Thursday 18 March 1915 – We Lost 197
At 10:30, when the morning haze has lifted sufficiently for the Turkish forts to be clearly seen, the first ten battleships of the Allied Fleet enter the Dardanelles Straits. Fourteen British and four French battleships, organized in three divisions, have prepared to engage the Turks; eight of the British vessels have been launched between 1895 and 1901 while four more between had been launched between 1903 and 1906 and are of pre-Dreadnought design. The others are the battle cruiser HMS Inflexible, of Falkland’s fame, and the mighty HMS Queen Elizabeth, 27,500 tons, whose total broadside is approximately 16,000 lbs.
At 11:25 the leading line of ships, which include de Robeck’s four most powerful ships, Queen Elizabeth to pound the two forts at Chanak, Agamemnon, Lord Nelson and Inflexible to bombard Kilid Bahr, accompanied by Prince George on the European flank, and Triumph on the Asiatic, open fire at 14,000 yards. The position from which de Robeck’s fleet begins the action, Eren Keui Bay, is defended by Turkish mobile howitzer batteries, difficult and elusive targets which prove very effective against all classes of ship, and minefield batteries whose task is to deter the sweepers. In addition there are mines, and in particular, in Eren Keui Bay itself which is believed to have been swept clear, a new line laid by the Turks ten days earlier. These mines, remarked Churchill wryly after the war, “play a recognizable part in the history of the Great War”.
After their first few shots in reply the Turkish and German gunners at the Narrows realize that they are out of range and the forts fall silent. Silently they endure a fearful bombardment by the the British ships for the next half hour. All five forts are hit repeatedly, and at 11:50 there is a particularly heavy explosion in Chanak. The British meanwhile are exposed to the Turkish howitzers and smaller guns which are nearer at hand, and these pour down a continuous barrage on the ships from both sides. This fire cannot be decisive against armour, but the unprotected superstructure of the battleships is hit again and again and a certain amount of minor damage is done.
A few minutes after noon, after ninety minutes action, de Robeck in Queen Elizabeth signals his second wave, HMS Majestic and Swiftsure and the French Bouvet, Charlemagne, Gaulois and Suffren, to go into action. Admiral Guepratte takes his old battleship through the British line to a point about half a mile further on where it is well within the range of all the enemy guns and in constant danger of being hit. On reaching their station the French ships fan out from the center so as to give the British astern of them a clear field of fire, and there then ensues through the next three quarters of an hour a tremendous cannonade. Soon Gaulois is badly holed below the waterline, the Inflexible has both her foremast on fire and a jagged hole in her starboard side and Agamemnon, stuck twelve times in twenty five minutes, is turning away to a better position. These hits though spectacular have scarcely touched the crews and there are less than a dozen casualties in the whole fleet and as yet no ship is seriously affected in its fighting powers.
By 13:45 the distant forts appear to have been overcome; the howitzers are still troublesome, but although they score a number of hits they have inflicted less than forty casualties on the ship’s crews. De Robeck signals the French to retire and for his third line to advance, HMS Albion, Ocean, Irresistible and Vengeance. The movement begins shortly before 14:00 and the Suffren, turning to starboard, leads her sister ships out of the action along the shores of Eren Keui Bay on the Asiatic side.
The time now has come for the minesweepers to clear the Narrows, and the second division of battleships to follow them for the kill. The French battleship Bouvet almost abreast the Queen Elizabeth at 13:54 and immediately astern the Suffren, is observed to be shaken with an immense explosion as she strikes a mine. A column of smoke shoots ups from her decks and she heels over, still going very fast, capsizes and sinks in less than two minutes with the loss of nearly her entire crew. It seems to those who observe that the Bouvet had been struck by a heavy shell which reached her magazine, and now the Turkish gunners, heartened by what they have seen, renew their attack on the other ships.
At 16:11 Inflexible, which has taken some punishment by gunfire earlier, reports striking a mine and it is apparent that her condition is dangerous. It is only surprising that the fatal contact has not occurred earlier as she has been operating in the new minefield virtually throughout the action. Three minutes later the Formidable class (1898) battleship Irresistible is also seen to be listing heavily and apparently unable to move and it is soon learned that she too has hit a mine, on the starboard side amidships. Immobilized with both engine rooms flooded, she drifts towards the enemy forts. Admiral de Robeck decides to break off the action and withdraw. Inflexible, surrounded by a destroyer screen, by excellent seamanship and devoted work in the engine room is brought to Tenedos, where she will be out of action for six weeks.
Among those killed on Inflexible is:
- Commander Rudolf Henry Cole Verner killed at age 32. He is the son of the Honorable Elizabeth Verner and had been Gunnery Lieutenant Commander of the ship at the Battle of the Falklands.
De Robeck orders Commodore Roger Keyes to rescue the drifting Irresistible, whose crew has been taken off by destroyers. Commanding from the destroyer HMS Wear, Keyes is given the Canopus class (1898) battleship Ocean and HMS Swiftsure. The Captain of the former is unwilling to close in to tow the crippled ship, so Keyes orders Ocean to withdraw. Then, Ocean is ripped by an explosion (probably a mine) and her steering gear is destroyed by a shell. Her crew is evacuated and Keyes and Swiftsure withdraw. Keyes returns after dark in the destroyer Jed in the attempt to sink Irresistible and, if possible, rescue Ocean; but both have sunk before he reaches them. In the French squadron the battleship Gaulois is so seriously damaged by gunfire that it is for sometime doubted whether she can be saved, while Suffren also requires major repair. The final reckoning is three capital units sunk and three more put out of action, one third of the fleet. The great attempt to force the Narrows with the fleet has ended in what can only be regarded as a severe defeat. It is an illustration of the curiosities of naval warfare and its all or nothing quality, that despite this very considerable material loss, British casualties are only sixty one killed and wounded. Furthermore, for the British the lost ships will easily be replaced (see 20 March).
Among those killed on Irresistible are:
- Lieutenant Edward Cromwell Colchester is killed at age 21. His brother will be killed in April 1917.
- Midshipman Ivon Gordon Fellowes is killed at age 17. He is the youngest son of late Rear Admiral ‘Sir’ Thomas Hounsom Butler KCB and Lady Margaret Fellowes. His elder brother will be killed in action in August 1918.
The battleship Dreadnought, in the only real action of her career, rams and sinks the submarine U-29 while returning to Scapa Flow with the Grand Fleet at about lat 58.21 north long 1.12 east. The commander of U-29 is Otto von Weddigen, who in U-9 had sunk the cruisers Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue in September 1914. He and his entire crew are lost.
Today’s additional losses include:
- The son of the Chief Justice of Western Australia
- A man whose brother was killed last October
Today’s highlighted casualties are
- Major Francis Maitland Wyborn Parker DSO (Australian Field Artillery) dies on service in Cairo at age 38. He is the son of the Honorable ‘Sir’ Henry Stephen Parker KCMG Chief Justice of Western Australia.
- Lance Corporal William Reginald Eden (Worcestershire Regiment) dies of wounds at age 31. His brother was killed last October.