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 174th installment in the series.
March 18, 1915: Disaster at the Dardanelles
The Allied naval campaign to force the Turkish straits and conquer Constantinople received a huge setback on March 18, 1915, when the combined British and French fleet tried to destroy the forts guarding the southern straits, known as the Dardanelles. Things did not go as planned, to say the least: after a day of fierce artillery duels the Allies had lost three battleships to mines, and the main Turkish forts were still more or less intact.
The operation got off to a less than encouraging start with the resignation of Admiral Sackville Carden, the top British naval commander in the Mediterranean, who quit after repeated failures to reduce Turkish defenses, culminating in an unsuccessful attempt to clear Turkish minefields by night on March 13 (he supposedly resigned due to ill health). On March 16 Carden was replaced by Vice-Admiral John de Robeck, who immediately ordered a bold all-out assault at the urging of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill.
After destroying the forts guarding the outer entrance to the Dardanelles, the key to forcing the southern Turkish straits was elimination of the Turkish forts guarding “The Narrows,” where the channel shrinks to less than two kilometers wide. Along with numerous mobile and fixed artillery batteries, these forts guarded a series of minefields that had to be cleared by British and French minesweepers before the Allied fleet could proceed into the Sea of Marmara and onwards to Constantinople.
Unbeknownst to the Allies, however, these weren’t the only minefields they had to deal with: on the night of March 8, the Turkish minelayer Nusret (above) secretly laid 26 more mines in a new field slanting diagonally across the mouth of Erenkoy bay on the Asian side of the Dardanelles. These mines would prove to be the Allies’ undoing, making the Nusret arguably the most successful Turkish warship of the First World War.
The attack commenced at 10:45 am on March 18, 1915, led by four British battleships—de Robeck’s flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth, Agamemnon, Lord Nelson, and Inflexible, flanked by two more battle ships, Prince George and Triumph, which would destroy several smaller forts any mobile artillery batteries encountered (see map below). This first wave proceeded to “A” line, about 14,000 yards from the main forts guarding the narrows, and subjected them to heavy bombardment.
George Schreiner, an American AP correspondent observing the battle from shore, recalled:
The first salvo from nineteen turrets hit various points along the Dardanelles like a tornado, as you might put it, though I am sure that a tornado is but a pitiful imitation of the effect produced by the forty-odd shells that crashed almost simultaneously. I thought that the earth would be torn asunder. A dozen of the shells went over our heads and mowed down the first row of houses… Whole floors, entire walls, doors, furniture, and several human bodies were hurled high in the air. The sight was sickening.
However the Allied bombardment was often inaccurate, due to the great distance and the fact that the Turkish forts, built from local stone, were well camouflaged and essentially blended in with the background. One British commander, Captain Bertram Smith aboard the Vengeance, described the problem:
The conditions were a contrast to the sea. There, to some extent at least, the ship is a ship, the sky is sky, and the sea is sea; in fact you either see your target or you do not. Here, when firing at long ranges, as in the Narrows attack, you might be looking at your target yet never distinguish it; it was part of the landscape’s background and in certain lights merged into it.
Nonetheless the initial bombardment scored some visible hits and around midday de Robeck, believing most of the Turkish guns had been destroyed, ordered the second wave composed of four French battleships to advance to their designated “B” firing line, about 8,000 yards from the forts guarding the Narrows. However many of the supposedly destroyed Turkish guns now began firing again, as it turned out they had merely ceased fire temporarily to conserve ammunition.
The French battleships—Gaulois, Charlemagne, Suffren, and Bouvet—proceeded up the European and Asiatic shores in two files and soon came under heavy from the Turkish forts, with several sustaining serious damage. However the French commander, Admiral Émile Guépratte, persevered and the French ships blasted away at the Turkish forts from this closer range for several hours, as the first wave of British ships also continued firing (not shown below) until the forts mostly fell silent again around 1:45 pm. By this time the unrelenting bombardment produced a chaotic, beautiful scene, according to Schreiner:
Earth geysers and water columns rose in and near every Turkish emplacement. The noise was ear-splitting. It resembled the effect of a dozen thunder-storms in a pocket in the mountains. The crashes were reverberated from hillside to mountainside... Over Erenkoi bay hung low a bank of smoke and powder fumes. The bright sunlight rested on the top of this, leaving the ships of the Allies in deep purple shadows. Out of this leaped the flames of the propelling charges. It was a glorious spectacle…”
The Allied attack appeared to finally be succeeding, albeit slowly and painfully, as the Gaulois and Suffren had received direct hits, while the Charlemagne and Bouvet sustained lighter damage. Meanwhile the third wave, composed of the British battleships Vengeance, Albion, Irresistible, and Ocean, were approaching to relieve the French ships and continue the bombardment without pause, with two more ships, Majestic and Swiftsure, accompanying them to guard their flanks (below, Albion firing). To make room in the crowded straits the damaged French ships would proceed out of the combat zone, again in two files, accompanied by Prince George and Triumph.
