Russians in Search of Relief: Turkish Domination of Dardanelles

  September 22, 2021   Read time 4 min
Russians in Search of Relief: Turkish Domination of Dardanelles
The Dardanelles campaign was triggered in January 1915 by a request from the hard-pressed Russians for a ‘demonstration’ against Constantinople to relieve Turkish pressure in the Caucasus.

There were influential forces in Whitehall that had always questioned the wisdom of committing the British army to a land campaign in Western Europe instead of using Britain’s maritime power to blockade the enemy and her financial strength to support continental allies—the strategy that had served them so well in the Napoleonic Wars. Now they had their chance—especially since the army had failed to secure the decision on the Western Front that had been so confidently expected. The young First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, urged on the Dardanelles expedition with his incomparable eloquence.

His colleague at the War Office, Lord Kitchener, an imperial soldier who had spent most of his life in the Middle East, favoured it as well. For one thing it would reopen communications with Russia, freeing her to export the grain that played so vital a part in her economy. For another, a ‘back door’ could be opened through the Balkans to help the Serbs, who were still successfully resisting Austrian attack; and Serbia’s former allies of the Balkan Wars, Bulgaria and Greece, might be persuaded to come to her help as well. Bulgaria, admittedly, was a very long shot. Traditionally hostile to Serbia anyway, she had lost to her in the Second Balkan War the lands in Macedonia that she saw as her rightful reward for her efforts in the First, and was longing to get them back. The Allies hoped to compensate her at the expense of Austria-Hungary, but the Central Powers were in a far stronger position to woo her, both diplomatically and militarily. No one was very surprised when Bulgaria entered the war on the side of the Central Powers in October 1915.

But Greece was a different matter. She had been Serbia’s ally in both Balkan Wars. Her business and trading classes were strongly anglophile. The army and court were equally strongly pro-German—not surprisingly, given that the King was the Kaiser’s brother-in-law (most of the new Balkan states had gone shopping for their royal families in Germany). The Prime Minister, Eleutherios Venizelos, a Cretan, was himself a strong supporter of the Allies, but demanded a high price for Greek support—Constantinople, which had unfortunately already been promised to the Russians. Nevertheless the Serb victories over the Austrians in the winter of 1914 and the Allied landings at the Dardanelles the following March strengthened his hand sufficiently for him to accept an Allied request (largely inspired by the French) that they should land a small army at Salonica to bring direct help to the Serbs. This force landed in October 1915.

By then a great deal had happened. The Dardanelles expedition had failed. Its military objectives had from the beginning been confused. The Royal Navy had been ordered simply ‘to bombard and take the Gallipoli peninsula, with Constantinople as its objective’. But when they attacked in March 1915, Allied (Anglo-French) naval forces had been turned back by enemy minefields, and had called in land forces to help. Troops were then committed piecemeal to the Gallipoli peninsula, had suffered heavy losses in landing, and could then only cling on to narrow beachheads overlooked.

by strong Turkish defences. A major British attack in August at Suvla Bay failed owing to the incompetence of its commanders. By October it was clear that the operation had been a total failure, redeemed only by the courage and endurance of the troops, especially those from Australia and New Zealand, who had carried it out, and by the successful evacuation of the peninsula at the end of the year. The Allies had thus lost all credit in the eastern Mediterranean. In Greece, Venizelos was disgraced; and, when the Allied expedition eventually landed at Salonica, the new Greek government complained bitterly of the infringement of its neutrality— which was especially embarrassing for the British liberals who claimed to be fighting for the rights of small nations.

To make matters worse, the Central Powers had taken the military initiative in the Balkans with far greater success. In November 1915 Austrian and German forces under German command, joined by Bulgarians, invaded Serbia from three sides, pre-empting the Allied advance from Salonica to help her. Serbia was crushed and occupied, the remnants of her defeated army straggling over the Montenegrin mountains in mid-winter to escape through the Adriatic ports. Those who survived joined the Allied force at Salonica, which was left in a state of almost comic impotence, while the Austrians were now able to concentrate their strength on their preferred adversaries; the Italians.