Dardanelles strategy and naval operations 1914 to 1915

 

In early January 1915, the Commander of the Russian armies, Grand Duke Nicholas, asked the United Kingdom for help. Russia was fighting the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus Campaign. Nicholas hoped that British action against the Turks would relieve pressure on Russian forces in Armenia.

The British agreed to help. They targeted the Dardanelles, strategically located between the Mediterranean and Black seas.

In mid-January, the Allies tried to force the straits by naval action alone. Naval bombardment from a joint British and French force began in February 1915. The action failed due to poor weather and naval losses from Turkish defences. Turkish mines sank three battleships and damaged other vessels, causing many casualties.

By March 1915, the Allies agreed that naval forces couldn't pass through the narrow straits without help from an army assaulting the Turkish forts.

Landings began on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915. The armies made little progress against fierce opposition from the Ottoman forces. By September 1915, the Allies realised they could not succeed without significantly more reinforcements. They agreed to withdraw. All forces were evacuated from the Gallipoli peninsula by 9 January 1916.

The only Allied success from the Dardanelles Strategy was to draw Ottoman ground forces away from the Russians. The land campaign firmly established the superb fighting credentials of the Australian and New Zealand forces in a major conflict.

Russian appeal for help

The attack on Gallipoli was one of the more imaginative strategies of World War I.

At the start of the war, the German Imperial Army had delivered a crushing blow to Russia at the Battle of Tannenberg and had been forced eastwards. The Russians were threatened by a Turkish advance through the Caucasus. They appealed to their allies for help.

Gaining control of the narrow straits of the Dardanelles leading to the Sea of Marmara and the Turkish capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul) would:

  • re-establish communications with Russia
  • open a shipping route to the Mediterranean to release merchant ships locked in the Black Sea by Turkey

On 2 January 1915, the British Government received an urgent appeal from Russia, asking for a British attack on Turkey to divert the Turks from the Caucasus front, where Russian forces were in danger of being overrun.

Besides this, British strategists had for many years before the war believed that the best defence of Egypt and the Suez Canal was an attack on Turkey.

Plan to take Constantinople by naval forces alone

The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had been concerned over the comparatively inactive role played by the Royal Navy. There was also growing anxiety within the British War Council about the military situation on the Western Front, where Allied forces were now in stalemate with the Germans.

Russia's request prompted Churchill to ask a question of the Commander of the British Squadron in the Aegean. Could the Dardanelles be forced and Constantinople taken by naval forces, without help from ground forces? The answer Churchill received was heavily qualified, but he did not inform the British War Council of these doubts. The Allied naval attack on the Dardanelles went ahead as planned in February 1915.

Strengthened Turkish defences

Back in November 1914, the Royal Navy might have achieved its goals by steaming through the Dardanelles, shelling the port of Constantinople and perhaps putting the government to flight. Instead, it cautiously tested the range of the Turkish guns by bombarding the Ottoman shore batteries.

The British bombardment of late 1914 alerted the Turkish commanders to their vulnerability of further attacks. In response, they had begun to strengthen their sea and land defences along the Dardanelles by February 1915. This included carefully laid minefields, well-sited guns and searchlights that swept the Narrows at night.

Bombardment of the Turkish forts

On 19 February 1915, the sea off the entrance to the Dardanelles was calm, with no wind and the sun shining. A few kilometres offshore a small fleet of British and French warships took station. The ships were close to the old Ottoman forts guarding either side of the straits:

  • Sedd el Bahr (now Seddülbahir) at Cape Helles, on Gallipoli peninsula
  • Kumkale on the Asian side, south of Çanakkale

From there, the Allies opened leisurely bombarded the forts. All day, shells fell on Seddulbahir and Kumkale without reply from the Turks. Then, as the Allied ships came to within 3 km, the Turkish gunners fired back, showing that the forts hadn't been destroyed.

The British and French attempt to knock the Ottoman Empire out of World War I had begun. It became known as the 'Gallipoli Campaign' and lasted until 8 January 1916, when the last British soldiers left the Gallipoli peninsula.

Between 19 February and 17 March 1914, a British and French naval force tried to subdue Turkish forts and mobile howitzer batteries on either side of the Dardanelles.

Before the Allies' battleships could steam past the Narrows up to the Sea of Marmara, small minesweepers tried to sweep a clear channel through minefields laid across the strait. They didn't achieve this, mostly due to accurate fire from mobile Turkish howitzer batteries on the shore.

Read about:

Aerial view of the bombardment

Illustration of a bay with landmarks and ships in the ocean
Aerial view of the bombardment of the Turkish forts. Original illustration published by HW Wilson, British journalist and naval historian, editor of The Great War: The Standard History of the All-Europe Conflict, a popular part series published by the Amalgamated Press in 13 volumes, 1914 to 1919.

This panorama looks north across the Dardanelles and the Gallipoli peninsula, showing the Allied fleet near Imbros island to the west. Dublin, Suffren and Bouvet are shown in the Gulf of Saros shelling the Bulair Lines. The defences across the narrow neck of the peninsula, the town of Gallipoli, the Sea of Marmara (called 'Marmora' on the map) and Nagara are shown to the east. Standing off North Beach and Anzac Cove, Queen Elizabeth, Prince George and Inflexible are shown shelling the Turkish forts at Kilid Bahir on the peninsula coast of The Narrows. The distance across the Peninsula between Queen Elizabeth and the target is marked as approximately 12 miles (19km). Four warships are shown in the Dardanelles, observing fire results on the forts at Kilid Bahir: Albion, Cornwallis, Canopus and Irresistible. Irresistible is shown nearest to Kephez Point on the Asian shore of the Dardanelles. A line across the peninsula from Queen Elizabeth to Canopus shows the line of wireless message contact. In the foreground, Cape Helles and the forts of Seddul Bahir are shown to the west, with Kepez Point, Dardanus and Chanak to the east.

