On November 25th 1914, Winston Churchill suggested his plan for a new war front in the Dardanelles to the British government’s War Council. On January 15th 1915, the War Council gave its agreement and British troops in Egypt were put on alert. The Central Powers were fighting primarily on two fronts – the Western and Eastern Fronts. Fighting against such he armies as the Russian and French armies put a great deal of strain on the German military. The input of the smaller Austrian army into the major battles had been small when compared to the German army’s input.
Churchill’s idea was simple. Creating another front would force the Germans to split their army still further as they would need to support the badly rated Turkish army. When the Germans went to assist the Turks, that would leave their lines weakened in the west or east and lead to greater mobility there as the Allies would have a weakened army to fight against.
Churchill had contacted Admiral Carden – head of the British fleet anchored off of the Dardanelles – for his thoughts on a naval assault on Turkish positions in the Dardanelles. Carden was cautious about this and replied to Churchill that a gradual attack might be more appropriate and had a greater chance of success. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, pushed Carden to produce a plan which he, Churchill, could submit to the War Office. Senior commanders in the navy were concerned at the speed with which Churchill seemed to be pushing an attack on the Dardanelles. They believed that long term planning was necessary and that Churchill’s desire for a speedy plan, and therefore, execution was risky. However, such was Churchill’s enthusiasm, the War Council approved his plan and targeted February as the month the campaign should start.
There is confusion as to what was decided at this meeting of the War Council. Churchill believed that he had been given the go-ahead; Asquith believed that what was decided was merely “provisional to prepare, but nothing more.” A naval member of the Council, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, stated:
“It was not my business. I was not in any way connected with the question, and it had never in any way officially been put before me.” Churchill’s secretary considered that the members of the Navy who were present “only agreed to a purely naval operation on the understanding that we could always draw back – that there should be no question of what is known as forcing the Dardanelles.”
With such apprehension and seeming confusion as to what the War Office did believe, Churchill’s plan was pushed through. It would appear that there was a belief that the Turks would be an easy target and that minimal force would be needed for success. Carden was given the go ahead to prepare an assault.
Ironically in 1911, Churchill had written:
“It should be remembered that it is no longer possible to force the Dardanelles, and nobody would expose a modern fleet to such peril.”
By now, there was a military input into Britain’s plan. Lieutenant-General Birdwood, who had been a former military secretary to Lord Kitchener, commanded the ANZAC’s based in Egypt. He reported that a military support for the navy was imperative and General Sir Ian Hamilton was appointed commander of the newly created Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. It contained 70,000 men from Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand along with troops from France. Hamilton left for the Dardanelles on February 13th along with a hastily gathered staff. He had little information on Turkish strength and he arrived on March 18th knowing little about the military situation there. It is probable that he had the same opinion as many as to the ability of the Turks in battle – and this was to prove very costly to the force under his command.
Also on March 18th, the Allies suffered a chronically embarrassing naval disaster. Three British battleships were sunk, three were crippled (but not sunk). At a stroke, the British had lost 2/3rds of their battleships in the Dardanelles. Robeck had little idea of what to do next. The mine clearing trawlers were ineffective, the Turks held the higher ground which was of great strategic importance and the idea of using destroyers to clear the minefields would have taken time to organise. The army suggested that it should take over.
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