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Naval Battle of Dardanelles on 18 March 1915 determined Anzac fate

Mat McLachlan, battlefield historian 6 mins read
Mat McLachlan pays respects to fallen Anzacs at Gallipoli

With this year marking the 110th anniversary of the start of World War One, and 2025 marking the 110th anniversary of Gallipoli, historian Mat McLachlan and founder of Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours shines a light on the beginnings of the campaign that brought forth the Anzac legend.

“While the Gallipoli landings on 25 April 1915 are popularly considered the start of the Gallipoli Campaign, actions at Gallipoli commenced months earlier on 19 February 1915,” said Mat McLachlan. “And it was the disastrous outcome of the final naval assault by a fleet of 16 British and French battleships on 18 March 1915 that sent the Anzac troops onto the shores of Gallipoli.”

Gallipoli: a naval-only campaign?

The overarching objective of the Gallipoli campaign was to gain control of the Dardanelles leading to the Sea of Marmara and the Turkish capital, Constantinople (Istanbul). There were multiple drivers behind the campaign – the need to open a shipping route to the Mediterranean, the belief that the best defence of Egypt and the Suez Canal was an attack on Türkiye, and a plea from the Commonwealth’s WWI ally Russia to help divert Turkish troops from the Caucasus front.

 

At first, the plan to take Constantinople was by naval forces alone. And on 19 February 1915 the sea off the entrance to the Dardanelles saw its first armada of British and French warships amass. The Allies naval power opened a bombardment on the Turkish forts at Cape Helles and Cannakale, then as the Allied ships came to within three kilometres, the Turkish gunners fired back showing that the forts hadn’t been destroyed. This was the very first action of the ‘Gallipoli Campaign’ which lasted until 8 January 1916 when the last British, Anzac and French forces were evacuated from the peninsula.

From 19 February to 17 March 1915, the British and French naval force tried to subdue Turkish forts and mobile howitzer batteries on either side of the Dardanelles. Having not achieved this over the course of a month, a final major assault was planned.

The Great Gallipoli Naval Battle of 18 March 1915

At 10:30am on 18 March 1915, 16 British and French battleships moved into the strait, set to hammer the Turkish forts and batteries with naval gunfire in three waves. The huge ships opened fire on the Turkish forts at about 11:30am, and the Turks fired back. Gallipoli erupted with guns firing round after round, shells crashing, and all-around destruction. Then, a true naval catastrophe. At least three Allied ships hit sea mines, the explosions sending smoke and debris into the air, and three other Allied battleships were badly damaged by Turkish fire. Crew from hit ships scurried to evacuate, the focus turned to saving crews and retreat was the only course of action left. Three of the great Allied ships sank in the bay and the naval attack was never resumed.

 

“Today, these battleships remain sunk off the coast of Gallipoli, along other wrecks and armament from the Gallipoli campaign. On shore, marks from the Gallipoli campaign can still clearly be seen too – tracks that the Anzacs walked can still be followed, trenches explored, shell holes and shrapnel marks seen,” said Mat McLachlan.

 

“Visiting Gallipoli and exploring the Anzac Sector – including Anzac Cove, Lone Pine, Shrapnel Valley, Quinn’s Post, the Nek and Chunuk Bair – where the Anzacs fought for almost eight months, with some 8700 Australians losing their lives and 18,000 wounded, is an incredible experience. Walking the forgotten Anzac battlefield of Krithia is another important experience, which we include on all our Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours’ Gallipoli itineraries, as well as visiting Cape Helles – where the British and French fought and suffered 30,000 casualties. Discovering the other side of the story, visiting Turkish Memorials and some key Turkish sites, also helps to understand the full picture of this history and stories from both sides.”

 

“Visiting Gallipoli you can truly become immersed in this history, and it is an incredible destination to visit – so it really is no wonder hundreds of Australians each year set out to uncover the birthplace of the Anzac legend. At Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours, we offer an around 9-day Anzac Day at Gallipoli tour each year, as well as a 4-day Gallipoli Explorer with monthly departures from May to September, a 9-day Gallipoli Discovery Tour in September, as well as 2 or 3-day Private Gallipoli tours departing any day,” added Mat McLachlan.

