The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 6 No 3 - June 1984

The Naval Struggle for the Dardanelles Straits

by S. Monick

In this article the writer hopes to illuminate the naval aspect of the allied attempts to break through the straits of the Dardanelles during the period November 1914 - January 1916. This aspect has been largely overshadowed by the invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula in April 1915 and the subsequent battles on the Cape Helles and ANZAC fronts. However, it should be borne in mind that Maj Gen Sir Ian Hamilton's invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 1915 had its seeds in the failure of the purely naval assaults upon the straits in February-March 1915. Thus, the invasion of, and subsequent fighting in, the Gallipoli Peninsula was the second key the allies applied to the lock of the Dardanelles; the first key being the naval assaults of February-March 1915, which were intended to demolish the Turkish forts guarding the passage of the Dardanelles.

Any discussion of the purely naval assaults upon the straits must be prefaced with a detailed analysis of the political-strategic factors which recommended this particular theatre of operations as a decisive strategic sphere in 1915. In the course of this analysis, it will also become apparent why a purely naval assault - as opposed to combined operations - was decided upon. The 'Easterner' stance was disliked by the 'Westerner' viewpoint due largely to the former's association with combined operations (a concept which had become markedly unfashionable in military-naval circles as a result of increasing separatism between the Army and Royal Navy in the decades preceding World War 1).

Although the Easterner approach enjoyed the ascendant in 1915, the military-naval schism which was so antagonistic to combined operations remained a powerful and pervasive consideration in the deliberations of the strategic planners.

It should also be borne in mind that the naval aspects of the campaign were also manifested in the submarine war in the Sea of Marmara, which was aggressively pursued in conjunction with the purely military conflicts in the Gallipoli Peninsula during April 1915 - January 1916.


Easterners vs Westerners

The campaign in the Dardanelles originated in a fundamental conflict between various schools of strategic thought in World War 1. This schism centred upon the controversy as to whether the best strategic results could be achieved by concentrating the bulk of men and materials against the German army on the Western Front (i.e. the European theatre of operations) or, alternatively, by committing significant forces to secure strategic advantages elsewhere - and in particular the Eastern Mediterranean and Dardanelles.

The Western Front advocates came to be designated 'Westerners' and their opposite numbers 'Easterners'. It should be emphasized that these opposing strategic stances originated in the decades immediately preceding World War 1 The Westerner stance was mainly rooted in the separatism which became a marked feature of British Naval-Military relationships during the period 1905-1914; whilst the Easterner viewpoint was based on powerful diplomatic considerations.

With regard to the former factor, Don Schurman, writing in Purnell's History of the First World War(1) states:

Three writers who argued in favour of combined operations were Julian Corbett the historian, Lt Col Sir George Aston of the Royal Marine Artillery, and Sir George Clarke the First Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence. These, and others, endeavoured to replace inter-service suspicion by co-operation, and argued for combined operations. As early as 1905, however, Admiral Sir John Fisher realized that this school of thought was fighting a rearguard action. The normal state of relations between the two services between 1905 and 1914 (and, perhaps, between 1856 and 1914) was a compound of mistrust, tension, competition and suspicion. This pervasive climate naturally militated against a strategic concept (that of the Easterners) which was so heavily dependent on combined operations.

However, there were countervailing political and diplomatic pressures in justification of the Easterner stance. Although Britain ostensibly committed herself to war over the question of Belgian neutrality, in reality her position (centring upon the safeguarding of the overland route to India and the vital role of the Suez Canal as the pivot of the Empire's sea communications) depended upon a network of relationships in foreign affairs in which the Eastern Mediterranean occupied a critical position. Constantinople was the focal point of a British policy overwhelmingly orientated towards the security of communications with the Raj; a policy which involved relations with the Balkans, Russia, Asia Minor, Egypt, East Africa and the European powers generally. When it is remembered that World War 1 was triggered by a spark which ignited in the Balkans it is not surprising that the Foreign Office and its diplomats were by training and custom Easterners.

It would be incorrect to assume that Western and Eastern strategic viewpoints were held by military and political-diplomatic personnel in mutually exclusive compartments. Thus, whilst one of the most ardent Westerners was General Henry Wilson who, as Director of Military Operations, had worked successfully to commit the entire resources of Great Britain to instant support of France in a future war, Kitchener (Minister of War since 1914) was an enthusiastic Easterner. Lord Kitchener was perhaps naturally sympathetic towards the Easterner viewpoint by virtue of his former Imperial commands in India, the Sudan and Egypt. Maj Gen Charles Calwell, recalled to the War Office in 1914 as Director of Military Operations, had long been a student and advocate of combined operations (although he eventually disapproved of the Dardanelles campaign). Incongruously, the Commander-in-Chief in France, Field Marshal Sir John French, was known to appreciate amphibious warfare; and, indeed, at the outset of war he actually advocated a seaborne attack on Antwerp with the forces he was to command on the French left wing in France and Belgium. The point that both Kitchener, who recruited the vast armies he so clearly saw would be vital in France, and French adhered to the Easterner stance, whilst being so heavily involved in the Western Front theatre of operations, is indicative of an important factor that should not be overlooked in any discussion concerning these opposing schools of strategic thought; viz. that these schools were not polarized into fixed positions. In other words, many of those involved in the controversy embraced, simultaneously, both Westerner and Easterner stances. Churchill, (First Lord of the Admiralty since 1911), for example, possessed strategic ideas that were fluid and dependent upon circumstances. It should be noted within this context that Arthur Balfour, the former Conservative leader whose advice relating to defence affairs was respected by Liberals, was a strong advocate of amphibious operations. One very important convert to combined operations was Capt Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence.

During the period August 1914 - January 1915 the Western school was undoubtedly ascendant. There were several important reasons for this:

The ascendancy of the military: The outbreak of war on 4 August 1914 naturally elevated military considerations above those of a political-diplomatic nature and the Easterner position was, to reiterate, based on the latter. With the early establishment of the War Council (consisting of the Prime Minister, Asquith, a Secretary and seven members), which was to advise the Cabinet on the prosecution of the war, this military orientation naturally increased. This trend was not immediately apparent, but by 1916 it had become so evident that the point had been reached where Hankey could state that political support for military operations was a mere formality. This development naturally implied that, in a conflict of opinion concerning theatres of military activity, short term military considerations, the immediate pressure of events and the personalities of military commanders would decide issues. This situation prevailed no less in 1915 than in 1914 and, indeed, remained a consistent feature throughout World War 1. However, the character of the immediate military situation in 1915, which will be discussed below, was far more conducive to the prosecution of Easterner concepts than in 1914, when the irresistible logic of immediate events, highlighted by the initial successes of the German army, riveted army thoughts on France. It should be borne in mind that the Royal Navy acquiesced fully in the supremacy of the Westerner stance in 1914.

The overwhelming concern of the Navy was the North Sea, where the German fleet could be contained, baited and perhaps fought. This posture also provided cover for the communications with the Army in France. In the first year of the war suggestions were, indeed, made for amphibious warfare. However, the suggested areas of operation were the Baltic, Heligoland, Ostend and Zeebrugge. As was the case with French's thoughts concerning Antwerp, such combined operations were conceived within the geographical context of north-eastern Europe. Thus, this area provided the focus of the war in 1914 for the Navy no less than for the Army; although for somewhat diefferent reasons. (Admiral Jellicoe had assumed his command of the Grand Fleet with the assurance that the North Sea was the first priority in Whitehall). Naturally, the Westerners increased in numbers as their vested interests became entrenched, whilst their viewpoint appeared to be sanctified by the continually increasing casualty lists.

The position of Turkey: In the opening months of the war, Turkey was not in a state of conflict with Britain, France and Russia. Accordingly, the governments of these countries debated as to whether or not the Ottoman Empire could be transformed into an ally or, alternatively, rendered neutral by negotiation.

