Island of Lemnos base for the attack on the Dardanelles

Despite overwhelming expert opinion that a naval attack on the Dardanelles must fail, the Secret Elite-dominated War Council met on 28 January 1915 and decided to proceed with their plan. Warships and support vessels from across the world were ordered to head for Lemnos in the Aegean Sea. The Greek island had a large natural harbour at Mudros Bay, which lay just three hours by sea from the entrance to the Dardanelles. Apart from one modern, oil-fired dreadnought, Queen Elizabeth, the battleships were slow and outdated; indeed they had been deemed unfit for battle in the North Sea. [1] Admiral Fisher’s grave concern was that the Grand Fleet remained at full strength, but Churchill was at great pains to show that he could find sufficient ships to take on the Dardanelles without weakening the North Sea defences. [2] No troops were to take part, but Vice-Admiral Oliver, Chief of the Naval Staff, advised Churchill to send two battalions from the Royal Naval Division. They comprised some 2,000 men culled from ships and shore establishments, essentially sailors turned infantry. Oliver commented, ‘they are pretty rotten, but ought to be good enough for the inferior Turkish troops now at Gallipoli.’ [3] Unlike the tens of thousands of men who died facing those ‘inferior’ troops, Vice-Admiral Oliver passed away peacefully in his bed at the age of 100.

Still bristling that his advice had been ignored, Admiral Fisher wrote to Churchill on 29 January, ‘It will be the wonder of the ages that no troops were sent to cooperate with the Fleet with half a million … soldiers in England.’ [4] Fisher lost his fight with the War Council, and the Carden ‘plan’, impossible and implausible that was, was officially endorsed. A major campaign whose success depended on months of detailed joint military and naval planning, careful preparation and, above all, sufficient troops on the ground, went ahead without any of these prerequisites. The fleet ‘was to attempt, without the aid of a single soldier, an enterprise which in the early days of the war both the Admiralty and the War Office had regarded as a military task.’ [5] Admiral Lord Nelson’s sage advice that no ship should ever attack a fort, advice supported by almost every admiral in the fleet, was studiously ignored. [6] Such a headstrong attitude in the face of repeated warnings and accepted practice surely indicated that this was not normal procedure. Every aspect of the naval assault beggars far deeper research, but most historians have simply accepted that the War Council followed Churchill’s lead. He didn’t carry sufficient influence on his own, but encouraged by Grey and the Foreign Office, Churchill championed the Secret Elite agenda and was allowed to proceed.

Minefields, which had been carefully laid in multiple rows across the Straits, constituted their principle defence. The main role of the guns and fortifications was to protect them. One hundred and eleven guns were stationed on the European side of the Straits and one hundred and twenty-one on the Asiatic side. [7] Twenty-four heavy mobile howitzers had also been brought in to support the Turkish artillery, and dummy placements which emitted smoke were constructed to draw the warships’ fire. [8] Additionally, shore based torpedo tubes had been installed at various locations along the Dardanelles. By February 1915 the defences were so formidable that Maurice Hankey reported, ‘From Lord Fisher downwards every naval officer in the Admiralty who is in [on] the secret believes that the Navy cannot take the Dardanelles without troops.’ [9] But no-one with real power chose to listen.

Captain Wyndham Deedes

Antagonism amongst senior naval officers grew steadily, and an impromptu meeting of the War Council was held on 16 February. Just before the meeting, Kitchener called one of his intelligence officers, Captain Wyndham Deedes, to his office. Deedes, who had been attached to the Turkish Army for several years and had closely studied the Dardanelles defences, was asked for his opinion on a naval attack. His reply, that it was a fundamentally unsound proposition, angered Kitchener who dismissed the well-informed officer, telling him that he didn’t know what he was talking about. [10] Kitchener and the Secret Elite were faced with a difficult dilemma. They had agreed a plan to keep Russia in the war and out of Constantinople, but members of the armed forces who had no knowledge of the secret cabal or its scheming, began to prove difficult. Why were ships and their brave crews to be sacrificed in a naval operation which everyone knew was bound to fail?

At its 16 February meeting, the War Council attempted to stifle this criticism. Kitchener agreed that the 29th Division comprising 18,000 regular soldiers should be sent to Lemnos ‘within nine or ten days’. The Division was currently in England, earmarked for the western front. In addition 34,000 Anzac troops, who were awaiting transfer to France from Egypt, were placed on stand-by ‘in case of necessity.’ This sudden about turn did not mean that the addition of troops would convert the Carden ‘plan’ into a combined operation. It was a cosmetic compromise. It would appear as if the attack was intended as a joint offensive to deflect criticism, but nothing tangible had changed. The naval attack, which was scheduled to begin on 19 February, would not be postponed to await the arrival of troops, and ‘no thought had been given by the War Council as to what these troops were to do.’ [11] ‘Churchill and Kitchener were agreed that that the Fleet should go through the Narrows before the troops need be used.’ [12]

