if a war was started with pretty much anybody it would be too easy to sever the rail links using sea based invasions. Instead they would be routed through eastern Anatolia which was much more difficult but would give the Sultan the ability to quickly move troops to these region to deal with either an Armenian rebellion, which was always a concern, or perhaps more importantly to meet a Russian invasion through the Caucasus. All of these benefits were a concern for all three nations because they all had their eyes on some piece of the Ottoman empire, if not strictly to capture and colonize then at least to influence and control in a post Ottoman world which everybody was predicting to happen at some point in the near future.

Unfortunately for the Germans and Ottomans the act of creating the railway was far more difficult than planned. There were several challenges that they would have to overcome, the first one being simply monetary. In 1899 a German expedition did an estimate on how much the construction costs would be for the route that was proposed and they came back with a number of 500 million. This was no small sum of money and it was difficult to just make it appear. It would take years to arrange the sum and it would take a special type of guarantee for investors so that they would get paid for each section of the line that was completed so that they would have to shoulder far less risk, since it would be almost impossible to see any return otherwise. Confidence in profitability of the enterprise was not helped when the same scouting expedition that gave the cost estimate also reported that they believed that it would not turn a profit of anytime soon due to recurring repair and security costs that would be necessary to keep it running. It would not be until 1903 that everything was in order and construction could begin. This caused them to run into the second problem, which was geographical. Since the Sultan did not want the line running along the Mediterranean, which would have been the simplest and cheapest route all other routes were far more challenging.

There were also some problems that were just invevitable for any large construction project in the Middle East. For example almost all steel had to be imported all the way from Germany and then simple items like wood and labor, even unskilled labor, had to be imported from outside the Empire. These challenges would become much greater as they moved further and further away from Constantinople since things would just have to be transported further and further as time went on. Then there were the set of problems unique to the areas that the rails would run through. In Anatolia it would be going through areas that were underdeveloped however they were reasonably flat and this would allow construction to proceed reasonably quickly. The Taurus mountain range would be a very different story and here the problems would seem at times insurmountable. Just one tunnel that was needed, one of many, was through the Gavur Agi, or Infidel Mountain which was composed almost entirely of solid quartz a very hard and resilient stone. This would destroy drill bits extremely fast, eventually chewing through thousands and thousands of them. While this alone would be problematic under any circumstances it was even worse when considering the economic aspect of it. By 1914, which good portions of the rest of the tracks were finished, most of the tunnels were not, preventing the usuage of large tracts of rail since they were segmented. Then, once past the mountains, the problems were not over as they would then find themselves in Syrian and Mesopotamian deserts which were just miles and miles of undeveloped country often populated by groups of nomads and bandit groups known for their tendency to prey on passerby, like trains loaded with economic goods. This would mean that they would have to be defended during construction and after, just costing yet more money.

The construction of the railway would be broken up into a few different phases due mostly to the varying degrees of internal strife in the empire after 1908. The first phase saw the completion of 200 kilometers of what would be the easiest area for construction but still only represented about 1/10th of the total distance. It cost the Ottoman government about 54 million francs, a sum that it would have to take out a 98 year loan on, which would be a huge burden on the country for decades. The round of construction would slow and then stall in 1905 due to money issues and there would even be serious discussions about stopping it for good, even though all that had been accomplished was the creation of 200 kilometers of track into Anatolian wastes. The second biggest cause of this delay was friction between the Ottomans and Germans due to the route that had been chosen by the Sultan and which he would not budge on, even though it was making construction vastly more expensive. He also wanted the rails built in consecutive sections starting in the east and going west to maximize his control over the process. This made things difficult because step two of the construction was through the Taurus mountains. Everybody knew that this section was going to be very expensive, and they were okay with it in the long run. However they were planning on building tracks on the other side of the mountains at the same time to try and start making some money as fast as possible. Since the Sultan was not allowing them to start this construction the railroad would continue to be a giant money pit for years, instead of having at least some local transport in Mesopotamia to offset a fraction of the losses. This problem would take some time to resolve since it required talking the Sultan out of what he wanted, which was always a challenge. Unfortunately just as these efforts were beginning to make progress the ground under the Sultan would shift. By 1908 the entire world had written off both the Ottomans and the Sultan, but Germany had stuck with him. However in 1908 it became clear that the political crisis was reaching its peak and the resulting take over by the Young Turks would find German support since it was the only real path forward for them. The shift continued the pause in construction for another 2 years due to just general instability. It would finally resume in 1910 and when it did there would be a huge difference. Instead of having to focus construction on just one area at a time, they began construction along the entire planned route simultaneously. This meant that from Anatolia to Baghdad work was happening all that the same time, and there were thousands of workers on the payroll of the Baghdad Railway Company for construction. This would be the most profitable period of pre-war construction and just as it was gaining speed there were multiple international incidents that caused construction to slow, topped off by the little incident in Sarajevo in 1914.

