World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Tradition”

Tradition“, Elizabeth Moon, 1998

On the outbreak of World War One, two dreadnoughts were being finished up in British shipyards. They had been ordered by the Turkish government and paid for by public subscription.

Winston Churchill decided they would not be delivered to the Ottoman Empire, and England bought them from the shipyard.

Two German battlecruisers, the Breslau and Goeben, were in the Mediterranean at the end of July 1914 having just made a goodwill visit to Constantinople. Their commander placed them in position to attack French troop transports as soon as war was declared. The German Empire and France became official enemies on August 3, 1914.

The British Mediterranean Fleet shadowed the German ships expecting hostilities soon between Britain and Germany. When war was declared between Britain and Germany on August 4, 1914, the Germans ships were pursued unsuccessfully. On August 10, 1914, they were safe in Turkish waters. They were “sold” to the Turks, and their crews donned fez and Turkish naval uniforms.

The results were, in retrospect, disastrous. Years later, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty during the event, said the escape of the two ships to Turkey resulted in “more slaughter, more misery, and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship.”

On October 29, 1914, Turkey joined the Central Powers. It didn’t have to happen that way, and that’s the point of Moon’s fine tale of naval combat.

In her story, the British do intercept the ships and sink the Goeben. (The wiki on the historical incident and story claims the Breslau is also sunk. Perhaps I’m just stupid or inattentive, but that doesn’t seem clear in the story or Moon’s afterword which mentions only the Goeben.) The British do lose four out of twelve ships.

It was not a foregone conclusion that Turkey would side with Germany. Britain and Turkey had fought together in the Crimean War. The Turks, like all up and coming countries with naval aspirations, looked to the British Navy as their model, and the British government sent them naval advisors.) The Ottoman Empire had asked for an alliance with Britain a year before.

But, in our world, the Ottoman Empire did side with the Central Powers. The Russian Empire’s logistic problems were greatly complicated by not being able to resupply through the Dardanelles. The loss of the Ottoman’s Mid-Eastern territory provided France and Britain the opportunity to re-draw the political map in that area with questionable wisdom. Finally, the death of the Ottoman Empire was accelerated, and Turkey the nation was born.

The pivot point here is that the timid commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Milne, is not served by Admiral Troubridge but Admiral Christopher Cradock. A foxhunter thoroughly familiar with the sea he is chasing the Germans ships through, Craddock is wisely insubordinate and aggressive. Like Admiral Nelson, the man who willingly turned a blind eye to his flagged orders at the Battle of Copenhagen, Craddock disobeys Milne’s timid commands and endures the constant questioning of his subordinate Captain Wray, a man constitutionally incapable of taking the necessary risks.

The one problem with Moon’s story, its only problem, is that she violates one of the aesthetic principles of the true alternate history, which the story is clearly intended to be. She provides no plausible reason why Craddock is where history placed Troubridge.

The wiki entry on Craddock provides no rationale. At the outbreak of war, Craddock was in command of the North American and West Indies Station of the British navy.

It does, however, make an interesting connection between Craddock and Troubridge.

Craddock commanded the British navy at the Battle of Coronel. There he died along with 1,569 others after the British force engaged a stronger German one. Craddock made that decision because he was determined not to meet the fate of Troubridge who was court martialed for failing to stop the Groeben and Breslau.

Moon’s story is a well-worked out, if you grant her initial invention, look at the real history of World War One and one of its many possible turning points.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: No.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

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One thought on “World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Tradition”

  1. Great story which contrasts the historical actions of Troubridge and Craddock. Just flip their positions and their decisions would be correct. Luck determines fate in modern war.

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