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I've been reading The Russian Origins of the First World War by Sean McMeekin, in which he makes some very interesting claims about what the strategic situation prior to the July crisis looked like from the Russian perspective. It is well-known that Russia has always wanted to acquire a warm-water port, but I hadn't quite realized just how sharp this problem looked at that time:

When, in summer 1912, the Porte had briefly closed the Straits to shipping during the Italian-Turkish War, Russia's vulnerability had been painfully exposed: the volume of Black Sea exports dropped by one-third for the calendar year 1912, and revenue likewise dipped 30 percent, from 77 million pounds sterling (or nearly 800 million rubles) to 57 million (less than 600 million rubles). Heavy industry in the Ukraine, dependent on supplies imported directly through the Straits via the Black Sea, had nearly ground to a halt. Although the Straits remained open for commerce during the two Balkan wars, the general disruption to trade was already so damaging that Russia's export revenue in 1913 was still 20 percent lower than in 1911.

Accordingly, Russian plans to seize the Straits by force were made more concrete:

In fact, as Sazonov himself had informed Tsar Nicholas II in a secret telegram only two months previously, serious Russian operational planning to seize Constantinople by force dated back to 1895-1896, when they had been kicked off in hopeful response to the first major wave of Armenian uprisings and subsequent massacres. Alas, Sazonov informed the tsar, Russia's amphibious carrying capacity, in the form of warships and merchant marine vessels, was not then sufficient. Eighteen years later, it was still not quite sufficient, but not for lack of trying. The February 1914 conference may have been the first one Sazonov attended in person, but for Naval and General Staff officers, joint Straits-seizure planning conferences were a dime a dozen. Just six months previously, the Naval Staff had promised the army that the Black Sea fleet could provide enough transport ships to ferry 127,500 soldiers (including 3,500 officers), 44,000 horses, 288 guns, and 11,200 horse-drawn wagons from Odessa to Constantinople. To accomplish this feat, they would add to the existing fleet by quickly commandeering 115 civilian ships from Russia's Merchant Marine. All Black Sea port officials were already under naval command. True, it would take sixty days for all the men and war materiel to reach the Ottoman capital, but the first "echelon," comprising a bit more than a single army corps (30,000 to 50,000 men), including a full division's artillery component, could put ashore by Day 15, weather conditions permitting. By February 1914, "zero hour"-the day on which the first Russian amphibious landing forces would put ashore at the Bosphorus-had been accelerated to M + 10.

That sounds pretty concrete indeed! Amphibious operations normally take a great deal of planning and preparation – for example, Operation Overlord took a little more than a year from the decision to D-Day – and the Russians would have liked more time, but they had the problem that Turkey had no less than five dreadnought-class battleships on order, even one of which would suffice to tilt the balance of naval power in the Black Sea in Turkey's favor. (Russia could not bring in reinforcements from the Baltic, as their warships were forbidden passage through the Straits even in peacetime.) According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Re%C5%9Fadiye-class_battleship the first of these battleships was due in August 1914.

An amphibious invasion of Istanbul seems like it would be a nontrivial undertaking, but McMeeker's analysis looks solid. The Turkish defenses at that time were not nearly as well-organized as they would become under German advisors prior to the landing at Gallipoli.

And Russia had motive. Invading Turkey over land would have involved going through Romania and Bulgaria to the west (and their relationship with Bulgaria was by no means trusting enough to make it likely that free passage of Russian armies would've been allowed) or fighting hundreds of miles through the Caucasus Mountains to the east (terrain very poorly suited to rapid advance).

The Russian army was not noted for speed, but they could sometimes move fast, if they knew they had to, as in their campaign in East Prussia in the autumn of 1914 that led to the battle of Tannenberg.

Did Russia actually have the means, both material and organizational, to launch an amphibious invasion of Istanbul by August 1914?

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    It's important to distinguish between an opposed and unopposed landing. D-Day was an opposed landing, meaning they went off the landing craft into the teeth of enemy defenses. I'm going to guess this was unopposed. Unopposed landings still present an enormous problem which are often very underappreciated. I'm going to assume the Russians grossly overestimated their capabilities. 15 days to transport a corps doesn't seem outrageous. but it is probably quite optimistic and discounting the Ottoman's reaction as the British did. Then there's the problem of continuing to supply that corps.
    – Schwern
    Mar 2 at 22:15
  • Well, in real war Russians didn't have complete superiority in Black Sea due to the presence of SMS Goeben (Yavuz Sultan Selim). In fact they didn't want war with Turkey and Turks/Germans attacked first. Also, Turkish army was much stronger then 100 000 men, it would require lot more to overwhelm them. I guess this was an usual contingency plan that all militaries have for various situations and circumstances.
    – rs.29
    Mar 3 at 8:36
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Yes, but Not Successfully.

The Russians quite likely had the capability to do what was described. But "do" and "do successfully" are not the same things. (As an aside, I'm very fond of The Russian Origins of the First World War and think the author does an excellent job overall.) They could probably have landed the troops, at least the first wave of 30,000ish. I doubt they could actually have pulled off a successful seaborne invasion. One of the reoccurring themes of the war, especially the early war, is that Russian armies were woefully unprepared logistically. Not just in the "normal" WWI sense of "not enough shells per gun" but in totally self-inflicted wound sort of ways. For instance, Logistics were COMPLETELY IGNORED in Russian wargames. Mostly (per Prit Buttar in Collision of Empires) to spare the various army commanders' embarrassment because they knew very little about the subject. This had practical effects at the outbreak of the war, not least in the fact that Rennekampf's army and others were woefully under-supplied in logistics officers because those sorts of rear echelon troops were moved LAST in the Russian mobilization orders, and were in the early days simply left behind. Imagine a D-Day beachhead with no beachmasters, no plan for moving supply from ship to the troops in the field, and the guys who were in charge of moving said supplies being on the LAST boat to leave. It's not pretty.

While I think the Russians could have gathered up enough ships and men to launch an invasion, given the state of Russian logistics I doubt very much any force actually put on Turkish territory via naval landing in 1914 would have been successful. My best bet would be that they'd land somewhere near-ish Constantinople, potentially push aside whatever initial blocking force was there.... and promptly run out of food and ammunition. Or be forced to hold back reinforcements for the "initial" 30,000 in favor of food and supplies to keep the first wave active. The Russians had massive logistical problems mere kilometres outside their territory (and sometimes even within it!) during 1914. Supplying an army in enemy territory via a contested sea route would almost certainly have been beyond them.

*** ADDENDUM ***

The above assumes a "best-case" scenario for the Russians from a naval perspective. No storms impeding shipping, the Turkish navy brushed aside in the opening acts of the war and the Central Powers having 0 ability to interfere with the transport of troops and supplies. If the Turks or the Germans retained surface ships or submarines enough to disrupt the shipping involved, the odds get even worse.

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  • I added links to the books / authors you mentioned. Just rollback if I got something wrong. Mar 10 at 6:50

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