On 18 February the French Government, having agreed to provide 20,000 troops, urged Britain to suspend the naval operations until their arrival at the Dardanelles. London replied that ‘naval operations having begun cannot be interrupted.’ That was a lie. Not a shot had been fired, but French views did not appear to matter in the Gallipoli campaign. To confuse matters further, Kitchener announced a complete reversal in military deployment. The following day, the very day that the naval bombardment of the Dardanelles began, he withdrew permission to release the 29th Division, and ordered the dispersal of transport ships already in place to take them to Lemnos. His given reason was that, in view of Russian setbacks, these men were needed in France. But his decision was not absolute. He kept the door open by adding that the 29th might be sent to the Dardanelles at some unspecified future date ‘if required’. In Kitchener’s opinion the Australian and New Zealand Divisions already in Egypt would be ‘sufficient at first’ for any attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Later, when asked by Prime Minister Asquith if the Anzacs were ‘good enough’ for the task, Kitchener replied, ‘they were quite good enough if a cruise in the Sea of Marmora was all that was contemplated.’ [13] What was going on inside the War Minister’s head? On the one hand, the Australians and New Zealanders were considered quite ‘sufficient’ for an attack on Gallipoli, but with his next breath Kitchener was suggesting that they were fitted only for a cruise. What was his state of mind? Was he confused, deliberately devious or stark raving mad?

Phase 1 of Vice-Admiral Carden’s plan, the long range naval assault, began at 9.15 am on 19 February 1915 with a slow, long-range bombardment of the permanent forts and outer Dardanelles defences at Sedd-el-Bahr on the European side, and Kum Kale on the Asian. It continued all morning. In the afternoon Carden ordered his warships to close to within six thousand yards. The Turkish batteries failed to respond so several ships went even closer and bombarded the shore. With the light fading, and having drawn fire from only two of the smaller forts, Carden ordered the recall. It was evident that, to be effective, the Fleet would have to approach much closer to the shore and engage the Turkish guns individually. [14] Early signs of success from the long-range bombardment had proven deceptive, and the hope that heavy naval gunfire would devastate the targets on land, proved forlorn. [15] Strange. It was exactly as the experts had predicted. The weather broke that night and for five days rough seas, bitterly cold winds and sleet and snow, interrupted the attack.

Bombarding the Dardanelles

In London, after a War Council meeting on 24 February, Churchill telegraphed Carden to inform him that two Anzac Divisions, The Royal Naval Division and a French Division were being held ready to move within striking distance. ‘But it is not intended that they should be employed in present circumstance to assist the Naval operations which are independent and self-contained.’ In a further telegram that day, Churchill again warned Carden that that major military operations were not to be embarked upon. [16] Was Churchill as mad as Kitchener? No, they were both working to the Secret Elite agenda. The intention was still to dupe the Russians into believing that Gallipoli was a serious military campaign, designed for their benefit.

On 25 February, when the storm had blown itself out, Vice-Admiral de Robeck led the attack to the mouth of the Straits. The Ottoman gunners withdrew under the heavy barrage, and by the end of the day the outer forts had been successfully silenced. Over the following days, parties of marines roamed at will across the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula blowing up abandoned guns and destroying emplacements. The door to Constantinople lay open. Had 70,000 troops poured through unchallenged, Gallipoli might well have fallen. But that had never been the objective.

By the following week it was too late. On 4 March the landings foundered. Realising that this was not a major invasion, the defenders recovered their confidence and drove the marines off with heavy rifle fire. In total, the naval battalion suffered twenty-three killed, twenty five wounded and four missing. It was little more than a skirmish in terms of what followed, but the Turkish troops gained a considerable boost to their morale. No further landings were attempted until 25 April by which time the defences had been rebuilt and considerably strengthened.

[1] Robin Prior, Gallipoli, The End of The Myth. p. 23.
[2] Churchill letter 12 January 1915; pp. 326-7 World Crisis, 1911-1818.
[3] Martin Gilbert, Winston S Churchill, p. 279.
[4]  Prior, Gallipoli, pp. 28-29.
[5] G Aspinal-Oglander, Roger Keyes, p. 126.
[6] Dan Van der Vat, The Dardanelles Disaster, p. 88.
[7]  Prior, Gallipoli, p. 31.
[8] John Laffin, The Agony of Gallipoli, p. 26.
[9] Prior, Gallipoli, p. 30.
[10] Martin Gilbert, Churchill, pp. 287-8.
[11] Prior, Gallipoli, p. 31.
[12] Martin Gilbert, Churchill, p. 288.
[13] Ibid., pp. 296-302.
[14] Alan Moorehead, Gallipoli, p. 55.
[15] Nigel Steel and Peter Hart, Defeat at Gallipoli, p. 14.
[16]  Gilbert, Winston S Churchill, pp. 304-5.