The Gallipoli Letter24 October 2019
A letter from Australian journalist Keith Murdoch played a key role in ending the Gallipoli campaign.
In his 25-page letter to Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, Australian journalist Keith Murdoch described the Gallipoli campaign as ‘undoubtedly one of the most terrible chapters in our history’. Murdoch’s conversational yet brutally honest letter played a key role in ending the Gallipoli campaign and in the evacuation of British and ANZAC troops from the peninsula.
As the months passed following the Gallipoli landing in 1915, Australian Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, a religious man of some sensitivity and compassion, was greatly concerned by heavy Australian casualty lists and sketchy information received from the Dardanelles. It was also obvious that reports received from Charles Bean, the Australian war historian, were being heavily filtered.
Keith Arthur Murdoch, a young political correspondent and personal family friend of the Prime Minister, was anxious to enlist. Later in his life, Murdoch went on to father media magnate Rupert Murdoch. Fisher persuaded Murdoch to accept an alternate appointment as managing director of the United Cable Service in London.
En route, Fisher commissioned him to visit Australian troops in hospitals in Egypt and to travel to the Dardanelles.
Fisher wanted reliable reports from a trusted confidant, and Murdoch carried documents identifying him as the official representative of the Australian Prime Minister.
Wounded men in Egyptian hospitals gave disquieting news about the situation at the Dardanelles and were highly critical of the performance of British command. Then, with British General Sir Ian Hamilton’s permission, Murdoch sailed on to Gallipoli, where his first contact was historian Bean.
Bean was sick and most despondent about the course of the campaign and its prospects for success. There were constant problems with food and water supplies, and he had considerable apprehension about the effects of an approaching winter.
CONVINCED GALLIPOLI WAS A STALEMATE
Murdoch visited most of the Australian battlefields and spoke to soldiers from the rank of General down to Private. By the end of his four-day stay he was convinced that the Gallipoli stalemate was about to become a catastrophe, and General Hamilton should be replaced as overall commander as a prelude to the termination of the campaign.
Moving to the nearby island of Imbros for the continuation of his journey to England, he met veteran British journalist Ellis Ashmead- Bartlett, whose vivid reporting of the Gallipoli landing was credited with the inauguration of the ANZAC legend.
The English journalist was found to be equally disillusioned with the prospects of winning the war with the Turks.
They both agreed the British Government should be advised that the Dardanelles conflict was unwinnable. Murdoch urged Ashmead-Bartlett to write a letter to his Prime Minister, and Murdoch would convey it to England.
They convinced themselves that doing it in this way would not be a breach of journalistic etiquette, and the letter was duly written. But the scheme was betrayed to General Hamilton, and when Murdoch reached Marseilles he was confronted by military police and required to hand over Ashmead- Bartlett’s letter to avoid arrest.
The offending journalist Ashmead- Bartlett was summarily packed off home – a foolish course of action, as he was then free to talk his head off, which he did, and he also must therefore be accepted as one of the influences that cancelled the Dardanelles campaign.
As SS Mooltan sailed to England, Murdoch created the first draft of his letter, which he cabled to Fisher once in London.
Murdoch first dealt with the disastrous Suvla Bay operation, where four English Divisions of inexperienced troops landed at a site just north of ANZAC Cove. This area was lightly defended and while the men came ashore without problems, they faltered in their final advance to the ridge.
They also had catastrophic shortages of water. The advantage of surprise was lost, and the Turks quickly reinforced the high ground and inflicted heavy casualties on the British.
It was a disaster and caused some 2,500 Australians to lose their lives at Lone Pine and The Nek, operations which were designed as feints to distract the Turks away from Suvla.
The Australians were furious at the ineptitude of the operation (which they could observe from high ground in the south), and the failure of its leadership. Murdoch castigated the British in no uncertain terms and selected their leader, General Stopford, for special attention. Stopford appeared to have been chosen on account of seniority but lacked combat experience. Some 35,000 British casualties were sustained.
The letter then turned to the weather as there was every indication that the troops were intended to see out a winter, and, with reinforcements, open a second front in the 1916 spring. Murdoch pointed to the consequences: the men were already exhausted, had poor food, insufficient water, ramshackle housing and constant guard duty.
Winter would bring rain initially and then snow. Warm clothing would be required. The casualty rate from sickness was already high – some 600 men per day – and would only increase. In effect, the combined British force at the Dardanelles could be decimated without a shot being fired.
