Primary Documents - Henry Nevinson on the Allied Setback at the Dardanelles, 18 March 1915

Henry Nevinson Reproduced below is an account of British and French naval operations in the Dardanelles Straits during February and March 1915 by noted British journalist Henry Nevinson.  In his account Nevinson recalls how close the Allied force came to breaking through the Narrows, although he constantly stated his own belief that a purely naval attack upon land batteries was ultimately doomed to failure.

Journalist Henry Nevinson on the Anglo-French Setback at the Dardanelles, 18 March 1915

Orders for washing and clean clothes (to avoid septic wounds) were issued on February 18th, and next morning, in clear and calm weather, "General Quarters" was sounded.  The firing began at eight, and the first scene in the drama of the Dardanelles Expedition was enacted.

The main forts to be destroyed were four in number; two on either side the entrance.  One stood on the cliff of Cape Helles, just to the left or southwest of the shelving amphitheatre afterwards celebrated as V Beach.  Another lay low down, on the right of the same beach, close in front of the medieval castle of Seddel Bahr, where still one sees lying in heaps or scattered over the ground huge cannonballs of stone, such as were hurled at Duckworth's fleet more than a century before.

Upon the Asiatic side stood the fort of Kum Kali, at the very mouth of the strait, not far from the cliff village of Yenishehr, and separated from the plain of Troy by the river Mendere, near neighbour to the Simois and Scamander conjoined.  About a mile down the, coast, close beside Yenishehr village, is the remaining fort of Orkhanieh.

None of these forts was heavily armed.  The largest guns appear to have been 10.2 inch (six on Seddel Bahr, and four on Kum Kali), and when our squadron drew their fire their extreme range was found to be 12,500 yards.

Throughout the morning of February 19th, Admiral Carden concentrated his bombardment upon these forts at long range, and they made no reply.  Hoping that he had silenced or utterly destroyed them, he advanced six ships to closer range in the afternoon, and then the reply came in earnest, though the shooting was poor.

At sunset he withdrew the ships, though Kum Kali was still firing.  In evidence, he admitted that "the result of the day's action showed apparently that the effect of long range bombardment by direct fire on modern earthwork forts is slight."

It was a lesson repeated time after time throughout the campaign.  The big naval shells threw up stones and earth as from volcanoes, and caused great alarm.  But the alarm was temporary, and the effect, whether on earthworks or trenches, usually disappointing.  For naval guns, constructed to strike visible objects at long range with marvellous accuracy, have too flat a trajectory for the plunging fire (as of howitzers) which devastates earthworks and trenches.

It was with heavy howitzers that the Germans destroyed the forts of Liege, Namur, and Antwerp, and, owing to this obvious difference in the weapons employed, Mr. Churchill's expectation of crushing the Dardanelles defences by the big guns of the Queen Elizabeth and the Inflexible was frustrated.

Nevertheless, after a few days of driving rain and heavy sea (a common event at this season, which might have been anticipated), Admiral Carden renewed the bombardment on February 25th, employing the Queen Elizabeth, Irresistible, Agamemnon, and Gaulois.

The Queen Elizabeth, firing beyond the enemy's range, assisted in silencing the powerful batteries on Cape Helles, and though the Agamemnon was severely struck at about 11,000 yards' range, the subsidiary ships Cornwallis, Vengeance, Triumph, Albion, Suffren, and Charlemagne stood in closer, and by the evening compelled all the outer forts to cease fire.

Next day landing parties of marines were put ashore to complete their destruction; which they did, though at Kum Kali they were driven back to their boats with some loss.  The story that marines had tea at Krithia and climbed Achi Baba for the view - places soon to acquire such ill-omened fame - is mythical.

But certainly they met with no opposition on the Peninsula, and if a large military force had then been available, the gallant but appalling events of the landing two months later would never have occurred.  Had not the War Council persisted in the design of a solely naval attack, even after their resolve had begun to waver, a large military force might have been available, either then, or to cooperate with a similar naval movement only a week or two later.

Stormy weather delayed further attack till March 4th, when a squadron, including the Triumph, Albion, Lord Nelson, and Ocean, passed up the strait to a position beyond the village of Erenkeui, conspicuous upon a mountainside of the Asiatic coast, and bombarded Fort Dardanus.

The fort stands upon Kephez Point, which projects as though to defend the very entrance of the Narrows.  Over the top of the promontory the houses and mosques of Chanak and Kilid Bahr could be plainly seen, where those towns face each other across the narrowest part of the passage.

