The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 163rd installment in the series.
January 13, 1915: British Plan Naval Attack on Dardanelles
Having first decided on its feasibility in November 1914, in January 1915 the British government began planning the ill-fated attack on the southern Turkish straits, known as the Dardanelles, which would eventually snowball into the Gallipoli campaign, one of the bloodiest engagements of the Great War. However the operation began as something very different – a naval attempt to “force” the Turkish straits by sending a powerful armada past Turkish forts and mine fields in the hopes of capturing Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire.
As the war settled into stalemate on the Western Front, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill and other strategists were increasingly drawn to the idea of using sea power, Britain’s traditional area of strength, to produce a decisive strategic result in some other theater, specifically the Mediterranean or the Baltic, thus threatening the Central Powers’ flanks. Churchill summed up their thinking in a letter to Prime Minister Asquith on December 29:
Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders? Further, cannot the power of the Navy be brought more directly to bear upon the enemy? If it is impossible or unduly costly to pierce the German lines on existing fronts, ought we not, as new forces come to hand, to engage him on new frontiers, and enable the Russians to do so too?
Although Churchill originally favored a move in the Baltic, in the end the Dardanelles plan won out for a number of reasons. Not only would an amphibious attack on the straits help burnish the Royal Navy’s reputation following a number of embarrassing defeats; it held out the possibility of changing the balance of forces – and maybe even ending the war – by knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the conflict. Reopening the Turkish straits would also allow the Western Allies to deliver much-need supplies to Russia, including ammunition. Furthermore it would force the Turks to withdraw forces from other theaters to defend their capital, thereby reducing threats to the Suez Canal in Egypt and British oil supplies in Persia, as well as the southern Russian Caucasus region. And it would encourage neutrals like Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Italy to join the Allies.
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But one of the most important (and under-recognized) reasons was Russia’s long-term goal of taking control of Constantinople and the Turkish straits, thus liberating the historical seat of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and securing Russian maritime trade routes to the rest of the world via the Black Sea. Indeed, as historian Sean McMeekin pointed out in his revisionist work, The Russian Origins of the First World War, Russian planning for an amphibious attack on Constantinople was already well advanced by the first half of 1914; even before the outbreak of war, with the Armenian reforms undermining Ottoman control in the east the Russians clearly anticipated the breakup of the decaying empire in the near future, giving them an opportunity to make a lunge for the ancient Byzantine metropolis they called “Tsargrad,” or “The Tsar’s City.”
After war broke out, setbacks on the Eastern Front forced the Russians to put this plan on hold, but they still nursed a burning ambition to conquer Constantinople, which the British and French accepted as a legitimate war aim, promising to help Russia fulfill the age-old quest. Of course the Western Allies also expected to get “compensation,” in the form of their own slices of Turkish territory.
On November 2, 1914, the same day Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire, the British officially abandoned their traditional policy of upholding Turkish territorial integrity, clearing the way for Russia to annex Constantinople; three days later Britain formally annexed the island of Cyprus, until then technically still part of the Ottoman Empire. Then on November 14, the same day the Ottoman Sultan declared a spurious “Holy War” against the infidels (except German and Austria-Hungary), the British Ambassador George Buchanan told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, “The Government of his Britannic Majesty… recognize that the question of the Straits and Constantinople must be solved in the manner Russia desires” – provided that Russia had no objections to Britain formally annexing Egypt, also until then technically an Ottoman province. Of course the Russians did not, and Britain formally declared Egypt a British protectorate on December 18. Meanwhile on November 21 Sazonov met with the French ambassador, Maurice Paléologue (who coincidentally claimed descent from a Byzantine noble family) to iron out the details for Russian control of the straits.
However the exact form the Allied campaign would take remained undecided. After British War Council Secretary Maurice Hankey circulated the first proposal for an attack on the Turkish straits on December 28, 1914, participants weighed various options, including a “demonstration” intended simply to distract the Turks, a bold “rush” by the fleet racing past the forts, and a combined land and sea operation. Churchill advocated the last option at a meeting on January 2, 1915, but Secretary of War Lord Kitchener dismissed the idea, saying no troops could currently be spared from the Western Front. So Churchill asked the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean commander, the memorably named Vice-Admiral Sackville Carden, to explore possibilities for a naval-only attack.