It is interesting to examine the pressures which impelled Turkey towards an alliance with Germany. For a century the Ottoman Empire, the proverbial 'sick man' of Europe, had been considered moribund by the hovering European powers, who were awaiting the dismemberment of the carcass. But year after year this fabulous invalid, grasping the keys to enormous possessions, refused to die. Indeed, during the period following 1908 Turkey had actually appeared to be rejuvenated; for in that year the 'Young Turk' revolution had overthrown the old Sultan 'Abdul the Damned' placed his pliable brother (Mohammed V) on the throne, and established a government by the 'Committee of Union and Progress', led by Enver Bey.

Bey and his committee embarked upon the reconstruction and revitalization of the Empire, and recapture of the former pan-Islamic dominion of the old Ottoman Empire at its height. However, Russia, France and England did not at all relish this process, as they all harboured rival ambitions in the Ottoman Empire. Germany, late on the Imperialist stage and cherishing dreams of Berlin-Baghdad domination, determined to become the 'Young Turks" patron; a German military mission sent in 1913 to reorganize the Turkish army generated furious resentment in Russia.

Britain allowed her influence over the Porte to wane in the period preceding 1914; i.e. during the very time when such influence would have proved to be of immeasurable value in shaping the structure of alliances at the outbreak of war. For a century Britain had been Turkey's traditional protector, due to the latter's geographical position at the junction of the British and Ottoman Empires; and the avaricious schemes of Tsarist Russia. Russia had been struggling for ten centuries for control of the Black Sea, the famous passage to which were the Dardanelles. Possession of these would provide Russia with year round egress to the rest of the world. Should she be the inheritor of the Ottoman possessions, Russia would be in an extremely menacing position in which to threaten the British overland route to India, as well as Suez.

The Liberals, who had governed Britain since 1906, were the inheritors of Gladstone's celebrated appeal to expel the Turk, 'the one great anti-human species of humanity', from Europe. They readily concurred with Churchill's assessment of Turkey as 'scandalous, crumbling, decrepit, penniless.' A request by Turkey for a permanent alliance with Great Britain was rejected in 1911, mainly through the instigation of Churchill.

While Russia was Turkey's implacable enemy, and Britain indifferent, Germany, in 1914, was extremely anxious to secure an alliance with the Ottoman Empire. With the prospect of a two-front war looming before them, the Germans began to court an ally who could close the Black Sea and thus isolate Russia from her allies and their supplies. An earlier Turkish proposal for alliance, previously disregarded, was now re-activated. On 28 July, the day that Austria declared war on Serbia, Turkey formally asked Germany for a secret offensive and defensive alliance, to become operative in the event of either party going to war with Russia. Within the same day the offer was received and accepted in Berlin and a draft treaty signed by the Chancellor telegraphed back.

Turkey vacillated over the signing of this treaty which would irrevocably link its fate to that of Germany. Her hesitation evaporated when the British Admiralty seized the Turkish battleships then being built under contract in British dockyards; viz. the Sultan Osman and Reshadieh. These were first class capital ships, equal to the best of the Royal Navy's; they had cost Turkey the (for that time) immense sum of £7 500 000. Moreover, the money had been raised by public subscription after their defeats in the Balkan Wars had aroused the Turkish public to the need for renovating their armed forces. The reaction of the Turkish government to this deep affront by the British Government, which did not even deign to mention compensation, was predictable. Grey's telegram of regrets was sent on 3 August. On the same day Turkey signed the treaty of alliance with Germany. Under the cumulative influence of the 'sick man' concept Britain had come to regard the entire Ottoman Empire as of less account than two extra warships.

Even at this juncture Turkey was far from being a belligerent. She did not declare war on Russia, as she was pledged to do, nor close the Black Sea nor, indeed, take any action publicly compromising strict neutrality. In other words, Turkey appeared in no hurry to actively assist her new ally. Her uncertain ministers were fully aware of the fact that Germany was a distant Continental power, whilst the British and Russians were a close and ever present menace. The now certain entry of Britain into the war caused serious misgivings on the part of the Turkish government with regard to her courtship with Germany. All except Enver Bey (an enthusiastic advocate of Germany) wished to delay any overt act against Russia until the progress of the War revealed some sign of its probable outcome.

Instrumental in the decisive entry of Turkey on the German side were the movements of the German battle cruiser Goeben and the German light cruiser Breslau. The outbreak of war found the Breslau in Taranto, Italy. She was joined by the Goeben, en route for Algeria, where together they shelled the French embarkation ports of Bône and Philipeville. Returning to Italy via Messina, the German ships evaded the British Mediterranean fleet, headed by the battle cruisers Inflexible, Indomitable and Indefatigable (and including the Dublin and Gloucester) and proceeded towards Turkey. On 10 August the Goeben and Breslau entered the Dardanelles bringing, as long afterwards Churchill sombreley acknowledged, 'more slaughter, more misery and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship.'

On 28 October the German ships, under command of Admiral Souchon, and accompanied by several Turkish torpedo boats, entered the Black Sea and shelled Odessa, Sevastapol and Feodosia, causing some civilian loss and the sinking of a Russian gunboat. The Royal Navy's failure to intercept the Goeben and Breslau had incalculable results. The presence of the German ships in the Golden Horn, commanded by their officers and manned by their own crews, disdainful of restraint, intimidated the Turkish government from disavowing the overt hostilities executed against Russia in the Turkish name. (The Goeben and Breslau had been re-named the Jawus and Midilli respectively, and, under these names, formed part of the Turkish Navy). Turkey officially declared war on 31 October 1914. Russia declared war on Turkey on 4 November, followed by Britain and France on 5 November. Thus, Turkey was not fully committed to the Central Powers until the end of 1914.

However, 1915 witnessed the temporary eclipse of the Westerners by the Easterners. What were the military pressures operating in favour of this changed situation?

Egypt and Suez: The British position in Egypt was becoming a source of deep concern in 1915. The British situation was ambivalent. Theoretically Egypt formed part of the Ottoman Empire and, although the British had been firmly established for over 30 years there (since 1882), there had been indications of nationalist unrest even prior to the war. The Khedive, Abbas Hilmi, was bitterly opposed to the British presence and, on the outbreak of war in 1914, had been instrumental in proclaiming 'Jehad' (a Holy War) against the infidels. The British, not surprisingly, deposed him, appointed a more congenial nominee in his place, declared Egypt a protectorate and imposed martial law.

Although all appeared outwardly calm, Sir John Maxwell, the commander of British forces in Egypt, estimated that there were some 70 000 Turkish subjects in the country, and it was necessary to organize frequent demonstrations of military strength. Compounding this anxious situation within Egypt itself, Maxwell began to receive alarming reports of Turkish troop concentrations in the Sinai Desert. A force of 20 000 men, with nine batteries of field artillery and one howitzer battery, under the command of Djemel, left Beersheba in mid-January 1915. The real organizer of this expedition was the German commander, von Kress, who had been a central figure in intimidating the Turkish Government into an open declaration of war, through the medium of the guns of the Goeben. Instead of following the traditional route along the shores of the Mediterranean, the Turks struck out boldly into Egypt and, assisted by friendly Bedouin tribes, reached the Eastern bank of the Suez Canal on 3 February 1915. This daring stroke did not take the British entirely by surprise, as has been argued by some writers. Maxwell had in fact been anticipating a possible attack against the Canal, and a remarkable series of reconnaissance flights over the desert by French seaplanes gave him ample warning.

