If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Forcing the Straights

Last Thursday, the 19th of February 2015, marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of a campaign in World War One which still courts controversy among historians today.  The Allied intent to deal a minor faction of the enemy powers they faced a decisive blow raises questions of the feasibility, or perhaps even the necessity of a diversion from the main theatre in Europe.  Regardless of its reasons, execution and ultimate failure for the Entente, the conflict to open the sea lanes of the Dardanelles, known more broadly for the land battles along the Gallipoli peninsula, would make men, break others and become the touchstone of national pride for countries of both opposing forces.

As the efforts in this theater comprised first a naval and then an army battle, it might do well to look at each in turn.  Thus this week will be presented the situation from the onset to just prior to the main Allied landings in April of 1915; to be followed next week with a look at the ground campaign.

What should be first determined is the reasons behind operations in this area, so far removed from France
and Flanders, were considered and eventually viewed as so important as to commit so many resources to it.  Turkey, the nation at the centre of the crumbling Ottoman Empire had aligned itself with Germany and Austro-Hungary in October of 1914.  Long held territorial rivalries between the Ottomans and Russians meant that Turkey could be counted on to keep Russian forces tied down in the Caucasus[1] and hopefully away from the Eastern Front.  German advice to the Ottomans was to close the Dardanelles “which separates Europe from Asia, is a passage thirty miles long, at its narrowest less than a mile wide, leading from the Mediterranean into the landlocked Sea of Marmara.”[2] Doing so would cut off the “sea route to southern Russia and (prevent)Allied arms and supplies being sent to the eastern Front”[3] Making the straights impassible by laying sea mines and revitalising obsolete heavy gun emplacements on either side of the channel created a difficult set of circumstances.

There were conflicting interests between France, Britain and Russia in this region.  Russia wanted Constantinople, the traditional base of power of Orthodox Christianity.  It would also require the sea lanes open to keep it supplied for war.  The other two partners of the Entente were not initially enthusiastic about expending effort to pacify the Dardanelles, particularly if a naval force of British and French ships caused the fall of Constantinople to then be handed over to Russia as a prize.  Such a large growth of Russian territory would be a dynamic shift in the balance of power in the area. Above all else the Entente was a union of convenience, rather than of mutual designs.  At the end of the day, each component nation of the Triple Entente was mostly concerned about their state of affairs, and deigned to give any advantage to another which would not be immediately beneficial to their own interests.  

From December, 1914, the realisations that a conclusive decision on the Western Front was not foreseen to be possible before 1916 began to inspire notions of making attempts to secure a victory through campaigns in other theatres.  Sir Basil Liddell Hart noted “the growth of the New Armies evoked a natural question to their use.”[4] By which he meant if a defensive posture could be maintained in Europe, the large numbers of wartime volunteers undergoing training might be better used elsewhere.  Liddell Hart, it must be said, emphatically believed that an opportunity to secure a quick end to the war was lost by not committing these resources to other campaigns, particularly against Turkey.  His lack of strategic vision is astounding considering how the Western Front-where he saw his own wartime service- was barely maintained throughout 1915; and may have certainly collapsed for want of manpower diverted elsewhere.  However,
By sending Allied warships through the narrow straits of the Dardanelles to attack Constantinople (now Istanbul), it was hoped that the Ottomans could be forced out of the war, creating a new supply route to Russia and helping to secure the valuable oilfields of the Middle East.”[5]  Once Turkey had declared for the Central Powers in 1914, Liddell Hart prophesises, “the best chance for both Britain and Russia was now in making war, instantly.  The defences of the Dardanelles were obsolete and incomplete.”[6] He firmly believed that a failure to act against Turkey in 1914 was “a tale of almost incredible haphazardness on the part of Britain, of equal short-sightedness on the part of Russia.”[7] One might inquire of Sir Basil just where the required men, munitions and material would have been gotten from in the early stages of the war if the British could only immediately summon and Expeditionary Force of 80,000 which was barely enough to help France counter the weight of the German advance through Belgium.

Niall Ferguson makes the observation that “It is certainly hard to see a plausible alternative to winning the war on the Western Front.”[8]  Distributing military assets, he acknowledges, to other theatres put this primary theatre at risk.  Success at Gallipoli would have benefitted Russia more so than the British, and a commitment there, if such a victory had occurred would have continually diverted resources away from Europe. Thinking along these lines looks at the Dardanelles as a complete mistake.  A slightly more objective view reaches a compromise between the extremes of Liddell Hart and Ferguson.

Working within the delicate coalition of the Entente meant that Britain was required to do all it could to achieve its war aims- in the primary theatre; supporting its allies to ensure their ability to continue the war; and pursuing the territorial and economic ambitions it had for conditions of victory. Therefore, the military and political leaders were forced to take certain risks in a balancing act to see these aims met in a timely and economic fashion.  At times, some of these efforts, most notably at Gallipoli, were abject failures and thence easier to dismiss in the present as something that ought not to have been done.  Aside from the debate of whether or not the campaign should have been made, it does little to the memory of the men involved, on both sides, to see it as a waste.  Assigning a label of “mistake of history” to these events devalues the sacrifices made in the effort to achieve a victory which proved beyond achievement.

