The Dardanelles Strait is the deep-water channel connecting the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara in Turkey. The strait must be considered in conjunction with the Bosphorus Strait, the waterway connecting the northern end of the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea. Together these channels constitute one of the most strategic waterways in the world.
Prior to 1914 the Dardanelles was greatly overshadowed by its northern counterpart, the Bosphorus, which was the gateway to Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and to the Black Sea. The two channels came to be the focal point of the so-called Eastern Question, the question being what would happen to Istanbul and the rest of the Ottoman lands after what was then seen as the inevitable collapse of the Ottoman Empire. For Britain and France, the primary issue was containing Russia, whose traditional goal was to take Istanbul and the Straits, thereby guaranteeing access to the Mediterranean. The Eastern Question was so interwoven with the fate of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus that the term was often interchangeable with the Straits Question.
The Dardanelles leapt to the forefront of history with the Dardanelles campaign of World War I (19 February 1915–9 January 1916), also known as the Gallipoli campaign, named after the peninsula on the northern shore of the strait that saw the heaviest fighting. Heavily fortified by the Turks and their German allies, the strait proved impossible to overcome by naval bombardment and land forces, and the Dardanelles became the site of one of the most spectacular defeats for the Allies in the Great War. Largely the brainchild of Winston Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, the aim of the campaign was to force the strait and make a dash for Istanbul, thereby knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the war and extending a helping hand to Russia, Britain's hard-pressed ally.
The critical naval attack occurred on 18 March when an Allied force consisting of some twenty heavy warships entered the strait and heavily bombarded the shore batteries. The day proved a disaster for the Allied fleet, with the loss of three battleships and damage to many more. On the French ship Bouvet alone, which struck a mine and went down in two minutes, the captain and 639 seamen were drowned. Taking stock, the Allied command decided that a naval attack alone would never tax the Turkish defenses enough to penetrate the strait. Therefore on 25 April the greatest amphibious landing military history had yet seen began. The Allied force consisted of seventy-five thousand men under the command of General Sir Ian Hamilton. The bulk of the force was made up of thirty thousand Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) soldiers, who would become a legend during the campaign.
The other legend of the Dardanelles campaign was the Turkish General Mustafa Kemal, who would go down in history as Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Mustafa Kemal was to be a crucial figure in the campaign. Highly critical of the way the German officers in the high command were running the campaign, Mustafa Kemal turned out to be a talented officer. It was largely through his decisive command, matched by failures in Allied intelligence and preparation, that the Anzac landing on 25 April failed. The campaign then became a sort of extension of the trench warfare that was seen on the western front, except for the fact that at some points only ten yards separated the two trenches. The fierce battles were often broken by truces, when both sides would bury their dead. It was said that the courtesy and civility with which the two sides treated each other was the last time chivalry was seen in trench warfare. There was a constant exchange of gifts, the Turks throwing over grapes and sweets, the Anzacs responding with tinned food and cigarettes.
By mid-May it had become clear that neither side was in a position to dislodge the other. The last major Allied push came on 6 August when a fresh force was landed on the Dardanelles beaches. In fierce fighting during August some forty-five thousand Allied troops died. In the last week of September Bulgaria joined the war on the German side, drastically altering the power balance in the Balkans. On 1 January 1916 the Allies began to withdraw from the peninsula. The Dardanelles campaign was to go down in history as one of the bloodiest encounters of World War I, with the casualties on both sides estimated at over half a million. It turned Allied strategy back to the western front, where the bloodshed would continue for another two and a half years.
Anderson, M. S. The Eastern Question, 1774–1923: A Study in International Relations. London, 1966.
Fromkin, David. A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914–1922. London, 1989.
Moorhead, Alan. Gallipoli. New York, 1956.