Authors: Dan Van der Vat
List of Illustrations
Illustrations between pages 82 and 83
Blunder upon Blunder
The official biographer of Winston Churchill, central figure in the Dardanelles disaster of 1915, writes that â[Admiral of the Fleet Lord] Fisher's return to the Admiralty coincided with Britain's only serious naval defeat of the war'. Fisher had been recalled from retirement to his old post as First Sea Lord on 30 October 1914: the reference is to the Battle of Coronel on 1 November, when Vice-Admiral Graf Spee's German cruisers crushed a British squadron off Chile. Yet much of the same third volume of Sir Martin Gilbert's biography is necessarily devoted to Churchill's leading role, as First Lord of the Admiralty, in the Royal Navy's abortive effort to reopen the Dardanelles after Turkey had closed them in August 1914.
As the political head of the navy Churchill personally presided over this unique fiasco, which led to his dismissal and almost destroyed his career. Since his style of administration could hardly have been more âhands on', he did not merely preside over the disaster but intervened, if not interfered, in almost every operational and political aspect of it, large or small, often acting beyond his powers and presenting his Cabinet colleagues with
. Yet his proposal to outflank the Central Powers â Germany, Austria-Hungary and their allies, including Turkey â by attacking the latter as the weakest link in a front deadlocked from Belgium to the Balkans â is now widely accepted as the boldest strategic concept of the First World War. However, as with so many other failed British military enterprises, it was undermined by appalling incompetence in execution. Churchill's great error was to go ahead with the navy alone after Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, insisted that there were no troops available for the combined operation which contemporary informed opinion (including Churchill and Kitchener) had long since agreed was necessary to force the Dardanelles.
The Dardanelles disaster swelled the rising tide of complaints in Britain about âbungling in high places'. After the navy's failure was bloodily redoubled by the army's at Gallipoli, heads eventually rolled, including Fisher's and Churchill's; and to survive as Prime Minister, Asquith was forced to replace his Liberal administration with a coalition Cabinet.
The Royal Navy's abortive solo attempt to reopen the Dardanelles was prompted by another naval failure: the ineptly missed opportunity to deploy immensely superior forces to stop and destroy the Mediterranean Division of the German Imperial Navy in the first week of the First World War. Rear-Admiral Wilhelm Souchon was allowed to take his two ships, a battlecruiser and a light cruiser, over 1,000 miles from Sicily across the eastern basin of the Mediterranean to the Dardanelles. He eluded both the bulk of the French fleet and the British Mediterranean Fleet, which by itself was much his superior in firepower and numbers of ships, even though he could so easily have been trapped in the Strait of Messina between two groups of British ships each endowed with firepower superior to his. This incident was the subject of one of my earlier books,
The Ship That Changed the World
(1985), to which this volume forms a sequel.
The consequences of Souchon's escape to Turkish waters, enabling the Germans to activate their secret alliance with Ottoman Turkey by provoking Tsarist Russia into a war against the Turks, were recognised by both British and German leaders as worth two extra years to the Germans and their allies in a war that lasted just over four. The Dardanelles strait was closed to the Entente powers â Britain, France and Russia â and the latter was effectively cut off, unable to export grain to the other two, who likewise were prevented from delivering much-needed munitions in return. The British were prompted to try to reverse this, not only to reopen the link but also to turn the eastern flank of the Central Powers by passing through the Dardanelles strait into the Sea of Marmara, knocking Turkey out of the war by threatening Constantinople, passing through the Bosporus into the Black Sea, joining hands with the Russians and going up the Danube to attack Austria-Hungary from the rear.
The failure of the great seaborne bombardment of the Dardanelles forts in March 1915, a leisurely seven months later, in a bid to reverse the Germans' diplomatic and strategic coup, only served to compound its results exponentially. Compared with the consequences of the Royal Navy's double failure â Souchon's escape and the rebuff at the Dardanelles â the defeat at Coronel, handsomely avenged within weeks at the Battle of the Falkland Islands, where Spee's squadron was all but wiped out, was a marginal skirmish of minor strategic significance. The abortive attempt to reopen the Dardanelles by naval gunpower alone, judged by its consequences, may therefore stand as the Royal Navy's most significant failure, certainly in the First World War, probably in the twentieth century and possibly in all the 500 years of its existence. A victory for the Spanish Armada in 1588 or for Napoleon's navy at Trafalgar in 1805 would have been rather worse, but neither came to pass, becoming instead the Royal Navy's most important victories. A British failure to overcome the U-boat blockade imposed by the Germans in each world war would surely have surpassed the Dardanelles fiasco in gravity but was narrowly averted in each case.
This gives the Dardanelles campaign â Turkey's only military triumph in 1914â18 â pride of place in the brief list of Britain's strategic maritime failures. Chronologically, and also in terms of suffering and loss, the ensuing Allied failure to seize the Gallipoli peninsula by military force in order to outflank the Dardanelles defences takes first place among the results. This was intended to help the fleet and its supply ships to get to Constantinople without being shelled from the shore
The bloody slaughter in the Gallipoli campaign, a smaller-scale but sometimes even more intense extension of the stalemate on the Western Front, understandably draws the general reader's eye from the naval failure of which it was the first
. This book however focuses on the primary role of the Royal Navy in these extraordinary events.