Published On: Tue, Dec 25th, 2018

British and Russian relations ahead of World War I: paying out the rope for a self-hanging

In this continuation of a series examining the British engineering and instigation of the First World War (previous instalment here), we look at the means by which Russia must have been further reassured by Britain in its aggression against Germany, or the deviously conducted mobilisation that would inevitably mean conflict between the Germans and the Entente powers. The explicit mutual assistance pact it had with France would tie Russia into a coincidental sort of alliance with Britain – something that, had it been absent, would have deterred Russian escalations to war – and perhaps more significantly than that, Russia and Britain had been constructing their own arrangements for military co-operation. Thus, Britain cultivated the circumstances that would inextricably lead to war, not only through military connections, but also diplomatically when she certainly would not do anything to discourage Russia from secretly mobilising against Germany (with official narrative historians blaming this on blissful ignorance or insouciance†), while at the same time delaying German reaction with tentative promises of neutrality and negotiations.

The full story of dishonest British diplomatic dealing with Germany is for another time, although an example of it will form the starting point for this article. In June 1914, German newspapers reported a disquieting occurrence lately come to their attention: Russia and Britain were holding talks regarding their navies and joint manoeuvres between them, stoking fears that plans were being cooked up to target the German Baltic Fleet. The German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, protested the British via ambassador Prince Karl Max Lichnowsky; no doubt they were dismayed: Hollweg had set out and pursued a foreign policy based on rapprochement with Britain, and Lichnowsky, evidently reflecting German aspirations by being in the post, was a “notorious Anglophile”. Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey easily quashed Lichnowsky’s anxiety, and the German diplomat, no doubt, was eager to have it dispelled. Grey told Lichnowsky that although Britain had no formal alliance with either France or Russia, “we did, from time to time, talk as intimately as Allies”, although “not used for aggression against Germany” (p72, July 1914: Countdown to War, Sean McMeekin, Icon Books, 2014 ). He dismissed rumours of an Anglo-Russian naval convention.

We know that Russia was in talks with Britain about a naval convention through the memoirs of French President, Poincare. On 21st July 1914, during his visit to Russia, he met with Tsar Nicholas, who, in response to what must have been French urging to see the firm formation of a tripartite anti-German arrangement, declared that he would “speed things up” in relation to an impending Anglo-Russian naval accord. McMeekin, in his book, (see reference above), imagines the Tsar’s perspective as follows:

The Russian sovereign had good reasons to improve relations with England… [with] A European war… on the near horizon,… British belligerence was essential to the Franco-Russian cause. (p152)

Notice what has been done. The Russian-British naval convention would not be a reaction to the threat of war, it would be a prior arrangement of alignment by which policy could be achieved: to wit, war on Germany: for there was no other Franco-Russian cause but war on Germany, while there were a great number of permutations regarding what any pending European war might have looked like. Of course, this stuff emerges unwittingly from McMeekin, as it must from all official historians, and even it unfairly creates an impression that the Tsar was privy to the conniving of his ministers (which he might not have been), it betrays the general air of Russia as chief mover of events towards war that one can’t help but imbibe when one enters the vault of World War I history.

What is rich about Grey’s denial, of course, is that not only were there talks between Russia and Britain regarding cooperation in northern seas, even if they had “barely got off the ground”, but there was also frantic talk about the situation in the Black Sea. While the Tsar seems to confirm that dialogue regarding the cooperation that concerned the Germans so terribly was in its infancy, this could not be why “Grey felt no need to enlighten Lichnowsky” about it, as McMeekin would have his readership understand (p74). The design to co-operate was inherently anti-German, as the Germans understood so clearly. For that reason, Grey could not possibly admit to the fact that it was being realised.

As for the communication between Britain and Russia regarding the Black Sea, it appears to be largely due to the prospect of four state-of-the-art dreadnoughts being built for the Ottomans in British shipyards. The Russians could not countenance these being delivered because they would render useless their plans to seize Ottoman territory to guarantee access into the Mediterranean. It appears that the Russians saw a great war that would tie the Germans down in entanglements on all its borders as an opportunity to achieve their Black Sea related ambitions, and so much so that arguably their designs in this respect were the driving force behind their causation of the war. In any case, Grey, and Winston Churchill, at that time the First Lord of the Admiralty, declined to intervene in the matter of the Turkish dreadnaughts on the grounds (at least on the face of it) that there should be no government interference in what was in fact private business. Apparently, we know about the British refusal to act to prevent the construction of the ships through Russian accounts, because (according to McMeekin) neither Grey nor Churchill recalled these “momentous discussions” between Britain and Russia in their memoirs.

If they were silent on the issue, it could well be that Grey and Churchill were not desirous of common knowledge about the prior scenes ahead of what would constitute the final act in the saga of the Turkish dreadnaughts: on the eve of war, Friday 31st July, Churchill ordered that the Sultan Osman I and the Reshad V, the first of the dreadnoughts set to depart to join the Ottoman Navy, be seized so that they could be commandeered by the Royal Navy “as added strategic insurance against the German High Seas Fleet” – according to official history, of course. The fact that Sergei Sazonov, the Russian Foreign Minister, put in a request, to the British Government on the evening prior to their confiscation, to have these ships “retained in England” (p304) is meant to be a complete coincidence. Consider the following by McMeekin; frankly, it is unbelievable:

