Yavuz Sultan Selim had an active war career. The Russian Navy has historically been crippled by exceptionally bad geography, and war with Turkey helped exacerbate the problem. The Black Sea fleet could not move through the Dardanelles and play any larger role in the war while the Ottoman Empire continued to fight. In essence, the Black Sea became a large lake which the Turks and Russians fought over for four years. For the first year, Yavuz was the big fish in the small pond. The Black Sea Fleet included five pre-dreadnoughts, none of which could equal Yavuz but which were, in numbers, capable of damaging and deterring her. One of the Russian battleships was named Panteleimon; its name, before 1905, had been Potemkin. Yavuz‘ political importance made her service particular delicate, as it was thought that her loss might demoralize the Turkish people. Thus, the Germans and Turks were careful. When Yavuz hit a mine in late 1914, shipyard workers elaborately concealed the damage. In the long term the Russians had the upper hand, as three dreadnoughts were under construction in Black Sea yards.
The Ottoman Empire also faced a threat from the Mediterranean. Winston Churchill got it into his head that Royal Navy battleships, if able to penetrate the Dardanelles, could force Turkey from the war. If Constantinople could be bombarded, he reasoned, the Ottoman government would collapse. To this purpose he launched a series of attacks on the Dardanelles. The most spectacular naval attack, on March 18, 1915, was led by the new British dreadnought Queen Elizabeth and included the battlecruiser Inflexible and 14 French and British pre-dreadnoughts. In case the Allied fleet broke through, Admiral Souchon was instructed to fight to the death in defense of Constantinople. The Allied operation was not a success, as six of the battleships hit mines and three sank.
Churchill was not the sort of man to be dissuaded by failure. He reasoned that ground troops might seize critical points along the passage and allow for the movement of the battleships down the straight. This is a classic example of mission creep. British, French, Australian, and New Zealander troops invaded in April of 1915. The scattered Turkish defenders were commanded by a thirty-four year old colonel named Mustafa Kemal. The land battle for the Dardanelles was brutal on both sides, and eventually cost the 45000 dead and the Ottomans 88000 dead. The Allied troops, unable to make progress, withdrew in January of 1916.
Yavuz tangled with the Russian battle squadron three times in the first year of the war, but was never able to corner and destroy a portion of it. The five Russian ships, conversely, lacked the speed to force an engagement with Yavuz. The balance of power in the Black Sea tipped decisively towards the Russians in the latter part of 1915, however, with the commissioning of Imperatritsa Maria and Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya, two new dreadnoughts. Each was more powerful than Yavuz, and gave the Russian fleet the capability of employing three different squadrons capable of killing the annoying Turkish/German battlecruiser. Yavuz exchanged fire with Imperatritsa Maria to little effect in early 1916. Fortunately for the Germans and Turks, the Russian fleet was none too careful with its gunpowder. Imperatritsa Maria exploded and sank at anchor in late 1916.
Then, in March 1917, Russia went and had a revolution. Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya became Svobodnaya Rossiya, and the new dreadnought, Imperator Alexander II, became Volya. Panteleimon became Potemkin again, briefly, then Boretz Za Svobuda. Sometimes I think that the failures of the Russian Navy in the 20th century are largely due to the frequent changes in long, long names. Confuses the sailors, I presume. Anyway, Russian operations steadily grew more sporadic as the revolution took its toll, and Yavuz resumed its predominance in the Black Sea. The Bolshevik Revolution completely shut the Russian fleet down. Admiral Souchon departed in September 1917 to claim the command of a squadron in the High Seas Fleet.
In January 1918 the prospects of the Turkish/German navy looked bright. The Germans were on the verge of seizing the Russian dreadnoughts (they eventually captured and pressed into service Volya). However, things were going poorly for the Turks on the ground. The new German admiral hoped that a foray by Yavuz and Midilli (formerly Breslau) into the Mediterranean would draw the Royal Navy from the supporting positions it had taken around Palestine. The Dardanelles were defended by several old British and French ships, including the advanced pre-dreadnoughts Agamemnon and Lord Nelson. The British admiral, however, had divided his fleet and was left with only Lord Nelson to engage Yavuz. Fortunately for the Royal Navy, Yavuz and Midilli ran into a minefield. Midilli struck a mine first, and Yavuz hit a mine while attempting to tow Midilli to safety. Yavuz broke off the operation, allowing Midilli, her partner in operation after operation since 1913, to sink. Yavuz then hit another mine, but managed to make it back to the Strait before running aground because of a navigational error.
Goeben’s war was over. The Turks managed to drag Yavuz to safety before the arrival of British submarines and surface ships, but the battlecruiser was no longer in condition to fight. By the time Yavuz was battleworthy, the German High Seas Fleet, the German Empire, and the Ottoman Empire would all be gone.
To be continued.