Of the eight lines of minefield drawn across the strait, five lay between Kephez Point and Chanak.  Day and night our mine-sweeping trawlers were engaged upon them, and considerable praise must be given to the courage and endurance of their crews, who for the most part had been North Sea fishermen before the expedition.

Their service throughout, whether for mine-sweeping or transport, was of very high value.  It almost justified the remark made to me by a skipper whom I had met before on the Dogger Bank: "If the Kaiser had knowed as we'd got trawlers, he would never have declared war!"

A similar advance to engage the forts at Dardanus, and, after those were thought to be silenced, the forts at Chanak and Kilid Bahr, was made next day, and again, in stronger force, on March 6th.  At the same time, on the 6th, the Queen Elizabeth, stationed off Gaba Tepe on the outer coast, flung her vast shells clear over the Peninsula into the Chanak forts, her fire being directed by aeroplanes.

She was supported by the Agamemnon and Ocean, and there were high hopes of thus crushing out the big guns defending the Narrows, some of which were believed to be 14-inch.  Nevertheless, when the four French battleships advanced tip the strait on the following day (March 7th), supported at long range by the Agamemnon and her sister ship Lord Nelson, the Chanak forts replied with an effective and damaging fire.

It was impossible to say when a fort was really out of action.  After long silence, the Turkish and German gunners frequently returned and reopened fire, as though nothing had happened.  In his evidence, Admiral Carden stated that when the demolition parties landed after the bombardment of the outer forts, they found 70 per cent of the guns apparently intact upon their mountings, although their magazines were blown up and their electrical or other communications destroyed.

Still worse than these disappointing results was the opportunity left to the enemy of moving, not only bodies of men, but field-guns and heavy howitzers from one point of the Peninsula and Asiatic coast to another, and opening fire upon the ships from concealed and unexpected positions.  Our landing-parties of marines also suffered considerably from the advantage thus given to the enemy, as happened to a body which landed at Kum Kali for the second time on March 4th.

All such dangers and hindrances would have been removed if the navy had been supported by sufficient military force to occupy the ground behind the ships as they advanced.

Mr. Churchill, though striving to restrain his impatience, strongly urged Admiral Carden to press forward the naval attack with the utmost vigour.  In a telegram of March 11th he wrote: "If success cannot be obtained without loss of ships and men, results to be gained are important enough to justify such a loss.  The whole operation may be decided, and consequences of a decisive character upon the war may be produced by the turning of the corner Chanak... We have no wish to hurry you or urge you beyond your judgment, but we recognize clearly that at a certain period in your operations you will have to press hard for a decision; and we desire to know whether, in your opinion, that period has now arrived.  Every well-conceived action for forcing a decision, even should regrettable losses be entailed, will receive our support."

To this Admiral Carden replied that he considered the stage for vigorous action had now been reached, but that, when the fleet entered the Sea of Marmora, military operations on a large scale should be opened at once, so as to secure communications.

On March 15th Mr. Churchill, still anxious not to allow his impatience to drive him into rashness, telegraphed again that, though no time was to be lost, there should be no undue haste.  An attempt to rush the passage without having cleared a channel through the mines and destroyed the primary armament of the forts was not contemplated.

The close cooperation of army and navy must be carefully studied, and it might be found that a naval rush would be costly without military occupation of the Kilid Bahr plateau.  On these points the Admiral was to consult with the General who was being sent out to take command of the troops.  To all of this Admiral Carden agreed.  He proposed to begin vigorous operations on March 17th, but did not intend to rush the passage before a channel was cleared.  This answer was telegraphed on March 16th.  But on the same day the Admiral resigned his command owing to serious ill-health.

Rear-Admiral Sir John de Robeck, second in command, was next day appointed his successor.  He was five years younger, was, of course, fully cognizant of the plans, and expressed his entire approval of them.  Yet it appears from his evidence that though strongly urged by Mr. Churchill to act on "his independent and separate judgment," and not to hesitate to state objections, his real motive in carrying on the prearranged scheme was not so much his confidence in success as his fear lest a withdrawal might injure our prestige in the Near East; and, secondly, his desire to make the best he could of an idea which he regarded as an order.

