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LITTLE fanfare attended the completion of the Baghdad Railway last summer, overshadowed as the event was by the Blitzkrieg and its aftermath. Yet when, on the night of July 17, 1940, the first through passenger train for Istanbul steamed out of Baghdad, the conclusion was at last written to one of the most dramatic of the stories of diplomatic and financial rivalry that have marked the last half century of European power politics. The Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway had now become a reality -- though not, as originally intended, under the aegis of Germany. Constructed primarily for peaceful commerce, the line nevertheless is of high military importance, and its completion at this moment is significant.
Through passengers from Europe to points on the Baghdad Railway must transfer at Istanbul by ferry across the Bosphorus to Haydar Pasha, while at Baghdad they must change again -- from the standard-gauge (4′ 8½″) line to the Baghdad-Basra metre-gauge (3′ 3⅜″) line. The Taurus Express, the Asiatic extension of the Simplon-Orient Express, makes the 1,636-mile journey from Haydar Pasha to Baghdad in three days. Basra, 353 miles beyond Baghdad, is reached in 14 hours by night express. From the Bosphorus to the Persian Gulf is thus 1,989 miles, or as far as from Boston to Denver.
The Turkish State Railways operate the through trains from Haydar Pasha to Eskishehir, Ankara, Boghazköprü (near Kayseri), Ulukishla, through the Taurus Mountains to Adana, through the Amanus range to Meydanekbez on the Syrian border, a distance of 907 miles. In Syria, a French company runs the 103-mile section from Meydanekbez to Aleppo and back to the Turkish frontier at Chorbanbey (Çorbanbey), where one of the only two private railway companies in Turkey operates it as far as Nissibin on the Turco-Syrian frontier, a distance of 237 miles. At Nissibin, the French line again takes over for 48 miles to Tel-Kotchek on the Syrio-'Iraqi border. From that point the 'Iraqi Railways operate the 341 miles to Baghdad and the metre-gauge line down the Euphrates valley from Baghdad to Basra.
The actual construction of the railway began in 1904 under a concession, granted to the Germans by Sultan Abdul Hamid in 1902. The existing railway to Konya was now to be extended to Baghdad via Ulukishla, Adana, Aleppo, Nissibin and Mosul. However, completion was delayed by lack of funds, the outbreak of the Balkan and World Wars, and the difficult terrain in the Taurus and Amanus Mountains. Not until October 5, 1918, a few weeks before Turkey dropped out of the war, was through traffic sent from Haydar Pasha to Nissibin.
The Germans had also carried construction 74 miles northward from Baghdad by the time the British captured that city in March 1917. This line was pushed forward by the British in order to facilitate their advance against the Turks. By the end of October 1917 the railroad had reached Baiji, and was soon extended to Sharqat. Thus at the end of the war the two railheads, Nissibin and Sharqat, were separated by less than 200 miles, on which partial construction had been undertaken along 124 miles.
No further steps to complete the gap were taken until 1933. Indeed, the section from Sharqat to Baiji was torn up and, as a result of a decision by the British Government in 1919 to extend the metre-gauge line from Baghdad to Mosul by way of Kirkuk, it was expected that the remainder of the standard-gauge line would be pulled up back to Samarra. This decision was made for strategic and economic reasons, notwithstanding the fact that standard-gauge sleepers had been used in building the line from Basra to Baghdad in anticipation of the day when the line would be converted into standard gauge. The British Government apparently desired a break in the gauge at a point in northern 'Iraq because it preferred the construction of a new railroad from Haifa (on the Mediterranean) across the desert to Baghdad rather than the completion of the standard-gauge line from Constantinople to Basra. Several surveys were made for the trans-desert route, but the British were unable to induce the 'Iraq Government to pay £7,000,000 as its share of the cost.
The French company in Syria was the first to undertake to bridge the gap when in 1933 it built seven miles of track from Nissibin to Tel Zouan. This became the terminus of the Taurus Express, inaugurated in 1930 with connecting motor-car service to Kirkuk via Mosul. On May 15, 1935, service was opened to Tel-Kotchek on the Syrio-'Iraqi frontier, 41 miles from Tel Zouan. Beginning on this date also, the Taurus Express ran via Ankara instead of Konya. Under the terms of the Railway Agreement of April 1, 1936, the 'Iraqi Railways passed from British ownership to that of the Government of 'Iraq. As a result, the latter took upon itself the task of completing the line. Construction began in late 1936 from Tel-Kotchek to Mosul, but not until March 31, 1939, did the Taurus Express steam into Mosul. Upon the outbreak of the present war construction was also pushed northward from Baiji, a comparatively easy undertaking except for a section 30 miles south of Mosul where tunneling was needed. On May 24, 1940, the first train passed over the line to Baghdad and on July 17, 1940, the first passenger train went northward. Construction and the new equipment, bought in England, cost about £3,500,000, which was financed from revenue and from 'Iraq's first foreign loan, floated in London.
