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THE DARDANELLES


An extract from the "HISTORY OF THE WORLD WAR" by FH Simonds


A single other naval venture alone commands attention in the first

year and a half of war. The entrance of the Goeben and the Breslau

into the Dardanelles had determined the decision of the Turks and the

Turkish declaration of war had isolated Russia. Germany, holding the

mastery of the Baltic, her Osmanli ally master of the Bosporus and the

Dardanelles, there was left to Russia only the remote ports of Archangel

on the north and Vladivostok in the Far East. And both were closed for

long periods by winter and neither could serve as the base for Russian

armies.


Already, before the end of the autumn of 1914, Russia was be-

ginning to feel the pinch for munitions and, since it was necessary to

finance Russia in part, nothing was more essential than that Russian

wheat should flow outward to balance the Allied credits and repay the

Allied loans. Nor was it less necessary that the crushing of Turkey

should be prompt, that Allied ascendancy in the Balkans might be main-

tained and Bulgarian stirring checked.


Were it possible then to force the Dardanelles, to push through with

a fleet, as Admiral Duckworth had done a century before; to arrive be-

fore Constantinople, as a British fleet had done in the critical days of the

last Russo-Turkish war when Russian armies were approaching the

Golden Horn, the profit would warrant paying any reasonable price

alike in ships and lives. Here, very concisely, were the terms of that

great gamble, which was the naval attack upon the Dardanelles. It

failed absolutely. One of its consequences, but not an inevitable

consequence, was the subsequent land and sea attack, the ill-fated

Gallipoli campaign, which brought such a train of evil and even of

scandal.


Yet the original risk, accepted by Winston Churchill, whose imagina-

tion, as usual, passed his judgment, calling as it did for the risk of a few

obsolete ships, supported by only one or two modern and first-line units,

did not pass British and French resources ; nor were the actual losses, as

the event proved, sufficiently heavy to weaken in any measure either

British or French sea establishment.


The real criticism of the Dardanelles affair is to be found, if at all, in

the fact that all the lessons of naval warfare were against it. Sampson

had declined a similar venture before Santiago when confronted by forts

far inferior. Farragut had passed the forts at the mouth of the Missis-

sippi, and New Orleans had fallen as a result ; but in that earlier period,

indeed down to the contemporary era, the menace of mines had been

practically non-existent, and Farragut could without too great rashness

say at Mobile: "Damn torpedoes, go ahead!" since the torpedo of the

Civil War age was to be classed as well-nigh futile. But the Japanese

at Port Arthur had not risked any forcing of the entrance.


More difficult than the entrance to Santiago or to Port Arthur, better

defended as to forts and as to guns, since the defences had been the work

of the German General Staff and German officers commanded many

of the batteries of heavy guns, themselves the product of Krupp, the

Dardanelles were in fact beyond the power of a fleet to reduce, and from

the very outset the attempt was doomed to repulse. Since this was

patent, plainly the wiser course would have been to wait until land

forces were available and make a joint operation; and such a joint

operation could have a chance of success only if it were not preceded by

a naval attack without land aid, which would forewarn the Turks and

lead to the immediate fortification of the Gallipoli peninsula and thus to

the defeat of any land operations.



But in February, 1915, neither were land forces available nor was

it easy to see whence they could be derived in any immediate future.

When General Ian Hamilton's army was at last sent to the Gallipoli

Peninsula it was not only inadequate for its task, but its departure

weakened British armies in France, contributed to the failure of the

British effort in Artois, and produced a situation in which Field Marshal

Sir John French, on the evening of a day at Festubert, when he had lost

thousands of men because his guns lacked ammunition to prepare an

attack, received orders to send a considerable share of a non-existent

reserve stock of shells to the Dardanelles.


And since men were lacking and the opportunity dazzled those who

played with it, the fleet undertook an impossible task, failed, and gave it

up, wisely and in time. Had there been no further venture, the Dar-

danelles experiment would have been a detail ; indeed so unmistakably

tremendous were the certain rewards of success that the judgment of

those who ordered the attack might have been accepted. As it was, the

Dardanelles was the first step in one of the most gigantic blunders in

military history and its consequences were fraught with incalculable

harm to the Allies.


