Grimsby trawler requisitioned as a minesweeperThe Dardanelles were heavily defended. The Turks had placed 370 mines across the Straits in ten lines and an eleventh line of 26 mines parallel to the shore, a mile or so off the coast at Eren Keui Bay. Rather than providing powerful Royal Navy minesweepers as Admiral Carden had requested, the Admiralty had supplied unarmed fishing trawlers manned by volunteers and commanded by a naval officer with no experience of minesweeping. [1] The trawlers, with their sweeps down, could barely make 3 knots against the strong 5-6 knot current which ran through the Dardanelles. They faced serious problems, especially at night, when picked out by powerful searchlights and exposed to gunfire from mobile howitzers and field guns. It was a vicious circle. The make-shift minesweepers could not do their job until the guns had been silenced, and the battleships could not get near enough to silence the guns until the mines were cleared. [2] The bombardments of 19-25 February had achieved little. Indeed, they ‘destroyed all hope of surprise, and were directly responsible for strengthening the enemy’s defences and increasing his power to resist a military landing.’ [3]

Meantime, on the political front, the pressure from Russia was raised another notch. Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey warned that they were asking for control of the Straits and wanted an immediate answer. Richard Haldane, former War Secretary and member of the War Council, stated that unless Britain made an explicit offer, Germany would seize the opportunity to conclude a peace with Russia. [4] Russian Foreign Secretary Sazonov had already said that the time for moderation had passed. Czar Nicholas agreed, informing the French ambassador that his people were making terrible sacrifices without reward and consequently they would only be satisfied once Constantinople became part of his empire. [6] Sazonov piled more pressure on the Allies by threatening to resign. He made it clear that he would immediately be replaced by Count Sergei Witte, a pro-German sympathiser who would likely seal a treaty with Germany. [7] The Russians continued to turn the screw, and the absolutely crucial  need to stop them from wavering dictated the War Council’s decisions. [5] The Czar’s advisors knew that a naval assault would fail. Kitchener’s hand was forced. Something more had to be done to convince Russia that Britain was serious.

King George V inspecting 29th Division at Dunchurch March 1915

Responding to the pressure, on 10 March Kitchener decided that he would indeed send the 29th Division to Gallipoli. It would join the Anzac Corps of 34,100 men currently sitting in Egypt, and a French Division of 20,000. He had changed his mind yet again. The Anzacs were not to do it on their own. After three weeks of this ‘shilly-shallying’ the Division was finally allowed to sail for Gallipoli, [8] but the delay had momentous consequences. Churchill would later write, ‘Without 29th Division, the army could do nothing. They were the professionals who mattered, the sole regular division whose movements and arrival governed everything.’ [9] Yes indeed, the opportunity had gone, but if one person was to be blamed for not pushing for a joint attack, it was himself. An official Ottoman account related that up to 25 February ‘it would have been possible to effect a landing at any point on the Peninsula and the capture of the Straits would have been comparatively easy’. [10] But the opportunity had been completely blown by the Naval bombardment of the forts when they attacked the Dardanelles without sufficient men on the ground to take and hold them. The naval attack had been counter productive. It only served to warn the Turks that an invasion was coming, giving them ample time to strengthen their defences.

General BirdwoodThe War Council intervened. General Birdwood had been sent out on 23 February ‘to assess the situation’. His response was no different from that of the senior naval officers. The navy could not successfully force the Dardanelles. Large numbers of men were required. It had to be a combined operation. [11] Birdwood’s advice, like that of everyone else who proffered the same opinion, was ignored. No-one in authority was prepared to publicly admit that the naval bombardment was hopeless. Poor Carden continued to do his best, but that could never be good enough. On 11 March a further naval incursion came under heavy fire and the minesweepers turned tail and fled. It was a ridiculous state of affairs. You could no more expect fishermen to successfully man minesweepers than you could expect naval ratings to land a catch on the North Sea.

That same day Kitchener informed the War Office that he was sending General Sir Ian Hamilton to prepare a Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. Within twenty-four hours of his totally unexpected promotion and without requisite briefing or planning, Hamilton found himself speeding across France to Marseilles on a special train, then by the fast cruiser, Phaeton, to the eastern Mediterranean. He arrived at the island of Tenedos on 17 March to find Vice-Admiral Carden collapsed with exhaustion and anxiety. It was no surprise. In fairness to Carden, he was never fitted for the post which should have been given to the exceptionally competent, Admiral Limpus, head of the former Naval Mission to Turkey. No man knew more about the Dardanelles and its minefield defences. [12] Eliminating them was key to safe passage through the Straits. Whatever his faults, Carden knew this and felt completely undermined by the Admiralty’s refusal to provide custom-built minesweepers. Fishing trawlers were not up to the task. Overall they made 17 attempts to sweep the mines, but only reached the main minefield twice. Out of a total of almost 400 mines, two were cleared. [13] Words cannot capture the enormity of that failure, but the volunteer fishermen were not to blame.

