Disaster at the Dardanelles

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.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

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Dash/Amazon

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12 Surprising Facts About T.S. Eliot

Getty
Getty

Born September 26, 1888, modernist poet and playwright Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is best known for writing "The Waste Land." But the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was also a prankster who coined a perennially popular curse word, and created the characters brought to life in the Broadway musical "Cats." In honor of Eliot’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about the writer.

1. T.S. Eliot enjoyed holding down "real" jobs.

Throughout his life, Eliot supported himself by working as a teacher, banker, and editor. He could only write poetry in his spare time, but he preferred it that way. In a 1959 interview with The Paris Review, Eliot remarked that his banking and publishing jobs actually helped him be a better poet. “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me,” Eliot said. “The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts.”

2. One of the longest-running Broadway shows ever exists thanks to T.S. Eliot.

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In 1939, Eliot published a book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which included feline-focused verses he likely wrote for his godson. In stark contrast to most of Eliot's other works—which are complex and frequently nihilistic—the poems here were decidedly playful. For Eliot, there was never any tension between those two modes: “One wants to keep one’s hand in, you know, in every type of poem, serious and frivolous and proper and improper. One doesn’t want to lose one’s skill,” he explained in his Paris Review interview. A fan of Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats since childhood, in the late '70s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set many of Eliot's poems to music. The result: the massively successful stage production "Cats," which opened in London in 1981 and, after its 1982 NYC debut, became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time.

3. Three hours per day was his T.S. Eliot’s writing limit.

Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. But no matter what method he used, he tried to always keep a three hour writing limit. “I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory," he explained. "It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.”

4. T.S. Eliot considered "Four Quartets" to be his best work.

In 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. His poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s—including "Ash Wednesday," "Murder in the Cathedral," and "Four Quartets"—reveal themes of religion, faith, and divinity. He considered "Four Quartets,” a set of four poems that explored philosophy and spirituality, to be his best writing. Out of the four, the last is his favorite.

5. T.S. Eliot had an epistolary friendship with Groucho Marx.

Eliot wrote comedian Groucho Marx a fan letter in 1961. Marx replied, gave Eliot a photo of himself, and started a correspondence with the poet. After writing back and forth for a few years, they met in real life in 1964, when Eliot hosted Marx and his wife for dinner at his London home. The two men, unfortunately, didn’t hit it off. The main issue, according to a letter Marx wrote his brother: the comedian had hoped he was in for a "Literary Evening," and tried to discuss King Lear. All Eliot wanted to talk about was Marx's 1933 comedy Duck Soup. (In a 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Lee Siegel suggests there had been "simmering tension" all along, even in their early correspondence.)

6. Ezra Pound tried to crowdfund T.S. Eliot’s writing.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1921, Eliot took a few months off from his banking job after a nervous breakdown. During this time, he finished writing "The Waste Land," which his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound edited. Pound, with the help of other Bohemian writers, set up Bel Esprit, a fund to raise money for Eliot so he could quit his bank job to focus on writing full-time. Pound managed to get several subscribers to pledge money to Eliot, but Eliot didn’t want to give up his career, which he genuinely liked. The Liverpool Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Tribune reported on Pound’s crowdfunding campaign, incorrectly stating that Eliot had taken the money, but continued working at the bank. After Eliot protested, the newspapers printed a retraction.

7. Writing in French helped T.S. Eliot overcome writer’s block.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot spent a year in Paris and fantasized about writing in French rather than English. Although little ever came of that fantasy, during a period of writer’s block, Eliot did manage to write a few poems in French. “That was a very curious thing which I can’t altogether explain. At that period I thought I’d dried up completely. I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate,” he told The Paris Review. “I started writing a few things in French and found I could, at that period ...Then I suddenly began writing in English again and lost all desire to go on with French. I think it was just something that helped me get started again."

8. T.S. Eliot set off stink bombs in London with his nephew.

Eliot, whose friends and family called him Tom, was supposedly a big prankster. When his nephew was young, Eliot took him to a joke shop in London to purchase stink bombs, which they promptly set off in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Eliot was also known to hand out exploding cigars, and put whoopee cushions on the chairs of his guests.

9. T.S. Eliot may have been the first person to write the word "bulls**t."

In the early 1910s, Eliot wrote a poem called "The Triumph of Bulls**t." Like an early 20th-century Taylor Swift tune, the poem was Eliot’s way of dissing his haters. In 1915, he submitted the poem to a London magazine … which rejected it for publication. The word bulls**t isn’t in the poem itself, only the poem’s title, but The Oxford English Dictionary credits the poem with being the first time the curse word ever appeared in print.

10. T.S. Eliot coined the expression “April is the cruelest month.”

Thanks to Eliot, the phrase “April is the cruelest month” has become an oft-quoted, well-known expression. It comes from the opening lines of "The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

11. T.S. Eliot held some troubling beliefs about religion.

Over the years, Eliot made some incredibly problematic remarks about Jewish people, including arguing that members of a society should have a shared religious background, and that a large number of Jews creates an undesirably heterogeneous culture. Many of his early writing also featured offensive portrayals of Jewish characters. (As one critic, Joseph Black, pointed out in a 2010 edition of "The Waste Land" and Other Poems, "Few published works displayed the consistency of association that one finds in Eliot's early poetry between what is Jewish and what is squalid and distasteful.") Eliot's defenders argue that the poet's relationship with Jewish people was much more nuanced that his early poems suggest, and point to his close relationships with a number of Jewish writers and artists.

12. You can watch a movie based on T.S. Eliot’s (really bad) marriage.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tom & Viv, a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe, explores Eliot’s tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer and socialite. The couple married in 1915, a few months after they met, but the relationship quickly soured. Haigh-Wood had constant physical ailments, mental health problems, and was addicted to ether. The couple spent a lot of time apart and separated in the 1930s; she died in a mental hospital in 1947. Eliot would go on to remarry at the age of 68—his 30-year-old secretary, Esmé Valerie Fletcher—and would later reveal that his state of despair during his first marriage was the catalyst and inspiration for "The Waste Land."

This story has been updated for 2020.