Dardanelles Straits 1915: Success Has a Thousand Fathers

Dardanelles Straits 1915: Success Has a Thousand Fathers

Excerpt­ed from “The World Cri­sis (4)” on forc­ing the Dar­d­anelles Straits, writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle with more images and end­notes, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and enter your email in the box “Stay in touch with us.” We nev­er spam you and your iden­ti­ty remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Hillsdale Dialogues: The World Crisis

The Hills­dale Dia­logues are week­ly broad­casts of dis­cus­sions between Hills­dale Col­lege Pres­i­dent Lar­ry P. Arnn and com­men­ta­tor Hugh Hewitt. In 2023-24 they dis­cuss Churchill’s The World Cri­sis, his clas­sic mem­oir of the First World War. This essay address­es the ques­tion of who con­ceived and sup­port­ed the attack on the Dar­d­anelles. The answers still sur­prise some peo­ple. To search for all World Cri­sis essays pub­lished to date, click here. For the accom­pa­ny­ing audio dis­cus­sion, refer to World Cri­sis Dia­logue 16, Turkey and the War  —RML

Dar­d­anelles and Gal­lipoli (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Churchill and the Straits

Approach­ing the 80th Anniver­sary of D-Day, we may reflect on an ear­li­er seaborne expe­di­tion. The attempts to force the Dar­d­anelles, and the opposed land­ing on Gal­lipoli, were abject fail­ures. But many lessons were learned, not least by Win­ston Churchill.

The Allied attempt to force the Straits, and sub­se­quent­ly to land on Turkey’s Gal­lipoli Penin­su­la, was a tale of mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal fail­ure at the high­est lev­el. It offers time­less exam­ples of hypocrisy, skewed log­ic, wish­ful think­ing and dis­loy­al­ty. Win­ston Churchill observed that such prob­lems often assail coun­tries at war. Yet many his­tor­i­cal accounts fix most of the blame on him.

Asquith, Fisher and Kitchener

Over a cen­tu­ry lat­er, we may won­der why Prime Min­is­ter H.H. Asquith wasn’t pushed aside soon­er. Britain, then the super­pow­er among nations, was fight­ing for sur­vival. At cru­cial cab­i­net meet­ings, Asquith rarely opened his mouth. For almost two months he didn’t hold a war coun­cil. Pri­vate­ly he exchanged gos­sip with his lady friend Vene­tia Stan­ley. Most of what we know about his opin­ions at that time we know through their letters.

In cab­i­net, Asquith encour­aged Churchill; behind his back he doubt­ed and dis­par­aged him. Nor was Lloyd George above crit­i­ciz­ing the friend he had men­tored. One of Churchill’s civ­il com­mis­sion­ers, Sir Fran­cis Hop­wood, car­ried slan­der to the King’s pri­vate secretary.

Churchill’s First Sea Lord, Admi­ral Fish­er, mil­i­tary head of the navy, owed his promi­nence to Churchill. He threat­ened to resign every time he failed to get his way, and ulti­mate­ly did so, aban­don­ing his post.

Above all stood Lord Kitch­en­er, Min­is­ter of War, enthu­si­as­tic for action but unwill­ing for a time to com­mit troops when they were first asked for. Vain and unyield­ing, Kitch­en­er held a veto even over deci­sions of the Prime Min­is­ter. Yet all these peo­ple ini­tial­ly backed the Dar­d­anelles naval operation—without reservation.

Getting around the slaughter

It is wide­ly believed that Churchill pro­posed the Straits expe­di­tion to bypass the sta­t­ic slaugh­ter in Europe’s trench­es. While this is true in the abstract, the orig­i­nal plan was not his, nor was it hatched overnight.

Churchill and oth­ers first con­tem­plat­ed assault­ing Ger­many and Aus­tria-Hun­gary from the south. Churchill also pro­posed attack­ing Ger­many from the north, even as the Dar­d­anelles oper­a­tion was being approved by the War Cabinet.

By autumn 1914, Turkey seemed like­ly to join Cen­tral Pow­ers, mak­ing Greece a poten­tial British ally. Fore­see­ing this, Churchill offered the Roy­al Navy to sup­port a Greek offen­sive against the Turks. On 4 Sep­tem­ber he cabled Cap­tain Mark Kerr, on loan to the Greeks to com­mand their navy, autho­riz­ing him to raise this pos­si­bil­i­ty with the Athens government.

“The right and obvi­ous method of attack­ing Turkey,” Churchill wrote Kerr, “is to strike imme­di­ate­ly at the heart.” Churchill thought the Greeks could occu­py the Gal­lipoli Penin­su­la by land, while an Anglo-Greek fleet forced the Dar­d­anelles. This would link up with the Rus­sians via the Bospho­rus and Black Sea.

