Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: April 3, 1915
“The day when Constantinople will be covered by the guns of the enemy is not very far distant.” That’s the ebulliant sentence from the article in Scientific American two weeks before this one, just after the initial British and French attack near the Ottoman Empire’s capital city, Constantinople (Istanbul). This issue, April 3, 1915, has a far more woeful subhead: “Floating Mines and Gunfire Work Havoc on the Allied Fleet.”
The article quotes heavily from the British Admiralty statement on the battle:
“‘Mine-sweeping having been in progress during the last ten days inside the straits, a general attack was delivered by the British and French fleets yesterday (Thursday) morning upon the fortresses at the Narrows.... Forts J, U, F, and E replied strongly. Their fire was silenced by the ten battleships inside the straits, all the ships being hit several times during this part of the action.’”
It must have been quite impressive to see these huge ships pouring large-caliber shells at close range into the general direction of the shore forts. Yet partway through the battle, disaster struck for the Allies. The Admiralty describes it thus:
“As the French squadron, which had engaged the forts in a most brilliant fashion, was passing out [of the attacking line] the ‘Bouvet’ was blown up by a drifting mine. She sank in 36 fathoms north of Erenkeui village in less than three minutes. At 4:09 P.M. the ‘Irresistible’ quitted the line, listing heavily, and at 5:50 o’clock sank, having probably struck a drifting mine. At 6:05 o’clock the ‘Ocean,’ also having struck a mine, sank.”
The article goes on to describe the weapon used to sink these ships:
“The loss of these ships was due to the setting afloat by the Turks of a large number of floating mines, which, carried down through the straits by a current which, at certain states of the tide, runs sometimes as fast as five knots, are a constant menace to the attacking fleet. These mines are not to be confused with those which are anchored and are removed by minesweeping.” A month later our May 1, 1915, issue even described in detail the exact type of mine blamed: the “Leon torpedo mine,” a high-tech (for 1915) mine that oscillated up and down in the water just below the surface.
Not so. This is a good example of “the fog of war.” We now know exactly what happened. The observant Turks, having seen the enemy fleets maneuvering in the tight channel, sent in the little minelaying boat Nusret at night to lay 29 ordinary mines, not across the path of the incoming battleships, but in a line quite close to shore—in an area that had already been swept of mines—where the ships were turning to leave the battle. These relaid mines were not spotted, nor, when they exploded, were the British or French naval authorities able (or willing?) to calculate where they had been laid.
Even worse than losing these three battleships (and three others damaged by gunfire), the work of the fleet seems to have been fairly useless, according to the last paragraph of the article:
“The claim of the Allies that they have inflicted heavy damage on the forts is flatly contradicted by dispatches from Turkish and German quarters in Constantinople. These state that the fire of the fleet, powerful and long-continued though it was, failed to do any serious damage to the batteries. The claim is made that the shells exploded, for the most part, harmlessly in the earthworks, and that much of the fire, because of the smoke and dust, was inaccurate.”
The Turkish and German dispatches seem more likely to be true. I found this comment in the autobiography of Major-General Charles Callwell, an artillery officer who served as Director of Operations and Intelligence during the war, and it probably reflects the thinking of many who were opposed to the Dardanelles naval attack: “No battleship depending upon flat trajectory guns could ever play a role of paramount importance during fighting ashore.” Long-range naval guns were of little use for such work; guns were needed that could provide the kind of plunging fire better for digging up enemy troops well-entrenched in the earth. The British and French authorities seem to have agreed with this assessment: within a few days they switched the attack on Constantinople to a land assault on the Gallipoli peninsula.
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on the campaigns in Gallipoli and elsewhere. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi