Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Admiral Souchon's Frustrating War

Vice Admiral Wilhelm Souchon

Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon (1864–1946) commanded the  German navy's Mediterranean Squadron.  When war broke out his main ships, battlecruiser SMS Goeben and cruiser Breslau fired the first shots of the war at two of France's forts in Algeria. Subsequently, he outmaneuvered the pursuing British ship and escaped to Constantinople. Upon arriving, acting under the authority of outdated orders, he conspired successfully with Enver Pasha to convince Turkey to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers. His two ships were transferred to the Turkish navy, and Souchon, himself, was named its supreme commander. Goeben was renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim and Breslau was renamed Midilli; their German crews donned Ottoman uniforms and fezzes. On 29 October Yavuz bombarded Sevastopol in her first operation against Imperial Russia, though the Ottoman Empire was not yet at war with the Entente. In response to the bombardment, Russia declared war on 1 November,  thus turning a European conflict into a world war.

Goeben and Midilli Entering the Dardanelles

Souchon, however, had reached the pinnacle of his success. His leadership of the Turkish navy would prove especially disappointing for him. His support of the Turkish defenses in the Dardanelles proved inconsequential. Later operations focused in the Black Sea and the entrance to the Bosphorus. Souchon attempted to reform the Turkish navy while conducting a number of raids on Russian shipping, ports, and coastal installations in the Black Sea. These operation were hindered by Russian tactics and mining (both Goeben and Midilli were put out of service for a time after striking mines), shortages of coal and ammunition,  poor ship maintenance, and what he considered Turkish inefficiency. Also, he did not receive much support from Germany. Nevertheless, his appreciative homeland promoted him to vice admiral, and awarded him the Pour le Mérite, on 29 October 1916.

Souchon and His German Officers in Turkish Uniforms

In September 1917, Souchon was recalled to Germany. There he received command of the Fourth Battleship Squadron of the High Seas Fleet during Operation Albion but soon found that the fleet was destined to be port-bound for the remainder of the war. The subsequent plummeting morale of the inactive sailors was  ripe for radicalization, which was fostered by daily contact with the shipyard workers. Admiral Souchon was dropped into the cauldron unbeknownst to him when he was placed in command of the Kiel naval base just before the November 1918 mutiny exploded. In the course of the events, Souchon stepped down as governor and was replaced by the civilian Social Democrat politician Gustav Noske.  His war that began with military and diplomatic triumphs had turned into a long series of frustrations and, finally, utter humiliation.

Sources: Who's Who in World War One, An Illustrated Companion to the First World War, and Wikipedia

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