VI. THE DEFEAT


The actual naval operation at the Dardanelles is simply told.

About a hundred miles west of Constantinople the sea of Marmora nar-

rows to a channel in places less than a mile wide and rarely more than

three. For sixty miles this channel winds to the ^gean, separating the

Gallipoli Peninsula from the Asiatic mainland and at its mouth washing

the shore, forever memorable as the scene of the Siege of Troy. Through

this channel the current runs southwestward at the rate of four miles an

hour. In the time of sailing ships this current was an obstacle to navi-

gation, and it became a peril to the modern battleship when floating

mines were adopted as an engine of destruction.


At the point where it enters the ^Egean, this channel is several miles

wide and it was imperfectly guarded by a few old forts, mounting guns

of no real value against armoured ships. But fourteen miles upstream

the channel narrows to a pass hardly three quarters of a mile wide, and

makes a sharp turn. At this point, strongly reminiscent of the entrance

to Santiago harbour, the Turks had erected a series of strong forts on

either shore. Here is the village of Nagara, on the site of the ancient

Abydos; here Leander swam the straits to meet Hero; and here Lord

Byron repeated the feat centuries later. Here was the great obstacle

the sea gate to Constantinople.


Having assembled a fleet of French and British warships, mainly

composed of ships mounting heavy guns but no longer in the first line,

although there were also present the Queen Elizabeth, one of the newest

British superdreadnoughts mounting fifteen-inch guns, and the Inflexible,

which had shared in the winning of the Battle of Falkland Islands,

the Allies, on February 19, began the work of silencing the forts at the

entrance of the Straits, and the Plains of Troy and the hills that had

looked down upon the Homeric struggle echoed to the roar of modern

high explosives.



With no great trouble the first barrier was destroyed and the mine

sweepers entered the Straits and began their work of clearing the channel

for the larger ships. This work continued until March 18, when the

road was clear for the great attack. On this day the whole fleet steamed

up the Straits toward the narrows. It was the belief of the naval officers

that the long-protracted bombardments had silenced the Turkish forts.

They were promptly undeceived.


Suddenly all the forts opened fire. Soon three great shells fell upon

the French ship Bouvet and at the same moment she touched one of the

floating mines the Turks had launched. In three minutes the ship had

disappeared, carrying most of her crew down with her. An hour later

the Irresistible struck a mine; her crew escaped but the ship sub-

sequently sank. Next the Ocean touched a mine, and she went down al-

most as quickly as the Bouvet. Meantime the French Gaulois and the

British Inflexible had been put temporarily out of action by gunfire.



This was the end. Three battleships and two thousand lives had

been lost and the Straits had not been forced; the forts had not been

silenced; the peril of mines had not been surmounted. At the moment

when the world was still looking for the arrival of the Allied fleet at the

Golden Horn and the restoration of the Cross at St. Sofia on Easter

Sunday, the Allied fleet had abandoned the task as impossible. Once

more, as so often in his long European history, the " Sick Man of the

East" had recovered on what had seemed his death bed.


This decisive defeat at the Dardanelles was the second in the series

of Allied failures in the Near East; allowing the Goeben and the

Breslau to escape had been the first. By this later failure, Allied prestige

in the Balkans was dangerously impaired. In Sofia and Athens the de-

feat of sea power produced echoes which were not heard at the time,

but were memorable at a later date.


Yet even after that failure, the dazzling lure remained. No man

could exaggerate the value to the Allies of a victory that should open

the sea gate of Constantinople and restore communication with Russia.

Hence, when the fleet had failed, the temptation to try again, with an

army to support the navy, was almost irresistible. It could not be re-

sisted, because it had seized the mind and fired the imagination of one

of the most brilliant, if most erratic, of Allied statesmen. The first

venture was to be ascribed to Winston Churchill, First Lord of the

Admiralty. He was now to push his project in the teeth of the opposi-

tion of Field Marshal Sir John French and General Joffre, and to draw

away from the main front, at a critical hour, men and guns sadly

needed in Artois. But for the moment, while the new operation was

preparing, the Gallipoli affair languished.