There are a few warships from the First World War, including the USS Texas, that have been preserved and are open to visitors as museum ships. Then there are those warships that were sunk and are unlikely to be visited by anyone except for deep-sea exploration teams. But now in Turkey, there is an undersea park that is essentially an underwater museum that will allow divers to explore the shipwrecks from the naval operations in the Dardanelles campaign during the war off the coast of Gallipoli.
More than 100 years after the Ottoman Empire’s forces, supported by their German and Austrian allies, stopped an invasion of British, Commonwealth, and French forces, Turkey has opened a new underwater museum dedicated to the battle. There are 14 sunken ships that can be explored at the Gallipoli Historic Underwater Park, which opened this month near the Turkish seaport of Canakkale, near the ancient Greek ruins of Troy.
Among the warships that divers can visit is the HMS Majestic, a 421-foot British battleship that had been torpedoed by a German U-Boat on May 27, 1915.
“It’s like a time machine that takes you back to 1915 and World War I,” diver and documentary maker Savas Karakas told Fulya Ozerkan of Agence-France Presse (AFP).
The waters off the coast of the Gallipoli Peninsula, which is still dotted with mines and untold amounts of unexploded ordnance from the campaign, have been closed to divers, but now as part of an effort to draw more tourists to the region, divers are allowed to visit the shipwrecks. Some are in relatively shallow waters of less than 25 feet below the surface, while others are around 60 to 100 feet. However, the HMS Triumph rests some 230 feet below the surface.
Plans for the underwater museum began to take shape in 2017, following the centennial of the 1915-16 Allied campaign. Officials had originally hoped to open the park this past summer, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, were forced to push back the launch until this month.
The Dardanelles Campaign
Naval operations in the Dardanelles began on February 17, 1915 when a British seaplane form the HMS Ark Royal flew a reconnaissance mission over the Straits, and it was met little resistance. The Allied plan, which had been proposed by then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, called for a naval assault to open the waterway to the Black Sea to aid Russia during the First World War.
The Ottoman Empire had originally been neutral, but after it joined the Central Powers it began to mine the waterway as part of its efforts to also defend its capital of Constantinople (today Istanbul).
Two days after that seaplane’s sortie, a strong Anglo-French task force, including the British dreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth, began long-range bombardment of the Ottoman coastal artillery batteries. For a month the Allied efforts continued, and on March 18, an Anglo-French fleet comprising 18 battleships and an array of cruisers and destroyers began the main attack. The French battleship Bouvet struck a mine and capsized, while HMS Irresistible was also sunk by Ottoman artillery fire.
Soon more than a dozen Allied warships could join the graveyard of navies that stretched back to ancient times.
After the Allies failed to breach the Dardanelles Straits, they began an invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula to clear the area of Ottoman artillery, and that led to the disastrous campaign that resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of men on both sides.
Today Gallipoli remains a popular tourist destination, and many of the original trenches that span the battlefield are still open to the public. Now in addition to walking the hallowed ground, visitors can also explore the warships where so many died in what was one of the most futile campaigns in military history.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.