A Brief History
On March 18, 1915, the Allied naval operation at the Dardanelles, the straits that provide entry to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean, ended in one of the worst defeats of the British Royal Navy when 3 battleships were lost and another 4 capital ships were seriously damaged. A cruiser was also damaged.
Worse than just the loss of the ships, the British and French suffered 700 men killed on ships alone, along with several dozen killed on shore raids. The Turks suffered only 40 dead and 78 wounded.
The stunning part about the failed naval campaign was that all this carnage and damage was not caused by ship to ship fighting, but by the skillful use of shore batteries and naval mines by the Ottoman Turks. Turkey occupied a commanding choke point at the Dardanelles, covering the 38 mile long straits that spanned a width of only less than 4 miles, with an intimidating array of coastal artillery and highly restrictive mine fields. Any ships trying to get from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean or the reverse would be subjected to a murderous gauntlet of fire.
The British arrogantly believed their beloved Royal Navy, the undoubted rulers of the seas, could force the straits and open passage to the Black Sea. Bellicose First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill was determined to allow his admirals the opportunity to secure the straits in British hands. The French Navy would play an assisting role in amassing a considerable naval force accompanied by Marines to conduct sea and land raids to reduce the Turkish defenses. The Turks were also aided by their ally, Imperial Germany.
Even prior to the declaration of war between the Ottomans and the Western Allies, the Dardanelles had become a flashpoint with the British trying to establish a presence in the area and the Turks closing the straits when the British seized a Turkish torpedo boat. British submarines were already operating in the area in spite of no declaration of war. The presence of the Germans led to the conclusion that the Turks were allied with Germany, even though at that point (October 1914) the alliance had not yet been consummated. Fighting soon began in the Black Sea and in the waters separating the Black Sea from the Mediterranean Sea. (The passage to and from the Black Sea is via the Dardanelles Straits to the West, the Sea of Marmara in the middle, and the Bosporus Straits to the East. The entire passage is about 231 miles long between the seas.) Curiously, the British seemed to think that forcing the Dardanelles was their ticket to the Black Sea, even though the Bosporus Straits at the other end were only 2300 feet wide, so narrow that closing passage to British and Allied shipping would be even easier than at the Dardanelles!
While Churchill received historical accolades for his inspirational leadership of Britain during World War II, it must be noted that he had some bad ideas about how conduct a war. His obsession with the Dardanelles led to the debacle of the naval defeat, and then the failed amphibious landing at Gallipoli, a name that has become synonymous with a futile, bungled attack. During World War II he insisted on attacking “the soft underbelly of Europe” via either Italy or Southern France in lieu of a cross Channel attack at Normandy. The Allies did indeed attack Sicily and then Italy, but got seriously bogged down on the Italian peninsula over terrain favorable to the German defenders.
British shelling of Turk and German shore installations at times during the Dardanelles campaign naval portion (February 19, 1915 to March 18, 1915) seemed to be paying dividends, as fire from shore artillery waned when shelled. British commanders were led to believe they were successfully neutralizing the threat of the shore batteries, but they were mistaken. Few guns were destroyed and few Turks or Germans killed. Also overlooked was the tremendous impact naval mines were to play, and the fact that minefields could easily be reconstituted if partially swept clear. The Turks observed British naval movements and responded by laying new patterns of mines that the British failed to note, an especially egregious oversight in light of the fact that the British used aerial reconnaissance of the mine fields the 2 days before the battle, and while some mines were noticed, the new deadly line of mines was missed by the aerial observers.
After a series of engagements, the main naval battle took place on March 18, 1915. Between the shore batteries and the mines, the Allied naval force suffered catastrophic losses. A battlecruiser was seriously damaged, 3 pre-Dreadnaught type battleships were sunk (2 British and 1 French), 3 pre-Dreadnaught type battleships were seriously damaged, and a cruiser was also damaged. As stated above, the death toll clearly told the tale of which side had won. With 700 dead Allied sailors compared to only 40 dead Turks and Germans, the victory was a lopsided one in favor of the Turks, a rare debacle for the otherwise efficient and glorious Royal Navy.
In spite of the failure of the naval operation, certain elements in Britain championed the continuation of the naval attack, including and notably Churchill. Instead, the alternative plan of an amphibious assault of Gallipoli was mounted and the British (using mostly Australian and New Zealand troops) again failed miserably. With landings first staged on April 15, 1915, the British troops failed to conquer the Gallipoli peninsula in short time planners had hoped and were finally withdrawn in January of 1916. About a quarter million casualties had been endured by the British and also the Turks, with no change of status to show for the price in lives.
Question for students (and subscribers): Was Winston Churchill a war hero or a war buffoon? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Bell, Christopher. Churchill and the Dardanelles. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Lord Wester-Wemyss. The Navy in the Dardanelles Campaign. Endeavour Compass, 2016.
The featured image in this article, a photograph capturing the last moments of the French battleship Bouvet which struck a mine in the Dardanelles on March 18, 1915, capsized and sank within two minutes, killing over 600 men, is in the public domain, because it is one of the following:
- It is a photograph taken prior to 1 June 1957; or
- It was published prior to 1970; or
- It is an artistic work other than a photograph or engraving (e.g. a painting) which was created prior to 1970.