On 6 January 1915 Winston Churchill sent a telegraph to the commander of the Mediterranean fleet, Vice-Admiral Sackville-Carden asking how many ships he needed to break through the Dardanelles and how he would go about it? In his response five days later Carden suggested a force of 12 battleships, three battle-cruisers, three light cruisers, 16 destroyers, six submarines, four seaplanes and 12 minesweepers. In addition, he required a dozen support vessels. Surely but subtly, responsibility for the operation that could never succeed was passed to Carden.

Dardanelles Gun

What he proposed was not so much a plan as the order in which the ships might attack the Dardanelles forts, [1] but from that moment on, Churchill presented Carden’s list as if it was a carefully considered strategic plan. The old Vice-Admiral imagined that battleships would first bombard the outer forts guarding the entrance to the Dardanelles from a long distance. Minesweepers would then clear a passage for the battleships to progressively bombard the defences as they advanced. Despite all the expert advice to the contrary, it would be oh so simple. The only thing he did get right was that the attack could be hindered by mediterranean gales which were frequent at that time of the year. Kept in ignorance, Carden believed that naval gunnery could do the job. He had never been given sight of the vast amount of credible naval intelligence and opinion which agreed that the only way to put the the Dardanelles forts out of action was the landing of troops in considerable numbers.

At a meeting of the War Council on 13 January, Churchill unveiled the Carden ‘plan’. There was little discussion. Crucially important issues were ignored. Kitchener, who was still refusing to allocate troops for a joint attack, thought it ‘worth trying’ and there were no dissenting voices. [2] Senior military and naval figures were never asked for their opinions nor did they volunteer their views. Most disagreed with Churchill and Kitchener but ‘loyally’ put obedience to Service etiquette first.[3] Their expertise was rendered irrelevant. Sir Edward Grey saw ‘great political prospects.’ Arthur Balfour said it was difficult to imagine ‘a more useful operation.’ [4] Which ‘expert’ would risk his career questioning the Secret Elite?

war office whitehall

Churchill pushed ahead, but in an astonishing minute to Asquith, Grey and Kitchener on 14 January he stated that unless ‘adequate military force is forthcoming to storm and hold the forts after the bombardment, there are no means of producing good results.’ This was a crucial admission. Churchill knew that the Dardanelles’ forts could not be put out of action without adequate military assistance. The political threat from Russia had become so immediate that he was prepared to sanction an attack and ignore the critical issue that it could not succeed. [5] Even if one or two battleships made it through to the Sea of Marmara, their impact would be seriously limited without back-up and supplies Their only course of action would be to run the gauntlet back through the minefields and remaining defences to the Aegean Sea.

Expert opinion at the Admiralty was virtually unanimous. Admiral Sir Henry Jackson advised Churchill that the first stage of Carden’s plan might succeed in destroying the outer forts but warned that the Turks had at least 200 Krupp guns of 6-inch and above and that all of them had to be silenced. These great guns were mobile, well concealed and protected from direct naval gunfire. They could only be destroyed by troops on the ground. [6] Experts on the War Council told Churchill that warships were much less accurate than shore-based batteries, but ‘he so bewitched them they were reduced to supine or servile acquiescence in a scheme which they knew was based upon a series of monstrous technical fallacies’.[7] It was not Turkish military competence that worried the Admirals, but the sanity of what they were being asked to achieve. [8] Knowing it would fail, the Secret Elite-dominated War Council approved Carden’s ‘plan’. He was ordered to prepare for an expedition in February ‘to bombard and take the Gallipoli Peninsula with Constantinople as its objective.’ It was absurd.

