In the beginning of the 20th century, Europe was overflowing from its frontiers. Economical rivalry, imperialism and nationalist movements were dividing the continent into two blocs. The conflict was rising between Germany-France and Russia-Austria. The tension in Europe had reached its highest point on 28 June 1914 with assassination of Archduke Ferdinand heir of the Austro-Hungarian throne by a Serbian nationalist.
On 28 July 1914, Austria had declared mobilisation then the Great War began. In Europe, two blocs had appeared, Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy) and Triple Alliance (Britain, France and Russia). With the outbreak of the war, Italy had declared her neutrality but one year later she joined to the Triple Alliance.
On the other hand, Ottoman Empire was losing her large territories in which many nations and beliefs had lived for over 600 years. Both internal and external conflicts and wars were weakening her strength. Finally, Ottoman Empire with series of military defeats in Tripoli and in the Balkans lost nearly all her territories in Europe except the Trace.
The European Situation, Before the Campaign
Moreover, she lost her power and international prestige. From now on, the death of the empire was certain and European powers were planing to share the heritage. As seen, the Twentieth Century had compelled the Turks to grant zones of influence to European powers: Britain (Egypt-Palestine), France (Syria and the Lebanon), Austria-Hungary (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Italy (Libya). Russia was interested in the Mediterranean and Italy wanted parts of the eastern Mediterranean.
Following the blow of the war, under threat from within and outside her borders, Turkey sought a protective agreement from one of the two European power blocs: the Triple Alliance or the Central Powers. At first, she intended to join the Triple Alliance but Russia's protests led her to make a defensive alliance with Germany. On 2 August 1914, Turkey and Germany had signed a secret agreement.
Thereupon, the Turkish government had declared that it would remain neutral. However, to secure its borders, it introduced mobilisation. On 10 August 1914, Turkey allowed two German cruisers Goeben and Breslau, which were running from the Allied Navy, to enter the straits. Afterwards, she closed the straits to the foreign ships.
The Allies became increasingly alarmed with the arrival of those German ships. The Turkish government had stated that, they bought these battleships from Germany in place of two dreadnought battleships, which had been built in Britain for the Turkish Navy, and were requisitioned by Britain although Turkey had purchased them. Thus, the German ships became a part of the Turkish Navy with Turkish names, Yavuz and Midilli.
On 27 September 1914, Yavuz under the command of German Admiral Souchon bombarded Sivastopol and Novoroski, Russian shore establishments on the Black Sea. Thereupon, Russia passed the Caucasus border and declared war. This was the final act; the Ottoman Government was now at war.
Turkey's geographical position was crucial, the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles were significant, as they were the only passages between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Moreover, they were Russia's main contact with her allies, Britain and France.
In the course of history, countless wars had been fought for the straits in the name of their strategic positions, economic and cultural heritages. Even today, they still preserve their importance.
The Triple Alliance's attempt to pass the straits was certainly a direct result of their strategic positions. The allies' main target was to assist Russia. Likewise, it was believed that the capture of the straits would lead the British fleet to Istanbul and this might cause the downfall of the Turkish government. Further, it was hoped that the neutral European countries would join the Alliance against the Central Powers.
If the straits would be openned, this victory would intimidate all the Muslim colonies. All the events, disturbing the British would disappear.
Under these circumstances, Britain had decided to declare a war on 28 January 1915 and France offered a naval squadron to serve under British command in this great enterprise against Istanbul.
The British acting with the concept "the one rules the seas, rules the world", believed that it was possible to open the Dardanelles "by ships only". Before The Naval Attack was instituted, First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill asked the officer commanding the Aegean, Vice-Admiral Sackville Carden.
Carden stated that he believed the Dardanelles could be forced, given sufficient warships and minesweepers, in a three stage plan; first a neutralisation of the Turkish forts guarding the entrance, then a clearing of the Turkish minefields, and finally a drive into the Sea of Marmara. This plan persuaded the War Council despite Lord Fisher's doubts. The British Navy was proud of its ammunitions, technology, and surely, its victorious history, full of uncountable successes. It was impossible for the frayed, collapsing Ottoman Empire to withstand this invincible armada supported by French warships.
