This episode will be the first of what I believe to be five episodes on the Dardanelles slash Gallipoli campaign and today we will look at the events leading up to the first shot being fired by Royal Navy battleships off the coast of the Dardanelles before moving into the events of February and March 1915 that saw the Royal Navy, with some French help, try to force the straits using nothing but ship and shell.
Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war episode 25. 25 is something of a milestone episode, half way to fifty, quarter to a hundred. We celebrate this milestone by beginning one of, in my opinion, the greatest epics of the entire war, the story of the campaign at the Dardanelles that would become known for the land action that would attempt to capture the Gallipoli peninsula. These actions on and around a tiny piece of land in modern day Turkey will cause huge changes in the British government, have long lasting effects, and become one of the defining moments of two of Britain’s colonies in the south pacific. This is a long story, that runs from the beginning of 1915 all the way until the first week of January 1916 and we will have several episodes on the subject over the coming weeks. This episode will be the first of what I believe to be five episodes on the Dardanelles slash Gallipoli campaign and today we will look at the events leading up to the first shot being fired by Royal Navy battleships off the coast of the Dardanelles before moving into the events of February and March 1915 that saw the Royal Navy, with some French help, try to force the straits using nothing but ship and shell. As I was beginning my research on this topic I picked up, as anybody interested in Gallipoli should, Peter Hart’s great book titled simply Gallipoli. Peter Hart is an oral historian at the imperial war museum and is sort of known for his, I’ll call it a crusade, to cut through some of the post war embellishments and myths around British operations during the war. It is one of the core sources for these episodes, but Hart starts the book with a preface that begins with these 15 words “Gallipoli. It was lunacy that never could have succeeded, an idiocy generated by muddled thinking.” While I think these were words are perhaps a bit too harsh, they certainly frame the next few episodes quite well.
The beginning of what would become the Gallipoli campaign began with a hunt by some members of the British government to find somewhere other than the western front to send troops. The first germ of the idea came in November 1914 when Aristride Briand, then Minister of Justice, suggested sending troops to the Greek pork of Salonika. The goal of these troops would be the assist Serbia. No real action was taken on this idea at the time. On January 2nd Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia appealed for help against the ongoing Turkish attacks in the Caucuses that we talked about last week. This got the wheels turning a little faster in a search for somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean to send troops. The Western front commanders were adamantly opposed to any idea that might possibly divert troops away from them. Joffre and French, if they agreed on nothing else, agreed that with the Germans thinning out their lines to send troops to the east through the last few months of 1914 and the first few of 1915 the German lines were ripe for the picking on the battlefields of France and Belgium. Joffre also had some selfish reasons for wanting more British troops on the western front, remember that agreement we talked about way back in episode 20 with the British taking over more of the line? Joffre was still pushing for more and more of the line to be taken over by the Brits so that he would have more men to attack with. Unfortunately for Sir John French he didn’t have authority on where troops were deployed, that authority rested in the hands of Kitchener. Kitchener was beginning to question the wisdom of sending more troops into the western front meat grinder, especially as the number of troops available kept dropping. The new divisions raised at the beginning of the war were just beginning their training in 1915 and would not be ready for months. Due to this shortage of troops the focus of this entire saga becomes fixated on one division of British troops, the 29th. The 29th division was an amalgam of troops from the colonies that had been concentrated in England. These were long term garrisons in the colonies and other units that had been relieved by territorials as soon as possible after the war began and represented the last cohesive unit of the old army left that hadn’t already been committed to the fighting, and French was fiercely covetous of it. French saw the division as the tool, and really the only tool left in the shed, that he could use for renewed offensives in early 1915. Kitchener saw the division as one of the few ways that Britain, and himself, could project power anywhere other than the western front. When trying to launch any operation anywhere, having even one seasoned division at the core of the force would be almost invaluable.