The attack on the Canal, which spanned the period 3-10 February 1915, was repulsed with remarkable ease. The total British casualties were 32 killed and 130 wounded; the Turks conceding 192 dead, 371 wounded and 727 missing; probably underestimates. Djemal had confidently expected a rising of Egyptian nationalist forces in Egypt on the Turkish appearance on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, but there was little response. Djemal withdrew his forces, leaving a small force of three battalions, a squadron of cavalry and two mountain batteries under the command of Kress in the Sinai. Despite its complete failure, the Turkish attack led to anxiety on the part of Kitchener and Maxwell. Another long range flight by a French seaplane on 21 February 1915 revealed, moreover, that a large Turkish Army remained positioned at Beersheba.

To the west of Egypt, in Libya, was a further potential threat. A powerful and ambitious religious leader, Sayed Ahmed, who called himself the Senussia, had been fighting the Italians with some success and, although Sayed professed himself to be friendly towards the British, Maxwell was understandably uneasy; an apprehension that was accentuated when he heard that Sayed had been joined by Enver's half-brother, Nun. Although the British had approximately 70 000 troops in Egypt, the majority were inexperienced British Territorial units and Dominion troops. Thus, if the Turks maintained their threat to the Suez Canal and insurgent movements gained momentum in Egypt and the Sudan, the British would be fully extended to maintain their position.

Russia: At the same time, on Turkey's eastern borders with Russia, an even more alarming event had occurred. A Turkish army of 100 000 had advanced into the Caucasus in December 1914 and had traversed very difficult country with remarkable skill and speed. It was the culminating point of increasing disquietude with the Russian situation. Within three months of the outbreak of war the much vaunted Russian 'steamroller' had been brought to an abrupt halt in Prussia. The Russians had lost over 1 000 000 men, barely one week's supply of shells remained in the initial reserve, and new supplies were being produced very slowly.(2) Col Knox, the British representative at Russian Headquarters, forwarded a series of unsparingly truthful reports to the British Government concerning the Russian position. At the beginning of January 1915, motivated by the Turkish invasion of the Caucasus, the Grand Duke Nicholas (Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian armies) appealed to the British Government to arrange for a demonstration against the Turks, with the object of drawing at least part of their army away from Russia. By the time that this message had been received in London a pitched battle bad developed between Russian and Turkish forces at Sarikamish (29 December 1914). It was fought with barbaric ferocity in a violent blizzard at an altitude of 3 200 metres in a temperature of 30 degrees below zero. At one point the Turks were close to an overwhelming victory but Enver, who had taken command, attempted an impossible wheeling movement in the deep snow, and the opportunity was lost.

Over 30 000 men literally froze to death and the majority of the survivors were forced to surrender. This Turkish military disaster, following upon Col Knox's bleak reports concerning the corroding Russian military machine and the Grand Duke's appeal for assistance, considerably strengthened the position of those who argued that Turkey was the most suitable medium whereby pressure upon Russia could be alleviated.

Stagnation on the Western Front: By the beginning of 1915 it became obvious that the war could not be quickly decided on the Western Front, By the end of 1914 there was deadlock over every battle sector in Western Europe. From the Swiss frontier northwards, fortified lines extended via the Vosges, the hills of the Meuse, the Argonne and the Chimin des Dames to the Aisne and up to Armentieres and the Ypres salient, reaching to the sand dunes of the North Sea. A tenth of metropolitan France, including the main French coal-fields and virtually all Belgium were behind the German trenches and remained so for the duration of the war.

The first battle of Ypres (October - November 1914) signalled the end of mobile warfare; henceforth, for the remainder of the war, opposing armies on the Western Front were paralyzed by the total ascendancy of defence over offence, expressed by barbed wire, entrenchments, minefields and machine gun emplacements.

All of these developments were links in the chain leading to the Dardanelles. They combined to lend overwhelming support to the Easterner stance, in favour of a powerful committment to the Eastern Mediterranean theatre of operations, by decisively shifting the focus of military priorities away from the Western Front. This shift of opinion was discernible as early as 25 November 1914, when the War Council met on the subject of the Eastern Mediterranean. Grey displayed Easterner affiliations by arguing in favour of improved diplomatic relations with Russia. Kitchener and Churchill hoped to relieve pressure on Egypt and Suez.

By this time Churchill had undoubtedly lost confidence in the Western Front, as also had Lloyd George, who had become convinced that campaigning in France was a profitless and extremely wasteful exercise. (However, he was never a true friend of the Dardanelles operations, and Syria held priority in his mind). Thus, of the three most influential members of the War Council - Asquith, Churchill and Kitchener - the latter two now strongly endorsed the Easterner approach. (Of these three Kitchener was the most powerful.)

On Boxing Day 1914 the Secretary, Hankey, presented a memorandum to the Council proposing an attack on Turkey with the object of compelling her to withdraw from the Triple Alliance, re-opening the vital sea route to Russia and, possibly, inducing some of the wavering neutral Balkan states (i.e. Greece and Bulgaria) to join the allies. Hankey's memorandum was lent further credence by the Russian appeal soon after. After further discussion the War Council came to the conclusion that the Dardanelles were the most suitable area for the exercise.



The question immediately presented itself: what form should the action take? Lord Fisher, the elderly Sea Lord, was at first strongly in favour of a large scale combined operation against Turkey. The plan he forwarded was that all the Indian troops and 75 000 British troops in France should be embarked at Marseilles and landed, together with the Egyptian garrison, on the Asiatic side of the Dardanelles near Kum Kale, whilst the Greeks should be persuaded to attack the Gallipoli Peninsula from the sea and the Bulgarians should march on Constantinople via the landward side. At the same time, a squadron of British shitns of pre-dreadnought vintage, of the Majestic and Canopus classes, were to force the Dardanelles straits. The plan met with little support. Bulgaria and Greece could not be seriously regarded as enthusiastic participants in the scheme; indeed, there was no guarantee that their neutrality would continue. Moreover, Lord Kitchener was emphatic that no troops could be spared for any new expedition. However, Churchill seized upon an isolated facet of Fisher's plan - that of employing obsolete battleships to force the Dardanelles straits - which made a strong impression on the War Council.

Churchill's enthusiasm for a purely naval assault was powerfully influenced by his role of opportunist politician. As First Lord of the Admiralty his prestige and reputation were synonymous with that of the Royal Navy; and, by the end of 1914, both were at a low ebb. Despite undoubted competence and imagination in his conduct of naval affairs Churchill's reputation had not been enhanced by the events of the war at sea. The British public, eager for a dramatic and overwhelming demonstration of naval supremacy, were disconcerted and angered by the apparent inactivity of the Royal Navy. The sinking of three cruisers - Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy - by the submarine U9 on 22 September 1914 off the Dutch coast, with a loss of 1 459 officers and men out of a total of more than 2 200, had stunned the nation. In a series of minor engagements the Royal Navy, far from gaining the expected sweeping victories, had been checked and even defeated.

In the south Atlantic Von Spee's squadrons roamed at will over that vast expanse of ocean, utterly destroying Admiral Cradock's inadequate force off Coronel (1 November 1914). Admiral Cradock himself was drowned when his ship, Cape of Good Hope, was sunk. In the Indian Ocean the Emden almost paralyzed the movement of allied vessels and generated terror off the Indian coast. Goeben and Breslau were anchored in the Golden Horn. When the new super-dreadnought Audacious was lost on 27 October 1914, the Cabinet decided that the news must be suppressed. The belated despatch of the half-trained units of the Royal Naval Division (RND) to Antwerp in October of 1914 had failed to avert the loss of the city and had almost ended indisaster for the division.(3)

Churchill's own Assistant Director of Naval Operations, Capt Richmond, wrote of his master on 4 October 1914, 'It is a tragedy that the Navy should be in such lunatic hands at this time'. Churchill's personal appearance at Antwerp, and his offer to take command of operations, engendered nothing but criticism and derision. The press was hostile to him and The Times especially rarely lost an opportunity of associating a naval reverse with his alleged incompetence. Powerful elements in the Navy distrusted and disliked him, whilst in Parliament the opposition was implacably suspicious. Some of Churchill's colleagues were entertaining strong doubts regarding his judgement and capacities. The resignation of Churchill's First Sea Lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg (the father of Earl Mountbatten) in October 1914, following a vicious and unwarranted campaign against his German background, had reflected little credit on Churchill. (Battenberg was succeeded by Lord Fisher.) Amidst such a climate of hostility it is not surprising that Churchill was desperate to retrieve his declining prestige with a decisive naval victory.