No one at the highest levels of power could seem to agree on how the operation would unfold.  Idealism on behalf of the Royal Navy, mostly with Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty- the government’s chief naval representative- was that the navy alone could force their way through the straights and place
Constantinople under siege in thirty days.[9]  The objective of this naval force would be to clear mines from the straight, take out the guns defending from the heights and then manoeuvre through the narrow channel to the Sea of Marmara and put the ancient city under the gun.   Land forces would be used concurrently in Salonika, with the kind permission of the Greek government.  Landing troops there would make it possible to move into the Balkans and put pressure of both Austro-Hungary and Turkey.  For Churchill, “the Dardanelles initiative...was to be a naval operation exclusively.”[10] Admiral “Jackie” Fisher, the First Sea Lord and thus the military head of wanted to have troops and ships diverted to the Baltic for an amphibious operation against Germany directly. He would eventually reluctantly agree to Churchill’s idea as an “experiment.”  Field Marshall Sir John French, Commander in Chief on the Western Front was immovable on the notion that all available manpower be assigned to his command. “To attack Turkey,” French had cautioned, “would be to play the German game...namely, to draw off troops from the decisive spot, which is Germany herself.”[11]

Meanwhile, a task force of the largest sort ever assembled in the Mediterranean was under weigh to the Dardanelles.  Under the command of Vice Admiral Sackville Carden, it included a mixture of battleships and cruisers, many nearly obsolete, but soon to be joined by the superdreadnaught HMS Queen Elizabeth, a brand new first rate vessel that outclassed everything afloat.  She was capable of 24 knots on four direct drive oil fuelled turbines, with a range of 8,600 nautical miles at half-ahead.  Her main armament, eight
fifteen-inch guns could lob a shell on ton in weight nearly nineteen miles, and was backed up by sixteen six-inch guns firing one hundred pound high explosive armour piercing shells eleven miles.[12] Carden took a cautious, if not laconic approach to his task which seems surprising considering it was his assessment that this operation would be only thirty days in length-or about a mile of progress per day.  He brought the high ground at the entrance of the straight under fire from a safe distance of three miles during the day of the 19th of February but moved off at night, not returning for five days.  The defenders, now alerted were reinforced and strengthened their positions.  More sea mines were laid, particularly where the channel bottlenecked.  By the 4th of March, after prevarications which included Carden removing himself from command, replaced by Rear Admiral John De Robeck, it was found that “the Turkish garrison was more determined than had been thought, its guns either too well placed or too mobile to be easily knocked out, and the minefields too dense to be swept.”[13] Churchill was anxious that the fleet press forward; if its objectives could not be met, he might have to demur to Admiral Fisher’s designs.

On the 18th of March, one day shy of the thirty day deadline, De Robeck advanced into the channel and for all expectations, was progressing well.  Heavy shelling from ships advancing and retiring in line abreast seemed to be effective, pounding the rocky heights to dust and smoke.  Return fire was slight and ineffective.  By early afternoon, Turkish reports on the situation were calling it critical.  Many guns along the channel were temporarily or permanently out of action, and lines of communication were down. Then, disaster struck the Entente fleet.  The French ship Bouvet struck a mine and sank quickly, taking almost all hands with her.
A similar fate befell the HMS Irresistible and HMS Ocean. A further three ships were put out of action and four more were damaged.  At a stroke, De Robeck had lost a third of his fleet.  The privately owned trawlers assigned to the minesweeping refused to continue while under fire from above.  Despite what seemed like terrific damage to the Turkish positions, many were mobile and able to withdraw from the fire zone or were situated such that it was not possible to put fire upon them from seaward. De Robeck recalled his fleet.  The sheer amount of mines in the channel, which would later be determined to be 373, would have to be painstakingly swept.  For that to occur, the guns along the heights needed to be silenced,.  On the 22nd of March, Rear Admiral De Robeck gave as his recommendation that in order for naval operations to continue, troops would have to be landed on the peninsula to neutralise the Turkish guns to allow his minesweepers to operate in safety.  More time than had been allotted for this effort had elapsed.  Critically, more time for Turkish forces to entrench along the heights in anticipation of a landing had been given. The men earmarked for Salonika, which had turned out to be a non-starter, were now given over to the effort in the Dardanelles in the hopes that their efforts might carry the situation to victory.

[1] Keegan, John “The First World War” Vintage Canada Edition, 2000, pg 191
[2] Keegan, John, ibid. pg 234
[3] Smithsonplanning.au; “Monumental Moments”-from “Cobbers-Stories of Gallipoli 1915” by Jim Haynes, ABC Books 2005
[4] Liddell Hart, Basil “History of the First World War” Pan Books, 1972, pg 161
[6] Liddell Hart, Basil ibid. pp 159-60
[7] Liddell Hart, Basil ibid. pg 160
[8] Ferguson, Niall “The Pity of War: Explaining World War I” Basic Books, 1999 pg 291
[9] Meyer, G.J. “A World Undone”: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918, Delta Books, 2006, pg 268
[10] Meyer, G.J. ibid.
[11] Meyer, G.J. ibid. pg 271
[12] Wikipedia.org: HMS Queen Elizabeth
[13] Keegan, John, ibid. pg 238

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