It was recently announced that the 100-mile gap between Diyarbakir and Mardin is to be filled in; construction is said already to have been begun. When this segment has been finished, the Baghdad line will be able to follow the route originally planned, in this way saving about 150 miles and avoiding the Taurus and Amanus ranges. It also has the advantage, from the Turkish point of view, of being much more easily defended.
With the intensification of the war the completed Baghdad Railway has become important as a means of supplying, from the port of Basra, those Near and Middle East regions now cut off by the closing of the Mediterranean to commerce. Traffic through Basra and on the Baghdad Railway is therefore steadily increasing. At Basra there now call every month five to eight ships from American ports, as well as numerous Japanese, Dutch, British, Greek and British Indian steamers. The facilities of the port, geared to handle about 5,000 tons daily, have been taxed to the utmost. Ships formerly had to lie in the Shatt al-Arab for several days before coming to the wharf; but this difficulty has been overcome by a reorganization of the port facilities.
Delays are also incurred in moving freight by rail to and from Basra because of the lack of adequate rolling stock. The metre-gauge line, built and equipped during the last war "with odds and ends from India," as a contemporary writer expressed it, in 1938 had 55 locomotives, 226 passenger cars and 2,543 freight cars of all types. Much of this equipment dates from the last war and is inadequate for main-line traffic. The broad-gauge line from Baghdad northward was even less well prepared to handle the new influx of traffic: in 1938 it had 11 locomotives, most of which had been captured from the Germans, 55 passenger cars and 525 freight cars, few of which were modern. Additional orders were placed in England, but not all this equipment has arrived.
The transit trade to and from Iran no longer accounts for its former large share of the foreign commerce of 'Iraq, although the closing of the Mediterranean ports has caused a renewal of commerce between Baghdad and western Iran. As yet the transshipment of goods to Syria and Palestine is far from having reached its full possibilities, largely because of the high cost of transport across the desert, added to the wartime maritime rates to Basra, the freight rates on the railway, port dues, transit dues ($3 per metric ton) and handling charges at Baghdad. Taken together, these charges tend to make the cost of many articles almost prohibitive in these countries. Under present circumstances, however, the rates on the railway are not excessive.
The greatest obstacle to an increase in traffic has been the freight rate for trans-desert truck transport. In early 1939, the rate per ton from the Mediterranean to Baghdad was about £5. It now stands at about £10. The increase seems to be due less to scarcity of gasoline or the high cost of trucks and tires than to the fact that the 'Iraqi operators, who alone can obtain licenses from the Baghdad Government to carry goods in 'Iraq, charge all that the traffic will bear. Syrian and Palestinian operators, who own more trucks than their 'Iraqi competitors, are excluded from 'Iraq. The rate to Aleppo and to North Syrian points has been kept down by the completion of the Baghdad Railway where through rates by rail run from £8 to £11 per ton.
Transportation to Turkey also is handicapped by high railway freight charges (from Basra to Istanbul the average rate per ton is $89 plus $3 for transit dues), by the necessity of transshipment at Baghdad from metre-gauge to standard-gauge, and by the lack of freight cars. At present, one freight train a day runs to and from Turkey. The Turkish Government, however, has taken steps to develop traffic. In July 1940, it sent a commission to Basra to investigate trade possibilities in the Persian Gulf; it also appointed a Commercial Attaché in Baghdad to facilitate customs and shipping formalities.
The use of the Baghdad Railway to reëstablish Turkey's exports would not only improve her foreign exchange position but would also provide nearly 1,000 tons of freight daily for Basra. The success of such a scheme would largely depend on the value of Turkish products in relation to shipping costs. Thus one of the most recent shipments over the railway was 4,000 tons of Turkish tobacco for the United States. In the opposite direction, American moving picture films for distribution to all parts of the Balkans and Near East are being imported, as well as automobile parts, tires, optical instruments, cotton and woollen cloth, chemicals, dyes, coffee, tea and armaments. Only if the shipments now trickling through the Mediterranean from England become completely cut off, and if prices within Turkey and the demand for Turkish products abroad rise enough to cover the added cost of shipping via Basra, can there be a further expansion of traffic on this route.
The ever-tightening hold of Germany on Southeastern Europe has naturally stimulated speculation as to whether the Baghdad Railway may not serve either as a sort of Burma Road for sending British aid to Turkey, or as a highway for German expansion toward the oil fields of 'Iraq and Iran.