"The order was to carry out a certain operation," he said, "or to try to do it, and we had to do the best we could."  If the ships got through, he, like many others, expected a revolution or other political change in Turkey.  Otherwise, he saw that transports could not come up, and that the ships could not remain in the Sea of Marmora for more than a fortnight or three weeks, but would have to run the gauntlet coming down again, just as Admiral Duckworth did in 1807.

In his telegram accepting the command, however, he made no mention of these considerations, but only said that success depended upon clearing the minefields after silencing the forts.

Indeed, he had small time for any considerations.  For on the very first day after receiving his command (March 18th) he undertook the main attempt to force the Narrows.  The weather was favourable - no mist and little wind.  The scheme was to attack in three squadrons successively.

The first blow was given by the four most powerful ships - Queen Elizabeth, Inflexible, Lord Nelson, and Agamemnon - which poured heavy shell at long range into the forts at Chanak and Kilid Bahr, while the Triumph and Prince George bombarded Fort Dardanus on the Asiatic coast, and Fort Soghandere, opposite to it upon the Peninsula.

This bombardment lasted from about 11 a.m. till 12.30 p.m., and all six ships found themselves exposed to heavy fire from the forts, and from hidden howitzers and field-guns in varied positions upon both shores.

At about 12.30 the second squadron, consisting of the four French ships, came up into action, advancing beyond the former line in the direction of Kephez Point.  Though suffering considerably (chiefly owing to their inability to manoeuvre in such narrow waters, thus presenting very visible and almost fixed targets to the enemy's guns), the ten ships maintained the bombardment for about an hour (till nearly 1.30).  The enemy's forts then fell silent, and it was hoped that many of them, at all events, had been destroyed.

Accordingly, the third squadron, consisting of six British ships (Irresistible, Vengeance, Ocean, Swiftsure, Majestic, and Albion), were brought up, with the design of advancing first through the Narrows, so as to insure a clear passage for the greater ships which made the first attack.

At the same time the four French ships, together with the Triumph and Prince George, were ordered to withdraw, so as to leave more room for the rest.  During this manoeuvre, all or nearly all the guns in the forts opened fire again, their silence having been due, not to destruction, but to the absence of the gunners, driven away by the gases or terror of our shells.

Most of the ships suffered, and as the Bouvet moved down channel with her companion ships, she was struck by three big shells in quick succession.  The blows were immediately followed by a vast explosion.  It is disputed whether this was due to a shell bursting in her magazine, or to a torpedo fired from the Asiatic coast, or, as the Admiralty report said, to a mine drifting down the current.

In two or three minutes she sank in deep water just north of Erenkeui, carrying nearly the whole of her crew to the bottom.  The cries of the men dragged down with her, or struggling in the water as they were swept downstream, sounded over the strait.

At 2.30 the bombardment of all the forts was renewed, but they were not silenced.  At 4 o'clock the Irresistible drew away with a heavy list.  Apparently she also was struck by a mine adrift; but she remained afloat for nearly two hours; and nearly all her crew were saved by destroyers, which swarmed round her at great risk to themselves, since they offered a crowded target.

A quarter of an hour after she sank, the Ocean was struck in a similar manner (6.50 p.m.) and sank with great rapidity.  Most of her crew, however, were also saved by destroyers near at hand.  Many of the other ships were struck by shells.

The Inflexible and Gaulois suffered especially, and only just crawled back to be beached, the one at Tenedos, the other at Rabbit Island.  At sunset the fleet was withdrawn.  It had been proved once more that, in an attack upon land forts, ships lie at a great disadvantage.  In this case the disadvantage was much increased by the narrowness of the waters, which brought the ships within range of howitzer and other batteries hidden upon both shores, and also gave special opportunity for the use of mines drifting on the rapid current, or anchored right across the channel in successive rows.

Mr. Churchill wished to renew the attempt at once.  Perhaps he thought that English people are given to exaggerate the loss of a battleship.  Admiral de Robeck shared this view. I t was suspected at the Admiralty that the ammunition in the forts was running short, and, at a much later date, Enver Pasha is reported to have said: "If the English had only had the courage to rush more ships through the Dardanelles, they could have got to Constantinople; but their delay enabled us thoroughly to fortify the Peninsula, and in six weeks' time we had taken down there over 200 Austrian Skoda guns."

That delay of six weeks was fatal, but the navy was not to blame.  The British military leaders decided in favour of a land attack.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. III, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

'Case-Shot' was the name for a short-range artillery anti-personnel shell filled with pellets, chain-links, etc.

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