Book: The World Crisis, Vol. 2: 1915

Previous: VIII. The Genesis of the Military Attack
Next: X. The New Resolve


February 19: The Outer Forts and their Armament—The Bombardment Begins—Operations of February 19 and 25—The Outer Forts Destroyed: Landing of Marines—Successful Conclusion of the First Phase—Increasing Prospects of Military Aid—My Letter of March 4—Absence of Military Staff Work—Lord Kitchener accepts Responsibility—Consequences throughout Europe of the Attack on the Dardanelles—The Russian Claim to Constantinople—The Conservative Leaders invited to Conference—Effects of Dardanelles upon Bulgaria, Roumania, Italy and Greece—Hopes of Italian Intervention—March 1: The Second Greek Offer—Disastrous Character of the Russian Action—King Constantine Rebuffed—Resignation of M. Venizelos—The Lost Opportunity.

At nine minutes to ten on the morning of February 19 the British and French fleets concentrated at the Dardanelles began the bombardment of the outer forts. These forts were four in number and mounted nineteen primary guns. Of these all but four were old pattern short guns with a maximum range of 6,000 to 8,000 yards. Only the two pairs of 9.4-inch guns in the two smaller forts could fire above 11,000 yards. The whole of these defences therefore were exposed to bombardment from the ships at ranges to which they could make no effective reply.

The attacking fleet was formed into three divisions:—

Queen ElizabethCornwallisCharlemagne

These vessels mounted 178 guns of 5½-inch and upwards, for the most part more modern than those in the forts, heavier and capable of outranging them in every class of gun. The operations which ensued are minutely described in the Official Naval History, the manœuvres of every ship and the results of almost every shot being carefully set out. It is not intended to repeat this here.

The attack was to have been divided into two parts: first, a long-range bombardment, and, second, overwhelming the forts at short range and sweeping a channel towards the entrance of the Straits. Ammunition was sparingly used and at first the ships were kept under way. It soon became evident that the moving ships could not achieve sufficient accuracy of fire, and at 10.30 all were ordered to anchor in positions outside the enemy’s range which enabled one ship to observe from a different angle the fire of another. By 2 o’clock it was considered that the effect of the slow long-range bombardment was sufficient to enable the closer attack to be made, and the bombarding vessels closed to about 6,000 yards. Up till this time no fort had replied to the fire. But at 4.45 p.m., on the Suffren, Vengeance and Cornwallis advancing to within 5,000 yards’ range, the two smaller forts with their modern guns came into action, showing that their guns had not been damaged by the long-range firing. The Vengeance and Cornwallis, reinforced by the Agamemnon, Inflexible and Gaulois, returned the fire, temporarily silencing one of the forts. Rear-Admiral de Robeck, the second in command, whose flag was flying in the Vengeance, wished to continue the action at close range, but as it was now nearly half-past five and the light was fading, the Commander-in-Chief signalled a ‘General Recall,’ and the day’s operations came to a close. Only 139 12-inch shells had been fired by the fleet. The results of this inconclusive bombardment seemed to show, first, that it was necessary for ships to anchor before accurate shooting could be made; secondly, that direct fire was better than indirect fire; and, thirdly, that it was not sufficient to hit the forts with the naval shells—actual hits must be made on the guns or their mountings. This last fact was important.

The next day the weather broke and no operations were possible for five days. On the 25th the bombardment was resumed in the light of the experience gained. The Agamemnon fired at Fort Helles, the Queen Elizabeth at Sedd-el-Bahr and later at Fort Helles, the Irresistible at Orkanie and the Gaulois at Kum Kale. All these ships and others reciprocally observed and checked each other’s fire. The forts replied, but without much success. The effect of the bombardment was remarkable. It proved conclusively the great accuracy of naval fire, provided good observation could be obtained. After eighteen rounds the Queen Elizabeth hit directly and disabled both the modern guns in Fort Helles. With an expenditure of thirty-five rounds the Irresistible destroyed both the modern guns in Orkanie, one early and one late in the day. Thus all four long-range guns defending the mouth of the Straits were individually disabled or destroyed for a very moderate expenditure of ammunition. In the afternoon the ships advanced to within close range of the forts and brought a heavy fire to bear on all of them. All the forts were silenced. The older forts with their short-range armament were considered by the Turks mere shell traps and their garrisons were withdrawn from them. After the Armistice the Turks stated that the batteries and ammunition dumps were all destroyed, but none of the magazines touched. The forts were evacuated because the short-range fire of the fleet had destroyed them entirely. The loss of life on both sides was small. Practically no damage was done to the fleet, although the Agamemnon was hit six or seven times. In all only three men were killed and seven wounded.

