Ready to take a deep dive into history—literally? Scuba divers can now explore the hulks of British and French ships sunk off the coast of Turkey during World War I’s Gallipoli Campaign.
Tourism officials have transformed the century-old wrecks in the Dardanelles Strait into a “museum under the sea,” reports Diego Cupolo for the London Times. The ships sank in 1915, when Ottoman and Allied forces faced off on the Gallipoli peninsula—a deadly victory by the Central Powers that would impact the lives of future world leaders Winston Churchill and Mustafa Kemal.
The Gallipoli Historic Underwater Park opened this month near the Turkish seaport of Canakkale, next to the ancient Greek ruins of Troy. Visitors can dive to the wrecks of 14 warships, including the HMS Majestic, a 421-foot British battleship that was 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 tells Fulya Ozerkan of Agence-France Presse (AFP).
Some of the wrecks are in relatively shallow waters of less than 25 feet. Others are deeper at around 60 to 100 feet. One sunken ship—HMS Triumph—rests 230 feet below the surface.
Yusuf Kartal, an official with Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, tells TRT World’s Karya Naz Balkiz that the underwater park is “a different world.”
He adds, “You see the submerged ship[s] as they were 106 years ago and experience the chaos of war secondhand.”
Despite the continued threat posed by unexploded mines and ordnance, Turkish authorities decided to open the area to divers. (“In the whole Dardanelles we have many thousands” of live torpedoes, Kartal says to Joshua Hammer of the New York Times; most “require a serious jolt to detonate.”) The government’s decision—and the broader practice of diving to wartime shipwrecks—has drawn criticism from those who consider the sunken vessels military graveyards, the London Times reports.
Plans to turn the wrecks into an underwater park took shape in 2017, following the centennial of the 1915–16 campaign. Officials had hoped to open the park this summer but were forced to delay until October by the resurging Covid-19 pandemic.
“There was history and treasure lying underwater for more than 100 years,” Ismail Kasdemir, head of the Canakkale Historical Site, tells AFP. “The diving community was curious.”
Though British and French troops landed on Gallipoli on February 17, 1915, actual combat did not begin until April 25. The Allies planned to march up the peninsula, capture Constantinople (now Istanbul) and open a path to the Black Sea that would give Russia access to the Mediterranean Sea.
Conceived by Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, the operation’s bitter trench warfare resulted in massive casualties on both sides. The Allies abandoned the campaign 11 months later, in January 1916, and the disgraced Churchill retreated from politics for nearly 20 years. He would return to office in 1940, leading Great Britain to victory in World War II as prime minister.
The Allies’ failure at Gallipoli owed much to Ottoman commander Kemal, who succeeded in preventing British and French forces from advancing past their beachheads in several key battles. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, Kemal helped establish the Republic of Turkey as a secular state and adopted the surname of Atatürk, or “Father Turk.”
Today, residents of Turkey view the Ottoman victory at Gallipoli as a defining moment for the end of the empire and the birth of a new nation. Karakas, whose grandfather was wounded at Gallipoli, remembers seeing scars from the battle on his loved one’s hands.
“I was always scared of them,” Karakas tells Reuters’ Yesim Dikmen and Mehmet Emin Caliskan. “But when I come to Gallipoli and dive, the rusted metal and steel of the wrecks reminds me of my grandfather's hands and I hold his hand under the water.”