Why did not Russia take possession of the Bosphorus in the First World War?

We wrote about the issue of the Black Sea straits, analyzed the genesis of the Bosphorus operation during the First World War, studied the chances of success of this operation (Oleinikov A.V. Turkish trap 100 years later. SPb .: Peter, 2016.).


Panorama of the Turkish straits

Quite recently, we got our hands on an extremely interesting and instructive material published in an émigré periodical, authored by the hero of the Russo-Japanese War, the head of the Naval Directorate of the Headquarters (since October 1917), Rear Admiral A.D.Bubnov. First-hand information, from a person who is one of the most competent in the issue of interest to us, will allow us to finally dot the “i’s” in this problem – starting with the question of whether Russia was preparing to seize the straits before the start of World War I, and ending with the prospects of the corresponding combat operations during the latter. The Rear Admiral also acquaints us with extremely interesting facts.

Why did not Russia take possession of the Bosphorus in the First World War?
Alexander Dmitrievich Bubnov

And we want to acquaint the reader with the authoritative opinion of Alexander Dmitrievich.

A site of exceptional strategic importance
There is no doubt, the admiral notes, that one of the main reasons for the collapse of Russia is the fact that during the First World War it was unable to restore its maritime communications with the allies through the straits, in other words, it was unable to solve its national maritime problem. And professors of the history of naval art cited this circumstance in their textbooks as a classic example of the influence of sea communications on the course of war and the political and economic existence of great states.

So, one of the post-war textbooks contained the following lines:

“All military and political writers assert that if the Entente had taken possession of at least one of the straits, the war would have ended at least a year earlier and the catastrophe would not have broken out over Russia that threw it out of the ranks of the Entente, and later from ranks of great states ”.

Admiral Tirpitz, in a letter dated August 8, 1915, wrote that “the Dardanelles are in a fierce struggle: if they are taken, we will inevitably lose the war.”


A. von Tirpitz

And the American ambassador to Turkey during the war, G. Morgento, wrote the following in his memoirs:

“There is no doubt that if the allies had captured at least one of the straits, the war would have ended much sooner and Russia would not have been captured by Bolshevism.”


G. Morgento

These and many other outstanding military and political authorities, as noted by A. D. Bubnov, are absolutely right. The occupation of at least one of the Straits inevitably caused the following two consequences, which had a decisive influence on the outcome of the war: the surrender of Turkey and a significant increase in the combat strength of the Entente forces (and above all the Russian army). If the Russian or English fleet, after capturing the Straits, appeared under the walls of Constantinople, the Turkish army, which fought with the Russian army in the Caucasus and the British army in the Suez Canal region, would have been forced to lay down their arms, for it found itself cut off from its main base, which was located on the shores Bosphorus.

In turn, the surrender of Turkey caused a whole range of consequences of paramount strategic importance:

1) the entire Russian Caucasian army (about 250,000 fighters) and the entire British army from Egypt (up to 50,000 fighters) were immediately transferred to the main theater of war, and this is not counting the forces involved in the operation itself to capture the straits;

2) Bulgaria, whose entry into the war directly depended on the military-political situation of the Ottoman Empire and the solution of the question of the Straits, did not join Germany, and in connection with this circumstance, the entire Serbian army remained in the ranks of the Entente (which in reality, after Bulgaria’s accession to The German bloc was forced (or rather its remnants) to leave their homeland).

Due to all these reasons, after the surrender of Turkey, the military strength of the German bloc decreased by 700,000 fighters (500,000 Turks and 200,000 Bulgarians), and the combat strength of the Entente would have increased by 300,000 fighters (250,000 soldiers and officers of the Russian Caucasian army and 50,000 Englishmen from Egypt) and, in addition , in the ranks of the Entente there would be 200,000 soldiers of the Serbian army.

After the capture of the straits, the blockade of Russia (formed after Turkey entered the war) would have been broken, and the shortest and most convenient communication between Russia and the allies would have been restored – and as a result, the combat capability of the Russian army, in which, since 1915, there was a huge shortage of combat reserves, would have been significantly increased. …

Thus, the occupation of the straits in the general strategic situation of the First World War caused a difference of a million fighters (- 700,000 Turks and Bulgarians + 300,000 Russians and British), not counting factors such as a significant increase in the combat capability and firepower of the Russian army and the retention of the Serbian army in the ranks of the anti-German coalition. army. To this it is permissible to add the assumption that Bulgaria in this case would have joined the Entente or (at least) remained neutral, and Romania’s action would have followed much sooner.

All this convincingly proves that after the occupation of the straits, the war would have ended in an early victory for the Entente. As for Russia, instead of Bolshevism, an era of prosperity and unprecedented greatness awaited it.

These postulates (by the way, formulated in a textbook of military art) show, as the admiral notes, what a decisive role was rightly attributed to the strategic role of the straits during the First World War.

When starting to answer the question stated in the title of the article, it is necessary to pay special attention to the following circumstances (depending on which this answer is located).

