Threat to Kill Hostages; Suez Canal the Target.
Britannia Still Rules the Waves.
Special to The Great War Project
(8-9 December) The Turks are now taking action against allied citizens, among them diplomatic personnel, living in outposts of the Ottoman Empire. By this time a century ago, writes historian Sean McMeekin…
…hundreds of English, French, and Russian subjects are interned in Damascus.
These are mostly diplomats assigned to Damascus consulates. “The archives and papers of all of the Entente [Allied] Consulates in Damascus were confiscated,” McMeekin reports, “which furnished useful intelligence for the Turco-German war effort.”
These measures – aimed at “unarmed civilians, many of them religious volunteers, teachers, nurses, and doctors” – spark protests, but are not illegal under international law. “The British did the same with Germans resident in Cairo,” according to McMeekin.
But the Ottoman government takes this one highly controversial step further, employing captives as human shields. This practice is forbidden by the Geneva and Hague Conventions on the conduct of war and the treatment of civilians and diplomats. Nevertheless, this practice is “central to the German conception of jihad.”
And it is after all why the Germans persuade Turkey to enter the war in the first place: To wage holy war against Britain, France and Russia from North Africa to India. When the British navy threatens ports in the eastern Mediterranean, the Turks threaten “to execute English hostages in Damascus in retaliation,” McMeekin reports.
This information comes to us through the involvement of US Ambassador Henry Morganthau, who plays the role of intermediary in Constantinople between the two belligerent sides.
Turkish leaders initially threaten to kill three hostages for every one Muslim the allies kill. Now, the Turks say they will kill one-for-one. They admit to holding some 500 allied subjects in Damascus.
A century after these events, readers today will recognize these tactics. The Turks force one British hostage to write “a kind of kidnapping-style ransom letter in which they pleaded pathetically that the British navy not ‘take any action against an undefended town as would endanger our lives,’” reports McMeekin.
Nevertheless, the British navy launches a few ineffective shells at the Turkish port of Alexandretta on the Mediterranean. They do not kill civilians, and there is no retaliation at this moment from the Turks.
This episode indicates the limits of blackmail in war time, observes McMeekin. “Blackmail was inherently a defensive weapon. Unless the jihad could catch fire among Muslim subjects in the Entente colonies, it would remain little more than an operational nuisance.”
But the Germans and the Turks do not see it this way. “There was no secret about the strategic objective of the Turco-German jihad in the Middle East,” writes McMeekin. “A decisive blow at the Suez Canal would sever the shortest supply line to British India for troop ships and merchant convoys, while seriously damaging English prestige in the Orient.”
The British are thinking the same thing.
“There was no doubt in the War Office in London that a Turco-German assault on the canal was in the works.
“The only question was when and at which point along the canal.”
One other significant development at this moment a century ago: In the waters off the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, a resounding defeat for German warships. “The victory of the Falklands terminated the high seas activity of the German navy,” writes war historian John Keegan. “After the Falklands, indeed, the oceans belonged to the allies.”