The battleships of the Majestic and Canopus classes were due for the scrapyard as they were too outdated to be used against the German High Seas Fleet. They were, however, considered to be perfectly adequate to destroy the Turkish batteries defending the Dardanelles. Recently, in France and Belgium, the Germans had clearly demonstrated the ease with which old forts (e.g. Liege, Namur, Antwerp and Maubeuge) might be demolished. The Turkish forts were very old indeed and, according to British intelligence, as yet ill manned. With this in mind, Churchill sought and received the permission of Lord Fisher to investigate the views of the Admiral commanding the British squadron in the Aegean, Admiral Carden. Churchill sent the following signal to Carden:

Carden replied that he did not think that the Dardanelles could be rushed, but that 'they might be forced by extended operations with large numbers of ships.' (Carden's Chief of Staff was Commodore Roger Keyes who, as a lieutenant in 1900, had been present at the capture of the Taku forts in China (16 - 17 June 1900), characterized by the capture of four modern forts astride an extremely narrow river, the forts being silenced by an international naval force of mainly obsolete ships.) This provided Churchill with the opportunity that he was seeking. Seizing upon the last words of Carden's message, and without any degree of serious consultation with his colleagues at the Admiralty and the War Council, he sent a signal to Carden informing him that his views had been agreed to 'by the higher authorities' and asking for details of the strength that would be required to force the straits.

second photo
Vice Admiral Carden

On 11 January 1915 Admiral Carden's plan and detailed requirements for forcing the Dardanelles by naval action alone arrived on Churchill's desk. Carden proposed a three-stage operation; the bombardment of the forts, the clearing of the minefields and the eventual journey up the straits, through the Sea of Marmara, to Constantinople - all with air reconnaissance. He demanded an ample supply of ammunition, as he considered that the expenditure would be heavy and requested a fleet of 12 battleships, 3 battle cruisers, 16 destroyers, 6 submarines, 4 seaplanes, 12 minesweepers and other miscellaneous craft.

In Britain, Carden's plan met with a favourable response. Churchill was particularly enamoured of Carden's concept of a steady, methodical advance to reduce the forts in gradual succession, in preference to the sudden dash initially envisaged. The Admiralty War Staff group approved and even offered HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of five new super-dreadnoughts and one of the most powerful vessels afloat. It was decided to allow her to calibrate her eight 15-inch guns on the Turkish forts. Eventually, there was not a single dissenting voice.

The objective

The problem of forcing the Dardanelles - the ancient Hellespont - had engrossed the attention and imagination of naval and military strategists for many centuries prior to World War 1. Although this famous narrow strip of water linking the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara extends for some 64 kilometres, the critical area on which attention was focused extends from the western entrance some 20 kilometres up the narrows. The western mouth of the Dardanelles is only some 2 800 metres in width but, as soon as one has passed the guardian fortress of Sedd-el-Bahr at the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula to the left, and Kum Kale, jutting out on a low promotory from Asia to the right, the channel expands considerably for approximately 6 kilometres. To the left the Gallipoli Peninsula rises steadily from Cape Helles. The Dardanelles then contract sharply, and by the time the Narrows, only 1,5 kilometres in width, are approached, the Kilid Bahr plateau on the Gallipoli Peninsula rises sharply from the water. Sedd-el-Bahr and Kum Kale guard the entrance to the Dardanelles; the forts of Kilid Bahr and Chemmelik dominate the Narrows; between the two any advancing fleet would find itself under fire from the frowning massif of the Gallipoli Peninsula and from the rising ground of the Asiatic shore. All naval authorities agreed that an opposed forcing of the Dardanelles would be difficult. In 1807 a British squadron under Admiral Duckworth had effected a successful opposed passage of the Straits and, although the return journey proved more difficult, returned to the Aegean without losing a ship. Many authorities were of the opinion that the vast improvement in gunnery in the nineteenth century made it improbable that this feat could be repeated. 'If the artillery material in the Dardanelles were set in proper order', wrote Moltke in 1836, 'I do not believe that any Fleet in the world dare enter the Straits'. Whilst Fisher was in command of the Mediterranean fleet and at the Admiralty as First Sea Lord in 1904 (the first occasion on which he occupied this position) he undertook several investigations of the problem. His conclusion was that any attempt to force the straits was 'mightily hazardous', a view confirmed by a joint military-naval investigation in 1906 which stated that although a squadron of 'His Majesty's least valuable ships' might succeed in 'rushing' the straits, the attempt was 'much to be deprecated'.

In March ot 1911 Winston Churchill wrote in a Cabinet memorandum that the days of forcing the Dardanelles by warships were past. 'It should be remembered', he wrote, 'that it is no longer possible to force the Dardanelles, and nobody would expose a modern fleet to such peril.' The interpretation of Churchill's avid support for a purely naval action in the Dardanelles has been analysed in terms of political opportunism in the light of this early statement which was totally opposed to the viewpoint that he expressed in the War Council.

Map 1

The defences of the Straits

Until August 1914 the Turkish defences of the straits depended on a three-tiered system. The 'outer' defences consisted of three forts; one near the toe of the Gallipoli Peninsula (Sedd-el-Bahr) and two on the Asiatic shore (Kum Kale and Orkanie) (Map 1). In addition a main battery at Helles, close to Sedd-el-Bahr, strengthened these outer defences. The 'intermediate defence line' comprised a few guns entrenched near Kepez Point and a strongpoint on the European shore. The object of this intermediate defence line was to protect a line of mines laid between Kepez Point and the European shore. In so far as these mines were to exercise a decisive effect on the failure of the Allied naval assaults of February - March 1915 (combined with the subsequent laying of twenty mines in Erenköy Bay), it is appropriate to examine this factor in greater detail. There were 181 mines laid in Kepez Bay and a further 194 in the Narrows. Turkish records revealed that 150 mines were laid in Kepez Bay after 1 January 1915 and the remaining 225 between August 1914 and January 1915;(4) i.e. after the German warships Breslau and Goeben had passed through the straits. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that the majority of these mines were carried in the Breslau and Goeben. (There is an ironic footnote within this context. On 20 January 1918 the Goeben was damaged, and the Breslau sunk, in the Dardanelles minefields, whilst operating under Turkish control).

The 'inner defences' at the Narrows formed the last line of resistance, and all the heavy guns were emplaced there. On the European shore were one fort (Kilid Bahr) and four main batteries (Namazieh, Hamadieh II, Rumili Medjidieh and Yildiz); on the Asiatic shore were four forts (including Chemmenlik, near Chanak Kale, Hamidieh I and Nagara) and two main batteries. The forts and batteries of these inner defences could muster seventy-two heavy and medium guns between them. Most of the guns were obsolete and short ranged, however; there was an acute shortage of ammunition and the gun crews had been badly trained. When Turkey declared war Churchill (without consulting the Cabinet) had ordered the Fleet to bombard the entrance to the Dardanelles (3 November 1914). Strict censorship by the Turkish authorities prevented news of the real effects of this first bombardment from reaching the Turkish population until some time after the event and an official communique merely reported that little damage had been done and that the allied warships had been driven off. Not until a month later was it learned that the outer fort at Sedd-el-Bahr had been destroyed and that, among the defenders, both Turks and Germans alike had been considerably shaken by the accuracy and effectiveness of the naval bombardment. Sedd-el-Bahr had been repaired, but as it was apparent that allied warships could obliterate them at will from a safe distance, no further guns were sent up to augment those already in position. For the future it was decided to concentrate on the inner defences and especially on protecting the minefields.