Carden’s plan, presented and approved at a follow-up meeting of the War Council on January 13, 1915, called for a slow, careful advance by a powerful armada of twelve battleships supported by minesweepers, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. But even with overwhelming force this was a risky plan, presenting many chances for failure in the face of interlocking Turkish defenses: the battleships were vulnerable to mines, the minesweepers were vulnerable to mobile artillery batteries, and all the ships would come under the guns of the Turkish forts (see map of Turkish defenses below), as well as exposing themselves to attack by German and Austrian U-boats.
Ideally the minesweepers would clear the way for the battleships to bombard the Turkish forts and mobile batteries, while the destroyers would guard against enemy submarines – but the Turks would take every opportunity to lay new minefields and reposition mobile batteries under cover of night, and the Royal Navy’s record defending against submarine attacks had been, so far, less than stellar, leading to the loss of ships including HMS Cressy, Aboukir, Hogue, Hawke, and Formidable, among others. Then there was also the risk of inclement weather disrupting operations: the northern Aegean Sea was famous for violent storms like the ones that destroyed Persian invasion fleets in 492 and 480 BCE.
Some key figures voiced doubts about this ambitious plan, most notably First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher, who in late January (and in typically dramatic fashion) threatened to resign if no land force was provided. However Kitchener and Churchill prevailed on the mercurial Fisher, who withdrew his resignation, and planning for the naval-only operation went ahead. In the event Fisher’s forebodings proved correct, and the Allies would end up mounting a huge amphibious invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula – but only after the failed naval operation had alerted the Turks to the threat, giving them plenty of time to prepare their defenses.
ANZACs In Transit
In January 1915 few regular soldiers in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) suspected that they would soon be fighting opposite the plains of ancient of Troy. That month thousands of hardy soldiers from down under were training in Egypt at a camp within sight of the Pyramids, with the immediate assignment of protecting the Suez Canal against Turkish attack; meanwhile a second contingent was sailing across the Indian Ocean to join their “mates” in the Middle East.
Needless to say, the months spent in Egypt were an eye-opening experience for ANZAC troops, many of whom had tramped the Australian outback or New Zealand backcountry but never left those shores, and generally shared the racial and cultural prejudices endemic to that era. One anonymous Australian soldier summed up his feelings about native Egyptians: “They are intensely religious, always looking for backsheesh [tips or bribes], and have no morals… they are to a man top-knotch liars, and invoke the aid of Allah to help them out in their perjuries. They are truly Eastern in their love of bargaining; also in their smell.”
Unsurprisingly relations between the ANZAC troops and Egyptian natives were particularly fraught when it came to Egyptian women, who found ways of expressing themselves even when clad in a full niqab, according to the same Australian source: “They were rather fine about the eyes, and they made full use of those organs, even in the company of the ‘old man,’ who didn’t seem to be overjoyed when he caught them giving the glad eye to a mob of khaki-clad Christians.”
The War of the Sexes
Indeed, as the Great War didn’t change underlying human nature, all over the world men and women thrown together by circumstances were socializing – and often more – despite half-hearted attempts to stop them.
Early in the war most interactions were brief and chaste, characterized more by curiosity than lust – although often with a modest transactional element. British war correspondent Philip Gibbs fell in with a band of Belgian nurses who “discovered a shop where hot coffee was being served to British soldiers who were willing to share it with attractive ladies.” Similarly Louis Keene, a Canadian soldier, remembered: “Girls were very interested in us and took most of our collar badges and buttons as souvenirs.” Sometimes the gifts flowed in the other direction, irrespective of nationality; one Scottish soldier, Joe Cassells, noticed British nurses doting on a wounded 16-year-old German soldier, observing, “The fair sex found him very attractive and he always got an ample share of the dainties they brought.”
