History Wars World War I

The forgotten study that doomed thousands of Allied soldiers

At the Gallipoli Campaign, the Entente Powers failed at a challenging task...that the British had already studied and determined impossible.
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dardanelles
British battleship HMS Irresistible abandoned and sinking, 18 March 1915, during the Battle of Gallipoli.

One of the biggest failures for Great Britain in World War I came at the Dardanelles. During the Gallipoli Campaign, Great Britain and its allies lost 300,000 killed, sick, or wounded while inflicting 255,000 casualties on the Ottomans. And Britain achieved none of its major strategic objectives.

Which is a shame, especially since Britain’s own studies and intelligence warned against this exact attack.

The importance of the Dardanelles

You might have heard about the Dardanelles Strait in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Turkey closed the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits, preventing any warships not based in the Black Sea from using them. The reason it’s a big deal is because the Dardanelles help control all sea traffic into or out of the Black Sea. It’s an effective chokepoint.

And it’s also a lane directly into Istanbul, Turkey’s capital. In World War I, Istanbul was known as Constantinople and was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, a major belligerent. Britain and France decided that an attack through the Dardanelles would allow them to hit the capital and knock the Ottomans out of the war, leaving just Germany and Austria-Hungary to fight.

dardanelles battle
HMS Canopus fires a salvo from her 12 in (305 mm) guns against Ottoman forts in the Dardanelles.

This attack would become known as the Gallipoli Campaign. The 11 months of intense fighting became one of the most controversial blunders in military history as over 450,000 troops were committed and 300,000 were killed, wounded, captured, or made ill. And in exchange, the Entente Powers captured tiny beachheads and little else.

While the Ottomans suffered more dead, over 56,000 vs. a little over 31,000 for the Entente, they took fewer total casualties. And they successfully prevented the Entente from achieving any of their strategic objectives.

Britain should have known better

The naval and land attacks to force the Dardanelles utterly failed, exactly like the British predicted almost 10 years before.

In 1906, the Ottoman and British Empires both had claim to sections of the Sinai peninsula. The Ottoman Empire claimed control of territory around the town of Taba, then a part of Egypt and the British Empire. The British Empire wasn’t particularly worried about the town, but it saw Ottoman expansion in the area as a threat to the Suez Canal. And Britain worried, a lot, about the canal.

hms crampus
The crew of the HMS Grampus cheering the British submarine E11 after a successful raid on Turkish defences at Gallipoli.

The Taba Crisis resolved peacefully, but Britain realized it had no good plan for defending the canal from Ottoman expansion. It started studying the best way to threaten the Ottoman Empire. It came up with the possibility of forcing the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits.

The Director of Naval Intelligence put it succinctly: any attempt to send the fleet to Constantinople…without first destroying the forts in the Dardanelles, is greatly to be deprecated.

The Dardanelles Strait had forts lining it, mobile howitzers defending it, and a minelaying ship. Britain’s Committee of Imperial Defence met to discuss all their options in 1907 and decided, “the operation…on or near the Gallipoli Peninsula would involve great risk, and should not be undertaken if other means of bringing pressure to bear on Turkey were available.”

What went wrong?

So, why did Britain do an amphibious operation that it had specifically warned itself against? Because people have stupidly short memories and don’t read their memos.

Despite the 1907 conclusion, Britain put together a fleet just eight years later in 1915 to force the straits. And, even better, Britain decided to get through the minefields by having civilian fisherman use their civilian fishing boats to pull them from the water.

When they attempted to force the straits, the modern warships took some damage from the howitzers and a lot from the mines, while the fishing boats took a lot of damage from the howitzers. Three major warships fell to the mines and two battleships were heavily damaged.

troops at dardanelles
Captain Leslie Morshead in a trench at Lone Pine after the battle, looking at Australian and Ottoman dead on the parapet

So the navy commanders pulled back a little and attempted a landing. The hope was that the armies of Britain, France, New Zealand, India, and more would be able to capture or cripple many of the shore defenders on the Gallipoli peninsula.

Yeah, that also failed. But it took longer to fail. So, you know, that’s good.

Ultimately, the Entente gambit to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. And, bonus, Bulgaria joined the Ottomans and the Central Powers during the campaign, making the overall war even harder for Britain.

On the plus side, Britain did an amazing job of evacuating the survivors.