Gallipoli map with forts

These plans were set without Russia’s knowledge. How would she respond? Control of the Dardanelles had long been a political minefield. The Foreign Office anticipated that the Russians might suspect British duplicity. On 16 January, Sir Edward Grey warned, ’we must say something to Russia, not necessarily in detail, or she will think we are stealing a march to forestall her ambitions at Constantinople. The peg to hang our communication on would be the Grand Duke’s appeal to us some days ago to make a diversion to prevent Turkish pressure in the Caucasus.’ [9] In other words the Foreign Office planned to use the Grand Duke’s so-called ‘appeal’, the suggestion made to him by Hanbury-Williams, to justify their actions. The sense of it all was that ‘we are doing this for you’, but they were not. The Secret Elite were indeed, as Grey spelled out, doing it to forestall Russia’s ambitions at Constantinople. Churchill wrote to the Grand Duke on 19 January saying that in response to his ‘request’, Britain would make a serious effort to break down Turkish opposition. [10] Churchill generously suggested that Russian naval and military involvement would be valuable, knowing full well that they had no resources to spare. The Grand Duke welcomed the British operation, but confirmed that neither Russian naval nor military support was available. [11] The Secret Elite’s real plan was unwittingly given the stamp of Imperial approval by the Russian Commander-in-Chief.

Sazonov was not so gullible. The Russian Foreign Minister later recalled that when the British Ambassador informed him of the proposed expedition, ‘I had difficulty in concealing how painfully the news had affected me. I intensely disliked the thought that the Straits and Constantinople might be taken by our Allies and not by Russian forces.’ [12] It indicated the extent of Sazonov’s justified mistrust. Would they meet Russian expectations if no Russian troops were present? [13] Sazonov immediately asked the Russian commanders at Stavka if they could take part in the occupation of the Straits. Anticipating a negative answer he asked ‘if it might not be better to request our Allies, in view of the change in our favour in the Causcasian situation, to delay the intended actions against the Dardanelles.’ He smelled a rat, but was reassured by Quartermaster-General Danilov that capture of the Straits by the Allied navy was almost impossible. [14]

Admiral Lord Fisher, First Sea Lord of the Admiralty

In London, First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher noted: ‘apparently the Grand Duke Nicholas has demanded this step, or I suppose he would make peace with Germany.’ Fisher added, ‘I just abominate the Dardanelles operation unless a great change is made and it is settled to be a military operation, with 200,000 men in conjunction with the Fleet.’ Fisher wanted joint operations or no operation at all. [15] On 25 January he asked Churchill to circulate his views to members of the War Council but neither the Prime Minister nor any of the others had asked for his opinion or objections. [16] His views were ignored as were those of Victor Augagneur, former Minister for the French Navy. At a meeting in London on 26 January he informed Churchill that French Naval Intelligence believed that a purely maritime operation was unlikely to achieve anything. French Intelligence officers insisted that the way must first be cleared by military operations. Augagneur, like Fisher, was wasting his breath. Although they lost ships and men in the campaign, all decisions on the Dardanelles-Gallipoli attack were taken without a French voice in strategy and tactics. They were merely kept informed [17]

At the War Council meeting on 28 January, Fisher bluntly stated his objections and rose from the table intending to resign. Kitchener followed and talked him into returning. Churchill later took Fisher to his office for private talks and in the end he consented to take part. We shall never know what was said to Fisher to make him reconsider, but Churchill could later claim that everyone at the Admiralty was now in agreement with the plan. [18] That was untrue.

The attack on the Dardanelles was not undertaken for military gain but for political expediency. It was conceived in haste to ensure Russia’s continued commitment to the war, but crafted to protect long-term British Imperial ambitions in the Middle and Near East. Seen purely as a military objective the Dardanelles expedition was stunningly ill-advised and bound to fail. As a political gesture to keep Russia in the war it was deceptively brilliant.

[1] Robin Prior, Gallipoli, The End of The Myth, p. 18.
[2] Alan Moorehead, Gallipoli, p. 40.
[3] J Laffin, The Agony of Gallipoli, p. 15.
[4] Moorhead, Gallipoli, p. 41.
[5] Graham T Clews, Churchill’s Dilemma, p. 117.
[6] Ibid., pp. 118-9.
[7] Moorehead, Gallipoli, p. 46.
[8] Peter Hart, Gallipoli, p. 23.
[9] Clews, Churchill’s Dilemma, pp. 119-20.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] WW Gottlieb, Studies in Secret Diplomacy, pp. 88-89.
[13] Ronald P Bobroff, Roads to Glory, Late Imperial Russia and the Straits, p. 126.
[14] Gottlieb, Studies, p. 90.
[15] Clews, Churchill’s Dilemma, pp. 124-26.
[16] Laffin, The Agony of Gallipoli, p. 22.
[17] Ibid., p. 24.
[18] Moorehead, Gallipoli, pp 48-50.