It will be seen that this was a very important and satisfactory day. Only thirty-one 15-inch shells had been fired in all, besides eighty-one British 12-inch and fifty from the corresponding French guns. The bombardment clearly proved the power of the ships anchored at about 12,000 yards, if good observation at right angles to the range was available, to destroy the Turkish guns without undue expenditure of ammunition. It was now possible to sweep the approaches and the entrance to the Straits, which was done on the evening of the 25th and the 26th. Three Battleships entered the Straits and completed the ruin of the Outer Forts from inside. A still more remarkable and, as we thought at the time, more hopeful development followed. On the 26th and following days, covered by the guns of the fleet, demolition parties of 50 to 100 sailors and marines were landed, who blew to pieces with guncotton all the guns in Sedd-el-Bahr, as well as in the two forts on the Asiatic side. They were not seriously opposed by the Turks. In all forty-eight guns were destroyed or found in a disabled condition by the landing parties, only nine men being killed and wounded.

Thus by March 2 the whole of the outer defences of the Dardanelles were destroyed, including nineteen primary guns, of which four were modern. These constituted approximately in number and in quality one-fifth of the whole of the gun defences of the Straits. The fleet was now able to sweep and enter the Straits for a distance of six miles up to the limit of the Kephez minefield. The first phase of the Dardanelles operations was thus completed.

The greatest satisfaction was expressed at the Admiralty, and I found myself in these days surrounded by smiling faces. Lord Kitchener told me that his officers who were in contact with the Admiralty reported a spirit of strong confidence. If the Dardanelles Commissioners could only have taken the expert evidence on the feasibility of ships attacking forts in the first week of March, 1915, instead of in the spring of 1917, they would have been impressed by the robust character of naval opinion on these questions. They would also have been struck by the number of persons who were in favour of the Dardanelles operations and claimed to have contributed to their initiation. In short, their task would have resembled the labours of the Royal Commission which inquired into the origin of the Tanks.

Each day at the meetings of the Admiralty War Group I invited Sir Henry Jackson to give his appreciation of the telegrams from the fleet. These appreciations were up to this point highly encouraging. I telegraphed to Admiral Carden at the end of February asking how many fine days he estimated he would require to get through. He replied on March 2: ‘Fourteen.’ It really looked as if we had found a way in which the Navy could help the allied cause in a new and most important direction. However, I observe that I informed the War Council on February 26 that ‘the Admiralty could not guarantee success and that the main difficulty would be encountered at the Narrows. All that could be said was that the reduction of the Outer Forts gave a good augury for success.’ I also pointed out repeatedly that a purely naval operation would not in itself make the Straits free for unarmoured merchant ships.

The Inner and Intermediate Defences of the Dardanelles were now exposed to the attack of the fleet. These defences consisted of ten forts and batteries of varying size and importance equally disposed on the European and Asiatic shores; of the minefields closing the Straits in successive lines; and of the mobile batteries and howitzers which protected both the forts and the minefields. To this problem the Fleet now addressed itself.

From February 24 onwards I could contemplate that Lord Kitchener would in certain circumstances be willing to use an army not merely to exploit a victory of the Fleet, but actually if need be to contribute to it on a large scale. All else was uncertain. What he would do, when and how he would do it, remained impenetrable. But the timely concentration of whatever forces were available was urgent. I did my best to see that this at least should not break down and I used the success of the Fleet at the outer forts as a spur.

Mr. Churchill to Lord Kitchener.

March 4, 1915.

