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Berlin-Baghdad Railway - The Great War

Of the various issues which confronted Europe at the outbreak of the war in 1914, some thought the Bagdad Railway was the largest single contributing factor. Germany's support of Austria's contention that the Servian question was a matter for her to settle without European intervention, had a sinister substratum. The railway from Berlin-Vienna-Constantinople led through Belgrade, Nish and Sofia. The control of Servia, as of Bulgaria, was, therefore, essential to Germany for carrying out the Hamburg to Bagdad project, the very core of Pan-Germanism. A great mass of combustible material lay loosely about in the diplomatic workshops of Europe in 1914. As Morris Jastrow wrote "It was felt in England that if, as Napoleon is said to have remarked, Antwerp in the hands of a great continental power was a pistol leveled at the English coast, Baghdad and the Persian Gulf in the hands of Germany (or any other strong power) would be a 42-centimetre gun pointed at India."

Ever since the announcement was made towards the close of the year 1899 that the Turkish government had conceded to a German syndicate the privilege of building a railway to connect Constantinople with Bagdad through a transverse route across Asia Minor, the Bagdad Railway has been the core of the Eastern Question. There were to be sure other aspects of that question, which led to the two Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, but the addition of the Bagdad Railway was an aggravating factor to an already sufficiently complicated situation that involved the great European powers—England, France, Germany and Russia—in a network of diplomatic negotiations, the meshes of which became closer as the years rolled on. The railway became the spectre of the twentieth century.

A large force of German railway engineers was engaged a few weeks before the outbreak of the Great War in pressing on railway construction at the rate of a mile a day. By 1916 it was of decisive importance for Germany to co-operate with Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, for the downfall of Austria-Hungary would involve Germany in the catastrophe, seeing that she can confront her adversaries' threat of an economic war only so long as the Berlin-Baghdad railway remained open.

Berlin to Baghdad mapBy the end of 1915, starting at Haidar Pasha, the western terminus of the Baghdad railway, the great trunk route through Asia Minor had been completely constructed and opened for traffic up to the foot of the Taurus Mountains, where a tunnel eighteen miles long was still under construction at the outbreak of war. When this tunnel was completed, as also the tunnel through the Amanus range of hills between Adana and Aleppo, through railway communication would be established as far as Ras-el-Ain, the existing railhead of the western section of the line. Beyond Ras-el-Ain there was an unfinished section of the railway extending for some 850 miles to Mosul, and thence down the Tigris to Samara, up to which point the eastern section of the line has been completed from Baghdad. Though the work of construction had been accelerated, the line was still far from complete, and it was quite clear that with the Tigris in full flood the British could send reinforcements from Karachi and Suez to Kut-el-Amara quicker by many days than the Turks could bring troops to Baghdad from Smyrna, Damascus, or Constantinople.

Through railway communication established between Berlin and Constantinople, German and Austrian workshops were available for supplying Meissner Pasha, the Engineer-in-Chief of the Baghdad railway, with the necessary plant for completing the railway to Baghdad. If Baghdad was to be taken and fortified against attack no time could be lost in pouring reinforcements of British troops into Mesopotamia, for by the end of 1916 the British must expect to find the Baghdad railway completed throughout its course, when the strategical advantage enjoyed by Great Britain will pass out of her hands into those of the two Central Powers.

In 1916 in Mesopotamia the British were slipping into an adventurous and chequered offensive which grew insensibly after the manner of the Dardanelles campaign. The security of British control of the Persian Gulf required, it was discovered, the occupation of Basra; the defence of Basra demanded an advance to Kurna, and from Kurna the British proceeded in June 1916 to Amara. The Turks decamped in disorganization towards Baghdad; and the temptation to follow proved irresistible. There was assuredly a touch of fantastic imagination in the transformation which first came over and then overcame British strategy with the change from a sound to a speculative offensive. Kut might be essential to the defence of the delta, but if Baghdad was needed for the protection of Kut, there was no limit east of the Bosporus to which the line and the logic of defence might not be pushed. It seemed to be flying in the face of Providence not to make a dash for Baghdad and seize the end of that railway-route on which the Germans were beginning to work with such energy from the other direction in the Balkans. If it led from Berlin to Baghdad, might it not also lead from Baghdad to Berlin? On the 29 April 1917 the British force in Kut, consisting of 2000 British and 6000 Indian troops, surrendered after a siege of nearly five months. After Gallipoli, Mesopotamia.

Berlin to Baghdad mapWhen Baghdad was taken by the British in March 1917, and the prospect of its recapture by the Turks appeared very remote, the scheme for German penetration into Asia shifted further north. The treaties which the German Government forced upon the Ukraine, Russia, and Rumania in February and March, 1918, ceded enough territory to Germany's Allies to open a new route from Berlin via the Black Sea ports to Samsun, Trebizond, Batum, and thence to Mesopotamia, Persia, Afghanistan, India, and indeed almost any part of Asia that the Teutons might care to reach. They already possessed practically all of the coveted Berlin-Baghdad route, except Baghdad itself, and they now obtained another independent and more easily protected route to Asia, from which it would be exceedingly difficult to dislodge them.

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Page last modified: 15-11-2011 18:54:32 ZULU