Allied Armada's naval attack began on 19 February 1915. Until 13 March 1915, they continuously bombarded the Turkish forts and opened a way for the minesweepers. However, they had confronted with the Turks' tough resistance. The Turkish gunners did not bother to reply the Allies' bombardment. This showed that, to open the Dardanelles was not that easy and the Allies could have cleaned only the first five miles of the strait.
Until 18 March the Allied Armada destroyed Seddulbahir and Ertugrul forts located on the European shore and Kumkale and Orhaniye forts located on the Asiatic shore. It seemed that the entrance was now clear but the future was still uncertain. Nobody guessed what was going to happen on 18 March 1915.
On 17 March 1915, Admiral de Robeck was in charge to proceed the plan in place of Admiral Carden. In respect of Carden's plan, the Allied Fleet appeared in the entrance in the morning of 18 March. De Robeck himself commanded the Fleet's most powerful squadron.
In bright sunshine and without the possibility of surprise, de Robeck in HMS Queen Elizabeth led the first wave up the channel at 10:30. Queen Elizabeth's target was Mecidiye fort, HMS Lord Nelson was going to bomb the Namazgah fort and HMS Inflexible's object was Hamidiye fort. This was called as "A Line" and it was begun to be proceeding at 11:30. De Robeck's most powerful ships commenced to bombard the central forts.
Meanwhile, Allied Fleet had entered the fire line coming from Kumkale. Turkish hotwizers began to fire, but their guns could not cover the distance and the gunners failed to reach the ships. At midday, Allied Fleet had destroyed the Cimenlik and Hamidiye forts. De Robeck signalled his second wave to go in closer, Guepratte's French squadron, Bouvet, Charlemagne, Gaulois and Suffren with HMS Triumph and Prince George.
This step of the plan was called as "B Line". Guepratte led his squadron through the British line and subjected the shore defences. Under Turkish gunners' heavy fire, the squadron had reached the B Line. After a mutual bombardment, the Allies had succeeded to stop the middle forts but the central forts continued to fire. Two British ships, HMS Triumph and HMS Prince George had taken their positions in A Line and they targeted Mesudiye and Yildiz forts.
Turkish forts on the European shore were under a fierce fire. Most of the bombshells had hit them and destroyed the telephone lines. Moreover, Mecidiye fort stopped with the death of its gunners.
If the allies could have succeeded the second step of the plan, second squadron commanded by Colonel Hayes Sadler would have moved and replaced the third squadron. De Robeck signalled the French to retire for his third wave of advance, Ocean, Irresistible, Albion, Vengeance, Swiftsun and Majestic.
As the French ships led by Suffren had their return, wheeled away to make room for the second squadron, something unexpected had happened, around 14:00. French ship Bouvet following immediately Suffren hit a mine and within two minutes had disappeared entirely, with the loss of almost all her crew. As the steamboats immediately arrived to rescue the crew, they only could save 20 people's lives. At 12:30, Gaulois hit a mine but she could have left the strait with a serious stroke. At 15:30, Inflexible hit a mine not far from the grave of Bouvet.
Despite severe damage, she could have arrived to the island of Imros. Shortly afterwards, Irresistible hit a mine; out of control she was near the Asiatic shore to attract the attention of Turkish gunners and her crew was taken off. On 8 March, Turkish minelayer Nusret had surreptitiously laid a line of mines parallel to the Asiatic shore, and now these mines were unexpectedly destroying the Allied Armada. As De Robeck had realised that the Turks had laid mines to the channel, he abandoned the attack. At 18:05, while the second squadron was withdrawing, HMS Ocean hit a mine and she exploded. Despite a heavy fire, her crew was evacuated.
The events in 18 March confused the Allies. Churchill's opponents like Lord Fisher had turned out to be right, it was impossible to open the strait "by ships only". Nevertheless, de Robeck and Churchill were still insisting that a renewed push would succeed. They began to renovate the plans for another naval expedition to Istanbul.
The Allied Attempt to force a passage of the Narrows, 18 March 1915
HMS Ocean, sunk in the Naval Attack of 18 March
The French Battleship, Bouvet
HMS Inflexible bombarding Turkish positions
HMS Swiftsure bombarding Helles
HMS Queen Elizabeth
HMS Irresistible, sunk in the Naval Attack of 18 March