By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
World War I came to Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula in 1915. A fierce naval battle saw the Ottoman Empire turn back allied forces who had promised the Dardanelles Strait to Russia. Now, the sunken ships are memorialized for visitors.
More than two dozen French, British, and Australian battleships lie in the waters off the Gallipoli peninsula, where they have been for more than a century. They’re the victims of a World War I battle in which naval forces from Germany and Turkey—then the Ottoman Empire—repelled allied forces from the area. Britain had promised the Dardanelles Strait, the only link between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, to Russia when WWI ended, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Now, the ships will be open to visitors as an underwater park memorializing the battle. Tourists can dive down and see the ships first-hand with the help of a guide.
In his video series World War I: The “Great War,” Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Lindsay Young Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, recounted the battle and its consequences.
The High Hopes of Allies
In 1914, after siding with the Germans in World War I, Turkey invaded Russia during a bitter winter. It was the same mistake Nazi forces would make just three decades later: the invading forces froze to death, en masse. In this case, just 13% of them survived. The following year, Russia moved down from the Caucuses into the territories of the Turkish Empire, giving rise to the ambitious but failed Gallipoli Campaign.
“Now that Ottoman Turkey had entered the war and the Dardanelles were closed as a result, communication with Russia had become more difficult,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “To relieve Russia in this more difficult position, the Western allies—the British and the French—crafted what would knock Ottoman Turkey out of the war, seize the Dardanelles, and perhaps even open up the possibility of a back door to fight the Central Powers—Germany and Austria-Hungary.”
This back door would lead from the Balkans into Austria-Hungary.
The key was gaining a foothold close to the Dardanelles, and allies picked its tip peninsula, Gallipoli, as that foothold. They would occupy Constantinople, seize the territory, open up the Dardanelles, and win the war. Even Winston Churchill, then British First Lord of the Admiralty, championed the plan.
A Humiliating Defeat
Unfortunately for the Allies, early attacks on the straits failed, alerting the Turkish forces to their presence. The Turkish forces reinforced their positions in many key areas, and when French and British forces landed at Cape Helles on April 25th, 1915, they squandered an opportunity for quick action in all of the confusion. It was compounded by Turkish troops shooting at them from dug-in positions in the cliffs above. Allied forces dug in just the same, and much like the Western Fronts, a stalemate was reached.
“The entire dynamics of the long, drawn-out campaign, which left Allied forces essentially stranded at their initial beachheads, unable to expand them, unable to advance, once again provided a demonstration […] of the advantages of the defensive side,” Dr. Liulevicius said.
“The British commander of this operation, Sir Ian Hamilton, renewed assaults in August 1915, and new landings took place north of the initial landing spots; but these, too, did not succeed.”
By January 1916, Hamilton was removed from his post, Allied troops were withdrawn in secret, 200,000 allied men died, and Churchill bore the brunt of the disparagement.
“He was disgraced; he was blamed for the misadventure, having supported it to begin with, and lost his position,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “Later, he would go on to become the determined leader of the British war effort in the Second World War, but it would take his political career a long time to recover from this fatal association with the disaster of the invasion of Gallipoli.”
The Australian and New Zealand troops—known as Anzac troops—took extremely heavy casualties here and throughout the war. To this day, April 25th is a memorial holiday known as Anzac Day, commemorating the troops lost in the Gallipoli Campaign.