I have now heard from Carden that he considers it will take him fourteen days on which firing is practicable to enter the Sea of Marmora, counting from the 2nd of March. Of course bad weather would prolong, and a collapse of the Turkish resistance at the later forts would shorten this period. But it seems to me we ought now to fix a date for the military concentration, so that the arrival of troops can be timed to fit in with the normal fruition of the naval operation. The transports for the 30,000 troops from Egypt, less those already taken to Lemnos, will all have arrived at Alexandria between the 8th and the 15th, that is to say, the troops could be landed at Bulair, or, alternatively, if practicable, taken through the Straits to Constantinople, about the 18th instant. By the same time the transports conveying the 8,000 men of the Naval Division from England could also reach the same points. In addition there are, I understand, in Lemnos 4,000 Australians and 2,000 Marines of the Royal Naval Division. Therefore I suggest for your consideration, and for the proper co-ordination of naval and military policy, that we fix in our own minds the 20th March as the date on which 40,000 British troops will certainly be available for land operations on Turkish soil. To make sure of this date it will perhaps be better to give all orders as for the 17th or 18th; we should then have a little in hand. I think the French should be given this date [20th] as their point, and should rendezvous at Lemnos not later than the 16th. We should also inform the Russians and the Greeks, and ask them what dates they can work to (assuming they are coming). It is necessary for me to know what your views and plans are in these matters.

I feel it my duty also to represent the strong feeling we have at the Admiralty that there should be placed at the head of this army so variously composed, a general officer of high rank and reputation, who has held important commands in war. I heard yesterday with very great pleasure you mention the name of Sir Ian Hamilton as the officer you had designated for the main command in this theatre. Certainly no choice could be more agreeable to the Admiralty and to the Navy, but I would venture to press upon you the desirability of this officer being on the spot as soon as possible, in order that he may concert with the Admiral the really critical and decisive operations which may be required at the very outset.

I wish to make it clear that the naval operations in the Dardanelles cannot be delayed for troop movements, as we must get into the Marmora as soon as possible in the normal course.

With regard to other British troops which it is understood you are holding in reserve, but about which no final decision has been taken, transport will be ready on the 15th for either the 29th Division or for the Yeomanry Division. It is not necessary for you to decide until about the 10th instant which you will send, and no doubt by then you will have heard from Birdwood. The need of one good division of regular infantry in an army composed of so many different elements, and containing only British and Australian troops raised since the war, still appears to me to be grave and urgent.

I sent a copy of this letter to the Prime Minister and Sir Edward Grey, with the following covering note: ‘These military movements must now be properly concerted.’

Lord Fisher was very much pleased by these developments. He would of course have welcomed the whole enterprise being converted at the first opportunity into a joint operation. The increasing possibilities of extensive military action made me anxious about the conditions which prevailed in the War Office. I knew that practically no military staff work was being done. The various contingencies possible were not being studied in detail. Numbers, dates, supplies and the organization appropriate to the various forms of action which might be required, were in the most vague condition, in so far as they were not carried in the comprehensive mind of the Secretary of State for War himself. He was in constant communication with General Birdwood at the Dardanelles. But he did not allow the General Staff nor the Quartermaster-General to meddle in the business at all at this stage, nor give them any inkling of the grave decisions which in certain circumstances he might wish to take, and which were evidently forming in his mind. Seeing all this I became increasingly apprehensive in the first week of March lest a military breakdown should occur. I was determined not to be involved in responsibility for action far more momentous than any which the Admiralty was taking, but over which I had absolutely no control. I therefore early in March asked the Prime Minister to arrange an interview between me and Lord Kitchener in his presence. I then asked Lord Kitchener formally and pointedly whether he assumed responsibility for any military operations that might arise, and in particular for the measure of the forces required to achieve success. He replied at once that he certainly did so, and the Admiralty thereupon transferred on March 12 the Royal Naval Division to his command.

On March 10 the 29th Division was ordered to Lemnos, and on March 16 the earliest of its transports sailed. The War Office, however, did not embark it in the ships in any order or organization to fight on arrival at its destination.

The success of the naval attack upon the outer forts of the Dardanelles and the first penetration of the Straits produced reactions of high consequence throughout Europe, and their repercussion was apparent all over the world. ‘The Turkish Headquarters at the end of February,’ writes General Liman von Sanders, then the head of the German Military Mission,’ expected the success of a break through by the hostile Fleet. Arrangements were made for the Sultan, the Court and Treasury to take refuge in the interior of Asia Minor.’ Far away on the Chicago Stock Exchange wheat prices fell with suddenness.