As a belligerent against Germany, Turkey would undoubtedly require large supplies of matériel -- particularly machine guns, tanks, trucks and planes -- since her present equipment is not adequate for her 750,000 fighting men. As long as Great Britain retains her dominant position in the Mediterranean, she may be able to provide convoys to Izmir (Smyrna). In case Izmir were cut off, Mersin and Alexandretta, both connected by short branch lines with the Baghdad Railway, might then serve as avenues of supply, though neither is well-equipped to handle heavy cargo. Ships must lie out at sea, particularly at Mersin where in rough weather loading and unloading are impossible. Thus it would seem that, if Istanbul and Izmir become impossible or too dangerous to use, supplies could best be shipped into Turkey via the Baghdad Railway.
The difficulties which would interfere with this use of the Baghdad Railway as Turkey's principal window on the world seem to be: the lack of rolling stock; the long distances involved, with a consequent long "turn around;" the change in gauge at Baghdad; the bottleneck at the port of Basra; and the fact that trains must pass through three different countries. In this last connection trouble might come from the French forces in Syria. However, in case such interference should take place, it seems probable that Turkey, with British support, would annex those parts of Syria, including Aleppo, through which the Baghdad Railway runs. In passing, it may be noted that there are no more than 20,000 French troops in Syria at the present time.
The scarcity of rolling stock would probably not become acute unless requirements, say at Ankara, exceeded 2,000 tons daily -- a small amount for a fighting army. To keep 2,000 tons arriving daily in Turkey, about 4 trains of some 40 cars each carrying 12½ to 15 tons (full loading is seldom achieved) would have to be dispatched every day in each direction. Regular deliveries, allowing seven days for covering the 1,266 miles from Ankara to Baghdad at the average speed of 180 miles daily, plus two or three days "turn around" at Baghdad and at the Turkish destination, would require the constant use of between 90 and 100 trains, or about 3,600 to 4,000 cars and 100 to 120 locomotives, together with pusher engines for the mountainous regions. The total carrying capacity of these trains alone would equal about one-half of the average daily freight movement on all lines in Turkey in 1938. These requirements could probably be met at the expense of traffic on other lines. In 1939, the Turkish Railways owned 898 locomotives of all types, 16,331 passenger and freight cars, and a number of Wagon-Lits. Turkey has given large orders for rolling stock, including 129 heavy-duty locomotives and 200 freight cars from Germany, 58 similar locomotives and 300 ore cars from Great Britain, and 22 locomotives and 600 cars from France. Some of these have been delivered, but definite figures are not available.
Now for 'Iraq. In 1938, the most prosperous year yet experienced by the 'Iraqi Railways, a daily average of 1,680 tons of freight was moved over all lines. At present two trains run daily between Basra and Baghdad in each direction. They approximate the railway's estimated 2,000-2,500 tons capacity. The railroad could be supplemented by steamers on the Tigris; this service is now furnished by three companies which in normal times carry one-half of the total freight movement of 'Iraq.
The difficulties would become still more formidable if the British should decide to move additional troops into 'Iraq to protect the oil fields there and in Iran, for the task of supplying these troops would still further strain the combined resources of the railways and the rivers. Should Turkey enter the war against the Nazis, she would immediately be faced with the problem of how to protect the coal supply of her railways. The capture of her coal deposits, located principally on the Black Sea between Zonguldak and Ergeli, would almost irreparably cripple her railways. In 'Iraq the locomotives use oil as fuel. In Syria they operate with coal, and this would have to be supplied either by Turkey or from overseas through Basra.
Will Hitler in the near future venture down the route of the Baghdad Railway? We of course do not know. But it is no secret that the Germans would be very happy to acquire the 16 to 20 million tons of oil annually produced in the oil fields of 'Iraq and Iran. They also have every reason for wishing to cut the British fleet off from this supply and to destroy British naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean as a prelude to the conquest of the Suez Canal. To attain these objectives the Germans would find control of the Baghdad Railway to be invaluable, since there are practically no roads suitable for military traffic through Anatolia, particularly in the Taurus and Amanus Mountains.
Even if the German Army should obtain control of the Baghdad Railway and force its way into 'Iraq and Iran, it would discover that possession of the oil wells in those countries would not in itself satisfy Germany's oil-hunger. There are no available means for moving the oil by rail to Istanbul or Samsun. Turkey probably owns fewer than 200 tank cars, while the 'Iraqi Railways have less than 40. The only way to get oil out of Mesopotamia is therefore through the pipelines to Tripoli and Haifa. Unless Germany expects to divert tank cars from Rumania, she cannot count on oil from the Near East until the British have been driven out of the Mediterranean.