A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

March 18, 1915: The British and French Navies Fail at the Dardanelles

A century ago today, the Gallipoli campaign, at least arguably, was doomed to failure more than a month before the first troops went ashore. This post repeats text and photos that appeared in a post last year, a sort of rerun for the actual centennial today. You should also read my March 10 post about the Turkish minelayer Nusret.

Winston Churchill, at the time First Lord of the Admiralty, had a thing about the Mediterranean that would persist into the next World War as well. He conceived a daring plan to break the stalemate on the Western Front, knock one of the Central Powers out of the war, and provide a warm-water supply line to Russia by forcing the Turkish straits, and taking Constantinople/Istanbul. The Royal Navy still controlled the seas, and a British and French flotilla was duly sent to try to force the Dardanelles.

The plan seems crazy in retrospect, especially in view of the ten months of carnage in which British commanders kept throwing Australian and New Zealand troops against entrenched Turkish positions, the latter commanded in part (and eventually entirely) by Mustafa Kemal. If it ever had any hope of success, that surely lay in a quick naval victory, not in infantry landings. And that, originally, was the plan. The flotilla arrived off the Dardanelles in February and began shelling the Turkish forts on both sides of the strait, and using minesweepers to clear the minefields that filled the passage. The plan was, after softening up the forts and clearing the mines, the Royal Navy and its French allies would force the straits and sail right up to the Topkapi.

As daring as it seems, the Ottomans took it seriously. The US Ambassador to the Porte, Henry Morgenthau, recorded that archives and critical documents were being crated up to be moved deeper into Anatolia. (Note that just a few years later, the capital was moved to Ankara.) The Ottoman forts were nearly out of ammunition, the minefields were largely cleared, and there seemed to be little standing between the Allied flotilla and the Golden Horn.
The Allied Flotilla in the Dardanelles, 1915
Then, on March 8, the minelayer Nusret managed to lay a line of 26 mines which the Allies failed to detect.

Ten days later, the Allied naval assault began. On March 18, the attempt to run the straits began.

Line No 11 is Nusret's Minefield
Now, the Royal Navy had a low opinion of the Turkish fleet and the Admiralty insisted on keeping all the most modern, Dreadnought-class battleships in home waters in case the German High Seas Fleet came out. The flotilla in the east were older, pre-Dreadnought vessels, slower and less thickly armored. As if that wasn't enough, the commander, Admiral Carden, took ill the day before and his deputy, Rear Admiral John de Robeck, who had serious doubts about the venture anyway, took command.

Bouvet Afire
As the flotilla moved into the Çannakale Strait, the narrowest part of the Dardanelles, the French battleship Bouvet suddenly exploded. Within minutes she capsized and sank with the loss of her captain and all hands.

It soon got even worse. The battle cruiser HMS Inflexible and the battleship HMS Irresistible struck mines; the first was beached, the second evacuated and left adrift; both apparently sank. Several other ships were damaged. For a total Turkish loss of 118 men, Nusret's mines and the shore guns had sunk three Allied capital ships and crippled another.

Bouvet Capsizing and Sinking
Though the Turks were still bracing for a renewed attack, de Robeck was shocked by the losses, and at this point London made what was arguably the decisive mistake that transformed Gallipoli from a daring naval raid that failed into a symbol of the meat-grinder tactics of the Great War: they decided to suspend the naval operations until ground troops could be landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

HMS Irresistible Proves it was Misnamed
That would not take place until the date we  today know as Anzac Day: April 25. The naval battle was March 18. In the intervening weeks, Turkey would rush ammunition, artillery shells, mines. and troops (and Mustafa Kemal) to turn the Galipoli Peninsula into a hardened fortification. A campaign aimed at bypassing the carnage of the trench warfare on the Western Front would recreate that carnage on a barren peninsula in the Aegean.

The element of surprise had been lost. The Turks were ready.

You can find a much more detailed account of the action in the British Official .of Naval Operations.

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