Wednesday, March 18, 2015

March 18th, 1915

- As the offensive in Champagne prepares to wind down, Joffre still sees much to be praised about the fighting, though it has not resulted in the desired breakthrough.  Writing to General de Langle of 4th Army today, the French commander in chief praises the 'offensive capacity, warrior spirit, spirit of sacrifice, and devotion to country' shown by the soldiers of 4th Army - undoubtedly small comfort to the thousands who have lost their lives here over the past two months.

- After a twenty-four hours' delay, the offensive by the Austro-Hungarian 4th Army begins, attacking towards Gorlice, Sekowa, and Staszkowka.  Predictably, the Austro-Hungarian infantry gets nowhere.  Further east Südarmee has been attacking since the 7th, but, having secured only minimal gains, abandons the offensive today.  Finally, even further east the Russians abandon their attacks against Pflanzer-Baltin's force, giving the latter a momentary respite to reorganize.

- The morning dawns clear and bright at the Dardanelles, ideal weather for the Entente naval attack.  The British and French warships, led into battle for the first time by Admiral Robeck, left their anchorage at Mudros Bay on Lemnos overnight, and this morning the dreadnought Queen Elizabeth, the battlecruiser Invincible, and sixteen pre-dreadnoughts sail in formation towards the entrance to the straits.  Robeck's plan (which is for all intents and purposes Carden's plan) is to bombard the Ottoman forts protecting the Narrows from long-range, following by moving up the straits to destroy the mobile batteries.  Once those are suppressed, the minesweepers will go to work, clearing a path nine hundred yards across, allowing the warships to close up to and finish the destruction of the forts at the Narrows.  If all goes according to plan, the British and French expect to be in the Sea of Marmara by tomorrow.  Of course, the war to date is hardly known for operations going according to plan . . .

The naval attack on the Dardanelles, March 18th, 1915.

British pre-dreadnoughts approaching the Dardanelles, as seen from Agamemnon, March 18th, 1915.

At 11am, Queen Elizabeth, Invincible, and the pre-dreadnoughts Agamemnon and Lord Nelson arrive in position fourteen thousand yards downstream from the Narrows, and twenty-five minutes later they open fire, Queen Elizabeth bombarding the Chanak forts on the Asiatic shore and the other three firing upon the forts at Kilid Bahr on the opposite shore.  By 1150am the forts have been struck repeatedly, and a large explosion is seen at Chanak.  Robeck judges the time right for the next phase of his plan, and orders the French pre-dreadnoughts Gaulois, Charlemagne, Bouvet, and Suffren to pass through the lead ships and close to within ten thousand yards.  For the next two hours a fierce artillery duel rages in the straits.  One lucky Ottoman 14-inch shell strikes Gaulois at the waterline, forcing it to retreat as it takes on water.  Generally, however, the Ottomans are taking the brunt of the punishment - some guns are buried, - telephone lines to spotters have been destroyed, etc. - and the result is rate of fire from the remaining guns is declining.  Other than Gaulois, meanwhile, the British and French warships, protected by thick armour, have taken only superficial damage.

The British pre-dreadnought Prince George is targeted by a salvo of three Ottoman shells, one of which strikes home, March 18th, 1915.

- At 154pm Robeck orders the French warships to withdraw, intending to replace them with four British pre-dreadnoughts held in reserve, and Suffren leads the other two French ships in a turn to starboard, taking them out of action through a bay on the Asian shore.  Just as they pass abreast of Queen Elizabeth, Bouvet is rocked by a major explosion.  Still moving forward, it rolls over, capsizes, and sinks, all within sixty seconds.  Six hundred and forty sailors are lost, and only sixty-six rescued.  The sudden disappearance of Bouvet shocks everyone, and no one understands how it could have been sunk so quickly.  At first, both sides believe its magazine had detonated, which encourages the Ottomans to continue their bombardment.  In reality, Bouvet struck a mine, one of twenty laid at night on March 8th, a minefield completely unknown to the Entente commanders, and into which Bouvet had stumbled.

Above, the French pre-dreadnought Bouvet immediately after it strikes a mine.  Below, moments later, Bouvet capsizes and is keel-up
as it sinks, March 18th, 1915.
The loss of Bouvet does not deter Robeck, and the bombardment continues for another two hours.  At 4pm Keyes calls for the minesweepers.  Four pass upstream of Queen Elizabeth, but after sweeping three mines they are driven away by Ottoman gunfire.

The situation quickly worsened for the Entente.  At 411pm Inflexible wanders into the same unknown minefield that sank Bouvet, and a mine blows a hole in its bow and drowns twenty-nine sailors.  Badly damaged, Inflexible limps away, its forward deck almost level with the sea.  Fifteen minutes later the pre-dreadnought Irresistible strikes a mine, flooding both engine rooms and leaving it dead in the water.  Not realizing what had happened, its captain signals that it has struck a mine.  As it drifts slowly towards the Asian shore, the destroyer Wear comes alongside and takes off its crew.

The British pre-dreadnought floundering after striking a mine, March 18th, 1915.

At this point Robeck calls off the day's fighting.  The losses are bad enough, but worse is that neither Robeck nor anyone else in the fleet knows what sunk the warships.  In such circumstances it was felt only prudent to withdraw and regroup.  Moreover, when the pre-dreadnought Ocean attempts to salvage Irresistible by taking it in tow, it too strikes a mine.  Despite the best efforts of Keyes to organize their rescue, both ships sink after sundown.

By this evening a day that had started with such promise has ended in sudden and inexplicable disaster.  Robeck is greatly depressed by the day's results - not only has he lost three pre-dreadnoughts, but Inflexible, counted on to fight Goeben should the later sortie, will need to go to Malta for repairs, and Gaulois ended up having to beach itself to avoid sinking.  The Admiral is convinced that once news reached London, he shall be immediately relieved of command.  Keyes, who has a better understanding of Churchill's mind, recognizes that the most likely response of the First Lord is to send reinforcements and encourage further attacks, and does what he can to reassure Robeck.

On the Ottoman side, only eight large guns had been put out of action, and only 118 soldiers had been killed or wounded.  Of far greater importance, however, was that the Ottomans had fired off half of their supply of ammunition - there was great concern that if the British and French came again, it would be only a matter of time until the ammunition supply was exhausted, at which point the mines could be swept and the straits cleared into the Sea of Marmara.  Overnight the Ottomans prepare for what they believe to be a certain resumption of the Entente attack.

- This morning the surviving zambuk carrying Emden's landing party returns to the wreck of the other zambuk.  Fortunately, though submerged it is resting on the coral reef, and the German sailors are able to dive and recover two machine guns, a few pistols, and some of the ammunition.  The rest of the supplies on the zambuk - including their only medical supplies - are lost.

A stiff breeze during the day allows the remaining zambuk, despite being overloaded, to reach the town of Coonfidah by evening.  Here they find a larger zambuk, which they are able to charter for the next stage of their journey.

- In Mesopotamia Indian Expeditionary Force has been reinforced by 30th Brigade, and as such it is decided to reorganize the force as an army corps, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir John Nixon.

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