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Dardanelles ;

Intelligence and Crisis: The Dardanelles in 1906

Yusuf Ozkan

PhD Candidate Department of War Studies

02 August 2021

The use of intelligence is always considered crucial during times of crisis and war. British intelligence collection and assessments on the Dardanelles during the 1906 crisis in Taba, Egypt and its aftermath, presents a good case. Taba demonstrates how intelligence was successfully used during a Near Eastern crisis and how assessments on the Dardanelles impacted the government’s decision-making about the advisability of forcing the Straits in times of conflicts.

Although the crisis happened in Taba, hundreds of miles away from the Straits, it would eventually be linked to the Dardanelles. This minor crisis abruptly arose over the Egyptian-Ottoman border in Sinai in early 1906 once the Ottomans despatched a small body of troops, claiming control of the area. Having feared the security of the Suez Canal, Whitehall sent an ultimatum to the Ottoman Sultan asking to remove troops immediately. Whitehall also began planning possible countermeasures should the Sultan be recalcitrant.

One suggestion was to send a fleet to Constantinople through the Dardanelles. However, the idea was countered by the Admiralty and the Foreign Office on the grounds that such an operation would be risky. Although this minor crisis concluded peacefully in May 1906, it uncovered an important problem: Britain did not have an offensive strategy against the Ottomans. Considering the Dardanelles might be the most effective way of coercing the Ottoman Sultan, the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) decided that the question of whether forcing the Dardanelles was possible should be carefully studied.

Intelligence and fighting departments started examining the issue and exchanged memorandums for the remainder of 1906. The Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI) and the Director of Military Operations and Intelligence collaborated to put forward assessments on the issue. The DNI predicted in his memorandum that “any attempt to send the fleet to Constantinople… without first destroying the forts in the Dardanelles, is greatly to be deprecated.” He further believed that “it would be madness to send ships over the mined area except after taking the customary precautions.”

These views were supported by the head of military intelligence. The Chief of the General Staff was also not prepared to recommend an operation, stressing its inherent difficulties and risks in his memorandum, which was fully concurred by the DNI. Upon being presented with negative views, the CID met in February 1907 to discuss the issue for the final time and concluded that “the operation…on or near the Gallipoli Peninsula would involve great risk, and should not be undertaken if other means of bringing pressure to bear on Turkey were available.” This meant that London recognised its limitation of assault against Turkey.

The main reason for an operation against the Dardanelles in 1906-7 being viewed as dangerous and without recommendation, seemed to be related to intelligence that had been compiled since the Great Eastern Crisis of 1875-78. The Dardanelles was at the centre of almost every Near Eastern crisis for Britain throughout the nineteenth century right up until the war’s outbreak in 1914. The unsurprising outcome was that British military and /naval intelligence departments had compiled information and produced assessments on the Dardanelles.

After the Great Eastern Crisis, Britain had better means to gather intelligence on the Dardanelles because British intelligence was institutionalised in the last quarter of the nineteenth century with the foundation of the Intelligence Department of the War Office and Admiralty’s Foreign Intelligence Committee (later known as Naval Intelligence Department - NID). This allowed intelligence to be compiled in a more systematic way than ever before. More importantly, both departments were specifically tasked to gather information on coastal defences, such as the Straits, which was crucial particularly for the Admiralty’s offensive strategy.

The outcomes of the Great Eastern Crisis made this period and its aftermath important. Thankfully for Britain, its worst fear was not realised as a result of Russia’s victory over the Ottomans during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78: Russia was unable to gain control of Constantinople and the Straits. However, this did not allay London’s concerns over the Straits. Instead, the likelihood of a Russian coup de main against Constantinople in the 1880s, along with the Franco-Russian Alliance, further aggravated Whitehall’s worries since such an eventuality was believed to have threatened the security of the Mediterranean. It was the Dardanelles, Whitehall believed, that would eventually become the last barrier against Russia’s possible expansion towards the south.

This made any information about the Dardanelles defences crucial for the British. Until the outbreak of the crisis in Taba (and its aftermath), naval and military intelligence departments had produced regular intelligence reports. More importantly, these reports highlighted improvements in the Dardanelles defence system. Having realised that their capital was vulnerable to assault from the sea and land after the defeat against Russia, the Ottomans began to improve the Straits defences in the 1880s. These improvements did not go unnoticed and were largely covered by the intelligence reports with great details, chiefly compiled by the NID.

The leading figures of intelligence and fighting departments in London had presented negative opinions about any scheme of operation against the Dardanelles during and after the Taba Affair in 1906; simply because intelligence reports convinced them how radically the Dardanelles had been improved and modernised by the Ottomans since the 1880s. For example, DNI admitted in his memorandum that the defences had been “radically transformed, strengthened, and improved.” Sir John French, member of the CID, also thought that the “Straits [would] be defended by the most complete and reliable modern system of torpedoes and mines.” Therefore, with intelligence reports stressing that the defences were now much stronger than before, assessments became more pessimistic and discouraged an operation.

The Taba Affair of 1906 presents a good case highlighting how intelligence on the Dardanelles defences, that had been collected since the 1880s, impacted assessments and thus policymaking during a crisis. British views about the advisability of an operation against the Straits remained unchanged until January 1915. It demonstrates that British naval and military intelligence services were, in fact, effective in compiling information before the foundation of the Secret Service Bureau, the predecessor of MI6. It also implies that intelligence had already entered strategic discussions in an indirect way before the Joint Intelligence Committee was established three decades after Taba.

This piece is part of a series of blogs produced by scholars from the School of Security Studies Military and Political History research theme.


Photo Credit: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

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Yusuf Ali Ozkan

Yusuf Ali Ozkan

PhD Candidate

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