To prevent the forts of the inner defences being destroyed before their own guns could open fire, howitzers and other mobile artillery were deployed on each side of the straits to cover the unprotected area between the Dardanos battery and the entrance. Fortunately for the Turks the rugged terrain provided ideal cover for these pieces, which were intended to harrass a hostile fleet. With their aim disturbed it was thought that the warships would not be able to destroy the inner forts unless they were prepared to risk approaching close to the shore. Any that succeeded in penetrating the minefields could be dealt with by the short range quick-firing guns from the Narrows. As a deceptive measure a few small guns firing black powder were also deployed in the area. It was hoped that these would draw the fire of the attackers.

In 1914 the German Admiral Von Usedom had been appointed supreme commander of the defences of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. Although Von Usedom's Headquarters were in Constantinople, he was stationed at Chanak Kale as the representative of the Turkish GHQ. Colonel Djevad Bey was in command of the forts and batteries at the Narrows and on the. Asiatic shore and of the troops in the southern part of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Those troops in the northern part belonged to III Corps, which formed part of Gen Liman Von Sanders' First Army III Corps was commanded by Gen Essad Bey, who was responsible for defending the central and northern parts of the peninsula with one division of his corps. The Admiral commanding the fleet was in charge of all the ships allocated to co-operate in the defence of the straits. Thus, it can be clearly seen that in this three-echeloned structure of command, with three separate commanders - Djevad Bey, Essad Bey and the Admiral commanding the Turkish fleet - being responsible for the area, each independent of the other two, Usedom was only nominally the supreme commander.

To the great surprise of many in Constantinople, the Allied fleet in the Aegean made no attempt to exploit its initial successes of 3 November, and by the beginning of December the tension created by the first bombardment was beginning to ease. On 13 December 1914, however, a small British submarine (B11), only 42 metres in length and with a maximum submerged speed of 6 1/2 knots, manned by two officers and eleven ratings, negotiated the minefields in front of the Narrows and sank the battleship Messudieh, anchored in Sari Sighlar Bay. (The commander, Lt Holbrook, received the Victoria Cross for what a German naval officer ruefully admitted to be 'a mighty clever piece of work'). The Turks thus received a second powerful reminder of the vulnerability of their capital ships, and work to improve the defences of the straits was accelerated. Little had been accomplished by the end of 1914, however, and although Sanders reported to Berlin on 27 December 1914 that the Turks were ready to meet any threat to the Dardanelles and quietly confident of the outcome of an attack, the Turks themselves did not share Sanders' confidence. Neither did Admiral Usedom, whose unofficial view was that a strong allied fleet would be able to break into the Sea of Marmara. During January 1915 several more batteries were installed in the forts, three torpedo tubes mounted in the Narrows, and heavy guns transported to Gallipoli from Adrianople.


On 19 February, four days behind schedule, Carden attacked the Dardanelles forts. The action commenced at 09h51 and ceased at 17h30. The defences collectively managed a return fire of approximately thirty rounds between 16h45 and 17h28. The bombardment was ended due to fading light in the east. Also, ammunition was short, and the danger existed of an evening torpedo attack. The forts had been damaged, but Turkish casualties were light and the results were thus inconclusive. There followed a period of bad weather and rough seas. The next stage of the attack could not be mounted until 25 February. On this occasion the results were more satisfactory, for the guns of the outer forts were silenced and abandoned by their crews. The object was to complete phase one of the operations. Two runs were proposed; the first by the Vengeance and Cornwallis, and the second by Suffren and Charlemagne. Queen Elizabeth, Agamemnon, Gaulois and Irresistible would bombard the four defence works (Sedd-el-Bahr and Helles on the European shore and Kum Kale and Orkanie on the Asiatic shore) at long range. The first run commenced at 12h20 and the second at 14h05. By 16h00 on 25 February Turkish resistance was at an end and the guns positioned at Sedd-el-Bahr, Helles, Kum Kale and Orkanie were silenced.

The second phase - minesweeping - could thus be initiated. The minesweepers encountered difficulties in the four-to-five knot current, fed by the melting snows of the rivers debouching into the Black Sea, sweeping down through the Dardanelles. But they did manage to penetrate ten kilometres inside the straits and clear that area of mines. Parties of seamen and marines were also disembarked to complete the destruction of the batteries. In their first landings (26 February - 3 March) they met with little serious resistance, and fifty guns at Sedd-el-Bahr and Kum Kale were destroyed in return for trifling casualties. However, by 4 March Turkish resistance had stiffened considerably. When the Marines of Plymouth Battalion, Royal Naval Division, landed on 4 March at Sedd-el-Bahr, destroyed earlier, they found unexpectedly fierce resistance and had to be rapidly evacuated. To cover this withdrawal HMS Majestic bombarded the fort and village, leaving the latter a smoking ruin. A later landing at Kum Kale was equally unsuccessful, The demolition parties disembarking to destroy the guns in one of the batteries were halted by Turkish snipers, and the entire force had to be re-embarked by the Navy whilst under fire. In this operation forty-four men were killed and wounded.

A further advance up the straits was now found to be impossible. The Turkish forts and batteries of the inner defences were too distant to be silenced from the position of the outer forts which the allied fleet had reached. The Fleet's seaplanes with their wireless communication might have acted as spotters for the naval gunners, but poor weather halted flying. The minesweepers were sent forward to clear the next section of the channel, but refused to continue in the face of heavy fire from the Turkish batteries. Stalemate ensued; the battleships could not approach sufficiently close to silence the batteries until the minesweepers cleared more of the channel for them, and the minesweepers would not go forward until the batteries were silenced.

Failure of the minesweepers

The crews of the various ships in Admiral Carden's fleet were not of the highest quality; the best were with the Grand Fleet. As one admiral put it, 'the men were green, mostly with age.' The crews of the minesweepers, however, were virtually useless. Their vessels were small fishing trawlers manned by civilians recruited from the north-east ports of England. Although they clearly recognized the risks involved and accepted that they might be struck by mines, they were not willing to be subjected to gunfire whilst sweeping. Moreover, their morale was certainly not improved when they realized that the draught of the trawlers was greater than the depth of the mines from the surface. On 1 March the sweepers failed to reach the Kepez minefield; a forty-minute action with Turkish defences ensued, but no ships were lost. Between 2 and 9 March five attempts to reach the minefield failed. On 10 March the minefield was reached, but there were no sweeping results and the action resulted in one ship being lost. On the night of 7 - 8 March the Turks laid a new minefield unobserved by the allies. Lt Cot Geehi, a Turkish mine expert, had taken the small steamer Nousret down into Erenköy Bay and there, parallel to the Asiatic shore and just within slack water, he had laid a new line of twenty mines. He did this because he had seen British ships manoeuvreing there. Minesweepers succeeded in picking up three of them on 16 March but these were thought to he isolated floating mines. Carden was not informed.

Cdre Keyes, exasperated by the failure of the minesweepers, now took charge of the sweeping force. He called for volunteers from the Navy - a move highly approved of by Churchill - and offered a handsome reward to any of the civilians willing to make a fresh attempt. On the night of 13 March a determined attempt by six trawlers, supported by a cruiser (HMS Amethyst) was made to sweep the Kepez minefield half way between the allied ships and the Narrows. The operation was not a success. The Turkish gunners waited until the trawlers and the picket boats were in the centre of the minefield and then, switching on all their searchlights simultaneously, opened a withering fire. On this occasion the trawlers pressed on until all but two were put out of action, but the result remained a failure. Four trawlers were badly damaged in the attempt, with casualties incurred of 27 killed and 43 wounded (the majority in the Amethyst). Carden then resorted to daylight sweeping, more strongly supported by battleships, but the results were indecisive.

