Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: March 20, 1915

The report published in this issue from a century ago delivers a robustly optimistic outlook on the Allied attack on Turkish territory at the entrance to the waterway between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean:

“If the great Mahan were living to-day [Alfred Thayer Mahan, naval strategist, died December 1, 1914] he would witness, in the so far successful forcing of the Dardanelles by the allied fleet, one more of those striking evidences of the decisive value of the command of the sea, of which the present war has afforded so many.”

French battleship “Bouvet.” The ship attacked Turkish forts in the Dardanelles and was sunk by a mine on March 18, with a disastrous loss of life. Image: Scientific American, March 20, 1915

The theory was sound enough. The Ottoman Empire had been allied with Germany and Austria from November 1914. But the sprawling empire was referred to as “the Sick Man of Europe” and it looked ripe for the picking. Political and military theorists, particularly Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, believed that if a naval force could barge their way through the Dardanelles and capture the capital of Turkey, Istanbul (or Constantinople as it was referred to back then), the Ottoman Empire would flop over like a flimsy house of cards:

“It is quite possible that the ultimate issue of this great conflict will be determined by economic exhaustion, due to the absolute blockade of Germany and Austria by sea and land; and the stupendous operations which are being carried on in the Dardanelles may prove to be the forging of the last link in an unbreakable chain, which, with the capture of Constantinople and the resultant entry of Italy and the Balkans into the war, will extend unbroken from the western coast of Norway by way of the North Sea, the Mediterranean, the Balkans and Russia, to the eastern shores of the Baltic.”

The task was known to be fearsome; defenses were strong and some “682 guns” were thought to be covering the waterway:

“The security of Constantinople from attack by the sea was supposed to lie in the fact that it could be approached from the Mediterranean or from the Black Sea only through a narrow strait, at one point less than a mile in width, which was defended by some of the strongest and most-heavily-armed fortifications in the world. Thus, the Dardanelles, some forty miles in length, are flanked at their entrance by forts on either side,”

The risk was high. But the reward could well tip the balance of power to the Allies. A powerful fleet of British and French warships was sent in, and with target-spotting provided by wireless-equipped airplanes, pounded one Turkish fort after another in rubble. Trawlers converted into minesweepers were called in to sweep away the mines barring passage of the waterway. The tone of the article was very positive:

“During the first two weeks of operations the allied fleet has forced the westerly entrance of the Dardanelles and silenced some of the heaviest forts at the Narrows. The indications are that this attack will be pushed through successfully. If so, the day when Constantinople will be covered by the guns of the enemy is not very far distant.”

A bird’s-eye view of the Dardanelles waterway, scene of an Allied naval attack starting in March, 1915. Image: Scientific American, March 20, 1915

This buoyant positivity would have been based on information gathered about a week or ten days prior to the cover date. But here’s where that optimism sinks: on March 18, two days before the cover date of the issue (and perhaps while it was being printed), a major assault by the Allied fleet had ended disastrously. The thoughtful and observant Turks had anticipated the attack formation and laid a new minefield where it did the most damage to the Allied fleet: three battleships were sunk and three heavily damaged.

It turned out that the minesweepers were fairly useless: manned by civilian crews, they pretty much fled at the first sign of danger (granted, having people shoot at you with large-caliber artillery is fairly perilous). The battleships, too, were for the most part old, really verging on obsolete, without the slightly better protection from mines and torpedoes built into newer ships. The idea that “some of the heaviest forts” were silenced meant little—the vast bulk of the forts, submarine nets and minefields were still intact, the plentiful defenders heavily armed and sufficiently supplied.

For the naval services, the loss of so many ships in such a short time for such negligible gains was truly a disaster. Perhaps the naval mindset had not yet caught up with the military mindset evident at Ypres and in the Ardennes: that such losses were merited if they achieved some military or political gain. The British and French quickly moved to a new tactic to try and gain their objective, a land attack on the peninsula on the north side of the Dardanelles—the Gallipoli peninsula. It was thought that such an attack would be a more effective way of silencing the forts facing the sea and opening the way to Constantinople.

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Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on naval warfare and on the Gallipoli campaign. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi

For an exploration of the working life of troops in the Australian Imperial Force posted to Gallipoli and elsewhere, read “Anzac Labour” by Nathan Wise (Lecturer in the School of Humanities at the University of New England, Australia), published by our sister company Palgrave Macmillan, August, 2014.