In Europe, Russia asked for a public declaration about Constantinople. At the outset of the war the attitude of Russia had been perfectly correct. She had joined with England and France in assuring Turkey that the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire would be respected at the peace. But once Turkey, rejecting this fair offer, had taken sides against her, the Russian attitude changed. ‘The Turkish aggression,’ writes Monsieur Paléologue, the French Ambassador in Petrograd, November 9, 1914, ‘has resounded to the depths of the Russian conscience…. All the romantic Utopias of Slavism have suddenly awakened.’ The supreme need of encouraging Russia in the midst of her disasters and defeats led Sir Edward Grey, as early as November 14, 1914, to instruct Sir George Buchanan to inform M. Sazonoff that the British Government recognized that’ the question of the Straits and of Constantinople should be settled in conformity with Russian desires.’ At the time this had remained a complete secret. But now in 1915 that there seemed to be a prospect of Constantinople falling into the hands of the Allies, Russian opinion required public reassurance. Such an announcement was bound to cause unfavourable reactions in Greece, Bulgaria and Roumania. Could we, on the other hand, afford to quarrel with or even dishearten Russia at the moment which she was reeling under the German cannonade, but was nevertheless contending manfully and was all the time vital to our hopes of general victory? So important was the decision judged, that at the beginning of March the Prime Minister invited the leaders of the Conservative Party, Lord Lansdowne and Mr. Bonar Law, to attend our Council on the subject. I was glad of this development and strongly advised it. I had long wanted to see a National Coalition formed. I viewed with great disquiet the spectacle of this powerful Conservative Party—almost all-powerful it had become since Liberal politics were shattered for the time by the outbreak of the struggle—brooding morosely outside, with excellent information from the Services and complete detachment from all responsibility for the terrible business which had to go forward from day to day. We needed their aid. The Empire needed their aid. We wanted all their able men in positions of high and active authority. I had frequently talked to Mr. Asquith in this sense in the early months of the war, and I now pointed out that this moment, when some fruition and promise of success had come to us in the East, was of all others the time when the necessary fusion and coalition could be effected on terms honourable to both great parties. The Prime Minister was far from being unconscious of this aspect, or of the political instability which the situation would present should the general state of the war take a turn for the worse, as seemed very likely. I hoped that this first meeting with the official chiefs of the Opposition—Mr. Balfour being already in our councils—might lead to rapid developments in the direction of our national unity and cohesion. The two Conservative leaders, however, showed plainly by their manner that they did not care to become responsible for a fraction only of the policy of the State and were chary of committing themselves in regard to a single incident. This was natural, but the results were unfortunate. The Council did not march satisfactorily, although a united decision was reached. And on the whole, as the result, a chilling impression of domestic politics was, I think, sustained by the Prime Minister.

In the early days of March both Great Britain and France apprised the Russian Government that they would agree to the annexation of Constantinople by Russia as a part of a victorious peace; and this momentous fact was accordingly made public on the 12th.

In the Balkans the effect of the naval operations was electrical. The attitude of Bulgaria changed with lightning swiftness. Within a fortnight our Intelligence Reports showed that the Turks were being forced to move back to Adrianople and develop their front against Bulgaria. General Paget, the head of a special Mission then at Sofia, telegraphed to Lord Kitchener on March 17 that after an audience with the King he was convinced that ‘the operations in the Dardanelles have made a deep impression, that all possibility of Bulgaria attacking any Balkan State that might side with the Entente is now over, and there is some reason to think that shortly the Bulgarian Army will move against Turkey to co-operate in the Dardanelles operations.’ The attitude of Roumania also became one of extreme and friendly vigilance. Russia, although she had not previously been able to spare more than 1,000 Cossacks for action in the Balkans, now offered the fullest naval co-operation, and began to concentrate an army corps under General Istomine at Batoum to participate in what was believed to be the impending fall of Constantinople.