Way back in November after Turkey declared war Churchill had sent the British Aegean squadron to bombard the forts at the mouth of the Dardanelles, mostly just as a show of force. There wasn’t really any plan beyond a short bombardment which the ships did before sailing away. The results though seemed positive, there was almost now Turkish response to the British ships sailing up and shelling the coast so this made Churchill think, not without merit, that a naval fleet may be able to just force their way through the strait without any land based assistance. Churchill would ask the commander on the scene if he believed that it could be done and the response was encouraging. The commander replied that given enough minesweepers and a fleet of ships he could almost certainly force through the straight and sail all the way to Constantinople. After receiving this reply, on November 25, 1914 Churchill raised the possibility of this operation to the War Council. In general it met with a positive reaction, Kitchener didn’t have any problem with the operation if it didn’t need any ground troops and the benefits if the attack was successful was obvious. If a force could make it through the Dardanelles and make it to Constantinople they could shell the capital of the Ottoman Empire, it could conceivably knock the Ottomans out of the war instantly. It would also have the advantage of opening up a warm water port to ship supplies to Russia. So far Vladivostok, which was all the way in Siberia, and Archangel, which froze over in the winter, were the only ports available. Taking the strait, and knocking Turkey out of the war, also had the advantage of securing the all-important British Middle Eastern possessions which would have to be defended at great cost. The operation had great upside and didn’t require the most precious commodity in Britain trained soldiers, Churchill got the go ahead to begin planning the operation. It is worth noting that First Sea Lord Sir John Fisher and Commander of the Grand Fleet Admiral Jellicoe did not support the operation, but it wasn’t because they thought it would fail or that it was just not a good plan, much like Joffre and French Fisher and Jellicoe saw the entire operation as something that was pulling British naval strength out of the North Sea and putting it anywhere else in the world. The biggest concern was the German High Seas fleet being able to sortie out of their bases and finding some piece of a weakened British Grand Fleet and defeating it which would result in the blockade being broken and Britain being in a very rough spot.
During the brainstorming of eastern mediterannean operations there was considerations for ground troops to be committed in the region, just not at Gallipoli. It goes back to Briand’s suggestion of a lading at Salonika in Greece. This was the best port on the north coast of the Aegean sea and the only one capable of both landing enough troops in the region, and being in a spot where they might actually make a difference in the Balkans. In January 1915 the War Council in London actually recommended Salonika when asked to find a new front for operations. David Lloyd George supported the idea because it would allow the British to not only help Serbia but at the same time threaten Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and the entire Balkan region. Most of the British leaders also supported the Salonika operation as complimentary to the Dardanelles Naval excursion. The two operations wouldn’t compete over resources as the Dardanelles attack would occur before the landing at Salonika and after the initial attack on the straits some small naval force could be sent to guard the ships ferrying troops over to Salonika and that would be all the naval help that would be required. In early February Turkish troops attacked across the Sinai Desert towards the Suez Canal, the Suez Canal was extremely important to the allied war effort because it was the quickest way to transport troops and supplies from the British colonies to Europe and the attack there really hurried things along when it came to launching some kind of attack in the region. By February Kitchener was still on board with the Salonika operation and even at one point made the 29th division available for the operation, which was a huge step toward it actually launching. He ordered the division to move to the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea, the island of Lemnos would become the British army’s base during the Gallipoli operation even though it was actually an island owned by Greece. It was “on loan” to the British for the duration of the war. In early February Lloyd George would deliver the news of these developments to the commanders in France. He had two objectives to fulfill on the continent, to fill in the French on the proposed Salonika operation to see if they could be convinced to lend assistance and to deliver the news to John French that the 29th was being dispatched to the area. Sir John French, to put it in modern terms, lost it. As soon as he learned the 29th was going away he said that without it he couldn’t fulfill his promises to the French to take over more of the line and he would be unable to launch any offensives for the first half of 1915. When Joffre learned of the orders he also protested. With the combined pressure from the two commanders Kitchener called off the deployment of the 29th. He was still committed to putting troops in the region so he therefore took the only forces available in the region the Royal Naval Divion and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or ANZAC. The ANZAC was in Egypt being trained, having just recently arrived from the Pacific, they were moved to Lemnos as a replacement for the 29th and to continue training. The ANZAC was extremely green, but for now they would have to do, just remember the Dardanelles operation is strictly naval, there is no way these troops are going to end up on the coast of Turkey, nope, no way.
Before we get too much into the action today it is probably best to talk about the Dardanelles and what they are. They make up part of the waterway that separates Europe from Asia that connects the Balkan and Black Sea region to the Mediterranean, it goes from Aegean sea, through a 30 miles straight and at times gets to be only a mile wide before it widens out into the Sea of Marmara. On the Northeast coast of the Sea of Marmara is Constantinople, or Istanbul, or Byzantium, or whatever you want to call it. All of this area, on both sides of the water, were in Ottoman hands in 1915 and in the past it has always been a very strategic point in the region. Xerxes had crossed it on his way to Greece when it was called the Hellespont, Rome had captured the area and later Constantine would make Byzantium the new capital of the Empire. Byzantium would go on to outlast the Western Empire by around a thousand years before being captured by the Turks. If you want to learn more about the region and its history I highly recommend the History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson, it is of the absolute highest quality. In 1915 the region was highly coveted by Russia for use by its warm water ports on the Black Sea. For centuries the Tsars had been in pursuit of capturing Constantinople. It was really only the protestations of the British and French, and the warning of military intervention, that kept Russia from attempting to seize the city well before 1914.
So now we know that the British are planning to do something, and we know where they are going to do it, I guess it is time to talk about what exactly they were planning. The fleet that would move into the Dardanelles was led by Vice Admiral Sackville Carden, Carden had been in the Royal Navy since 1870 and was promoted to read admiral in 1908 and spent the two years before the war as the superintendent of the Malta shipyard. Malta is a small Mediterranean island that in 1914 was a major British Royal Navy base. Carden was known for being cautious and did not have any large fleet command experience since most of his posting since become admiral had been administrative in nature. For a man without much fleet command experience he found himself in command of a very large fleet. He was given 12 British and Four French battleships, 14 British and 6 French destroyers, several British and French Cruisers and 35 fishing trawlers. These trawlers had been converted into minesweepers but they retained their civilian crews. With mines being such a threat to the larger British ships it is odd for such a critical piece of the operation to be handle by non-military boats that were, at least in the beginning, crewed by non-military crews. Of particular note in Carden’s fleet was the Queen Elizabeth. The Queen Elizabeth was the newest British ship at sea at this time, she was classified as a superdreadnought and was the most advanced ship in the world. The ship had just been launched and then went to the Mediterranean for sea trials but was called into action early when the Dardanelles operation started. It was thought at the time that the operation would be a good place for the Queen Elizabeth to complete gunnery training. The plan was pretty simple, and the key to it all was speed. There would be seven stages planned for the attack as the ships slowly worked their way through the defenses. They would first destroy the outer forts, then the intermediate forts before moving into the Narrows. Here they would be reliant upon the trawlers to clear away the mine as fast as possible so that the rest of the fleet could keep moving, firing on the defenses as they went before finding themselves in the Sea of Marmara. From there they thought it would be smooth sailing all the way to Constantinople when the shelling, that would hopefully knock the Turks out of the war, would begin.