But now disaster struck, as the Suffren and Bouvet unwittingly entered the minefield laid by the Nusret ten days before. At 1:58 p.m. the Bouvet struck a mine and sank within minutes, taking all but 50 out of her crew of 710 to the bottom with her. A British officer, Commander Worsley Gibson, remembered seeing the French battleship’s rapid demise (below, the Bouvet capsizes):
I noticed the Bouvet was heeling to starboard… she was listing more & more & it was evident she was badly wounded. She was steaming quite fast & went over & over until she was on her beam ends & her masts went into the water, a lot of smoke & steam rolled out but no explosions took place & she turned bottom up for a few seconds. I saw a few figures on her bottom and then she disappeared. The whole thing didn't take two or three minutes at the most. I had no idea a ship could disappear so quick…
Needless to say, the experience was even more terrifying for the Bouvet’s crew. One of the few survivors, the French seaman Sauveur Payro, described being sucked down in the vortex formed by the sinking ship:
I couldn’t rise to the surface because of the tug of the water. I was in the water for some time, then, when the bottom of the ship touched the bottom of the sea, I came straight up… I couldn’t breathe; blood was coming out of my mouth, my ears. When I was on the surface again, if I hadn’t found this piece of wood I would have been finished… I saw another chap crying out to me to save him and I told him to come closer to me so that he could be on one end of the plank and me on the other. But when the English came to fish us out of the water I saw that both his legs had been cut off. He died three days later.
But Allied commanders still didn’t realize mines were responsible for the damage to the Bouvet, instead attributing the sinking to a torpedo tube hidden on shore.
By now the third wave of British ships had sailed up to the “B” firing line and begun shelling the Turkish forts, which remained mostly silent in the face of another punishing bombardment. Thinking the first phase of the mission largely accomplished, Robeck allowed the battlecruiser Inflexible, which had sustained some damage, to begin withdrawing—but at 4 p.m. the Inflexible also hit a mine, which killed 30 crewmembers although it failed to sink the ship. The Inflexible, too, barely limped out of the strait and had to be beached by its crew on the nearby island of Tenedos.
Realizing that there was a new minefield somewhere in the straits, de Robeck decided to break off the bombardment and withdraw before he lost any more ships. Worse was to come, however: the next victim was the Irresistible, which hit a mine at 4:16 p.m. and immediately began listing heavily (top, Irresistible sinking); although Allied destroyers and other support vessels were able to rescue most of her crew, around 150 were killed by the mine explosion or drowning. Afterwards the abandoned Irresistible drifted within range of Turkish artillery batteries, which opened a merciless fire and sank the stricken ship around 7:30 p.m.
The final victim was the Ocean, which struck a mine and lost control of her steering at 6:05 p.m. Despite heavy fire from the shore, Allied vessels were again able to rescue most of Ocean’s crew before the ship sank.
Unsurprisingly, the sudden loss of three battleships—even if they were old and obsolete—shook de Robeck’s confidence. Meanwhile British Secretary of War Lord Kitchener was already contemplating an expanded offensive including a land invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula, with the goal of taking the Turkish defenses from the rear. Towards that end he dispatched General Sir Ian Hamilton to make his own evaluation on the spot and recommend a course of action. Hamilton in turn prevailed on de Robeck, who telegraphed the Admiralty on March 26: “The check on the 18th is not, in my opinion, decisive, but on the 22d of March I met General Hamilton and heard his views, and I now think that, to obtain important results and to achieve the object of the campaign, a combined operation will be essential.”
An even bigger disaster was looming.