The Strategic Role of the Dardanelles in World War I

The Dardanelles have seen struggles between great powers since the Trojan War.  This narrow waterway runs between the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean; together with the Sea of Marmara and another narrow channel, the Bosporus, the Dardanelles connect the Black Sea with the Mediterranean.  This water system is one of the places where Europe and Asia meet; historically, it has been the most important frontier between the two continents.  It is only natural that they would have drawn military attention during the First World War.

The year 1915 began with considerable frustration for the Allies.  At great cost, they had stopped German advances in 1914, but the result had been the foundations of trench warfare.  Allied strategy required more than stopping the Germans; it demanded that the Germans be pushed back, and fighting in 1915 would demonstrate how difficult a proposition this was.  In the east, the Russians had lost ground and needed some help.  The Allies were looking for a way to break the impasse, and for a short period of time, they seized upon the Dardanelles as a way to resolve all of these challenges.

Such a solution did not present itself immediately, however; in fact, it was only gradually that the Allies stumbled upon it.  In the first place, Turkey was not a belligerent in the first few months of the war.  Turkey only threw in its lot with Germany in October, allowing the German cruisers Goeben and Breslau to pass through the Bosporus and join in attacks on Russia.  This act prompted declarations of war from both Britain and France in November.  With Turkey as an enemy, it became necessary for the British to fight for its interests in Egypt and Mesopotamia; at the same time, however, the opening of new fronts offered opportunities in the context of stalemate on the Western Front.

With Turkey in the war, it was Russia that first suffered from Turkish involvement.  Fighting in the Caucasus went as poorly for Russia as the fighting on the eastern front had done, and the Russians actively sought western aid against Turkey.  Lord Kitchener declined to send to troops, but asked the Admiralty if any aid could be offered through naval action alone.  It was in the Admiralty that the Dardanelles were transformed from the site of local assistance to a major hope for victory in the Great War.

A young Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty; he had placed a retired admiral, Sir John Fisher, in the role of First Sea Lord.  The two men fought frequently over matters of detail, but in general temperament, they were quite similar: both favored energetic attack, distrusted passivity, and held their positions stubbornly.  What followed was characteristic of their mindset.  Churchill tasked Fisher with arranging naval exercises near the Dardanelles to keep the Turks busy; while formulating concrete plans, Fisher stumbled upon a much bolder alternative.  A strong naval detachment could force its way through the Dardanelles, sweeping aside enemy ships while flattening coastal defenses with its heavy guns.

Such an action would do everything the original plan would have accomplished, but it offered several additional benefits.  In the first place, it gave the Allies the opportunity to capture Istanbul and remove Turkey from the war; in the second, it would open up direct lines of communication through the Mediterranean to Russia, allowing more assistance to come to the beleaguered eastern Ally.

Churchill’s support was slightly delayed, but when it came, it was complete.  The operation was ordered, and after limited successes in February with the reduction of coastal fortresses, it came to an abrupt end in March.  Churchill and Fisher were convinced, however, that only the execution of the plan had failed; the plan itself remained sound, they thought, and with the addition of ground forces, it would be possible to accomplish the plan.  Thus it fell to them to persuade Lord Kitchener to authorize an amphibious landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Kitchener was so persuaded, and he sent troops from Egypt to Gallipoli at the end of March.  Time was already running out for the operation to meet with a successful conclusion; the botched naval incursion drew the attention of the Turks, and German military advisors under General Liman von Sanders, and Turkish forces were already being delivered to the area to defend it against further attacks.  Allied forces were further hindered by supply problems, which further reduced Allied prospects.  In the end, the fighting would rage on for the remainder of the year, and then in January 1916, Allied forces would be evacuated.  The only objective that was achieved was Russia’s original request, namely, for something to distract the Turks.

This is ironic, insofar as Kitchener had previously rejected the notion of sending troops to Turkey to accomplish this.  There are many reasons why he reversed himself, and it is not clear which reasons were more important or more thoroughly considered; all played some role, however.  Churchill’s original reasons were clear: success offered the prospect of driving Turkey out of the war and opening up avenues for aid to Russia.  These reasons offered further benefits.  Removing Turkey from the war would restore security to British interests in Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Opening up communications with Russia through the Black Sea offered more than just the prospects of military aid: it also offered trade opportunities, including access to Russia’s extensive grain reserves.

While these considerations held real merit, others were more faulty.  One bad calculation concerned the roles of Germany and its allies in the enemy coalition.  Stalemate on the Western Front brought frustration to Allied leadership; some thought that a concerted effort against Germany’s allies, which were substantially less powerful and therefore posed an easier target, was a good way to wear down Germany itself.  It was thought by many in the British government that Germany depended on the assistance of these allies, which was categorically untrue.  If anything, Germany was often hindered by the need to help its allies when they encountered serious trouble.  Efforts in Turkey and the Middle East did nothing to diminish German ability to fight on the Western Front.

Still, in the face of deadlock in France and Belgium, adventures like the Dardanelles campaign brought at least the illusion of movement and the hope for progress, and so they were useful to the high command, at least politically.  Finally, professional pride entered their thinking after the failure of the original naval effort.  The threat of defeat was bad enough for the highest leadership; the possibility of an avoidable defeat was much worse.  The naval expedition failed, but it was seriously argued that the effort could eventually meet with success if sufficient land support were given to the Royal Navy.  Intolerable as it was that a second-rate opponent like Turkey could be seen to defeat the British, it became necessary for Britain to send troops to Gallipoli in March when the same idea had been rejected in January as a needless diversion of effort.

Ten months later, the effort was abandoned, and Kitchener lost much of his influence as a result.  The Dardanelles campaign was judged to be an avoidable failure, with defeat coming from poor execution of an essentially sound idea.  Indeed, Winston Churchill would carry his faith in the idea for the rest of his life; during the Second World War, he would apply it again, in modified form, in the strategy of trying to defeat Germany by attacking its Italian ally.  Again he would be fixated on the principle of striking at the “soft underbelly of Europe,” with great cost and limited effect.



Cassar, George.  Kitchener’s War: British Strategy from 1914-1916.  Potomac Books, 2005

Erickson, Edward J.  The History of World War I: Gallipoli and the Middle East 1914-1918.  Amber, 2012

Haythornthwaite, Philip J.  The World War One Source Book.  Arms & Armour, 1996

Livesey, Anthony.  Great Battles of World War I. Smithmark Publishers, Inc. 1997

Strachan, Hew.  The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Oxford, 2001


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