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Gallipoli tour

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Historical Background

The Straits of the Dardanelles, November 1914 – April 1915

When World War I broke out in Europe in early August 1914, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) initially remained neutral, unable to commit itself fully to either the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) or the Allies (Britain, France and Russia). However, on 27 September 1914, Turkey closed the Straits of the Dardanelles (Çanakkale Boğazi) to British, French and Russian shipping and the situation gradually drifted towards war. On 29 October, German warships, ostensibly under Turkish control, bombarded Russian Black Sea ports. Turkey now found itself drawn inexorably into the German sphere of influence, and on 5 November 1914 Britain and France officially declared war on the Ottoman Empire.

Enlarge HMS Cornwallis firing, AWM H10388
The Royal Navy battleship HMS Cornwallis fires on Turkish positions, Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, December 1915. [AWM H10388]

In late 1914, as the war in northern Europe developed into the stalemate of the trenches, the British sought another, and supposedly more vulnerable, front on which to attack Germany. They decided on a naval attempt to penetrate the Dardanelles and push on to Istanbul (then known as Constantinople), the Turkish capital. The Ottoman Empire’s support of Germany in the face of a British fleet would then supposedly crumble, and wavering eastern European states, such as Bulgaria and Romania, would enter the war on the Allied side.

Turkey’s response to the British naval threat right from the beginning was to strengthen the fortifications of the Dardanelles. Minefields were laid across the Straits, mobile guns were positioned on both shores, and batteries in various fortresses were brought to a state of war readiness. On 3 November 1914, even before the official declaration of war, British warships bombarded the outer forts at Seddülbahir (‘The Barrier to the Sea’) at Cape Helles on Gallipoli and Kum Kale on the Asian shore. In late February 1915, the British ships returned to complete the destruction of the guns and Royal Marines were landed at both locations to carry out this task.

Enlarge Kilitbahir Castle
Kilitbahir Castle (The Lock of the Sea) on the Gallipoli shore of The Narrows of the Straits of the Dardanelles, 2005. The castle was built in 1452 by the Ottoman Emperor Mehmet II.

The inner defences of the Dardanelles did not prove so easy to overcome. It was necessary to sweep the mines aside before the great battleships could come up to engage the forts and push through the narrowest point of the Dardanelles – the Narrows. But all British efforts to deal with the mines with fishing trawlers equipped as minesweepers failed, as the shore batteries found them an easy target. Eventually, it was decided to mount a major attack on the forts protecting the minefields, using 16 British and French battleships and battle cruisers, among them the Royal Navy’s most modern Dreadnought battleship, HMS Queen Elizabeth.

This mighty fleet moved up the Dardanelles on the morning of 18 March 1915. From 12 kilometres down the Straits the warships shelled the forts (Çimenlik and Kilitbahir) at the Narrows, and other forts such as Fort Dardanos below Kephes Point. Initially, the bombardment seemed to be going well and the minesweepers were called up, but then a French battleship, the Bouvet, struck a mine (it may also have been hit by a shell from one of the Turkish batteries on the Gallipoli shore) and sank within minutes, taking almost her entire crew of 600 with her. Two more British battleships also eventually sank. Yet again, the minesweepers made little headway in the face of accurate fire from the Turkish gunners. That night the British decided not to press ahead with the naval attack and Turkey celebrated a victory over the world’s greatest sea power.