While the British were assembling their forces the Turkish garrisons weren’t idle. There were some fortifications that the Turkish troops could use but most of them were antiquated, there were some that dated back to before medieval times so perhaps not the most useful in modern combat. There were a lot of them though, there were fortifications and strongpoints situated all along the European coast at Cape Helles and around Gallipoli and on the Asian Shore at Kum Kale. After the November 4th bombardment the efforts to restore and improve the fortifications was redoubled and more mines were laid in the channel. Mines were a critical piece of the defense of the area, they could halt any large armada in its tracks while they were cleared and would play a critical role in the delaying any enemy force. As 1914 turned into 1915 more and more of these mines, anchored to the bottom with cables so that they should float right before the surface, were laid in the channel especially at its narrowest point. These mines, and ones deployed later will play perhaps a bigger role than anything else in the upcoming battle. They would actually be far more effective than either side could imagine before the operation began. Along with these preparations the Ottoman leadership was 100% expecting an operation at some point at the beginning of 1915. The German military advisors that were present agreed with these thoughts. They augmented the improving permanent defenses with mobile artillery that they were concentrating in the area. They only had about a hundred of these guns in the area when the British would begin attacking, and there were barely enough troops to man then, but even this small number would prove to be invaluable. The reason for this value is that the guns were howitzers that could be moved around behind hills to attack the British ships who couldn’t fire back against them. Naval guns were designed with a relatively low angle of fire, similar to the field guns prominent in European armies at this time, there just wasn’t a reason out at sea to use a high angle of fire there aren’t too many geographical features to get in your way. However the howitzers, with their high angle of fire, could sit behind hills and shell the ships. Even with these preparations ongoing and in place the Turkish government still wasn’t very confident in their troops’ ability to hold against a British attack so before the battle even got underway they were already making some preparations to move the government functions out of Constantinople.
Carden would lead his fleet in for their first attack on February 19th 1915 and during this action Carden planned to keep his ships far away from the straight, this action was strictly a preparation for later attacks and so the ships were kept about 3 miles out from the shore. The bombardment of 3 forts began at 10AM, and the Dardanelles campaign had begun. During the shelling the forts would seem to be subdued only to come back to life as soon as the Royal Navy gunners stopped firing and this touches on one of the biggest problems for the seamen during the campaign. While it would seem logical that firing guns at stationary land targets would actually be easier than firing at ships out at sea it was actually the opposite. The reason for this was two fold, the first problem was that the targets were generally far smaller than the large ships the naval gunners had always practiced trying to hit, you are talking about target areas that are just a few yards wide, when out at sea they would be trying to hit ships that were as long as a football field. Another problem was just seeing what they were trying to hit, the fortifications were often dug into the ground making the areas that could be seen from the sea as small as possible. There are numerous first hand accounts of spotters on the ships not even really knowing what they are shooting at, just trying to hit a point on a map. It is estimated that just 2-3 percent of the shells actually hit their designated targets. The ships continued to shell the forts near the strait for a day before the ships were recalled at sunset. Carden’s second in command Vice Admiral John de Robeck wanted to continue firing into the night but Carden ordered the ships out. Robeck was 5 years younger than Carden and had been promoted to read admiral just three years later in 1911. Before the war he had commanded a force of destroyers. The bombardment up to this point hadn’t had much of an effect, and certainly hadn’t been as effective as Carden had hoped. The plan was to resume the attack the next day but bad weather made this impossible. The attack would resume until February 25th and during the one week break that the Turkish garrisons had they continued to make improvements to their positions and to repair any damage sustained during the first attack. When the ships move into position again on the 25th it was de Robeck at their head, Carden had to bow out due to health problems. Over the course of 24 hours this time the British were able to knock out all of the outer forts. This was helped by raiding parties that were put ashore to guarantee the destruction of the positions. On the 26th of February 50 sailors and 50 marines were sent ashore and despite heavy fire were able to destroy two guns at one fort and the last gun at another. They were commanded by Lieutenant Commander Robinson who would win the Victoria Cross as part of the action, I believe this is the first, but not the last Victoria Cross of the campaign. On March 4th another groups was sent ashore and this time they met far more resistance and had to be quickly withdrawn. Back to the 25th and the ships were able to move in to jut 2,000 yards so that secondary armament could also be used in