The Sea Battles for the Dardanelles I

Fort Seddulbahr before the bombardment on 19 February 1915.

Reconstructed Turkish heavy gun site at the Dardanelles Straits before the bombardment by the British and French fleets

Turkey’s entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers did not bring about the strategic advantage for which Germany had hoped. Bulgaria and Romania did not join the alliance with the Central Powers and remained neutral. Thus a direct overland transportation link between these allied states was still missing and this was of decisive importance for delivering essential weapons and ammunition to Turkey. Even Romania insisted on its neutrality and no longer permitted freight from Germany to pass through its territory, which had previously been possible by paying bribes.

In mid-November 1914, based on reports from Istanbul, the Foreign Ministry emphasised in a memorandum to the German High Command that the number of mines in the Dardanelles and the army’s ammunition would hardly suffice for two battles, so that ensuring a transit route to Istanbul through Serbia became one of the most important tasks of German war planning. The document pointed out that should Turkish requirements not be fulfilled due to shortage of ammunition, then the possible negative consequence could be the mobilisation of the entire Balkans against the Central Powers. On the other hand, as a positive effect of a campaign against Serbia, and thus by keeping the Turkish army as an ally, then 700,000 Turks as well as a further 400,000 men of the Bulgarian army could be made ‘usable’ for German purposes. Towards the end of November 1914 Austro-Hungarian troops tried to defeat Serbia but during the first half of December this offensive ended in a severe rout and the Central Powers’ withdrawal from Serbia. The overland route to Turkey remained blocked.

Field Marshal von der Goltz was again posted to Istanbul in November 1914, transferred from a controversial period as military governor of Belgium. This assignment had been engineered on the initiative of Ambassador von Wangenheim, who evidently wanted to be rid of the recalcitrant General Liman von Sanders and hoped that he would be better able to exercise influence on the conciliatory old Field Marshal. When von Sanders learned of Wangenheim’s efforts to bring back von der Goltz, he tried to dissuade the head of the Military Cabinet in Berlin and stated that, in his view, his relationship with the Ambassador was not as bad as was apparently mistakenly assumed. Von Sanders received support through a letter that Lieutenant Colonel Thauvenay, a member of the Military Mission and now quartermaster at Turkish Headquarters, wrote to the Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. In the letter, Thauvenay tried to excuse the conflicts between the Head of the Military Mission and the Ambassador, indicating that it was due to the General’s military integrity and straightforwardness. He considered von der Goltz was unfit to have an active role in the Turkish military, since he had already ‘sinned enough in the Turkish army’ and what was needed was ‘not a smiling advisor but a firm hand’. This entreaty was unsuccessful however, and von der Goltz arrived in Istanbul on 12 December 1914. But not even von der Goltz himself knew for what purpose he had been assigned to Turkey. He had received no clear instructions or support from either Germany or the Turks. Von der Goltz was not made subordinate to the Military Mission, had no other powers and was therefore not suitable for the German Ambassador’s intention, which was namely that he should act as a replacement for Liman von Sanders. On the contrary – in a telegram on the departure of the Field Marshal from Berlin, it was said that the posting was ‘merely an act of courtesy and has nothing to do with warfare or military operations’. This was understandably unsatisfactory for von der Goltz, who still regarded himself as the figurehead of German-Turkish cooperation and was now bitterly disappointed with his dubious status and lack of recognition:

‘Here I am only to hold a purely honorary position. Not even an adjutant was to be allocated to me. […] Any rights, powers or courses of action to gain influence have not been granted to me. I was not authorized to recruit other officers. All these rights, especially a significant monetary fund, however, were placed at General v. Liman’s disposal, were contractually guaranteed to him, and the Military Cabinet nervously ensured that I was not interfering with these rights.’

Nevertheless, at the beginning of February 1915 the Sultan gave von der Goltz the function of an advisor at the Turkish headquarters and let him take part at General Staff meetings. Although he felt like a ‘spare wheel’ in this position he nonetheless gave expert advice to the Turkish leadership and wrote assessments and reports to Berlin. Thus during these weeks von der Goltz principally viewed his task as explaining to Istanbul the war question against Serbia and in supporting the new Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, with his assessments. He saw the advantage of a military operation against Serbia as of grand strategic effect, both in Turkey and in the Balkans, and wrote to Falkenhayn:

‘If, on the other hand, we succeed in bringing the Balkan states over to our side through early success in Serbia, our prevalence over Russia would be finally settled. We have Bulgaria and as soon as we or our allies are with strong forces in Niš the rest will follow on. Then the well-equipped Turkish army of six corps, now inactive in Thrace and Constantinople, can be used.’

Von Falkenhayn was not against this line of reasoning, but had to keep his eye on all the theatres of war and thus saw no possibility of carrying out a major offensive against Serbia. Even the Austrian Chief of the General Staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, saw no chance of even a limited operation against Serbia in order to open just a single corridor as a transport route.