If the Greek plan didn’t work, Churchill offered an alter­na­tive: an inva­sion by Russ­ian troops of Euro­pean Turkey. Russ­ian casu­al­ties might be heavy, but such an enter­prise would mean “no more war with Turkey.” At this point he made no men­tion of British troops.

Hesitation and naïveté

No action was tak­en on Churchill’s ideas. Then, at the end of Sep­tem­ber, the Turks mined the Dar­d­anelles, cut­ting off the Rus­sians from their ice-free link to the Mediter­ranean. This focused fresh atten­tion on the strate­gic waterway.

“British mil­i­tary sup­plies could no longer reach Rus­sia except by the haz­ardous north­ern route to Archangel,” Mar­tin Gilbert wrote. “Russ­ian wheat, on which the Tsarist Exche­quer depend­ed for so much of its over­seas income—and arms purchases—could no longer be export­ed to its world markets.”

On Octo­ber 28th, Turkey for­mal­ly joined the Cen­tral Pow­ers. Two days lat­er, Turk­ish war­ships began shelling Russ­ian Black Sea ports. The British cab­i­net fret­ted over the effect on Rus­sia, and whether the Turks might also attack Egypt.

Asquith wrote to Vene­tia Stan­ley: “Few things would give me greater plea­sure than to see the Turk­ish Empire final­ly dis­ap­pear from Europe…. Con­stan­tino­ple [might] become Russ­ian (which I think is its prop­er des­tiny) or if that is impos­si­ble neu­tralised and become a free port.” These are cer­tain­ly exam­ples of vapid imaginings.

Admiral Carden eyes the Dardanelles

With the approval of First Sea Lord Fish­er, Churchill ordered the Mediter­ranean com­man­der Admi­ral Sackville Car­den, “with­out risk­ing any ships,” to bom­bard the forts at the Dar­d­anelles entrance, at a safe dis­tance from Turk­ish guns. Car­den was instruct­ed to retire “before fire from the forts becomes effec­tive. Ships’ guns should out­range old­er guns mount­ed in the forts.”

Car­den did so on Novem­ber 3rd, report­ing that the forts were vul­ner­a­ble to naval bom­bard­ment. No allied ships were dam­aged. One shell hit the mag­a­zine of a fort at Sedd-el-Bahr (Gal­lipoli side of the Straits) which blew up with the loss of almost all its artillery. It was nev­er repaired—nor did the Turks improve oth­er Dar­d­anelles defens­es. They remained short of guns, mines and ammunition.

Genesis of the naval attack

Click to enlarge: Turk­ish defens­es were exten­sive until “turn­ing the cor­ner” past Chanak (Canakkale). Unfor­tu­nate­ly for the Allies, the fleet nev­er got that far. (Map by Gsi, pub­lic domain)

The suc­cess­ful shelling of Novem­ber 3rd caused many to con­sid­er Turkey vul­ner­a­ble. “Like most oth­er peo­ple,” Churchill wrote, “I had held the opin­ion that the days of forc­ing the Dar­d­anelles were over.” Car­den had demon­strat­ed oth­er­wise. The Admi­ral­ty War Group concurred.

Results near­by con­firmed these views. In Decem­ber the Mediter­ranean port of Alexan­dret­ta (now Iskeren­derun) sur­ren­dered under the guns of a sin­gle British cruis­er, HMS Doris. The Turks actu­al­ly assist­ed in demol­ish­ing its defenses.

It seemed, Churchill tes­ti­fied, that “we were not deal­ing with a thor­ough­ly effi­cient mil­i­tary pow­er, and that it was quite pos­si­ble that we could get into par­ley with them.” Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly, Churchill was look­ing for a chance to talk.

“By ships alone”

On 3 Jan­u­ary 1915 Churchill, with Fisher’s approval, asked Car­den if he thought the Dar­d­anelles Straits could be forced “by the use of ships alone.” Churchill con­ceived of using a fleet of old­er British war­ships, super­flu­ous to the Grand Fleet in home waters.

WSC added: “Impor­tance of results would jus­ti­fy severe loss.” (Empha­sis added.)

Car­den replied that while he did not think the Straits could be “rushed,” they might be “forced by extend­ed oper­a­tions with a large num­ber of ships.”

Crit­ics lat­er said Car­den was “a sec­ond-rate offi­cer who found him­self unex­pect­ed­ly in a sea com­mand instead of in charge of Mal­ta dock­yard.” But Car­den was the on-scene com­man­der. One only wish­es Churchill was blessed with such clear con­tem­po­rary vision as his hind­sight critics.