As time went on and the war settled into routines, more intimate relationships inevitably developed. Piete Kuhr, a 12-year-old German girl living in East Prussia, confided the results in her diary after a regiment from another part of Germany had been stationed in her small town for a few months: “The women and girls go to great lengths to look nice for them. A few days ago a thirteen-year-old-girl, a baker’s daughter, was expelled from our school because she is going to have a child by a first lieutenant. She is a big, strapping girl with blond pigtails. None of us had noticed anything. The whole school was in turmoil.”
Practical French authorities established official brothels in order to keep French and British soldiers away from “good” local girls, with mixed success. Of course even simple commercial relationships could still have their awkward moments. Edward Casey, an Irish soldier in the British Army, recalled an embarrassing visit to a brothel Paris:
Before I could find an empty table and sit, a different [Girl] took charge of me, leading me along, talking in her funny English… [She began] putting her hands inside my fly, and murmuring, ‘Oh darling, you are so hard and big. You will like a short time with me. I am very good, and I make you very pleasurable…” I was amazed when she took hold of my business and examined it very carefully. Satisfied I was clean and free from the Gonna [gonorrhea]… [she] laid on the bed… I was told to lay on top of her. Then my trouble started. I went limp, and even though this French hussy tried everything she knew (even putting my thing in her mouth), I could not get hard. Then she got very angry: “Am I not very beautiful to you, that you do not want to love me? You English are very cold and do not know how to make love. I leave you now. Get dressed, I have work to do.”
These were hardly universal experiences, however. Although its cumulative effect on cultural mores would be huge, in January 1915 the Great War had scarcely begun loosening traditional strictures around sexuality, especially in the middle classes, where respectable young women (and men) of all nationalities found themselves constrained by the same set of rules that governed Victorian gender relations fifty years before. Vera Brittain, an aspiring academic and writer who later volunteered as a nurse in France, recalled her closely supervised interactions with her soon-to-be fiancée, the poet Roland Leighton, up to the moment he left for the front:
Incredible as it may seem to modern youth, it was then considered correct and inevitable that my aunt should cling to me like a limpet throughout the precious hours that I spent with Roland… Sophisticated present-day girls… have no conception of the difficulties under which courtships were conducted by provincial young ladies in 1915. There was no privacy for a boy and girl whose mutual feelings had reached their most delicate and bewildering stage; the whole series of complicated relationships leading from acquaintance to engagement had to be conducted in public or not at all.
Massive Earthquake in Italy
While the manmade cataclysm of the Great War kept the world’s rapt attention, nature continued to deal out its own share of death and destruction, as if to remind the human race who was really in charge. On the morning of January 13, 1915, a devastating earthquake struck central Italy, killing over 30,000 people and leaving 90,000 injured, prompting many observers to wonder if it was divine retribution for the Great War.
The epicenter of the earthquake, which measured around 7.0 on the Richter scale, was located near the town of L’Aquila in the Apennine Mountains, an area bedeviled by deadly quakes throughout history (in 2009 L’Aquila was the site of another earthquake, measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale, which left 309 people dead). However it inflicted the worst destruction on the ancient town of Avezzano, for which the disaster was named (above, the ruins of Avezzano).
Composed mostly of poorly maintained medieval and 19th century dwellings, virtually the entire settlement of Avezzano collapsed in eight seconds, killing all but 300 of its 11,000 inhabitants, while thousands more perished in the surrounding villages, many located in even more remote parts of the countryside. One teenager, Giovanni Pagani, was preparing to go to school
when the old earth started to shake with all its mountains, with such force that the very hinges of the world seemed about to fall down. From mysterious depths a roar was rising, to which another roar replied from the frightened mountains, and the roars filled the caves of the earth and the immensity of the skies, where the sun was looking down at a huge cloud of mourning. Afterwards, things lost their names to become a confused heap of debris…
Another eyewitness told Reuters that “where there had been towns he could see enormous whirlwinds of dust and smoke.” The death toll probably grew even higher in the following hours, as local authorities, operating with scant information in a place still largely lacking in modern communications, failed to grasp the scale of the disaster until the following day – meaning rescue efforts were for the most part too little, too late.