the bombardment. And here is where problems started to occur. The forts just inside the channel were in general better prepared and the channel began to narrow. It was also known by the British to be heavily mined, so the larger ships couldn’t move in due to the threat of the mines. The British did send in some of the older pre-dreadnought battleships, not wanting to risk anything newer. The minesweepers, those converted civilian trawlers had to be sent in and it was decided to do it at night so that they would have the cover of darkness as some protection while they were working. The trawlers were only able to make about 6 knots of headway when sweeping and when they were fighting against a 4 knot current it meant they were barely moving. To do the actual minesweeping they would work in pairs up to 500 yards apart and they would drag a heavy paravane kite, a kind of underwater hydrofoil, to cut the mine cables. When the mines floated up to the surface they were then shot and sunk with rifle fire. 7 trawlers would be sent in but the Turkish troops were able to find them with spotlights and bring them under fire. Here is an account from Lieutenant Commander John Waterlow “Searchlight after searchlight began to open on both sides, and the fire became denser and was delivered from both banks. For the first time I heard shells whistling over my head. Like everybody does I ducked but got over the desire to do that in a very few minutes. I asked the skipper how he liked it, and he said he’d rather be fishing! By the time we got into the minefield the fire was terrific. Both banks blazed incessantly, and with the glare of the searchlights, which never left us for an instant, it was bright as day. A veritable hail of shell fell all around us.” One trawler would sink before the others were pulled back. This fire on the trawlers was possible due to those mobile howitzers I mentioned earlier. The forts were mostly dealt with but the howitzers remained unharmed. The plan was maybe to use sea planes to spot these guns so that maybe the ships could hit them but the British had a lot of problems trying to pull this off. De Robeck would chose to withdraw his forces, rather than risk more ships in the channel since he didn’t see a great way around the problem. It would be a month before operations would resume, time not wasted by the Turkish garrisons, and during that time Churchill would send several messages very strongly urging action. A great bit of backseat driving from halfway around the world.
As the calendar moved from February to March Carden was having problems, he couldn’t eat or sleep, on March 13th he decided he was unable to continue and resigned from his command. When a doctor looked at him later he was found to be on the verge of nervous collapse. Full command of the operations were handed over to de Robeck. On the night of March 8th, unknown to the British, a Turkish steamer was able to lay a new line of mines parallel to the shore inside the channel. Just 20 mines were laid down, out of the hundreds in the strait but unlike the others they were in a spot that the British believed to be completely clear of mines and the steamer even had to sneak past several destroyers to do its job. Keep these 20 mines in mind as we move forward, they will prove to be the most critical 20 mines of the entire campaign. On March 18th de Robeck would begin the largest assault yet and he was determined for force his way through the strait come hell or high water. All 16 Battleships would take part including the new Battlecruiser Inflexible and the Queen Elizabeth. They would move up into position in three groups, leading was a group of 4 British battleships including the Queen Elizabeth with 2 ships on each flank to guard them. Then came the 4 French battleships and then finally. They would move forward at 11:30 and they would stop at a point where the largest of the British ships could pound the Turkish defenses while staying out of the range of the shore defenses, or at least the guns large enough to cause real harm. For half an hour they sat and bombarded the Turkish positions and they knew they were doing damage, they were getting better at this shore bombardment concept. At noon de Robeck signalled the French ships to move past and the French admiral, honored to play his part in leading the attack moved his ships forward. As soon as they were within range of the shore they too opened fire. These are the words of Lieutenant L.H. Straw from the HMS Ark Royal who was in a seaplane above the ships “The Bouvet and Gaulois far up on the Asiatic side hammering away at close quarters; the Vengeance and two others of ours doing the same on the Gallipoli side. The Queen Elizabeth, Inflexible, Suffren and Agamemnon behind firing over them at the forts up at Chanak and Kilid Bahr and all these forts replying so that the whole water was churned up. Not a single soul to be seen on the decks, just the flash of guns to show that they were alive. Shells falling in the water look like concentric circles of white on the outside merging into deep brown in the centre when seen from straight above. When at an angle you only see the column of water. " Up until now everything is going perfectly and according to plan.
And that is where we will end for today. A bit of a cliff hanger perhaps, but still a good spot I think. Next week we will continue as we find out what happens with the British and French attack. Maybe the mines will come into play, maybe they won’t, maybe the ships will be completely successful and the operation will be over, maybe they won’t. Tune in next week to find out. Unless of course you are listening to this far after these episodes are released, in which case you have foiled my attempt at a cliffhanger.