Two of the major factors thwarting the allied naval efforts were the mobile batteries and dummy batteries. The mobile howitzer batteries moved from position to position along the sides of the straits, and were thus difficult to locate and neutralize. They could not hope to sink any vessels except the trawlers, but they kept the warships on the move, causing the latter's fire to be inaccurate. A careful watch failed to locate the howitzers, and on occasions the ships did not know from which side of the straits they were being fired on. The dummy batteries emitted black smoke and drew allied fire which should have been directed at the howitzers which, if located in one position on one day, were in another position on the next and, in any event, the chance of scoring a direct hit on them was negligible.

Carden suffered a nervous breakdown and was replaced by Vice Admiral de Robeck. On 18 March 1915, having given Churchill the assurance that he wholeheartedly supported the enterprise and Carden's plans, de Robeck ordered the allied fleet to attack the Narrows. The attack of 18 March was intended to break the stalemate of phase two, in which the minesweeper crews were reluctant to pursue their operations until the capital ships had silenced the Turkish main batteries. The allied plan made provision for the trawlers to commence sweeping operations two hours after the start of the long-range bombardment, whereupon they were to clear a channel some 800 metres broad past Kepez Point into Sari Sightar Bay. In order to eliminate the danger from stray floating mines each capital ship was attended by an armed picket boat. The Royal Naval Division was to make a feint landing on the western side of the Gallipoili Peninsula. Shellfire observation was the responsibility of sea planes from HMS Ark Royal.

Eighteen capital ships entered the straits, led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, Lord Nelson, Agamemnon and Inflexible, followed by French ships, including the Gaulois, Bouvet and Suffren, with further British ships including HMS Ocean and Irresistible in the rear. Queen Elizabeth, Lord Nelson, Agamemnon and Inflexible formed line A of the attacking fleet; Gaulois, Bouvet and Suffren line B; Ocean and Inflexible formed the rear of line B; on the north flank were HMS Prince George and HMS Majestic and on the south flank HMS Triumph and Swiftsure. The warships were subjected to a determined and comparatively accurate fire from the mobile Turkish batteries but this did not prove a serious obstacle. When line A had reached a point some 12 kilometres downstream from the Narrows, the ships opened fire with their guns, including the eight 15-inch guns of the Queen Elizabeth, on the fortresses of Kilid Bahr and Chemmenlik. The forts were hit and damaged, and a magazine detonated at Chemmenlik. Soon after midday Admiral de Robeck ordered up Admiral Guepratte and the French squadron of the second line. The French admiral responded immediately, bringing his old battleships up between the British ones with superb seamanship. When the fire from the Turkish battleships momentarily slackened, de Robeck decided to send the minesweepers forward, to retire the French ships and bring up the rear line of British battleships, including the Irresistible and Ocean.

Map 2

The movement of the French ships commenced just before 14h00, when the Suffren turned south and led her sister ships out of action along the shores of Erenköy Bay towards Kum Kale and the open sea (Map 2). Up to this point all appeared to be progressing well. However, tragedy then struck. As the French battleships swung round in a great arc and started to withdraw, the Bouvet, travelling fast in Erenköy Bay east of Kum Kale, was suddenly rocked by a great explosion, capsized and disappeared in a cloud of smoke and steam, with the loss of 638 men out of her complement of 709. It was thought at first that a shell had struck her magazine but she was later found to have struck one of the mines laid in Erenköy Bay. The minesweepers which were greeted with a storm of howitzer shells from the mobile Turkish batteries along the shores of the straits on either side, turned and fled. At approximately 16h00 the Inflexible, moving in the area where the Bouvet had been sunk, also struck a mine and began to list seriously. These setbacks were followed by others. At 17h15 the Gaulois was badly holed by gunfire and had to be beached, whilst Suffren was struck by a plunging shell and seriously damaged. The Irresistible too struck a mine in this fatal area and sank at 09h00. A violent explosion shook the Ocean, probably the result of one of Geehl's mines; she was abandoned and sank at 22h30. Seeing the Bouvet sunk and five of the capital ships seriously damaged (Inflexible, Ocean, Irresistible, Suffren and Gaulois) de Robeck decided to break off the engagement. He sent Cdre Keyes in a destroyer to take off the crew of Irresistible, and retired the remainder of the fleet.

The naval battle of 18 March 1915 had indeed been an unfortunate one for the allies. For the cost of three warships sunk (Bouvet, Irresistible and Ocean) and three crippled (Gaulois, Suffren and Inflexible) (i.e. one third of the capital ships engaged), and almost 700 men killed, the allied fleet had merely succeeded in forcing the Turks to fire away almost all of their heavy ammunition.

Summary of the first phase of the Dardanelles operation

G.K. Hartman, in his book, Weapons that Wait(5) writes of the battle of 18 March in the following terms:

What is implied in this judgement is that the failure to force the Dardanelles by purely naval forces was rooted in the separation of two objectives - the silencing of the forts and the passage of the minefields - whereas, in actual fact, both could have been achieved simultaneously. Carden's plan was based upon the two operations being achieved independently; hence the separate naval assaults of 19 and 25 February. De Robeck accepted the separation of the two objectives on 18 March, when the capital ships preceded the minesweepers in entering the straits, with the intention of silencing the Turkish batteries which so threatened the minesweepers. De Robeck's plan only differed from Carden's in so far as the two operations were undertaken in a shorter time span. The minefields remained the major threat to the allied fleet from the outset of the operations on 19 February. Thus, Hartman's assessment is equally applicable to the naval assaults of 19 and 25 February. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that, had such a course heen adopted at the outbreak of the assault, there was a far greater possibility of success than on 18 March. There are several reasons for this. First, on 19 February mines had not yet been placed in Erenköy Bay. Thus, the profound psychological damage of encountering mines where none had been anticipated would have been absent. Second, the Turkish morale was at a far lower ebb then than it was the following March. The considerable enhancement of Turkish military defences in the straits in March 1915 is a clear pointer to this revived morale. Although the military results of the assault of 19 February were indecisive, the political results were considerable; with members of the Turkish Government preparing to leave the capital. Indeed, one may extend this argument to an earlier time i.e. to 3 November 1914. At this juncture the artillery which subsequently covered the Kepez minefields - and thus decisively obstructed sweeping operations - had not been deployed. Viewed in this perspective, it may be stated that the allied naval assaults which occurred between 3 November 1914 and 18 March 1915 exemplified a series of lost opportunities, synonymous with providing the Turks with an ever increasing margin in which to supplement the (initially meagre) defences of the straits.

An alternative method of silencing the batteries covering the minefields was available, viz. a landing force whose specific objective was the destruction of these batteries. In the months that had elapsed since August 1914 little had been done to develop the trench system on the western slopes of the Kilid Bahr plateau, a position which dominated the inner defences on both sides of the straits and which was, in effect, the key to the Dardanelles. A few trenches had been dug for the protection of the newly installed batteries and the units responsible for watching the various landing places along the coast had haphazardly dug a few others for their standing patrols. But no plans for a proper defensive position to counter a landing in force had yet been drawn up. An amphibious allied landing was perfectly consonant with the amphibious assaults of Marines (26 February - 3 March) and the intention to land a detachment of the Royal Naval Division on 18 March. (Indeed, it may be argued that the amphibious assaults of 26 February - 3 March missed an invaluable opportunity by being too restricted in scope. In other words, had these landing parties extended their activities to the batteries guarding the Kepez minefield and those of the inner defences, the minesweepers could have easily traversed these sectors of the straits.) However, this situation did not prevail when the allied fleets launched their final assault on 18 March.

