Captain Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall, the Director of British Naval Intelligence, launched an operation to bribe members of the Ottoman Government into making peace during the First World War. Hall hoped that would open the Dardanelles Strait to the Allies, allowing them to supply Russia and bypass the stalemate on the Western front. It was, however, superseded by the attempt to open the Straits by force. The ensuing naval and land campaigns resulted in a second stalemate in the East.
My novel The Dardanelles Conspiracy charts these missed opportunities through the eyes of Johnny Swift, a disgraced soldier and diplomat. Swift finds himself in the middle of the attempts to open the Straits, by both negotiation and force.
It was the attempt at a negotiated peace that attracted me to the story and caused the greatest amount of difficulty in researching the novel. This was because it’s a fairly obscure footnote to what is largely considered to be a disastrous sideshow to the Western Front.
It was in the footnotes of Gallipoli by Robert Rhodes James that I got the first big break in my research. He made reference to two articles in the Royal United Service Institution Journal, from 1963. The first was called A Ghost from Gallipoli by Captain G.R.G. Allen. The second was a response to this article written by Admiral Sir William James. My other break was that a friend of mine could actually get hold of the articles for me.
These articles gave a detailed overview of the negotiations and why they failed, but did not give a great deal of colour about the ins and outs of the discussions. I was able to find further details in books about naval intelligence in the First World War, most notably in two biographies of Hall written by Admiral James and David Ramsay.
However, they did not contain any further information about the negotiations themselves, which appear to have been conducted rather vicariously. ‘Blinker’ Hall sent two emissaries to bribe Talat Pasha, the Ottoman Minister of the Interior. The delegation was unable to gain entry to Turkey and had to use the Grand Rabbi of Constantinople as an intermediary, corresponding via messengers.
I had hoped to read this correspondence and gain a greater insight into the negotiations by studying the old Admiralty files. I spent a day or so at the National Archive in Kew, searching the old Foreign Office FO37 card index, which was where the Admiralty files had been archived.
I found a number of references on the index cards, but when I searched the actual files they related to, the documents had been removed. When I queried this I was told that files are often subject to ‘weeding’, where documents not thought to be of value are removed.
Unable to gather any firsthand material I invented the scenes where the Grand Rabbi and Talat Pasha negotiate, dropping my lead character into the mix. While doing this I located another firsthand source in the memoir of Henry Morgenthau. Morgenthau was the American Ambassador in Constantinople in 1915 and had negotiated with Talat. His descriptions of this and of the Turkish Minister’s home really helped enrich these scenes. Geoff Berridge’s biography, Gerald Fitzmaurice (1865-1939): Chief Dragoman of the British Embassy in Turkey, also had details of the negotiation strategies employed by British diplomats when dealing with Ottoman officials, which helped build tension in these scenes.
Ultimately the negotiations failed because of promises made to Russia about the future of Constantinople (Istanbul). This was where my trip to the National Archive came into its own. I was able to find some fascinating cabinet papers around the future of Constantinople and War Council minutes, and about the decision to open the Dardanelles Strait by force. This is when Johnny Swift’s troubles really begin.