On the other hand, the Turks had well-dug trenches on ground of their selection, which were generally roofed with timber. Those dug by the Australians were inferior and certainly not weatherproof.
Winter would bring heavy seas, with difficult if not impracticable landing of men, food, water and munitions.
Meanwhile, the Turks were supplied by land, with a risk that a winter interlude would allow extensive reinforcements (possibly including German troops) and the introduction of additional artillery such as howitzers, which could have deadly consequences.
Turkish guns were already occupying superior strategic locations, while British naval artillery with flat trajectory was quite inefficient in targeting narrow Turkish trenches and hidden gun emplacements.
Murdoch delivered a passionate eulogy about Australian morale. He could not speak highly enough of the troops’ physique, spirit and bravery under fire. And while exhausted, the men would immediately answer the call to arms.
But while the Australians were impressive fighting men – earning recent high praise from the Turks at Lone Pine – they were resentful at having lost so many mates for so little gain. The men had faith in their own generals, but detested the British command, particularly red-tabbed staff officers and General Hamilton, who lived in comparative luxury and safety at nearby Imbros and Mudros Islands. Murdoch believed the British military hierarchy was based on a peace-time social system rather than on military ability.
Murdoch was generous in his praise of the Turks. The British Government had anticipated an easily-defeated rabble, but they found a brave army of well-trained men under the direction of an able German General – Liman von Sanders. It was recommended that no further offensives be undertaken, and that General Hamilton be recalled.
AN UNEXPECTED SEQUEL
The letter Murdoch cabled to his Prime Minister was considered by some to be “a little over-coloured” but was still absolutely compelling in its important detail. Unfortunately, the Australian Government was capable of little significant redress, as it had surrendered all control of its troops to the British authorities.
But the story took a totally unexpected twist. Shortly after his arrival in London, Murdoch was invited to lunch with Geoffrey Dawson, the politically influential editor of The Times newspaper. Initially disbelieving, Dawson became aghast at what he was told of the substance of the letter, and arranged for a meeting with Sir Edward Carson, chairman of the British Cabinet’s Dardanelles Committee.
Murdoch was then given a hearing with David Lloyd George, Minister for Munitions. Both politicians had originally believed in a 1916 spring ‘second front’ at the Dardanelles, but were sufficiently impressed by the letter to submit it to Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith. After reading Murdoch’s report, alarm bells started to ring loudly, and Asquith printed the letter as a State Paper for distribution to the Committee of Imperial Defence.
The veil of secrecy and obfuscation over the Dardanelles operation was now lifted. In the next few weeks, Hamilton was recalled and replaced by General Sir Charles Monro.
Lord Kitchener was despatched to the Gallipoli peninsula to provide a report to assist in the Imperial deliberations. This he did, resulting in a decision to abandon the Dardanelles.
The campaign was at an end and all troops were evacuated in December without loss of a single life. Hamilton had contended that such an operation would result in 50 per cent casualties. Hamilton would always defend his role as commander but was never given another active post.
Murdoch visited the Western Front irregularly during the remainder of the war and sent back dispatches written in his own vigorous style. He also maintained his position of influence in political circles but was unsuccessful in his inexplicable opposition to the various appointments of Sir John Monash.
Continuing in his position as leader of the United Cable Service, he met Lord Northcliffe, owner of The Times, and became a lifetime supporter of the latter’s authoritative newspaper management. By 1920 he had returned to Australia and started a career of media acquisitions and operation, which continued for the rest of his life.
Murdoch also maintained a strong presence in the political arena. In later life he also became a significant figure in Melbourne’s art world, which benefited from his dynamic influence.
He was always a handsome, superior figure with an elegant lifestyle. He married in 1918 and had four children, including Rupert, who built his own media organisation which spread around the globe.
It is extensively reported that Murdoch rejected the offer of a knighthood in 1919, but the title became a reality in 1933. He was also playfully dubbed ‘Lord Southcliffe’ by his contemporaries, for his vigorous adherence to Lord Northcliffe’s managerial style.
The last years of his life were spent fighting cancer, to which he succumbed in 1952. His career was summarised as being that of an “able journalist, a brilliant editor in his youth and a remarkable entrepreneur and organiser of his industry”.
And as an “able journalist” he produced a 25-page letter in 1915, which was a prime influence in an event that would beneficially change the course of Australian history.