On March 2 our Minister at Bucharest telegraphed that the Roumanian Prime Minister had said that his conviction that Italy ‘would move soon’ had become stronger. ‘My Russian colleague has twice seen the Italian Minister and while the latter had often before spoken to him about… Italy… joining us in the war, his language on the last two occasions was more precise than ever before and was indeed almost pressing. He spoke of acquisitions on the Adriatic coast, and a share in the eventual partition of Turkey…. Italy would have in a month’s time an army of 1,800,000 men ready to move….’ Other similar indications flowed in. On March 5 I minuted to Sir Edward Grey: ‘The attitude of Italy is remarkable. If she can be induced to join with us, the Austrian Fleet would be powerless and the Mediterranean as safe as an English lake. Surely some effort should be made to encourage Italy to come forward. From leaving an alliance to declaring war is only a step.’ The Foreign Secretary replied in writing, ‘I will neglect no opportunity.’

Most important of all were the effects upon Greece. We have seen how on February 11 M. Venizelos, in spite of his friendship for the Allies and his deep desire to join them, had refused to be drawn into the war by the futile offer of a British and French division. But the attack on the Dardanelles produced an immediate change. On March 1 the British Minister in Athens telegraphed that M. Venizelos had put forward a proposal that a Greek army corps of three divisions should be sent to Gallipoli. Sir Edward Grey promptly replied that H.M. Government would gladly accept this aid, and added that the Admiralty were very anxious that the Greeks should assist with ships as well as troops in the Dardanelles. The British Minister replied on March 2: ‘M. Venizelos hopes to be in a position to make us a definite offer to-morrow…. He had already approached the King, who,’ added the Minister, ‘I learn from another source, is in favour of war.’

On the 3rd the British Military Attaché at Athens telegraphed that ‘The view of the Greek General Staff was universally that the naval attack should be assisted by land operations. Their plan was to disembark four or five Greek divisions at the Southern extremity of the Peninsula and to advance against the heights East of Maidos. Three successive defended positions would have to be carried, but Turks could not develop large forces owing to lack of space for deployment. If simultaneously an attack by a separate and sufficient force was made against lines of Bulair, either by disembarking troops North of [the] lines or at head of Gulf of Xeros, the Turks would have to abandon the Maidos region or run risk of being cut off.’

Thus at this moment we had within our reach or on the way not only the Australasian Army Corps and all the other troops in Egypt, the Royal Naval Division, and a French Division, we had also at least a Greek army corps of three divisions and possibly more, while a Russian army corps was assembling at Batoum. It would have been quite easy, in addition, to have sent the 29th Division and one or two Territorial divisions from England. There was surely a reasonable prospect that with all these forces playing their respective parts in a general scheme, the Gallipoli Peninsula could even now have been seized and Constantinople taken before the end of April. Behind all lay Bulgaria and Roumania, determined not to be left out of the fall of Constantinople and the collapse of the Turkish Empire. One step more, one effort more—and Constantinople was in our hands and all the Balkan States committed to irrevocable hostility to the Central Powers. One must pause, and with the tragic knowledge of after days dwell upon this astounding situation which had been produced swiftly, easily, surely, by a comparatively small naval enterprise directed at a vital nerve-centre of the world.

But now a terrible fatality intervened. Russia—failing, reeling backward under the German hammer, with her munitions running short, cut off from her allies—Russia was the Power which ruptured irretrievably this brilliant and decisive combination. On March 3 the Russian Foreign Minister informed our Ambassador that:—

‘The Russian Government could not consent to Greece participating in operations in the Dardanelles, as it would be sure to lead to complications….’

‘The Emperor,’ M. Sazonoff added, ‘had in an audience with him yesterday, declared he could not in any circumstances consent to Greek co-operation in the Dardanelles.’ This was a hard saying. Was there no finger to write upon the wall, was there no ancestral spirit to conjure up before this unfortunate Prince, the downfall of his House, the ruin of his people—the bloody cellar of Ekaterinburg?

In Athens the Russian Minister, under orders from his Government, was active to discourage and resist the Greek intervention. In particular, the King of Greece was made aware that in no circumstances would he be allowed to enter Constantinople with his troops. Other suggestions were made, that perhaps one Greek division might be allowed to participate, ‘this having the advantage that the King could not take the field in person.’ Can one wonder that, with his German consort and German leanings, with every appeal on the one hand and this violent rebuff upon the other, King Constantine was thrown back, and relapsed into his previous attitude of hostile reserve?

