Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, February 19, 2015

100 Years Ago: Allied Naval Operations at the Dardanelles Begin, 19 February 1915

The naval assault on the Dardanelles began 100 years ago today with bombardment by an assemblage of British and French battleships against the outer forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles.  Although it seemed modestly effective, it was merely the opening of a month-long exercise in wishful thinking that would end in utter failure. The idea of a naval-only assault succeeding in capturing territory and forcing a nation like Turkey out of the war was both strategically, and in a practical sense, absurd. At postwar hearings questions like, "How could a fleet capture a capital like Constantinople or a peninsula like Gallipoli?" shattered the underlying logic of the whole ships-without-land-forces approach. The operation, in addition, was mounted at tremendous disadvantages for the Allied fleet, which some admirals recognized at the time, but which the expedition's chief advocate, Winston Churchill, chose to ignore or minimize.  

HMS Cornwallis (left foreground) Firing on 19 February 1915

No matter how much armor battleships carry, for instance, forts can be, well, simply more fortified and able to withstand more hits. Advantage forts. Forts, meanwhile, are fully stable gun platforms and have every gunnery targeting solution within their range already in hand. Warships, however, are bouncing, rolling, and vibrating while underway, making targeting incredibly complicated and are sitting ducks while at anchor. Advantage forts. Then there were additional complications like mobile artillery batteries land-side that were almost impossible for the ships to locate, while the battleships were easily sited by the gun crews. Oh, and by the way, the straits were mined and had to be cleared of these before the battleships could get through to Constantinople. These additional points entailed further disadvantages for the battleships.

For a month,  there were more bombardments deeper into the straits that seemed to yield better results, especially when Marines were sent ashore to clear some of the key positions. (Of course, the defenders returned as soon as the Marines returned to their ships.)  During this period, though, it became clearer to the local commanders that they were in a quandary — one that they would never resolve — that they could not allow the battleships to get close enough to reduce the concentration of six forts at the Narrows until the mines had been cleared. Conversely, the minesweepers could not get near the minefields until the guns were silenced.

Fort Sedd el Bahr at the Mouth of the Straits

The losses, however, would exceed the admirals worst fears.  The naval-only approach to the Dardanelles Campaign would end with with the defeat of a full-fleet assault by all the assembled British and French battleships on 18 March 1915. During that disaster, considered by Turkish historians to be the decisive event in the year-long fighting in the area, three battleships were sunk, three knocked out of action, and several more received serious damage. That evening the admirals called for land forces to help capture the forts, so the mines could be cleared, to allow the ships to sail on to Constantinople. What followed was a land campaign as ill-considered and beyond the capacity of the invading forces as the naval operation, but that's a story to be told elsewhere.


  1. It is interesting, but sad, that the only truly successful Allied military activity during the Gallipoli campaign was the evacuation of forces in December 1915 and January 1916.

  2. This is a very useful introduction to the campaign. My grandfather, William Thomas, was a seaman aboard HMS Ocean when it sank on 18 March, 1915. He swam for it, survived, and was transferred to HMS Albion, serving on her until 19 November. David Beer