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 169th installment in the series.

February 19, 1915: Allied Ships Bombard Turkish Forts

The tragedy of Gallipoli was the result of a series of errors and misjudgments by British civilian leaders and military commanders, which began to unfold on February 19, 1915, with the first Allied bombardment of Turkish defenses at the Dardanelles.

With the Western Front in stalemate and Russia on the defensive in the east, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill wanted to use British naval power to make a breakthrough on the flanks of the Central Powers. Churchill convinced his fellow cabinet members that the Royal Navy could decisively alter the strategic balance by forcing the Turkish straits and capturing Constantinople, thus knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the war and reopening the maritime supply route to Russia through the Black Sea.

Crucially the original plan called for an amphibious element, with ground forces landing on the Gallipoli peninsula to attack Turkish positions from the rear; however Secretary of War Lord Kitchener refused to divert any troops from the precarious Western Front, so the cabinet eventually approved a purely naval operation, pitting an Allied fleet against interlocking Turkish defenses including forts, mobile artillery, mine fields, and submarine nets. Everyone involved recognized from the beginning that the plan was risky, but they were persuaded by the promise of huge gains—maybe even an end to the war.

In mid-February a formidable Allied naval force gathered in the Aegean Sea, under the overall command of Admiral Sir Sackville Carden. The British fleet consisted of the super-dreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth; three battle-cruisers; twelve older (“pre-dreadnought”) battleships; four cruisers; 16 destroyers; five submarines; seven minesweeping trawlers; and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal with six seaplanes aboard. The French contingent consisted of four “pre-dreadnought” battleships, two destroyers, one submarine, and fourteen minesweepers.

Carden had divided the attack into a number of phases, aiming to methodically dismantle the various layers of Turkish defenses one by one. In the first phase, battleships would bombard the Turkish forts protecting the entrance to the straits with their heavy guns at long distance, outside the range of the Turkish coastal artillery. In the second phase, they would press ahead into the mouth of the straits, where the minesweepers would begin clearing the minefields so the battleships could destroy the mobile artillery batteries protecting “the Narrows,” the strategic choke point where the channel was less than two kilometers wide.

Operations for the first phase began on the morning of February 19, 1915, with long-range shelling of the four forts covering the entrance to the straits—two located on Cape Helles at the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula on the European side, the others at Kumkale on the Asian side, not far from the ruins of Troy (below, a Turkish gun at Kumkale today).

Although they scored a number of hits, British and French commanders were dissatisfied with their gunnery, believing minimal damage had been inflicted; in fact the damage was substantial, but the Allies had no way of observing this. When they finally approached for close-range bombardment, Turkish forts laid down a heavy return fire and kept the Allied ships moving, making it even more difficult to target effectively (luckily for the Turks, the Allied commanders were also unaware that the forts were running low on ammunition).

After a delay caused by storms and rough seas, the Allies would return to the attack a week later, on February 25, 1915, and again in early March (top, HMS Agamemnon fires at the Turkish fort at Sedd el Bahr on March 4, 1915; above, Agamemnon under fire on February 25). These attacks, combined with landings by British marines, finally managed to subdue the outer forts—but now the fleet ran into fierce defensive fire from the well-hidden mobile artillery batteries protecting the inner entrance to the strait. These proved much more difficult to clear, in part because the Turks moved them at night—which meant, in turn, that the relatively defenseless minesweepers couldn’t clear the minefields before the Narrows. The plan was stalling at the second phase.

In mid-March these obstacles would force the Allies to adopt a new, even riskier strategy: the minesweepers would clear the minefields by night, so the battleships could destroy the mobile batteries and rush the Narrows in one fell swoop. However the nighttime minesweeping missions were unsuccessful; even worse, unbeknownst to the Allies the Turks managed to lay a new minefield in Erenköy Bay, along the eastern approach to the Narrows. On March 18, 1915, this would result in disaster for the Allies.

See the previous installment or all entries.