The Dardanelles campaign could be described as one of the most famous campaigns of the First World War and has ever since been the subject of much discussion and controversy.
It was on November 3, 1914 – more than five months before the landings at Gallipoli – that the Anglo-French squadron consisting of the battle cruisers HMS Indefatigable and HMS Indomitable and the obsolescent pre-dreadnought French battleships Suffren and Verite bombarded the outer forts defending the Gallipoli Peninsula and the approaches to the Dardanelles. Regrettably the decision to mount a full scale attack was not taken until almost two months later, thus giving the Turks time to bolster their defences.
Before the naval attack was instigated, the British First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had asked the officer commanding the Aegean, Vice Admiral Sir Sackville Carden, if he believed the Dardanelles could be forced. Sackville replied in the affirmative providing sufficient ships and minesweepers were made available. He devised a plan. First the elimination of the Turkish forts guarding the entrance, then clearing the Turkish minefields, and finally a drive into the Sea of Marmara.
Frustrated at the futile endeavours of the Grand Fleet to draw the German High Seas Fleet out into the North Sea, Churchill gave the Dardanelles project his wholehearted support. He knew full well that if the Strait could be seized the road to Constantinople would be open and the Ottoman capital at the mercy of the guns of the Allied fleet. Using his persuasive powers, Churchill obtained provisional consent from the British War Cabinet on January 13, 1915, for the preparation of a naval attack on the Dardanelles.
A major attraction in the approval of this operation was that a naval attack on the Dardanelles would not require substantial numbers of troops and the assumption that the attack could be broken off if the prospects of victory were not favourable. This project was not without its detractors: First Sea Lord “Jackie” Fisher became more and more opposed to the operation and eventually resigned on May 15.
As early as February 10, Colonel Maurice Hankey, secretary to the War Council, wrote: “From Lord Fisher downwards, every naval officer in the Admiralty who is in on the secret believes the Navy cannot take the Dardanelles position without troops. The First Lord (Churchill) still professes to believe they can do it with ships, but I have warned the Prime Minister that we cannot trust to this.”
At no point from the entrance of the Dardanelles to its junction with the Sea of Marmara was the channel out of range of the Turkish coastal gun batteries located on both the European and Asiatic Shores. At its mouth the channel was four kilometres wide and was guarded by the forts of Sedd-elBahr on the European side and Kum Kale on the Asiatic side. Once past these fortifications the channel widened to seven kilometres and 20 kilometres upstream reduced to just over a kilometre wide at `the Narrows’. The approach was protected by the Kephez and Narrows minefields and a further pair of fortifications, Kilid Bahr on the European shore and Chanak Kale on the Asiatic shore.
The Turks concentrated their heaviest defences at `the Narrows’ with some 72 guns, plus torpedo-tubes. Their trump card was the mobile 6-inch howitzer batteries that were deployed on both shores and were capable of rapid movement. Supporting this myriad of guns were searchlights and latterly dummy batteries that emitted only smoke, serving to draw the fire of any attackers. It was obvious that any attack had to swiftly nullify the guns and the minefields to prevent the reinforcement of the shore batteries.
Vice Admiral Sackville Garden began his attack on the mouth of the Dardanelles on 19th February 1915. With eleven battleships and one battle cruiser in three divisions, two British, Garden himself in the new battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth, and with Agamemnon and the battle cruiser Inflexible; his deputy, Vice Admiral Sir John de Robeck in HMS Vengeance, with Albion, Cornwallis, Irresistible and Triumph, all pre-Dreadnoughts. The French division under Admiral Emile Guepratte comprised the old battleships Bouvet, Charlernagne, Gaulois, and Suffren. Between them the ships boasted 154 guns between the calibres of 15 inch and 6 inch, plus many smaller.