Mark Barnes takes us on a tour of the Gallipoli battlefield, the scene of a great victory for Turkey during the Great War.
Eleven long years of real life punctuated by episodes of battlefield touring have passed and my gang of mates are still keen to visit new places to see what we can see. A lot has happened in that time, not all of it good by any means. We’ve hit the road in France and the Low Countries and had some wonderful adventures but as time progressed the allure of Gallipoli began to call us. We started making plans for our visit two years ago. As said, real life and responsibilities ruled the timetable, but we cracked on with our plans and it was immediately obvious we needed to go on a proper organised tour – not something we generally favour. So, we made the decision to travel with Peter Hart, the respected historian and author. We made a good choice.
Spirits were running high when we arrived at our hotel next to Gatwick Airport.
There was plenty of time for a few beers to settle in to what would be a punishing schedule for much of the time. Up with the larks, we got to the terminal and eventually found ourselves in the company of Peter and several of the people who would be joining us on the tour. It’s fair to say we had some reservations about aspects of the tour, but knew we could always stick together. Events would show that our companions were a superb bunch of people. We had struck gold.
The Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul lasted four hours. We were crammed into a full Boeing 737 and I can’t say it was a wonderful experience. But a G &T and an edible airline lunch settled things down and after a short kip we were circling Istanbul. This was followed by a five-hour bus journey to our hotel at Eceabat. We stopped off en route for a convivial meal on a road that has more petrol stations than I have seen anywhere.
The hotel was basic, welcoming and convenient. I’m not one for living out of a suitcase, but needs where needs must. The beds were comfortable and the shower worked. It was enough. I shared with John, the two of us working out we were the least worst snorers and wee small hours farters out of our gang. Happily, we learned that we had chosen wisely!
We were up bright and early for our first day on the road and I was repelled by the amount of breakfast my chums could pack away. I did not fancy the eggs or sausages and stuck to bread and jam. We were soon on the bus and heading out to Fort Rumeli Mecidiye to learn about the Anglo-French naval assault on Constantinople (as Istanbul was then known) using a force of pre-dreadnoughts and modern battlecruisers to destroy the Turkish system of forts to gain access to the Sea of Marmara and the city, itself. The enterprise formed part of a strategy to allow a territorially ambitious Russia free access to the Mediterranean and it would knock Turkey out of the war.
Why Britain went to war with Turkey seems so vague at this point. The Young Turks running the country had been pro-German in recent times but were not overtly anti-British. The two countries had enjoyed good relations and even with the gift of hindsight things seemed fairly at ease until actions by the British provoked the Turks to fall into the arms of the Kaiser. Two Turkish battleships were nearing completion in British yards when the Great War broke out. To huge anger in Turkey, Winston Churchill appropriated them for the Royal Navy. The sense of outrage was considerable. The ships had been paid for largely from public subscription and the idea that a friendly country would do such a thing seemed impossible. The Germans were not slow to seize an opportunity and before the year was out two German ships, the Goeben and Breslau had been gifted to the Turks after escaping a pack of chasing Allied ships in the Mediterranean.
With Turkey on the side of the Central Powers there followed a sequence of poor decision-making in London where a cabal of senior politicians had begun looking for a quick result away from an apparently stagnating Western Front. This obsession with a soft underbelly in Europe would stay with Churchill through the course of two world wars.
On the fateful day, 18th March 1915, the Anglo-French flotilla approached the Narrows and began pounding the many forts along the banks. The naval gunners soon found how difficult it was to do any significant damage with flat trajectory guns and although they had successes things were about to go spectacularly wrong. Unbeknown to the Allies, the minelayer Nusret had been busy. Having taken a number of hits the French battleship Bouvet was manoeuvring into a different position in Erenkeui Bay when she struck one of the mines. She capsized and sank in around three minutes taking over six hundred men with her. Worse was to follow. The pre-dreadnought HMS Irresistible struck a mine and in going to her rescue, the battleship HMS Ocean also came to grief. Both ships sank before the day was out.
To compound matters the severely damaged battlecruiser Inflexible struck another of the Nusret’s mines as she changed positions. Her captain ordered the ship to beach on the island of Tenedos from where she made a hazardous journey to Malta towed by the elderly battleship HMS Canopus. My grandfather Gordon Barnes served in her engine room. Two other French battleships had been badly damaged and had to withdraw.
Although the loss of ships was obviously severe, they were not amongst newer and more powerful assets and a degree of ambivalence pervaded at The Admiralty. But in terms of the strategic plan in place, the losses amounted to a disaster that changed the thinking of the men in power back in London. The naval plan had failed. An amphibious assault on the Dardanelles would do the trick, or so they thought.
Visiting forts is always good fun, but to be at a place where the folly of the Allied plan is so clear to see is quite remarkable. The gunners are quite rightly massive heroes in Turkey to this day and perhaps none more so than the stoic figure of Corporal Seyit, a strongman who carried the last massive shell for the 240mm gun he served when the hoist was damaged. A memorial to him and his comrades is the standout element of a visit to the fort, although the position of the gun is not the precise point he was manning on that momentous day. There are statues and images of Seyit everywhere – he is even a fridge magnet.
Looking out on a hectic sea where endless ships, some of a considerable size, squeeze through the Narrows on their route to and from Istanbul it is impossible not to see the massive task the Allied ships were undertaking. It was a classic case of armchair admirals in London directing actions they could not dominate.
The entire waste of life in the Gallipoli campaign had its roots in this failure and I am not afraid to point the finger of blame at Churchill and his mignons in Whitehall. Horrors would await the army about to land on the Gallipoli coastline.
Words and images by Mark Barnes for War History Online. All material copyright: Mark Barnes 2014 All Rights Reserved.