After the naval assaults of February the Turks, under their German masters, set to improving the defences of the straits. With five divisions at his immediate disposal, and the promise of a sixth (the 3rd Division, under Col Nicolai) as soon as ships were available to transport them to the region, Sanders commenced to reorganize the defences. Trenches were dug to cover the prospective landing places, and three further lines of defence were planned to supplement the two existing ones on the Kilid Bahr plateau. Orders were issued to the 5th and 7th Divisions, under Col Von Sodenstern and Col Remsi Bey respectively, to concentrate near Bulair to deal with any landing in that area. The 9th Division, under Col Khalil Sami Bey was deployed to guard the southern portion of the peninsula from Suvla Bay to Sedd-el-Bahr and the 11th Division, under Col Rejet Bey, was ordered to hold the Asiatic shore. The 19th Division began to concentrate near Boghali, to form a reserve ready to move to Bulair, Kara Tepe or the Asiatic side of the straits, as required. By the middle of March, prior to the final allied naval assault of 18 March, these troops were moving into position.

Aftermath of the naval assault of 18 March 1915

Cdre Keyes was anxious to continue the action, as he was convinced that the Turks were at breaking point. However, even Keyes admitted that the action could not be renewed until the sweeping force had been drastically overhauled which he anticipated would take a fortnight. As he had written, 'there was never any question of taking battleships through unswept minefields.'

Fisher at once ordered the battleships London and Prince of Wales to the Dardanelles, in addition to Queen and Implacable, which had already been despatched, whilst the French sent the ancient battleship Henri Quatre to replace Bouvet. The War Council on 19 March authorized the Admiralty to instruct De Robeck 'to continue the naval operations against the Dardanelles if he thought fit.' 'We are getting ready for another go', De Robeck wrote to Hamilton on 19 March, 'and not in the least beaten or downhearted.' In telegrams to the Admiralty on 19 and 20 March he gave no hint that the attack would not be resumed as soon as the sweeping force had been reorganized. (It is highly improbable that subsequent naval operations would have proved more successful than those of 18 March; the reason being that the allies remained ignorant of the minefields planted in Erenköy Bay until after the end of the war. Thus, the same probability of striking mines in advance of the anticipated minefields in Kepez Bay and the inner defences with the attendant psychological impact, as evidenced in the deep gloom which descended upon De Robeck in the immediate aftermath of the engagement - remained).

In the event, however, the controlling authorities came to the conclusion that the Navy could not force the straits unaided. The military commanders were instrumental in this change of approach. Lt Gen Sir William Birdwood, commanding Australian and New Zealand troops in Egypt, played a major role in this attitude. He had joined the naval expedition as an observer when Admiral Carden was in command and was not impressed. He reported to Kitchener that Carden was a mediocre leader and that he doubted the Navy's capability of forcing the straits unaided. His opinion was communicated to Lord Kitchener on 4 March. By 12 March Maj Gen Sir Ian Hamilton had been appointed to take command of the troops being assembled to assist the Navy if required. In actual fact there had been tentative moves towards military participation in the Dardanelles offensive in early February. Until the beginning of February all plans had been prepared on the understanding that Lord Kitchener could spare no troops for the Dardanelles Campaign. General opinion at the Admiralty and War Office, however, was that the contingency of military intervention should be provided for, and Kitchener's resolve began to waver in this direction. He had at his disposal in England the particularly fine 29th Division. Eventually it was agreed that the 29th Division should be sent to the Greek island of Lemnos, and that units of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) in Egypt should be despatched to the same destination. This decision was reached on 16 February. On 19 February Kitchener changed his mind concerning the despatch of the 29th Division. The Russians were collapsing on the Eastern Front, and it appeared probable that the victorious German armies would be released for the Western Front. It therefore appeared prudent to retain the one remaining experienced division for potential deployment on the Western Front until this theatre appeared to be secure. However, the order for the ANZAC forces to proceed to Lemnos remained intact. Hamilton had observed some of the naval battle on 18 March and had witnessed the Inflexible crawling back to base. Perhaps as a result of these observations, and possibly influenced by Birdwood, he came to the conclusion that the passage of the Dardanelles could not be accomplished by the Navy alone.

On 19 March Hamilton communicated the following message to Kitchener:

Kitchener replied:

This reply is a clear indication that, by 18 March, the date of the final naval assault, Kitchener was already heavily committed to the viewpoint that joint military-naval operations had become a necessity in the Dardanelies Campaign.

Although Keyes, as stated above, was enthusiastic over a further purely naval assault, both De Robeck and Admiral Wemyss (in charge of the base at Mudros on Lemnos) did not value his judgement, believing him to be incapable of cool reasoning and of that school of thought which considered the offensive spirit to be the answer to every problem. Wemyss, like Birdwood and Hamilton, was convinced that an extensive military commitment to the Dardanelles Campaign was essential. The die was cast on 22 March. On this date a meeting was held in which De Robeck conferred with the army commanders. Prior to this meeting Hamilton and his military colleagues had agreed that, whatever their own views on the subject, they would leave the sailors to decide for themselves and only discuss land operations if they turned to the Army for help. The moment he arrived De Robeck informed the others that he was now certain that the Navy could not force the Dardanelles. The scene was thus set for the full scale invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula.

fourth photo
Vice Admiral de Robeck


It should not be assumed that the failure of the naval assaults of February - March 1915 implies that the Royal Navy's participation in the Gallipoli Campaign assumed a less aggressive stance after April 1915. On the contrary, concurrent with the land campaign, the Navy pursued an extremely active role in the sphere of submarine operations, an oft neglected feature of the Dardanelles Campaign.

Reference has been made to the British submarine B11 which, on 13 December 1914, entered the Dardanelles and torpedoed the Turkish cruiser Messudieh. This achievement naturally raised the issue of submarine operations in the Sea of Marmara and their possible impact on a campaign in the Gallipoli Peninsula. It was obvious to the Royal Navy that no B-class submarine could penetrate the entire length of the Dardanelles. It was not impossible, though, that the E-class submarine could succeed. The E-boats were among the most successful fighting submarines ever produced for the Royal Navy. Fifty-seven of them were built between 1913 and 1917. They were 660 ton boats, 50 metres in length. They had two periscopes and were powered by two diesel engines which provided a maximum surface speed of 16 knots (batteries gave a maximum submerged speed of 10 knots). They were armed with five torpedo tubes and 10 torpedoes (five loaded and five reloads). Their maximum crew was 30. The following submarines featured prominently in this aspect of the campaign:

E14: Commanded by Lt Cdr E.C. Boyle, the E14 left Malta for the Sea of Marmara on 26 April 1915. Under constant fire from the forts and batteries of the straits, one of her torpedoes struck and sank the Turkish torpedo boat Paykisevski opposite Chanak. Despite a glassy sea, Boyle subsequently succeeded in bringing E14 to within 732 metres of two transports crowded with Turkish troops bound for Gallipoli, and hit one of them, setting her on fire. The submarine continued her operations in the Sea of Marmara until all of her torpedoes were used. During this period she destroyed four ships, including the 200 ton gunboat Nour el Bahr (1 May) and the Gul Djemal (10 May), an old White Star liner which had been refitted as a transport. The Gul Djemal had been carrying 6 000 troops and a battery of guns destined for Gallipoli. It was with her last torpedo that E14 hit this ship, but she remained in the Sea of Marmara for a further seven days and dominated the Turkish lines of communication with nothing more than a few rifles. No Turkish shipping sailed and the Sea of Marmara was kept clear merely by the threat of submarine action. Boyle was awarded the Victoria Cross for his outstanding achievement, and was especially promoted to the rank of Commander. He strongly recommended that submarines operating in the Sea of Marmara should be fitted with a gun on the fore casing. His advice was followed, and E-boats were sent to Malta for the urgent fitting of 6-pounder or 12-pounder guns.

fifth photo
Lt Cdr M.E. Nasmith, VC.

sixth photo
The E11, commanded by Lt Cdr ME. Nasmith, VC, sinks the Turkish Transport Stamboul in Constantinople (as it then was) harbour.

