The last moments of the Bouvet, which struck a mine while turning around in Eren Keui Bay and sank in less than three minutes (Contributed).
The last moments of the Bouvet, which struck a mine while turning around in Eren Keui Bay and sank in less than three minutes (Contributed).

A final naval failure: plan for ground troops is activated

IT COULD hardly be said there was any element of surprise to the Battle of March 18 - the British sailors and Turkish gunners had been engaging in a study of each other for the past month as they played at short bursts of attack and defence here and there.

And as Les Carlyon points out in his book, Gallipoli: "This wasn't a naval battle ... and it wasn't a land battle. It was ships against artillery."

In a further sign of the disarray in which the campaign found itself, Vice-Admiral Sackville Carden, commander of the British fleet in the Mediterranean, decided he was too ill to proceed with leading the assault.

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It is not known if this was from stress or refusal to co-operate with a plan he did not believe in.

He was succeeded by Vice-Admiral John de Robeck, a cautious but highly credentialled navy man.

At the leisurely hour of 10.45am, 18 British and French ships began their advance in three lines to the Narrows - so called because of its 1.6km width - several kilometres up the Dardanelles and heavily laden with rows of mines along the sea bed.

The idea was to first silence the forts in the Narrows and the batteries protecting the five lines of mines at Kephez Bay.

This would allow the minesweepers to work through the night to clear those mines and open the path for the ships to proceed the next day through to Sari Sighlar Bay, below the Narrows forts.

The navy could then demolish the Narrows forts at close range, clear the remaining five lines of mines, and then move on to the Sea of Marmara and the jewel of Constantinople.

A map showing the defences of the Dardanelles in March 1915. Minefield no 11, in Eren Keui Bay, had been laid without the British knowing on the night of March 8.
A map showing the defences of the Dardanelles in March 1915. Minefield no 11, in Eren Keui Bay, had been laid without the British knowing on the night of March 8.

It sounded straightforward.

But what the British didn't know was that 10 days earlier, in the dead of night, the Turkish minelayer Nusrat had crept unnoticed into Eren Keui Bay to lay a line of 20 mines parallel to the shore.

The Turks had noticed the navy using Eren Keui Bay to turn their ships around - the new minefield would be right in their path.

As the navy advanced up the straits and started to fire, they made good progress and the Turkish guns largely fell silent just before 1.30pm, even though the forts had not been destroyed and many batteries were still well hidden.

But the problem came when de Robeck decided to withdraw the French squadron and bring up the third line in the formation.

The Bouvet turned starboard, struck a mine in Eren Keui Bay and sank in less than three minutes, taking more than 600 men down with her.

The Irresistible and Ocean were also sunk by the same minefield, while the Inflexible, Gaulois and Suffren were seriously damaged.

At the end of the day, the Turks had suffered some minor damage to their forts and guns, and only a few casualties, while the Allies estimated they lost 700 sailors.

The Allies withdrew to consider a joint naval-military operation.

The irony was that, despite the Turks' defences holding up well, their ammunition was running dangerously low.
Had the Allies pressed on the following day, they may have achieved their aim.

Worse, when the Allies did not resume their naval attack to revenge the loss of their ships, it left no doubt in the minds of the Turkish and German commanders that there would be a landing. It was only a matter of when.

 

The attack formation

First line: British ships Queen Elizabeth, Agamemnon, Lord Nelson and Inflexible.

Second line: French ships Gaulois, Charlemagne, Bouvet and Suffren.

Third line: British ships Vengeance, Irresistible, Albion and Ocean.

Supporting ships flanking the formation: Majestic, Swiftsure, Prince George and Triumph.

In reserve: Cornwallis and Canopus.


Corporal Seyit

Turkish gunner Corporal Seyit, who is famous for having carried three 275kg shells to an artillery gun during the Allied attempt to force the Dardanelles on March 18, 1915.
Turkish gunner Corporal Seyit, who is famous for having carried three 275kg shells to an artillery gun during the Allied attempt to force the Dardanelles on March 18, 1915. Courtesy of Australian War Memor

AS THE navy bombarded the Turkish forts on March 18, the machinery carrying the huge artillery shells to the guns failed at Kilitbahir, on the opposite bank from Canakkale.

In stepped Corporal Seyit, an exceptionally strong gunner who single-handedly carried three shells weighing 275kg shells to a cannon, enabling it to continue firing on the attacking Allied fleet.

Following the defeat of the navy, Seyit was promoted and became a heroic figure in Turkey.

Interestingly, when he was asked to pose for a photo the day after the battle, he could not lift the shell - the superhuman strength of the heat of the moment had left him.

Seyit was discharged in 1918, and later became a forester and coal miner. He died in 1939.

Today, a statue paying tribute to Seyit stands just south of Kilitbahir Castle on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

 

General Ian Hamilton

IN THE few days after the failed March 18 naval assault, the diary of General Ian Hamilton - the newly appointed commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force - is revealing both for its clarity and prevarication.

In the first few days, resigned to the landing of troops, he writes about the need to return to Alexandria to prepare his men and "get things sorted out for a landing".

On March 21, he received a letter from de Robeck indicating the navy was getting ready for another "go".
But on March 22, things changed:

Went to a conference aboard Queen Elizabeth. De Robeck told us he was now quite clear he could not get through without the help of my troops.

We turned to the land scheme. Very sketchy. How could it be otherwise? Had I been a German general, plans for a landing would have been in my pocket - up-to-date and worked out to a ball cartridge and a pail of water.

British battleship HMS Irresistible abandoned and sinking after striking a minefield the navy did not know existed.
British battleship HMS Irresistible abandoned and sinking after striking a minefield the navy did not know existed. Contributed

Here I am without my adjutant-general, my quartermaster-general and my medical chief. Yet I have to decide whether the army pushes off from Lemnos or Alexandria. Nothing in the world to guide me beyond my own experience.

When to land? To a man of my temperament, there is a temptation to go in forthwith and revenge the loss of the battleships. We might sup tomorrow night on Achi Baba.

But landing in face of an enemy is the most complicated and difficult operation in war.

De Robeck, Wemyss and Keyes agree the army shouldn't try to do anything now. Like us, they think the military force should have been ready before the navy began to attack.

What we have to do now is repair a first false step. De Robeck will keep pegging away at the straits while we in Alexandria are putting on our war paint.



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