 

British Regimental Sergeant Major, David Hepburn, HMS Prince George provided a first-hand account of the sinking of French battleship, Bouvet.

“We saw an immense cloud of black smoke ascending from the Frenchman’s starboard quarter. Almost immediately she began to heel over towards us and gradually, steadily and gracefully, she continued to heel till her masts lay on the water. A second or two in that position, then, just as steadily she continued to heel over till she lay keel uppermost – she was perhaps half a minute in that position then quickly slid under the water. From the time we saw the smoke till she disappeared was barely 3½ minutes. No noise; nothing horrifying in the sight – our imaginations supplied the horror.”

 

Only 60 of the Bouvet crew survived, over 630 were killed.  Many others were lost that day too, on both sides.

 

Seaman Sauveur Payro, recounted his experience on the Bouvet:

“The boat immediately listed to starboard. I was completely covered in the coal dust which came from the bunkers. I went to the signal ladder and with the second mate we climbed up. From the bridge I got myself onto the funnel which was entering the water. Then I climbed onto the hull. I believe that the second mate was trapped and he fell into a hatch way. From the keel I threw myself into the water.  I couldn’t rise to the surface because of the tug of the water. I was in the water for some time then when the bottom of the ship touched the bottom of the sea I came straight up, either because the ship touched bottom or the boilers exploded. I couldn’t breath; blood was coming out of my mouth my ears. When I was on the surface again, if I hadn’t found this piece of wood I would have been a goner. I managed to get one of the hammocks and got it between my knees. I saw another chap crying out to me to save him and I told him to come closer to me so that he could be on one end of the plank and me on the other. But when the English came to fish us out of the water I saw that both his legs had been cut off. He died three days later.”

On 22 March 1915, on-board the British flagship Queen Elizabeth, Admiral of the Fleet Sir John de Robeck, who was British commander in chief of the fleet at the Dardanelles, announced he could not seize the Dardanelles alone and that it would be necessary to land a sizeable military force to capture the shore batteries and allow the navy through the strait.

Plans were fast-tracked for the beach landings at Gallipoli – with the Anzac troops to lead the charge.

Sir William Birdwood, General Officer Commanding Australian and New Zealand forces, had little time to prepare, with the landing originally scheduled for 23 April. The 3rd Australian Brigade had been stationed on the Greek Island of Lemnos off the coast of Gallipoli since early March and was joined on 12 April by the 1st and 2nd Australian brigades. The Australian brigades carried out some practice landings at Lemnos, but time was short. As 23 April approached, poor weather prevailed, and the Gallipoli landings were postponed until 25 April 1915.

“This was the beginnings of a day in our history which resulted in stories of courage and sacrifice that have lasted more than a century. 16,000 Australian and New Zealand troops landed at Anzac Cove under fire from the Turks, and thousands were killed or wounded on that first day,” said Mat McLachlan.

“From the beaches into the rugged hills that led straight up to enemy territory, the Anzacs dug in as best they could and for months fought to try to gain any ground. After nine months of fierce trench warfare, as well as battling the elements of the heat of summer, disease, rain, the Great November Snowstorm and freezing winter conditions, the Gallipoli Campaign was eventually determined a failure and the whole Peninsula evacuated,” added Mat McLachlan.

“But while the Gallipoli Campaign overall failed, the evacuation of the Peninsula was perhaps one of the greatest feats of the war. In December 1915, some 135,000 men, were successfully evacuated from right beneath the noses of the Turks."

To dive further into the Gallipoli Campaign, Mat McLachlan’s Living History podcast will be presenting an 8-episode Gallipoli podcast series with the first episode – focused on the Gallipoli Naval campaign - dropping on 4 April 2024.

Available for free on all streaming platforms, episodes will drop weekly, each discussing a different aspect of the Gallipoli Campaign, with the full series available to subscribers on 4 April 2024.

To join a Mat McLachlan Battlefields Tour to follow in the footsteps of the Anzacs at Gallipoli or on the Western Front in the company of an expert Historian, visit www.battlefields.com.au

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