19/2/1915 Gallipoli: Winston Churchill’s big idea

Russia has a big army but the country’s weak industrial base means that its soldiers are often short of vital war equipment. Britain and France have the industrial might to supply the Russians, but Turkey blocks access to Russia’s Black Sea ports.

The Allies know that entering the war on Germany’s side was not universally popular in Turkey. Since the war began, the Ottoman Empire has already suffered two reverses, the terrible disaster of Sarikamish and the failed invasion of Egypt. The Turks have also been unable to stop British forces from establishing themselves in Basra, in Turkish Mesopotamia. In short Turkey looks internally divided and weak. It controls the entrance to the Black Sea, but would the Ottoman Empire really be able to block a serious attempt to force the straits?
Winston Churchill, Britain’s naval minister, thinks that a determined assault will open up the Dardanelles and Bosphorus to Allied shipping. Furthermore, a naval attack on Constantinople could strengthen Turkey’s anti-war faction and force the Ottoman Empire to sue for peace. With British supplies flowing to the Russians, the German position on the Eastern Front would start looking a bit dicey. In short, a successful campaign against Turkey raises the possibility of Germany being defeated in the east without Britain having to deploy a huge land army in France.

Today a combined force of British and French warships attack Turkish forts on the Gallipoli peninsula. These forts guard the entrance to the Hellespont, the narrow straits that lead from the Aegean up to the Sea of Marmara and then on to the Bosphorus straits, Constantinople and the Black Sea. The Allied ships blast away at the forts but the results are disappointing. The Allies are unable to disable the forts, and when Allied ships approach the shore to inspect the damage, the forts begin to shell them back, supported by other artillery pieces.
The attack on the Gallipoli forts causes consternation in Constantinople. The Turkish leaders now begin to have an inkling of the Allies’ big plan to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war.


Dardanelles, Bosphorus, and European Turkey (Wikimedia Commons)

Winston Churchill (Woolworths Museum)

Turkish defences (Mental Floss)

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