Firstly, this answer must, first of all, be sought in the sphere of activities of the Headquarters of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief (Headquarters), because the decision to seize the Bosphorus depended exclusively on Headquarters – since this operation was supposed to be mixed, i.e. the Black Sea Fleet and troops that could be appointed only by the Headquarters of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief. Secondly, when answering the question “Why didn’t they take possession of the Bosphorus,” you will inevitably have to give the names of high-ranking officials in the Russian military hierarchy, on whom this decision depended. Thirdly, as noted by A.D. Bubnov, he has the right to consider this issue because the naval component of the latter was concentrated in his jurisdiction – as the Chief of the Operational Unit, the flag-captain of the Black Sea Theater of the Naval Staff of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief. The admiral was responsible at Headquarters for precisely this – the question of the straits was the main one for his position during the war, and, naturally, all the nuances were deeply engraved in his memory. But the point is not only in memory, but also in unique documents, because, as the admiral testifies, realizing the enormous historical importance of this issue and the serious personal responsibility associated with it, before the collapse of the Headquarters, he took measures to send all his affairs to a safe place. Management – and these materials formed the basis of his analysis and subsequent conclusions.

Before the outbreak of the First World War, Russia had no sight on the straits.
In order to get an accurate idea of ​​the military-political situation in which the question of the seizure of the Bosphorus was decided, it is necessary to get acquainted with how this issue stood before the war.

From the point of view of state policy, the issue of mastering the Bosphorus disappeared from the field of view of Russian statesmen at the end of the 19th century – when Russian foreign policy was directed towards the Far East. Therefore, the posing of the question of interest to us in all its breadth after the start of the war by Minister of Foreign Affairs S.D.Sazonov was a complete surprise for the military circles, because until the war itself, he was not listed among those military-political tasks that the Russian armed forces were called upon to solve in case of war.


S. D. Sazonov

On the other hand, during the war, the Russian government could not but raise this issue, because its resolution guaranteed the provision of communications with the Mediterranean basin, which was extremely important both for military and economic purposes, to some extent compensating for those casualties. which the Russian people carried to the altar of the common Victory. As a result, the leaders of the Russian armed forces during the war, no matter how unexpected the question was for them, undoubtedly had to reckon with this decision of the government and would have to make maximum efforts to actually achieve this goal.

Considering this issue from the point of view of Russian public opinion, one cannot but come to the conclusion that after at the end of the 19th century the Slavophil circles, for whom the question of the straits was the cornerstone dogma of Russian politics, lost their influence, this issue has significantly faded in the eyes of Russian public consciousness. In addition, under the influence of disillusionment with Russian military power after the Russo-Japanese War, foreign policy aspirations were significantly reduced in Russian society and the belief that Russia was incapable of solving such broad military-political problems as the issue of the Straits took root.

The question of the straits before the war
Turning to an examination of how the issue of the straits stood before the war in the leading military circles of Russia, it is necessary, first of all, to note that, as indicated above, neither state policy nor public opinion required the armed forces to resolve it. The leading circles of the army, represented by the Main Directorate of the General Staff, were not in themselves inclined to raise the issue of solving the problem by armed force. And, even if this question was raised in one form or another in government circles, it invariably ran into a definitely negative attitude on the part of the General Directorate of the General Staff. As a result, as the admiral notes, it would be more correct to conclude that the question of the Straits “could not have been put by politics for resolution by the armed force and because of the negative attitude towards it on the part of the latter.”

The main reason for the negative attitude of the leading military circles to the seizure of the Bosphorus was that after the Russo-Japanese War, their attention was completely absorbed in preparations for a war with the formidable western neighbor. Moreover, the possibility of success in this impending war was conceived only in an environment of extreme economy of forces, that is, on condition that the maximum number of fighters were concentrated on the main theater of the war. This was persistently requested from the Main Directorate of the General Staff and the ally – France. In this regard, the Main Directorate definitely reacted negatively to any secondary operations, including the Bosphorus one, believing that such operations weakened the Russian forces in the main theater. At the same time, the Main Directorate did not see any direct assistance for operations in the main theater of war from the capture of the Bosphorus – the issue of ensuring sea communications with the outside world was considered not so important, because they firmly adhered to the widespread opinion about the short duration of a future war. It was believed that the latter should be implemented with the combat stocks that would be available by the time the conflict began, and, as a result, the supply of combat stocks by sea from abroad is not so necessary.

As for the resolution of the question of the straits as such, the General Directorate of the General Staff adhered to the opinion, which was widespread at that time in military circles, that “the keys to the straits are in Berlin” and believed that the concentration of all forces against Germany and Austria-Hungary, bringing victory over them, at the same time, brings the question of the Straits closer to resolution.

In addition, the following circumstance played an important role in the negative attitude of the Main Directorate of the General Staff to the Bosphorus operation: in essence, this operation was supposed to be mixed and the fleet was to play the main role in it. At the same time, as noted, after the Russo-Japanese War, confidence in the sailors disappeared in military circles – and they did not consider it possible to entrust the fate of the landing troops to the naval command, the operational ability of which was regarded as very low (especially since the material part of the fleet after the Russo-Japanese War came into significant frustration).

Due to all of the above reasons, the Bosphorus operation was not only not included in the land war plan, but even the so-called. Odessa airborne battalion, which until the beginning of the 20th century was on the combat schedule of the Russian army (and in which the technical means for the production of the landing of troops in the event of the capture of the Bosphorus were concentrated). Thus, from the point of view of the land plan of the upcoming war, Russia entered it not only without any preparation, but even without any intention to carry out the Bosphorus operation.

To be continued…

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