Churchill telegraphed again to Car­den: “Your view is agreed with by high author­i­ties here. Please tele­graph in detail what you think could be done by extend­ed oper­a­tions, what force would be need­ed, and how you con­sid­er it should be used.”

First Lord of the Admi­ral­ty Win­ston Churchill with Admi­ral Jack­ie Fish­er, who served as his First Sea Lord in 1914-15. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

The enthusiastic Admiral Fisher

It is impor­tant to note that Churchill’s top Admi­ral­ty com­man­der was then still strong­ly behind the enter­prise. Fish­er even pro­posed to sup­ple­ment Churchill’s old­er naval ves­sels with the new bat­tle­ship HMS Queen Eliz­a­beth. For practice!

The navy’s lat­est dread­nought, Queen Eliz­a­beth was the first to mount 15-inch guns. She was about to leave for the Mediter­ranean for test fir­ings. Why not, Fish­er sug­gest­ed, “use her prac­tice shots on the Dar­d­anelles etc. and the pos­si­bil­i­ties flow­ing from it.”

Car­den said he would need twelve bat­tle­ships, three bat­tle­cruis­ers, three light cruis­ers, a flotil­la leader, six­teen destroy­ers, six sub­marines, eight sea­planes, twelve minesweep­ers and twen­ty oth­er craft. Except­ing Queen Eliz­a­beth, all could be old­er, sur­plus ves­sels. All were still fit to fight because Churchill had devot­ed some of his pre­war bud­get to main­tain­ing them.

Car­den pro­posed to start by bom­bard­ing the Turk­ish forts from a safe dis­tance. Then, pre­ced­ed by minesweep­ers, he would sail into the Straits, demol­ish­ing shore bat­ter­ies as he found them. He pro­posed a feint at Gal­lipoli (Churchill had sug­gest­ed this in November)—a bom­bard­ment but no landings.

Emerg­ing into the Mar­mara, Car­den would keep the Straits open by patrols in his wake. Weath­er and morale of the ene­my were vari­ables, he added, but he “might do it all in a month about.”

Almost total euphoria

The British War Coun­cil met on 13 Jan­u­ary 1915. Every mem­ber was enthu­si­as­tic, Mau­rice Han­key wrote. They “turned eager­ly from the drea­ry vista of a ‘slog­ging match’ on the West­ern Front…. The Navy, in whom every­one had implic­it con­fi­dence, and whose oppor­tu­ni­ties so far had been few and far between, was to come into the front line.”

Asquith him­self drew up the fate­ful minute. The War Coun­cil agreed to a man. Nobody seemed to notice one curi­ous addi­tion. The Admi­ral­ty, Asquith wrote, should “pre­pare for a naval expe­di­tion in Feb­ru­ary to bom­bard and take the Gal­lipoli Penin­su­la with Con­stan­tino­ple as its objective.”

Unanswered questions

How do you “take” a penin­su­la with­out troops? Did Asquith mean for sailors to land and march on Con­stan­tino­ple? In the gen­er­al ardor, no one asked. All eyes were on sail­ing through the Straits. A fleet this size, appear­ing off Con­stan­tino­ple, would sure­ly cow the Turks into surrender.

Churchill alone held out for an alter­nate: attack­ing the north Ger­man coast. Kitch­en­er said there were no troops for that. (He was always short of troops, except to be slaugh­tered in Flan­ders.) Of the strict­ly naval enter­prise he was ful­ly sup­port­ive. Fish­er did not demur.

The War Coun­cil waxed euphor­ic about the pos­si­bil­i­ties. Next, what about a naval attack up the Danube, land­ing at Saloni­ka, and send­ing a fleet up the Adri­at­ic? Colo­nial Sec­re­tary Lewis Har­court wrote a paper enti­tled “The Spoils.” He envi­sioned the end of the Ottoman Empire and expan­sion of the British Empire as far as Palestine.

None of these naive­ly opti­mistic visions were voiced by Win­ston Churchill.

Next: the Gal­lipoli landings.

More on the Dardanelles

“Dar­d­anelles-Gal­lipoli Cen­te­nary,” 2015.

“Dar­d­anelles Then, Afghanistan Now: Apples and Oranges,” 2009.

“Churchill’s Potent Polit­i­cal Nick­names: Admi­ral De Row-Back to Wuther­ing Height,” 2020.

One thought on “Dardanelles Straits 1915: Success Has a Thousand Fathers

  1. The Dar­d­anelles remain to his­to­ry as [one of] Churchill’s biggest faux pas. This arti­cle presents the “fog of war” and the role that weak and strong, para­noid and coura­geous, jeal­ous and con­fi­dent polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary lead­ers con­tribute to the “fog”.

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