The first two interruptions were in the form of the Italian and Balkan Wars from 1911 to 1913. These were problematic because they greatly interfered with shipping supplies from Europe and to the construction sites in the Empire. These conflicts also caused hug spikes in cost both in terms of supplies and transporting those supplies to where they were needed. While these interruptions were bad, they paled in comparison to the first world war. When the war came work did not stop, even though there were labor, material, and money shortages caused by the war. In some ways the war resulted in Germany gaining more control over the railway, especially after the Ottoman declaration of war in 1914 and by that time they had completed about half of the planned length with 1104 of 2190 completed. Just the sheer distance was coupled with the opening of one of the Taurus Mountain tunnels and one of the large still bridges planned to span the Euphrates was very encouraging and pointed to a positive future. Unfortunately 1914 and early 1915 would be the high point of fortunes for the railway as after that point the war would begin affecting construction in a more and more negative way as time went on.

Before the wheels would come completely off of construction later in the war we should probably talk about how the construction interacted with the Armenian Genocide. We talked about the genocide quite awhile ago in the main show, but it involved the deportation of millions of armenians from their homes and into Syria, Mesopotamia, and other parts of the Ottoman empire. This hit the railway in two ways. The first was the increased traffic on the rails as some of the very lucky Armenians were able to pay for a ticket on the rails instead of having to walk. These tickets were not luxurious by any stretch of the imagination and they were extremely overpriced for what amounted to standing room only accomodations in freight cars with animals and war supplies. The unlucky ones had to walk the hundreds of kilomters through desolate deserts where thousands of them would die, a tragedy, but also logistically problematic for the Ottomans. These bodies, even those that were still alive, clogged the roads, railway stations, and generally just got in the way and slowed everything down. It slowed the transport of goods and other material on the completed rails both for the Ottoman army and for continued construction. The Ottomans had a real problem trying to fix this. They also had issues of another sort trying to solve the second problem which was that the Armenians were a critical source of skilled and unskilled workers for the construction teams on the railroads. It was only this problem that would cause the Germans to come into action against the deportations. The problem was that the Armenian workers and their families were not exempt from the first deportations starting in May 1915. This caused similar problems as what was happening back in Europe with skilled workers being drafted out of the factories and onto the front. Huge gaps were left with no one to fill their holes left by the departure of the Armenians on the engineering and construction crews. This caused the Germans to request that 848 skilled workers be exempted for at least 4 years so that construction could continue on pace. This concern escalated all the way up from the Railway Company, to the German government, and then up to Falkenhayn who sent his own message directly to Enver Pasha. “I request your support in making easier the retention of skilled personnel by the Baghdad Railway Company, which would be greatly endangered through the deportation of Armenian employees during the war.” It should be noted, and it seems clear from the message, that the Germans were not against the Genocide due to any moral objections but instead strictly as a practical matter of trying to get the project done on schedule. In terms of concrete ramifications of all of these problems, the disruption of supplies and transport got so bad that the second planned offensive against the Suez canal had to be called off entirely. If you remember the Ottomans had made their first attack across the Sinai and had actually made it to the canal before being thrown back by the British. Well there was another effort planned that unfortunately never got off the ground due to rail issues.

Regardless of how much money and effort was put in before and during the war the railway would not end up being completed by the time the conflict ended. The wheels started to come off in 1916 when a combination of local manpower shortages, due to the constant military drafts, the rising costs of construction, and enemy activity all combined to cripple construction. One sign of this was a warning from the German ambassador in Istanbul to the German government that there was little chance of Turkey every paying back not just its railway debts but everything that the Germans had loaned to it during the war, which by 1916 was no small sum. The Baghdad Railway Company director advised Deutsche Bank to turn over the whole affair to the Turks instead of taking on further debt, even if it meant that everything up to that point would have to be written off as a loss. At this point it was only Deustche Bank subsidies, backed by the German government, that was keeping the construction going at all, so this would have completely killed the whole project. Even with German money coming in they could not stop a large part of the German employees from leaving, and the rail company from basically becoming bankrupt. The crappy part of this was that they had actually completed most of the railway in terms of mileage by this point, at least to Baghdad and if this would have occurred in peace time it is likely that there would have been no problem getting the money to complete it. However there were two very sticky wickets that remained before it could be fully completed and those were the tunnels in the Taurus and Amanus mountains in Anatolia. These would still require expensive and time consuming efforts before the lines on either side could be linked together, something that the Germans in the last few years of the war did not want to pay for, since by that point the utility of the entire project was in question due to wartime developments in the Balkans. The Ottomans were also in no state to take on the work themselves especially after the British Palenstine campaigns of 1917. Therefore, construction just sort of ended, faded away. Who knows if things would have changed during the war if the railway had been completed before hostilities started. Maybe Ottoman actions would have been bolstered by increased supplies to Baghdad and the Gulf, maybe the British invasion never happens. Or what if a war would not have happened at all, maybe the economic benefits of a completed railway would propel the Ottoman Empire out of its decline that it had been in for centuries, stabilizing it as one of, if not a great European power, than at least a second tier one, but stable in its new role. As it was, many of the tracks still remain today, after being handed over to the Allies at Versailles and then to the new nations into which the Middle East was carved into after the war. Many of the original stations still exist in one form or another. Overall it is a physical legacy of a German empire trying to expand its influence in a part of the world mostly foreign to is and a dying empire struggling to keep control of what it had left.