E11: Commanded by Lt Cdr M.E. Nasmith, the most outstanding and experienced of submarine captains, the E11 left Imbros on the night of 18 May. The E11's first victim was the Turkish gunboat i>Pelenk-i-Dria, the second a steamship loaded with guns, gun mountings and ammunition. A third victim was chased into the port of Rodosto (Tekir-dag), where Nasmith dived through the entrance and torpedoed the ship as she was secured alongside the quay. A fourth was driven ashore and wrecked. Two days later the E11 penetrated the harbour of the Bosphorus and sank the transport Stamboul. Nasmith began his return journey on 6 June with two torpedoes left. On his way down the Dardanelles he saw through his periscope a large transport, but decided to reserve his torpedoes for the Turkish battleships which normally lay in the waters above Nagara Point. On this day, however, the waters were empty when E11 reached them. Turning in the strong current Nasmith re-traced his path until he sighted the transport again, sending her to the bottom with one torpedo. On this particular tour E11 sank eleven ships. Nasmith developed a unique method of conserving his torpedoes. Most torpedoes, after they had missed, sank to the bottom. Nasmith arranged it so that his surfaced. He then swam out, unwound the small vane in its nose which cocked the firing pistol, and had the torpedo returned through a flooded tube to his submarine.

Like Boyle before him Nasmith was awarded the Victoria Cross and promoted to Commander. His First Lieutenant, G. Doyly-Hughes, and Lt Robert Brown, RNR, won the Distinguished Service Cross and the entire crew were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Nasmith's report, like Boyle's before him, pointed out the additional damage he could have executed on patrol had he only had a gun; and E11 was at once sent to Malta to have a 12-pr gun fitted. (Nasmith returned twice more to the Sea of Marmara. In July and August he sank the Turkish battleship Heirredin Barbarossa, 1 gunboat, 6 transports, 1 steam and 23 sailing vessels. In a forty-seven day patrol in November and December, Nasmith sank or disabled 5 large and 3 small sailing vessels, and sank the Turkish destroyer Yar Hissar.)

The two patrols of E11 and E14 in April - May 1915 established the pattern for submarine operations for the remainder of 1915. Boyle, who returned to the Marmara for a second patrol shortly after Nasmith's return, discovered that the entire supplies of the Turkish Army were being transported in dhows, as no large ships would risk the sea voyage in the face of submarine attack. Accordingly, he recommended that two submarines were needed simultaneously in the Sea of Marmara to control the dhow traffic. E12 (Lt Cdr K.M. Bruce) was therefore sent to join E14, although she had to confront a new hazard in her passage of the Dardanelles in the form of steel submarine nets stretched across the Narrows with which the Turks had reinforced the minefields. E12 was fouled in one of them and broke free only by surging backwards and forwards until the nets broke under the strain. The fitting of guns on submarines increased their versatility. In addition to conserving torpedoes for the larger targets, they enabled the submarine captains to harrass many of the Turkish shore lines of communication, since for some of their length the railways extended along the coastline. Trains were shot up and bridges damaged by gunfire or demolitions. E12, on her second patrol, had a 4-inch gun on her fore casing, the largest as yet ever fitted on a submarine. Boyle, on his second patrol, had a 6-pr gun fitted and Nasmith, on his second patrol, had a 12-pr gun. Finally, in October 1915, E20 arrived in the Marmara with a 6-inch howitzer, although she had no opportunity to use it.


Inevitably, there were losses. One was the Australian submarine the AE2, commanded by Lt Cdr H.D.G. Stoker. Lt Cdr Stoker had been an important figure in convincing the Admiralty of the effectiveness of submarines in the Sea of Marmara. En route from Malta on 24 April, the AE2 was sighted by the Turkish torpedo-boat Sultan Hissar whilst breaking surface and was forced to surrender. The submarine was scuttled and the crew surrendered (30 April). The E7 (Lt Cdr A.D. Cochrane) was caught up in the nets on 4 September; thus firmly trapped, she was the target for explosive charges lowered and detonated by Turkish boats on the surface. The E20 (Lt Cdr C.H. Warren) was a further casualty. She travelled through the Dardanelles and on the evening of 20 October, by prearrangement, met the French submarine Turquoise, arranging for a rendevouz the following night. Unfortunately the Turquoise ran ashore the following day and surrendered. Even more unfortunate was the fact that her captain had omitted to destroy his papers, including the details of the rendevouz with E20. Instead of the Turquoise the appointment was kept by the German submarine U14, and E20 was shot to pieces. A further casualty was the E15, the first submarine to attempt the passage of the straits. This endeavour resulted in failure, the cause of which was the easterly set of the current as it rounded Kepez Point and the difference in density between the fresh and the salt water. The submarine was thrown temporarily out of control and the current swept her still further to the east and up onto a sand spit, too hard aground to be able to back off. Her commander was killed by one of the first Turkish shells to hit her. Six other members of the crew were also killed. The British were forced to destroy her rather than allow the submarine to fall into Turkish hands.

A new strategic concept

Allied submarine operations in the Sea of Marmara came to an end with the close of 1915. The British submarines had undoubtedly achieved a tremendous success. By the time that they had left the Sea of Marmara, the Turkish merchant fleet had been halved and no more than a handful of small naval ships remained. By January 1916, thirty passages of the Dardanelles had been effected or attempted by 1 Australian and 9 British submarines. They had, collectively, sunk 2 battleships, 1 destroyer, 2 gunboats, 7 transports and 197 other vessels of various types - steam and sail - for the loss of 1 Australian and 3 British submarines. The achievements of these British submarines are further highlighted by the French submarine losses. The Saphir was lost in January 1916, due to the difficulties of the current experienced in the Dardanelles passage, which made the French submarine uncontrollable; in addition the Bernouilli had been forced to return and the Joule had been sunk in the Kepez minefield on 1 May 1915. It was these operations in the Sea of Marmara which first revealed the proper strategic use of submarines, indicating how they could achieve maximum damage against an enemy with the most economical use of force. Although, within themselves, they could not influence the importance of submarine warfare and the path that future submarine operations should follow. Indeed, it is in this aspect of their achievement that the real significance of the offensive in the Sea of Marmara lies.


1. D. Schurman, 'Easterners vs Westerners' in Purnell, History of the First World War, II, pp. 712-713.
2. These losses were sustained in the campaign in East Prussia, characterized by the battles of Tannenberg (26-31 August 1914) and the Masurian Lakes (9-14 September 1914). The Russians sustained casualties of 250 000 men in these battles alone.
3. The Royal Naval Division, formed into two brigades, was in the process of formation at Walmer in October when Churchill telegraphed to the unit to assist in the defence of Antwerp. The Germans, crossing the Upper Scheldt, forced the Belgians to withdraw their field army from Antwerp. The British troops commenced their withdrawal on the night of 7 October 1914. However, 1 Naval Brigade, delayed by the bridge demolitions and refugee traffic, lost its way and all but one battalion were interned in Holland. However the remainder of the RND reached Ostend without serious loss and returned to England.
4. G.K. Hartman, Weapons that Wait: Mine Warfare in the US Army (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, c1979), p.46.
5. Ibid., p.l71.
6. Ibid.


Hartman, G.K. Weapons that Wait: Mine Warfare in the US Army. (Annapolis. Naval Institute Press. c1979.)
History of the First World War (London. Purnell for BPC Publishing Ltd. n.d.). Vol.11.
Masefield, J. Gallipoli. (London. William Heinemann. 1955)
Moorhead, A. Gallipoli. (London. Hamish Hamilton. 1956)
Rhodes, J.R. Gallipoli. (London. W.B.T. Batsford. 1965)

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