Further advices from the French Foreign Office on March 4 stated:—

‘The Russian Government would not at any price accept the co-operation of Greece in Constantinople expedition.

‘The French Minister for Foreign Affairs thinks progress of Anglo-French fleet may be such as to [enable it to] appear before Constantinople without necessity of landing troops, except a small body to hold the Bulair lines. There might consequently not be any occasion for military co-operation with Greece… If the Greek Government offer co-operation in the Dardanelles expedition they should be told that co-operation of Greece in the war must be entire and she must give active support to Serbia.’

Our Minister at Athens, the well-informed and vigilant Elliot, left us in no doubt of the Greek position.

‘To insist on Greek support of Serbia,’ he telegraphed on the 6th, ‘except in the event of a Bulgarian attack, would be to wreck the prospect of Greek co-operation with us. The Prime Minister himself had been convinced by the arguments of the General Staff as to the strategical danger of such an operation.’

The British Military Attaché telegraphed on the 6th:—

‘My Russian colleague told me to-day that he thought Russia would object to presence of King of Greece in Constantinople, and might make a stipulation that he did not come, a condition of acceptance of the present Greek offer. Any such restriction might lead to collapse of the whole proposal. I urged him to represent to Russian General Staff the strategic advantages of the proposal. Entry of Greece into the war would give best guarantee of succouring Serbia if again attacked by Austria, and maintenance of Greek forces intact would have initially a deterrent effect upon Bulgaria, which in turn might set Roumania free to co-operate with Russia in Bukovina. The French would benefit by securing Corfu as a naval base for the Adriatic, and a general movement in favour of the Triple Entente would be set going in the Balkans.

‘The King,’ he added, ‘will not initially accompany force, but when Constantinople is approached he may alter his mind. If so, it is conceivable that the King of the Bulgarians might like to anticipate him by co-operating against the Turkish Army—which might have decisive results.

‘Russia’s objection to temporary presence of either King would be then most unfortunate.

‘M. Venizelos,’ he concluded, ‘received a great ovation in procession to-day, but main reason for popularity of his proposal to join us, is the hope of Greek troops reaching Constantinople.’

Feeling this situation, as I did, in every nerve of my body, I was acutely distressed. The time-honoured quotation one learnt as a schoolboy—‘Quos Deus vult perdere prius dementat’—resounded in all its deep significance now that conditions as tragic and fate-laden as those of ancient Rome had again descended upon the world. This was, indeed, the kind of situation for which such terrible sentences had been framed—perhaps it was for this very situation that this sentence had been prophetically reserved.

In my distress I wrote, late on the night of the 6th, to Sir Edward Grey.

Mr. Churchill to Sir Edward Grey.

March 6, 1915.

I beseech you at this crisis not to make a mistake in falling below the level of events. Half-hearted measures will ruin all, and a million men will die through the prolongation of the war. You must be bold and violent. You have a right to be. Our fleet is forcing the Dardanelles. No armies can reach Constantinople but those which we invite, yet we seek nothing here but the victory of the common cause.

Tell the Russians that we will meet them in a generous and sympathetic spirit about Constantinople. But no impediment must be placed in the way of Greek co-operation. We must have Greece and Bulgaria, if they will come. I am so afraid of your losing Greece, and yet paying all the future into Russian hands. If Russia prevents Greece helping, I will do my utmost to oppose her having Constantinople. She is a broken power but for our aid, and has no resource open but to turn traitor—and this she cannot do.

If you don’t back up this Greece—the Greece of Venizelos—you will have another which will cleave to Germany.

I put this letter aside till the next morning, and in the morning there arrived the following laconic telegram from Athens:—

‘The King having refused to agree to M. Venizelos’ proposals, the Cabinet have resigned.’

I put my letter away unsent, and print it now not in any reproach of Sir Edward Grey or the Foreign Office. They felt as we did. They did all in their power. But I print it because it registers a terrible moment in the long struggle to save Russia from her foes and from herself.

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Next: X. The New Resolve