Meanwhile, on 3 November 1914, the Allies had launched a first attack on the entrance to the Dardanelles – apparently, however, more with the intention of probing the defence capability or damaging installations than trying to make a breakthrough. Lieutenant Colonel Wehrle reported:

On the morning of the 3rd at 7 o’clock, 10 English[sic] and French ships of the line were lying in two semicircles at the entrance of the strait, and fired at the two forts at Kumkale and Seddulbahr from a position 16,000 metres away, where no Turkish guns could reach. Out of the slight morning mist, muzzle flashes constantly light up, the forts are shrouded in smoke and dust from which continuous tongues of flame rise up. Half an hour later a tremendous white cloud of smoke appears over Seddulbahr, and stayed in the air for minutes. A [sound like] heavy thunder is heard. The ships peel off and disappear in the haze. That was the start, but a bad start. Through an incomprehensible act of carelessness by a coastal battery, many hundreds of hundredweights of old gunpowder had remained piled up in an underground storage area. This storage area was hit by a shell and the whole battery, along with 5 officers and 60 men, were blown to pieces.’

After this attack and during the following weeks it remained quiet in the Dardanelles. This afforded the Turks more time to continue their preparations for defence. An additional Turkish artillery battalion had been assigned in mid-December for the defence of Beşika Bay (just slightly north of Nagara); Lieutenant Colonel Wehrle first of all had to put this unit through some basic training:

‘Simply looking at them, my head was shaking in disbelief and even my Turkish battery commanders, who were used to many things, remained speechless at this pile of military destitution. The battalion was taken in hand and two days were needed to restore order and bearing. First, everything went to the delousing facility, which was set up in a bakery. Meanwhile officers and NCOs of the Howitzer Regiment were tasked to inspect materiel and equipment, any items deficient were noted and indents placed with the quartermaster. Fourteen days later Marshal Liman v. Sanders visited the battalion in its firing position. Chance would have it that just at the time, when we were standing in one of the batteries, a destroyer was approaching the shore. The Marshal gave the order to fire. This battery had never before fired a single live shot. I prompted the battery commander, checked the sighting and the first shot near the target caused the boat to turn off. The battery was praised and was very proud. The following day, a French cruiser appeared and gave us thanks with 60 heavy shells, which it fired – not at the battery but against a dune 200 metres away, which I had set up at night, using tree trunks as a decoy.’

Meanwhile, new calls for help went out from Istanbul to Berlin. On 30 December, Ambassador von Wangenheim announced that, with the continuing geographical isolation of Turkey, ‘the moment could be foreseen where Turkish thirst for action and will to fight may cease’. On 4 January 1915 Falkenhayn was notified about a meeting of the generals and admirals stationed in Istanbul regarding the ammunition situation in Turkey, where they concluded that even with the most economical consumption, ‘the ammunition for the army and navy would only last until mid-March’. Admiral von Usedom, who was responsible for the defence of the Dardanelles, had also stated that ‘he could vouch for the defence capability of the Dardanelles against a first attack, but that he could not give the same guarantee for a repeated attack’.

Churchill had discussed the question of opening the Dardanelles in November 1914 in the context of a new strategic offensive in southern Europe to win over the Romanians, Bulgarians and perhaps the Greeks as allies; however, this plan was not pursued due to a lack of available forces. Only at the beginning of January 1915, in response to a request from Russia, who wished to take the pressure off their Caucasus front, was further planning resumed in London. However, since the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, did not want to make troops available for the Orient Front, the commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Vice Admiral Sackville Carden, was asked how this task could be achieved. He replied on 5 January that although he could not take the Dardanelles by a surprise rush attack, he could take them with the fleet in a large and extended operation. This statement formed the basis for the decision of the British Military Council on 28 January 1915, which recommended an attack on the Dardanelles solely as a fleet action. Preparations for this attack took several weeks. In mid-February it was believed that the plans for attack were ready. On 19 January, Russia had been informed of the intended operation; in London it was expected that with the operation to force the Dardanelles, Russia would at the same time carry out a naval attack on the Bosphorus and a landing on the Turkish Black Sea coast. This, however, was rejected by Moscow due to insufficient forces being available.

Meanwhile the Allied fleet, lying off the Dardanelles, had been considerably strengthened. In addition to the sixteen large British battleships and cruisers, four French battleships and the Russian protected cruiser Askold arrived in January, so that at least twenty-one large warships were now off the Dardanelles. At first the Allied fleet limited itself to continuous monitoring of the entrance to the Dardanelles. From mid-January 1915, there were signs that the Western powers intended an attack on the Straits. On 15 January a French submarine broke through the defensive anti-submarine net stretched across the Dardanelles. Through the courageous intervention of Navy Lieutenant Prince Reuss, who set course in a small ship towards the submarine and dropped depth charges, the submarine was forced to surface at Nagara and fired on by coastal batteries. The Austro-Hungarian Military Representative in Turkey, Field Marshal Lieutenant (Feldmarschalleutnant) Josef Pomiankowski, reported:

‘As an enemy submarine appeared shortly thereafter, it was immediately fired upon and severely damaged, leaving the commander with no choice but to surrender. The crew was captured, but the boat – it was the French submarine Saphir – was towed to Constantinople, where I had the opportunity to inspect it. Saphir belonged to a very outdated type, and was also much neglected. German naval officers told me that in the German fleet boats of this type no longer existed.’

