19 FEBRUARY, 1915: Hell’s Gateway

A hundred years ago today, the first shots were fired in what became known as the Gallipoli campaign, one of the First World War’s most notorious cock-ups or, if you look at it from the other side, the defensive victory that saved Ottoman Turkey (at least for the time being) and made the name of Kemal Ataturk, one of post-War Europe’s most important political leaders.

The land campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula holds a guaranteed place in the small pantheon of war stories from beyond the Western Front considered important by the British heritage industry, albeit largely because British command failures and genuinely shocking fighting conditions support the reassuring and popular ‘lions led by donkeys’ view of the conflict. The same view is broadly accepted by the Australian commemorative industry, though in the context of Gallipoli’s totemic role in bringing national identity to the squabbling, competing states that made up Australia in 1914.

So the soldiers’ war in Gallipoli will be remembered in detail, and I’ll have no more than occasional sidelights to add, but ground fighting on the front didn’t get underway until April 1915. The shots fired on 19 February were the start a purely naval campaign, an Anglo-French attempt to force a passage through the heavily defended Dardanelles Straits and take Constantinople by sea. Land forces would be dragged into the fray in the wake of its initial failures.

The naval attack was intended to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the War, enable direct collaboration with Russian forces in the Black Sea and persuade all sorts of minor European nations to join the Allied side. Given that the Western Front already bore the mark of a hugely expensive stalemate, this seemed a tempting option to some strategists, particularly the all-action minister in charge of the British Royal Navy, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. A simple map, borrowed and removable on request, illustrates the temptation nicely.

overview

A purely naval attack on the Dardanelles had been deemed impossible by a British study in 1907, on the grounds that ships’ guns would be unable to subdue strong Turkish shore defences. Even if warships were able to ‘force’ a passage through the straits, enemy control of fortresses on the shoreline would force them to return. This was still true in 1915, but Churchill, one of the most strident voices for diversity of the British war effort away from the Western Front, was having none of it.

Never short on eloquence, energy or enthusiasm, Churchill ordered Admiral Carden – commanding the fleet of largely obsolete warships patrolling off the straits since August 1914’s Goeben fiasco – to carry out a raid against forts at the entrance to the Straits in November. Lucky British shooting caused considerable damage, alerted Turkish commanders to the danger of attack and told Churchill what he wanted to hear. In early January, the First Lord asked Carden for advice on the best way to force the straits with ships alone, and then mis-sold the admiral’s cautious reply to the British cabinet as a positive response. By the end of the month, despite the fact that no qualified authority had actually suggested it would work, Carden’s preferred option had become an authorised plan of action.

Most British naval strategists, led by fiery First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher, regarded success as impossible without the support of ground forces to control the coast, but political optimism outweighed their mounting opposition and Churchill was able to assemble a powerful fleet for the task. When Carden’s operation began on 19 February he commanded one modern battleship, three battlecruisers, twelve pre-Dreadnought battleships and four cruisers, along with the seaplane carrier Ark Royal and a full supporting cast of destroyers, minesweepers (trawlers with civilian crews) and submarines. Carden was also supported by a French Navy force based on four more pre-Dreadnoughts, because although sceptical about the operation’s chances, the French government wasn’t about to be left out of anything that might affect its economic ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean.

Carden’s plan was hardly daring. He intended to force the straits in three stages, moving slowly and deliberately to maximise the damage to Turkish morale. Stage one involved destroying the outer forts with long, steady bombardments, beginning with an attack by heavy guns beyond the range of defensive fire; stage two concentrated on coastal batteries and minefields; and the third wave would destroy Turkish forts further inside the straits. By the end of the first day, the plan was looking unlikely to succeed.

Turkish defences had been strengthened since the heads-up of November. Minefields had been extended, an additional 24 German mobile howitzers had arrived and the siting arrangements for defensive artillery had been improved… but these had nothing to do with the ineffectual performance of Carden’s forces on 19 February. British aircraft performed poorly as artillery spotters, their reports were often ignored anyway, and observation problems contributed to lousy shooting that left most Turkish positions undamaged.

Bad weather prevented further efforts until 25 February, when Carden moved his ships closer to the targets and the outer forts were silenced – but after this small success the plan fell apart completely, as minesweeping was rendered impossible by shore batteries that could not be attacked until the mines were swept. The big guns of the modern battleship Queen Elizabeth did cause serious damage to the shore batteries when deployed on 5 March, but this was missed by British reconnaissance and the ship was withdrawn when it came under retaliatory fire from a mobile battery.

Churchill had always claimed that the operation could be called off and redefined as a raid if it went badly, but instead the stakes were raised, as the British and French governments responded to stalemate by sending ground forces to support their navies. Some 18,000 French colonial troops sailed for the Dardanelles on 10 March, and two days later General Hamilton took command of 75,000 British and Imperial troops ordered to the front.

As the invasion force gathered off the Gallipoli peninsula, and intelligence reported desperate Turkish ammunition shortages, Churchill remained convinced that victory was just a push away and ordered Carden to make a last dash for Constantinople. Carden suffered a nervous breakdown after ordering the attack on 17 March, and it began the following day under the command of his deputy, Admiral de Robeck. An unmitigated disaster, and a story for another day, it marked the end of the Gallipoli campaign’s opening phase, the point at which an audacious but ineptly planned adventure became a ghastly strategic error, and a living Hell for those sent to carry it out.

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