Based on the timing – Sazonov had asked Britain to detain these very warships on Thursday night – one is tempted to conclude that Churchill had an intuition about Russian general mobilisation before learning of it. And yet there is no evidence that Churchill, when he carried out this provocative action (for which planning had been underway since Wednesday), knew that Russia had mobilised or that Sazonov had asked him to hold the ships in port. (p316)

The scenario being proposed is actually so unbelievable that there can be little doubt that the detail about the planning for the seizure of the vessels which predated Sazonov’s demand was invented to create plausible deniability. Note well that Churchill’s act of piracy, for that is what it was, to bolster the Royal Navy in the coming fight against Germany came even on the same day that Grey told Lichnowsky that “I have today for the first time the impression that the improved relations with Germany of late years and perhaps also some friendly feeling for Germany in the cabinet makes it appear possible that, in case of war, England will probably adopt an attitude of watchful waiting” (p 313). The official history can’t have it both ways. The seizure of the Turkish ships was either to help Russia in a war that the British Government yet had no understanding was about to be precipitated in part by its own actions, or it was to help Britain in a war that was understood by the likes of Churchill to be imminent. McMeekin has to admit that Grey was “dissembling”, and we shouldn’t wonder, given the fact that Churchill had been so busy since 26th July organising the Royal Navy in preparation for war.

In the end, a German dreadnought, the SMS Goeben, managed to evade British ships off the Sicilian coast a matter of hours before Britain declared war on Germany, and proceeded to Ottoman waters. It even appears that the British may well have present to try and interdict the Goeben, and its companion, the Breslau, but were thwarted by the emergence of a thick fog (Wikipedia says that these ships were pursued all the way to the Dardanelles). It could well be the case that what looks to have been a Royal Navy failure could be the reason why there wasn’t, after all, a Russian assault on Constantinople. And so it is amazing, then, that McMeekin credits the arrival of the Goeben into Ottoman waters with the “all but certain entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war as a co-belligerent of Germany, thereby spreading the war to the Middle East, with consequences still being felt today” (p381). On the contrary, the truth appears to be this: Germany and the Ottoman Empire had a secret contract that the latter felt it didn’t need to honour immediately because it activated if Germany was a victim of an attack by Russia. For technical reasons, due to Germany declaring war on Russia as part and parcel of her mobilisation procedures, the situation never arose whereby Turkey could enter the war by the strict terms of the agreement. It was several months before the Ottomans declared war on Russia. The least we can tell from all this is that the Russians did not perform any war-opening gambit in respect of Constantinople. Indeed, the German ships newly arrived in the Black Sea appear to have put the Russians on the defensive.

Indeed, the German ships in the Black Sea complicated matters so that the entry of the Ottomans in the war on the side of the Central Powers was not as straight forward as one might assume it as being. From sources other than McMeekin (for in the end we need to go further and acquire a broader idea) Britain had an interest in seeing the Turks at war with Russia so that the latter would not beat the Austrians so easily: “On 2 October, the British cabinet decided to drop its century-long support for the Ottoman Empire against Russian threats. The decision was that the Russian alliance was more important. They key decision was keep Russia out of Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Sofia by giving it Constantinople after the Ottomans were defeated.” (from Wikipedia).

McMeekin focuses on Germany’s anxiety to have Turkey come in on their side, but before the Ottomans declared war on Britain, France and Russia, “a British naval squadron off the Dardanelles bombarded the outer defensive forts at Kum Kale on the northern Asian coast and Seddülbahir on the southern tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula” (Wikipedia, above).

What we start to uncover here is the British double cross of the Russians, which culminated in the overthrow of the Tsarist government that had sent its far from happy, and thus exploitable population to war on the guarantee of British belligerence. As has been stated in a previous article in this series, Germany was not the main threat to Britain in the world, but Russia was. This inconvenient detail is even suggested in the above quote from Wikipedia, if we care to revisit it: “the British cabinet decided to drop its century-long support for the Ottoman Empire against Russian threats”. Now it makes sense that the British tried their very hardest to facilitate a Russian conflict with Turkey through the confiscation in port and the destruction at sea of ships that would protect the Turkish Black Sea coast.

It is with huge irony that McMeekin alludes to modern day troubles in the Middle East as we look at his book with post-9/11 eyes and minds. It is quite perverse that official history, if that is what McMeekin represents, appears to blame Germany for the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan because of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire subsequent to its decision to fight on the losing side in the 1914. It is actually very clear that the motivator for these 21st century wars was the same as the one that shaped events in the First World War: Anglo-globalist dominance of the Central Asian underbelly. We should note that, with the defeat, in 2018, of its mercenaries by Russian-backed Syrians, the British Government is still no nearer accomplishing what it set out to do in 1914. Be that as it may, the passing of one hundred years, and the killing of hundreds and thousands – millions in fact – is quite evidently not going to end the ambition. Even with the apparent surrender of the overt US forces occupying parts of Syria, a post-9/11 historical critic must suppose that the British Government will never stop plaguing the world with war while it exists. It should be food for thought for Britons who don’t want to reap the whirlwind that the British Government has already sown, and apparently won’t ever cease trying to sow until an irresistible force finally makes it.


† For example: “In fact the foreign secretary [Grey], far from discouraging Russia from mobilising, had told Benckendorff [Russia’s London ambassador] on Saturday, as if in passing, that he fully expected Russia to mobilise against Austria, a matter on which Grey expressed no opinion – this lack of opinion naturally being interpreted by the Russians as tacit approval”. (p216)

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