Beginning on 2 February, individual ships began to shell the outer fortifications. On 19 February the Anglo-French fleet again shelled the outer fortifications of the Dardanelles with twelve warships. Admiral von Usedom described this in detail and thus gave an example of the leadership qualities of the German forces taking part:

‘The French used their heavy artillery, the Englishmen [sic] followed soon thereafter with their medium artillery, so that now broadside salvoes were being fired at three minute intervals against all four forts. The batteries were heavily hit; and clear hits could be made out in the fort at Seddulbahr and in the Kumkale battery. At Fort Orhanié the clouds of smoke from the explosions were right in front of the traverses. The ships came closer and closer to the forts. Apparently they believed the batteries to have been fully destroyed. This now gave Orhanié and Ertugrul the opportunity to counter-fire at 16.45 hrs. At the same time all hell broke loose, in which all the ships now seemed to take part. At intervals of 40 seconds, salvo followed salvo. At times, the forts were completely obscured by the black clouds of the explosions. Nevertheless, Orhanié and Ertugrul continued firing. Towards18.00 hrs, the enemy broke off the bombardment. The battery commander of Orhanié, Lieutenant Hans Woermann, as well as the Turkish interpreter and telephonist, who had been in the second observation station of the battery, were killed at 16.10 hrs by 2 shells of 15 cm calibre, after being forced to abandon the first observation post as a result of it being hit. Deputy Ordnance Technician Joerss, sheltering with others outside the battery, assumed the post of the dead battery commander. Since the phone line was out, he no longer had communications with the other batteries. On his own initiative, when the second enemy ship came into bearing from the left, he opened fire at a distance of 44 hm [4400 metres]. Then the Englishman immediately turned to starboard to increase the range.’

The losses caused by this attack totalled four dead, including two Germans, and nine wounded on the Turkish side. Lieutenant Colonel Kannengiesser wrote about this attack:

‘The first attack on 19 February 1915 was aimed at the outer forts of Seddulbahr and Kumkale at the entrance [of the Dardanelles], which were fired at from long range, and vanished under a dense hail of shells, smoke, dust and splinters. Aircraft directed the fire. How can 30-year old guns with quite outdated traverse and firing methods counter this? As Carden withdrew his ships when darkness falls, the loss of people and materiel is insignificant.’

The destruction was judged to be low in relation to the estimated 800 to 1000 shots fired by the Allied naval guns. At Kumkale, only a 28-cm gun had been permanently knocked out, but Fort Seddulbahr had suffered greater damage. In preparation for the breakthrough and also for landing operations, the forts at Kumkale and Seddulbahr were systematically bombarded almost every day. With field artillery support, the forward Turkish infantry managed to beat off the smaller Allied daylight landings, which were aimed at demolishing gun barrels and ammunition bunkers in the forts. On 25 February 1915 the Allied fleet made another attack on the outer forts, which were almost completely destroyed after a seven-hour bombardment.

These initial experiences of the Allied fleet and their limited visible successes led to new British operational planning. The experience during the British fleet’s 1807 Dardanelles breakthrough was also remembered, in which, after entering the Marmara Sea, fleet re-supply was disrupted by Turkish troops on either side of the Dardanelles. Therefore land forces had to be included in the planning to secure the coastal areas after the breakthrough. The basic decision was made on 16 February 1915, but it was only on 10 March that the total strength of the Expeditionary Force was finalised: four English divisions and one French division. However, the exact operational role for this force had not yet been defined. It should follow the outcome of the fleet operations, which were maintained. Thus there was still no joint or coordinated operational planning for the deployment of Allied naval and land forces.

Despite the Entente’s limited success so far, the attacks on the Dardanelles had caused great concern in Istanbul. Although Turkey had already been a Central Powers’ alliance partner for several months, deliveries of much needed supplies from Germany still could not be transported there and unrest began to grow against the background of the imminently anticipated attack on the Dardanelles. On 1 March Enver wrote to von Falkenhayn that the situation was serious, as the Allied fleet was gradually destroying fortifications and could thus force a passage through the Straits. In a second telegram of 8 March, Enver recalled the precarious situation and described the opening-up of an overland transportation route through Serbia as the ‘vital question for Turkey’.300 On 10 March, Admiral von Usedom wrote to von Falkenhayn: ‘Despite the relatively meagre success of the enemy, destruction of all the Dardanelles fortifications cannot be prevented in the long run, if the munitions and mines which have been on order for months do not arrive as soon as possible.’

The Foreign Office warned:

‘Should the Dardanelles and Constantinople fall, this would not only signify a great moral boost for the Entente, with immense repercussions for all of Islam and for Turkey’s existential endangerment, but also a revitalisation of the war effort in Russia and France, thus not only prolonging the war but also driving all the Balkan states (Bulgaria and Romania) into the arms of the Entente.’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.