Map showing naval attack on Dardanelles 18 March 1915.

On his arrival General Hamilton was surprised to find the Gallipoli shore-line so well defended, but his initial shock was as nothing compared to what he witnessed the following day. On 18 March the serious business of invading the Dardanelles began. With fine clear skies and a calm sea, the main attacking force of battleships and battle-cruisers entered the Dardanelles in three divisions arranged four abreast. Cruisers, destroyers and the trawlers, which were now crewed by the Royal Navy, followed on. The front division, line ‘A’, comprised four British battleships, including the dreadnought Queen Elizabeth, with two others flanking the line. One mile astern came line ‘B’ with four French battleships. Bringing up the rear in line ‘C’ , another four British battleships. Again, the second and third lines were flanked by additional warships. [14] They went in with all guns blazing. It was a tremendous spectacle of naval might.

The plan of action was to knock out the forts at the Narrows and the batteries protecting the minefields. Minesweepers would follow that night to clear a channel. Next morning at first light, the Fleet was to destroy any remaining forts at close range while the last of the mines were swept. All being well, the Fleet was scheduled to reach the Sea of Marmara within two days. [15] It all sounded so straightforward but, as Robert Burns so rightly said, ‘the best laid plans o’ mice and men gang aft agley.’ [16] De Robek was aware of the problems faced by the trawlers, and the fact that the minefields remained intact. Yet he didn’t use his full force to protect the fleet. Eight powerful destroyers which could have easily been fitted with sweeps remained idle that fateful day while the officers sat on board playing cards. [17]

Bouvet, last moments with over 600 trapped inside

The battle began at 11.30 am and grew in intensity as one line of ships after another steamed in and opened fire on the forts. An hour later, about six miles inside the Straits, many of the shore batteries maintained their barrage. The French battleship Gaulois was holed below the waterline and had to be beached. HMS Inflexible was forced to retire to extinguish fires and repair damage. Lord Nelson, Agamemnon, Charlemagne and Albion were hit, but carried on firing. The French battleship Bouvet struck a mine, heeled over and vanished with most of her crew. A second mine crippled Inflexible and she began listing. Irrestible and Suffren were badly damaged. Ocean suffered an internal explosion and sank several hours later. The trawlers were urged on to sweep ahead, but ran into a rain of howitzer shells and even though they were manned by sailors, they fled in disorder. Three battleships had been sunk with the loss of over 700 men, and three crippled. It was a rout. The fleet had not even reached the Narrows when the attack was called off. On the Turkish side, two 14-inch guns and several smaller ones had been put out of action, but none of those guarding the minefield was damaged. The minefield itself was untouched. [18] It was, as so many had predicted, a disaster.

Throughout the campaign, warships never again ventured into the Straits. The major task for the navy would henceforth be to ferry soldiers to the beaches. Maurice Hankey told General Haig that the operation had been run ‘like an American cinema show’ in that every step had been widely advertised long before it was carried out. [19] Of course it was. And it was so blatant that we have to believe this was their intention; to completely remove any possibility of surprise. Why would any military strategist do that, unless … well unless they did not want to succeed.

The Naval operation had been set up to fail and it had. In five short weeks it would be the army’s turn.

[1] John Laffin, The Agony of Gallipoli, p. 27.
[2] Alan Moorehead, Gallipoli, pp. 56-57.
[3] Laffin, The Agony, p. 3.
[4] Martin Gilbert, Winston S Churchill, vol. III, p. 321.
[5] Harvey Broadbent, The Fatal Shore, p. 28.
[6] Ronald P Bobroff, Roads to Glory, Late Imperial Russia and the Straits, pp. 126-131.
[7] Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of The First World War, pp. 130-131.
[8] Arthur J Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, vol II, pp. 235-6.
[9] Winston S Churchill, The World Crisis, 1915, p. 214.
[10] Stephen Roskill, Hankey, vol I, p. 156.
[11] Nigel Steel and Peter Hart, Defeat at Gallipoli, pp. 16-17.
[12] Moorehead, Gallipoli, p. 60.
[13] Prior, Gallipoli, p. 53.
[14] L A Carlyon, Gallipoli, p. 50.
[15] C Aspinal-Oglander, Roger Keyes, p. 136.
[16] Robert Burns, To A Mouse.
[17] Travers, Gallipoli, p. 29.
[18] Arthur J Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, vol II, p. 247.
[19] Ibid., p. 248.