Battle of 18 March

So it was decided that, on 18 March 1915, a large British and French naval force would enter the Dardanelles. They would hammer the Turkish forts and batteries with naval gunfire to a point where they were no longer capable of resistance. Minesweepers could then approach safely and clear a way for the warships.

As the great fleet of 16 battleships sailed into the strait on the morning of 18 March 1915, a British naval officer observed:

no human power could withstand such an array of might and power

All morning the gunners on shore withstood the Allies, their guns firing round after round. Warships were hit, men killed and metal twisted, but the Turkish shells could not pierce the main armour of the battleships.

Allied shells crashed into walls and buildings, hit munitions and killed soldiers at the Turkish batteries. Sensing a weakening of Turkish resistance, the British Admiral John de Robeck ordered the last line of battleships forward.

As de Robeck's second line turned away to allow the last line of ships through, the French warship Bouvet sustained a massive explosion and sank within minutes, killing more than 600 sailors. It had struck a sea mine. By late afternoon, the Allied fleet had lost three battleships, and three more had been badly damaged.

That 'great array' of naval 'might and power' didn't win on 18 March. Contemporaries and historians have disputed the state of the Turkish shore defence after the Allied warships left. Were they dangerously low on ammunition? Had the defenders' morale been affected? Whatever the situation, one basic fact remained — the minefields that prevented Allied naval progress remained virtually intact. The Allies never resumed their naval attack.

On 22 March, at a conference on the British flagship Queen Elizabeth, de Robeck announced that he could not seize the Dardanelles alone. It would be necessary to land a sizeable military force to capture the shore batteries and allow the navy through the strait.

Nusret the minelayer

A ship on a raised sandstone platform
The Nusret on display at Çanakkale Deniz Müzesi (museum) is a replica of the 1915 Turkish minelayer

What the Allied forces hadn't known was that sea mines had been laid across the straits, not parallel to the shore as was the usual practice at the time. Commander of the Nusret, Captain Hakki Bey, had laid the mines in Erenköy Bay, south of Kepez Point, on the night of 8 March 1915.

During the great naval attack of 18 March 1915, when the warships tried to turn in Erenköy Bay before heading back out to sea, at least three of ships hit the sea mines. Bouvet and Irresistible sank in the bay. Inflexible was badly damaged and struggled out of the straits. Ocean might have hit a mine too because it sank in the bay.

Hakki Bey and his crew were greatly honoured by the Turks. Historian John North concluded that the British 'oversight', which led to the Nusret's mines remaining undiscovered, 'changed the course of history'.

Australian troops in Egypt

The Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was raised to fight against German forces. But on the voyage to Britain in late 1914, the first AIF convoy was diverted to Egypt. It was fortuitous that the AIF was so close to the Dardanelles when British attention turned to the possibility of attacking Ottoman forces there.

Decision to land Allied troops

One of the first attractions of the Dardanelles operation was that it wouldn't need many troops. The soldiers would mainly take on a garrison role on the Gallipoli peninsula after the straits had been forced and the Turks cleared from the area.

The British War Council gradually came to the view that it needed to land troops on the peninsula to overcome the Turkish defences. Then mine-clearing operations could go ahead, letting the fleet force the straits and advance towards Constantinople.

At the time, only one regular British Army unit wasn't committed to the Western Front: the British 29th Division. One unit wasn't deemed enough to carry out the land operations against the Turks on Gallipoli. Churchill added the Royal Naval Division. The French committed one division. The Australian and New Zealand forces in Egypt were conveniently on hand to increase the available numbers.

Planned landings of Allied troops

The Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF), General Sir Ian Hamilton, decided to mount his main attack at the base of the Gallipoli peninsula. He would land most forces on five beaches around Cape Helles. A secondary landing of Australian and New Zealand troops further north would seize the Sari Bair Ridge. This was planned to cover the rest of the force as it moved to the eastern side of the peninsula, to cut off Turkish reinforcements. The Royal Naval Division would mount a diversionary attack. The French would land on the Asiatic coast to prevent heavy Turkish batteries from interfering with the British landings at Cape Helles.

Sir William Birdwood, General Officer Commanding Australian and New Zealand forces, had little time to prepare. The 3rd Australian Brigade had been on the island of Lemnos, off the coast of Gallipoli, since early March. It was joined on 12 April by the 1st and 2nd Australian Brigades. Together, the Australians carried out some practise landings at Lemnos. Time was short, however, and the operation, originally scheduled for 23 April, was postponed by poor weather until the 25th.

Map of the Gallipoli peninsula, 1915

This map of the peninsula shows both the Allied and Ottoman forces at the time of the Gallipoli Landing. The Anzac area is in the centre. An arrow shows the landing at Anzac Cove. At 6am 25 April, Anzac 'Z beach' landing against light opposition didn't consolidate early gains. 15,000 Anzacs were held in a small area above the beach by a Turkish 19th Ottoman Division counterattack. An arrow pointing north-west shows the movement of the Turkish 1st Ottoman Division in opposition. At 25 April 6:30am, Mustafa Kemal, commander of the Turkish 19th Ottoman Division, rushed the entire division to Sari Bair to contain the Anzacs. The Turkish 11th is shown in reserve to the south.


Last updated: 28 February 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Dardanelles strategy and naval operations 1914 to 1915, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 20 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/where-australians-served/gallipoli/dardanelles-strategy
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