Was Churchill’s Dardanelles offensive doomed to fail?

Christopher M. Bell is Professor of History at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia and the author of Churchill and the Dardanelles. In this guest article, he reassesses the strategic failure of the Dardanelles campaign.

The failure of British and French naval forces to pass through the Straits of the Dardanelles in 1915 remains the subject of vigorous debate more than a century later. The offensive is still praised by many as one of the few creative ideas of the First World War – a bold and daring stroke that could have averted the futile slaughter of the Western Front and dramatically shortened the conflict, saving millions of lives. For others, the offensive was fundamentally misconceived, a doomed enterprise forced on reluctant admirals by the overbearing First Lord of the Admiralty (and dangerous amateur strategist) Winston Churchill.  

It is easy now to see why the offensive failed. The Dardanelles Straits presented a formidable obstacle: an attacking fleet would have to traverse a system of interlocking defences 38 miles deep, consisting of mines, torpedoes, and a large number and variety of heavy guns and howitzers arrayed in forts and concealed along both sides of the Straits.

The cornerstone of the Ottoman defences was ten lines of mines laid across the centre of the narrow waterway, containing around 344 contact mines, each capable of sinking a battleship. Naval planners had a healthy respect for mines in 1915, and there was never any question of a fleet rushing through the Straits until a safe passage had first been cleared. The plan was to undertake a slow, methodical advance. The Ottoman forts lining the Straits would be systematically demolished by the heavy guns of the fleet, while minesweepers cleared a path for the ships to advance. Once through the Dardanelles, there would be no further obstacles to the fleet reaching Constantinople (Istanbul), the Ottoman capital.

If these had been German defences, it is hard to imagine the offensive ever being launched. But the British generally took a dismissive view of the Ottoman Empire at this time. They had visions of the Turks mounting an ineffective defence, panicking at the first sign of British success, and capitulating before the fleet had even reached Constantinople. A great victory might therefore be won by the Navy alone. One of Germany’s allies would be knocked out of the war completely; the Balkan states, it was thought, would flock to the Allied cause; and a vital line of supply would be opened with Russia, allowing Russian grain to get out of the Black Sea, and Allied munitions to get in.

Britain’s political leaders were dazzled by the possibilities. What clinched their support was the assurance of Winston Churchill that if things did not go according to plan – if the fleet could not, after all, break through the Straits – that the operation could simply be called off. The fleet would halt its attack, and the whole thing treated as a feint, not a serious attempt to break though. Viewed in these terms, it is easy to see why British leaders supported the project. It was a gamble, to be sure, but the stakes were low – a few antiquated battleships might be lost, and Britain might suffer some embarrassment if the offensive stalled – but there was little likelihood of an outright disaster, and the potential rewards seemed to justify the risk. Politicians and admirals agreed that it was worth launching an attack to test the enemy defences.

A combined Anglo-French fleet under British command got the Allied offensive off to a promising start on 19 February 1915. The Ottoman forts defending the entrance to the Dardanelles were put out of action in less than a week, with no losses suffered by the attackers. But the assault immediately stalled once the fleet moved inside the Straits. It soon became clear that British minesweepers – converted North Sea fishing trawlers – were not up to the task. These slow, unarmoured vessels were easy targets for the Ottoman guns. They suffered heavy losses and eliminated virtually no mines. To make matters worse, the heavy guns of the fleet also fell far short of expectations. The big guns in the Turkish forts could only be destroyed by a direct hit, but this proved notoriously difficult to accomplish. Allied warships found themselves under constant harassing fire from guns and howitzers hidden along the shore, targets they were unable even to locate, much less destroy. 

To break the deadlock, the commanding admiral launched a major attack on 18 March using his entire force of 18 battleships and battle-cruisers. The day ended in disaster. The Allies were unaware that the Turks had put down a new line of mines a few nights earlier. The French battleship Bouvet was the first to stray into the new minefield. It went down rapidly, with heavy loss of life. Before long, two pre-dreadnought British battleships, HMS Ocean and HMS Irresistible, were also lost after striking mines, and the modern battle-cruiser HMS Inflexible was badly damaged. By the time the attack was called off, fully a third of the Allied fleet had been put out of action. 

Allied leaders would have accepted these losses if the Ottoman defences had been overcome, but in fact no meaningful progress was made that day: only a few Turkish guns were destroyed, and not a single mine was swept. The Dardanelles experiment had clearly failed. This was the moment the assault should have been called off, as the original plan had called for. Was the experiment worth trying? We now know that the naval attack, as originally conceived, had virtually no chance of success. But that was not clear beforehand, and there were good reasons to make the attempt – as long as it could be easily broken off. The real tragedy of the Dardanelles offensive was not the losses of March 18th, but what followed. British leaders had become so heavily invested in the offensive that they now decided to escalate their commitment rather than abandon it. Allied troops had been built up in the theatre in anticipation of an Ottoman collapse, and the commanders on the spot – with full support from the politicians in London – decided that a large military force would be landed on the Gallipoli peninsula to do what the Navy could not, neutralize the Ottoman defences. This, it was hoped, would allow the fleet to resume its passage through the Straits. 

The land campaign that began on 25 April was an unmitigated failure, resulting in as many as 250,000 casualties on the Allied side, and many more on the Ottoman side, before the theatre was finally abandoned in January 1916.