The Dardanelles campaign was intended to be a strategic masterstroke to bypass the stalemate of the Western Front. Instead it has become a byword for missed opportunity and tragedy. Perhaps the greatest of these is that it could have been avoided through a simple bribe.
When the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War, on the side of the Central Powers, its government was split over whether to join the war and indeed whose side to take. The decision to go to war had been hijacked by the pro-German Minister of War, Enver Pasha who provoked the Allies into declaring hostilities on the Ottoman Empire, bypassing the rest of its leadership.
The Ottomans entry put extra pressure on the already tottering Tsarist regime, by blocking access to her warm water ports in the Black sea and opening up a third front in the Caucasus.
The Russians asked for help from her Allies and amidst fears that Russia might collapse and sign a separate peace, a plan was conceived to attack Turkey. However Captain Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall, the Head of Naval Intelligence, developed a more subtle approach, exploiting the divisions in the Ottoman Government.
At the end of January 1915, a few weeks ahead of the coming naval campaign, Hall dispatched agents instructed to offer the Ottomans a bribe of up to £4m to make peace. The agents focused their efforts on Talat Pasha, the Minister of the Interior, who was the only man in Constantinople (Istanbul) powerful enough to challenge Enver. He had no allegiance to either side in the war and was thought to be an opportunist who would bargain with whoever was most convenient to his purpose. He was also resentful of the number of posts that had been given to Germans in the Ottoman Army.
The Ottomans were also bankrupt after losing a series of colonial wars in the Balkans and North Africa. Talat was therefore receptive to the offer and entered into talks with Hall’s agents.
The negotiations dragged on to late February, when the Allied fleet began its attempt to force the Straits. The negotiations eventually concluded without a resolution on 15th March 1915. Three days later the naval assault reached its climax with a failed attempt to force the Dardanelles States, at the cost of three battleships sunk and three others severely damaged.
The crux of the negotiations for the Ottomans was a guarantee that Constantinople would remain in their control, if they were to sign a peace treaty and, without it the talks fell apart. No amount of money could compensate for the loss of their capital. And such a guarantee could not be given.
Constantinople had been promised to Russia when the Great Game in Central Asia was still afoot. By 1915, before the carnage of the Somme and the Russian revolution, this would probably have been considered a sensible and far sighted policy.
The Foreign Office took the view that it was inevitable that Russia would occupy Constantinople, so they might as well let them do it on British terms. This would keep Russia onside and mitigate their threat to India, which was one of the main reasons why Britain had entered into the Triple Entente Cordiale. The Foreign Secretary also thought it absurd that a great power like Russia did not have a warm water port.
There was a more immediate need to keep Russia onside. It was hoped, in vain, that the Russians would support the British and French assault on the Straits splitting the Turkish forces. The Allies also didn’t want to give the Russians any reason to sign a separate peace. Reneging on the promise to give them Constantinople would have provided an excellent opportunity for them to do so. And that was the Allied reason for the ‘demonstration’ in the Dardanelles.