NATO Divers Commemorate Gallipoli Campaign in Underwater Ceremony
This year marks one hundred years since the end of the First World War. As part of the centenary commemorations, on 28 September a group of divers from NATO’s Allied Land Command (LANDCOM), based in Izmir, Turkey, together with members of the British Embassy Ankara travelled to Çanakkale, Turkey, to perform memorial ceremonies for armed forces personnel who were lost during the Gallipoli Campaign.
The ten-month Gallipoli Campaign took place between 17 February 1915 and 9 January 1916 on both land and sea, resulting in 141,000 Allied casualties and more than 250,000 from the Ottoman Empire. Fourteen Allied warships were lost at sea, amid one of the most horrendous land campaigns of the First World War.
Records gathered by the Royal British Legion in conjunction with the UK Armed Forces (UKAF) Rugby Union found that 107 International Commonwealth rugby players died during the First World War, 15 of whom were killed at Gallipoli.
As part of the commemoration, the team laid wreaths on two of the British ships that were lost during the campaign, and also dived with the rugby balls that will be used at the UKAF charity rugby matches, held each year around Armistice Day in support of the Royal British Legion (RBL).
The remembrance dive formed part of the ‘Gallipoli Gallop’, a project begun by Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Michael ‘Doc’ Cox, with the support of UKAF Rugby Union and the RBL. The idea formed when he first took up his posting at NATO LANDCOM in 2016, stopping at Gallipoli en route to lay a memorial at Shrapnel Valley.
‘The sheer isolationism of the site got me thinking how I could raise awareness of the RBL and tie it into the Centenary memorial of the end of WWI,’ said Doc.
The first part of the Gallipoli Gallop took place in April this year when UK LANDCOM representatives marched 30.5km in 5.5 hours to visit 14 Commonwealth War Graves in the Gallipoli Peninsula. The rugby balls were carried throughout the march and used to start the UKAF Oxbridge rugby matches at Twickenham, after which Lt Cdr Cox returned them to Turkey for the remembrance dives
It took 18 months to bring the dives to fruition. Special licenses are required to dive the ships, but fortunately, Doc was put in contact with BlackFish Dive, located in Gallipoli, who specialise in diving the wrecks. The team had originally planned to dive the patrol boat HMS Lundy and the HMS Louis, however, the arrival of a rare ‘Medicane’ storm ruled out the Lundy and hence the team dived the SS Milo instead.
HMS Louis was a Laforey-class destroyer that sank in Suvla Bay on 31 October 1915 after being battered by Ottoman coastal artillery. HMS Louis now sits at 15m, mostly covered by the fine silt that has engulfed the hull ‘like a coffin’, with only the armoured steam boilers and some of the superstructure still visible.
‘As a member of the armed forces, I was truly privileged and most humbled to take part in the dive,’ said Doc Cox. ‘I felt a sense of calm as we descended to the Louis, as it appeared through the fine silt engulfing it like a shroud. Just hovering above the boilers, it was hard to imagine the horrors that the crew would have found themselves in back in 1915.’
The second wreath-laying took place in shallow waters approximately 100m off ANZAC Cove, the final resting place of the SS Milo. Allied Forces scuttle the SS Milo in December 1915 to provide a wave break, allowing 36,000 Commonwealth personnel to evacuate over five nights. It was said that the sea in ANZAC Cove had turned red with blood from the injured soldiers.
The Gallipoli shipwrecks hold a particular significance for Doc, as an officer of the British Royal Navy. ‘You don't hear about the sacrifices made at sea [during the Gallipoli Campaign] due to the horrendous losses during the land campaign, on both the Allied and Turkish side,’ he said ‘What made the dive even more personal to me was the night before, a fellow friend from a unit I had served with informed me that another former serving brother struggling with PTSD had taken his life.’ Doc informed some the group the following day, and laid a wreath from the ferry as they travelled home across the Dardenelles Strait.
As well as supporting the Royal British Legion and the centenary commemorations, the Gallipoli remembrance dives also serve to highlight the unique nature of military shipwrecks, whose presence offers a window into the horrors of war that have largely been erased from the land. ‘It would be fantastic if the dive community was in a position to do more to help the Turkish authorities to preserve the wrecks as memorials or underwater museums, as part of the holistic Gallipoli Campaign,’ said Doc. ’Paying our respect before the wrecks are lost to the sands of time is one of my most memorable dives due to the ultimate sacrifice paid for by so many.’
During both dives, the biodegradable wreaths were laid on the wrecks by former Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineer Colin Jones. Along with Lt Cdr Doc Cox, LANDCOM divers participating in the dive included German Army Major Thore Kempenich and U.S. Army Captain Isabelle Morse. Along with the members of the British Embassy-Ankara, local British expats and Turkish divers, the nationalities represented included English, Welsh, Canadian, New Zealand, German, American, and Turkish.
The rugby balls take on the HMS Louis and SS Milo remembrance dives have been brought back to the UK by Lieutenant Commander Cox, and will be used to start the UKAF Women’s Remembrance match against South Africa (2 November 2018 at Rosslyn Park) and the UKAF Men’s Remembrance Game against the Bristol Bears (15 November 2018 at Ashton Gate).
The original article was written by Captain Isabelle Morse of the US Army. For more information on the UKAF Women’s Remembrance rugby match, follow the UKAF Twitter account @UKAFRugby, and check out the link for the UKAF Rugby Union Website for tickets to the men’s game vs Bristol Bears on 15 November. For more about the Royal British Legion and their work to support UKAF service men and women, veterans and families, visit www.britishlegion.org.uk for information or to make a donation.