At the start of World War I the major navies had significant numbers of pre-dreadnought battleships which, though in many cases only eight or ten years old, had been rendered wholly obsolete by the commissioning of HMS Dreadnought in 1905. This, the first turbine-driven, all-big gun, battleship, mounted ten 12” guns, compared with the almost universal armament of four 12-inch guns for the average pre-dreadnought, and set the model for all subsequent capital ships. By the outbreak of war in 1914 large numbers of “dreadnoughts” – the name had already come to symbolise a type – were in service in the larger navies. Putting obsolete pre-dreadnoughts into a battle-line which would have to face much more powerfully-armed dreadnoughts was likely to be little short of suicidal.
In 1914 the Royal Navy still has 39 pre-dreadnoughts while
the French Navy had 26 (including several more heavily-armed
“semi-dreadnoughts”). It was recognised that though they were unsuited to
battle-fleet service they might still prove of value in secondary duties such
as shore bombardment. In such cases low speed would be less of a concern and
each ship would be capable of bringing four 12” weapons into play, plus large
numbers of lower-calibre weapons.
|HMS Canopus - typical pre-dreadnought, sister of HMS Goliath|
It was the availability of large numbers of such pre-dreadnoughts that contributed to the decision to attempt forcing a passage through the Turkish-held Dardanelles Strait in 1915. Success in establishing a sea-route to the Russian Black Sea coast would allow supply of weapons and munitions to often-underequipped Russian land forces. Some have indeed argued that had this been achieved Russia might not have collapsed as it did in 1916/17 and that the Bolshevik Revolution might not have occurred. There also appears to have been some thinking that, in view of the large number of obsolete pre-dreadnoughts available, significant losses could be tolerated to achieve success. This argument ignored the fact that these ships carried large crews, and that the sinking of any one would mean a devastatingly high – and unacceptable – death-toll.
The purely naval attempt to force the Dardanelles on 18th
March 1915 saw no less than sixteen British and French pre-dreadnoughts, plus
the new 15” dreadnought Queen Elizabeth
and the lightly armoured battle-cruiser Inflexible,
advance up a strait that narrowed from four miles to one in some ten miles. The
result was a disaster. Under fire from Turkish shore-batteries, and heading
into upswept minefields, two British pre-dreadnoughts (Ocean and Irresistible)
and one French one (Bouvet) were lost
in little more than an hour. The Inflexible – which should not have been
there, as speed rather than armour was intended as her protection – survived
after hitting a mine. The loss of the Bouvet
was particularly spectacular, blowing up and sinking in less than two minutes
and taking 660 men with her. The impracticability of the scheme was finally
realised and the massive naval force was withdrawn. The decision was now taken
to land troops to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula that flanked the Dardanelles
and poorly-planned and inadequately-supplied landings were made at several
points on April 25th 1916. None of the forces landed reached their
first-day objectives. The Turks managed to hold, to flood in reinforcements and
to establish a trench-deadlock no less intractable than that on the Western
Front. The eight-month agony of the Gallipoli campaign had begun, ending only
with full evacuation of Allied forces in early 1916.
The role of the pre-dreadnoughts after the failure of March
18th was to be shore-bombardment in support of the landings, and
thereafter of the forces onshore.
Over-optimistic assumptions were made about the ability of naval guns to
take-out pin-point targets – which was what the troops onshore needed – and the
results were wholly incommensurate with the risks run by the ships involved.
Three further British pre-dreadnoughts were to be lost before the decision was
taken to withdraw them from the beaches. The ability of the enemy to strike
back with either surface or submarine forces was wholly under-estimated, and
indeed the arrival of a German U-Boat, the U-21, came as a very unpleasant
surprise. HMS Triumph and HMS Majestic were
to fall victims to her torpedoes on May 25th and May 27th
respectively. (See blog of 20.01.15 about U21).
|The Bouvet in peacetime livery, black hull, light grey upperworks|
|Shore bombardment by HMS Cornwallis|
(Australian War Museum Photograph AWM H10388)
The first of the losses off the Gallipoli beaches was however due to surface attack. Ever since the automotive torpedo had come into service in the late 1870s the possibility of torpedo-craft penetrating anchorages under cover of night was recognised as a major threat. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 had indeed begun with exactly such an attack by the Japanese even before war was declared. It is therefore surprising that lack of alertness – perhaps even complacency – may have characterised the sinking of the pre-dreadnought HMS Goliath in the early hours of May 13th 1915.
|Muavenet-i Milliye on Turkish postcard|
|Ohlay (Right) & Firle (left)|
The Muâvenet-i-Millîye now crept down along the shore and the Allied destroyers failed to detect her. Only at 0100 hrs were two of these destroyers, HMS Beagle and HMS Bulldog, sighted – but astern – and Goliath was spotted directly ahead. The Turkish vessel’s advance was now noticed and Goliath signalled a request for the night’s password. It was too late. The Muâvenet-i-Millîye was in torpedo-range and she launched three torpedoes. They proved to be equally spaced along the pre-dreadnought’s length – one hit below the bridge, a second below the funnels and the third near the stern. The Goliath capsized and sank almost immediately, so quickly in fact that 570 of her crew of more than 700 were lost, including the captain. The darkness and the fast current running – up to three knots – hampered rescue efforts significantly.
confusion following the attack the Muâvenet-i-Millîye
escaped back safely up the Dardanelles. She returned to a hero’s welcome in
Istanbul, with illuminations along the Bosporus in honour of her and her crew,
and with the award of medals and decorations. Perhaps the best tribute paid to
her and her crew came from General Sir Ian Hamilton, the British Army commander
at Gallipoli, who wrote in his diary – “The Turks deserve a medal."
The Goliath’s loss was to have serious
consequences within the British Government, leading in turn to the immediate
resignation of the First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher (who had conceived the
Dreadnought and presided over the Royal Navy’s modernisation) and, shortly
later, that of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Two more
pre-dreadnoughts, Triumph and Majestic, were to be sunk by the U-21 in the next
fortnight, triggering the decision to withdraw all heavy units. The long,
painful journey to final defeat and evacuation was now well advanced.
|Turkish painting of the attack by Diyarbakirli Tahsin |
(Turkish Naval Museum, Istanbul)
|Triumphant torpedo-crew: Firle is second from right in front of tube|
And the Muavenet-i -Milliye? She was to have an inglorious post-war career as an accommodation hulk until she was scrapped in 1953.
But in her one night of glory she had changed history.
If you want to read about service in the Turkish Navy in an earlier war, click on image below for more details and to read the opening: