Gallipoli and Inconvenient Australians

There have been some unfavorable political reviews from some British commentators about Russell Crowe’s film The Water Diviner, an account of Gallipoli. Mr. Crowe has been condemned for seeing the Turkish side of things and asking why Australia appeared on the shores of Gallipoli at all:

“We should be mature enough as a nation to take into account the story that the other blokes have to tell. You know, because we did invade a sovereign nation that we’d never had an angry word with. And I think it’s time it should be said. For all the heroism you want to talk about, you know, for me, a fundamentally more important conversation is the waste of life and we shouldn’t celebrate the parts of mythology that shouldn’t be celebrated.”

This, of course, is the unanswerable question about the Great War – the one that is not supposed to be asked in remembering it: What was it really all about. If too much thought is directed at this and some effort is made at finding out the mythology starts collapsing. Let’s hope The Water Diviner is a popular start to this.

A couple of years ago I was watching the British Parliament interrogation of Rupert Murdoch and Son when, under pressure, Mr. Murdoch snr. made an unexpected reference to Gallipoli. Of course, this was not of much interest to the media hordes who let it pass without comment, but it may be of interest to others. Rupert Murdoch said that one of the things that inspired him as a young man was his father’s determination to purchase a small newspaper in Australia in order to expose the disastrous conduct of the British at Gallipoli.

Murdoch’s father, Keith Murdoch, was a young Australian newspaperman who was political correspondent for the Sydney Sun. His story is narrated in a book called The First Casualty (1975) by Phillip Knightley:

“What happened was this: Murdoch, at the age of twenty-nine, was sent in August 1915 to London, to act as representative there for a group of Australian newspapers. It was arranged that he should stop in Cairo, en route to London, and report on the postal arrangements for the Australian troops. While in Cairo, Murdoch, who was anxious to visit the battlefront, wrote for permission to do so to General Sir Ian Hamilton, who was in command of the mixed force that had landed at Gallipoli in April to attack Constantinople and knock Turkey out of the war. Hamilton was reluctant to allow Murdoch to go. Everything had gone wrong at the front, and the British and the Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) were hemmed into a few terrible areas of beach and hillside that were permanently under shell-fire. So Hamilton took the course of getting Murdoch to sign the war correspondent’s declaration undertaking ‘not to attempt to correspond by any other route or by any other means than that officially sanctioned’ and promising that for the duration of the war he would not ‘impart to anyone military information of a confidential nature…. unless first submitted to the Chief Field Censor.’

“Murdoch arrived on September 2, made a brief visit to the Anzac bridgehead, declined Hamilton’s offer to provide him with transport to go anywhere and see anything, and then returned to GHQ, on the island of Imbros, and sought accommodation at the press camp. The camp, in an olive grove just outside Hamilton’s headquarters, housed an interesting collection of war correspondents, including G. Ward Price of the Daily Mail, Charles Bean, the official Australian war correspondent, and Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett of the Daily Telegraph, the most interesting and dominating personality of them all. Ashmead-Bartlett had covered the Russo-Japanese War and was an experienced and highly competent correspondent. He appeared to have an unlimited expense account and used a large portion of it to purchase liquor from the navy. One of the sights of Imbros was the regular line of Greek porters staggering up the hill to the press camp loaded with supplies for Ashmead-Bartlett. He hated the restraints GHQ imposed upon him, especially that imposed by the censor, Captain William Maxwell, and had been fighting a losing battle, since the first landings, to try to tell the British public what was happening. Maxwell, on instructions from Hamilton, would allow no criticism of the conduct of the operation, no indication of set-backs or delays, and no mention of casualty figures; finally, he refused to give permission for any of Ashmead-Bartlett’s messages to be transmitted until Hamilton’s own official cables had reached London. This meant that, at a time when there was more interest in the fighting in France, Ashmead-Bartlett’s Gallipoli dispatches, days late and heavily censored, often failed to appear in print.”

“Over the months, Ashmead-Bartlett had grown sour, hostile, and pessimistic… He was in the middle of one of his more despondent moods when Keith Murdoch arrived and fell quickly under his influence. Ashmead-Bartlett poured out to Murdoch’s sympathetic ear all the frustration he had accumulated over his difficulties in filing stories, spun a gloomy description of the way the campaign was being conducted, and convinced Murdoch that a major disaster would occur during the winter unless the British government and the British people could be told the truth. Murdoch must have realised that almost by accident he was in possession of information that would certainly rank as one of the great stories of the war. He agreed with Ashmead-Bartlett that the only way to get the story out would be to break the rules and get an uncensored dispatch back to Britain. Ashmead-Bartlett wrote [a letter to British Prime Minister Asquith], and Murdoch set out to take it to London.”

“He got as far as Marseilles, but there was detained by a British officer with an escort and warned that he would be kept in custody until he handed over the letter. He had been betrayed to Hamilton by H. W. Nevinson, the correspondent for the Guardian… He had alerted the War Office, which arranged for Murdoch’s arrest, and had then withdrawn Ashmead-Bartlett’s accreditation and ordered him back to London. Murdoch went on to London and on September 23, 1915, sat down in a room in the office of the Australian High Commissioner and dictated everything he could remember of Ashmead-Bartlett’s dispatch and what Ashmead-Bartlett had told him during their all-night conversation. His account was in the form of a letter addressed to the Australian Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, but the presentation had strong journalistic overtones, with the data marshaled in a brisk and attractive way. It was an amazing document, a mixture of error, fact, exaggeration, prejudice, and the most sentimental patriotism, which made highly damaging charges against the British general staff and Hamilton, many of them untrue. But the basis of the charges – that the Gallipoli expedition was in danger of disaster – was correct, and Murdoch’s action, questionable though it may have been, had resounding consequences.”

“These were obviously Ashmead-Bartlett’s sentiments Murdoch was expressing, since Murdoch’s visit had been too brief for him to reach so dogmatic a conclusion. Murdoch would no doubt have felt it necessary to check his accusations much more thoroughly had he ever imagined he was writing more than a private letter to his Prime Minister, and so it must have placed him in a rather awkward position when, three days dater, Lloyd George, who opposed the Gallipoli campaign, read the letter and immediately urged that Murdoch send a copy of it to the British Prime Minister, Asquith. Murdoch could hardly have declined, but in a covering note he tried to tone down the virulence of his criticism.”

“Asquith used the weapon Murdoch sent him in an inexcusable manner. Without waiting until Kitchener had studied it, without checking its more outrageous allegations, and without even asking Hamilton for his comments, he had it printed as a state paper and circulated to the members of the Dardanelles Committee, which was in charge of the campaign. While the committee was still studying it, Ashmead-Bartlett arrived in London, and he and Murdoch began lobbying against Hamilton, Ashmead-Bartlett substantiating the substance of Murdoch’s letter with an article of his own in the Sunday edition of The Times. This made it clear that they had Northcliffe’s backing, and when the Dardanelles Committee met, on October 14, Hamilton’s active career was brought to an end and Kitchener was deputed to break the news to him. The evacuation of Gallipoli began on December 12, 1915. A Royal Commission that began sitting in August 1916 (Murdoch and Ashmead-Bartlett both gave evidence) found that the campaign had been a mistake.” (pp.100-3)

Below are some extracts from the letter to the Prime Minister that Murdoch carried to London, before his detaining:

“September 8th 1915

 Dear Mr. Asquith,

 “I hope you will excuse the liberty I am taking in writing to you but I have the chance of sending this letter through by hand and I consider it absolutely necessary that you should know the true state of affairs out here. Our last great effort to achieve some definite success against the Turks was the most ghastly and costly fiasco in our history since the Battle of Bannockburn…. The failure of the 9th Corps was due not so much to the employment of new and untried troops as to bad staff work. The generals had but a vague idea of the nature of the ground in their front and no adequate steps were taken to keep the troops supplied with water… As the result of all this fighting our casualties since August 6th now total nearly fifty thousand killed wounded and missing.”

“The army is in fact in a deplorable condition. Its morale as a fighting force has suffered greatly and the officers and men are thoroughly dispirited. The muddles and mismanagement beat anything that has ever occurred in our Military History. The fundamental evil at the present moment is the absolute lack of confidence in all ranks in the Headquarters staff. The confidence of the army will never be restored until a really strong man is placed at its head…. At the present time the army is incapable of a further offensive. The splendid Colonial Corps has been almost wiped out. Once again the 29th Division has suffered enormous losses and the new formations have lost their bravest and best officers and men. Neither do I think even with enormous reinforcements, that any fresh offensive from our present positions has the smallest chance of success. Our only real justification for throwing away fresh lives and fresh treasure in this unfortunate enterprise is the prospect of the certain cooperation of Bulgaria. With her assistance we should undoubtedly pull through. But as I know nothing of the attitude of Bulgaria or Greece or Italy I am only writing to give you a true picture of the state of the army and the problems with which we are faced in the future if we are left to fight the Turks alone…. In fact the season will soon be too late for a fresh offensive if another is contemplated. We have therefore to prepare against the coming of the winter or to withdraw the army altogether. I am assuming it is considered desirable to avoid the latter contingency at all costs for political reasons owing to the confession of final failure it would entail and the moral effect it might have in India and Egypt… But I suppose we must stay here as long as there is the smallest prospect of the Balkan alliance being revived and throwing in its lot with us even if they do not make a move until next Spring”.

“You may think I am too pessimistic but my views are shared by the large majority of the army. The confidence of the troops can only be restored by an immediate change in the supreme command… If possible have the Colonial troops taken off the Peninsula altogether because they are miserably depressed since the last failure and with their active minds, and positions they occupy in civil life, a dreary winter in the trenches will have a deplorable effect on what is left of this once magnificent body of men, the finest any Empire has ever produced. If we are obliged to keep this army locked up in Gallipoli this winter large reserves will be necessary to make good its losses in sickness. The cost of this campaign in the east must be out of all proportion to the results we are likely to obtain now, in time to have a decisive effect on the general theatre of war. Our great asset against the Germans was always considered to be our superior financial strength. In Gallipoli we are dissipating a large portion of our fortune and have not yet gained a single acre of ground of any strategical value. Unless we can pull through with the aid of the Balkan League in the near future this futile expenditure may ruin our prospects of bringing the war to a successful conclusion by gradually wearing down Germany’s colossal military power.

“I have taken the liberty of writing very fully because I have no means of knowing how far the real truth of the situation is known in England and how much the Military Authorities disclose. I thought therefore that perhaps the opinions of an independent observer might be of value to you at the present juncture. I am of course breaking the censorship regulations by sending this letter through but I have not the slightest hesitation in doing so as I feel it is absolutely essential for you to know the truth. I have been requested over and over again by officers of all ranks to go home and personally disclose the truth but it is difficult for me to leave until the beginning of October.

“Hoping you will therefore excuse the liberty I have taken.

 Believe me

Yours very truly

The Rt. Hon. H.H. Asquith

10 Downing Street.”


There are two interesting aspects to Gallipoli referred to in this letter carried by Murdoch that are not mentioned by today’s advocates of Remembrance. The first relates to the view that a British withdrawal (and defeat) should be avoided at all costs for political reasons owing to the confession of final failure it would entail and the moral effect it might have in India and Egypt.”

 A good summary of some of England’s objectives at Gallipoli is contained in the 1915 book The Dardanelles: Their Story and Their Significance in the Great War, By The Author of ‘The Real Kaiser’ (which contains a review or recommendation from The Times and Times Literary Supplement on its title page.) In Chapter I, The Significance of the Dardanelles, the unattributed author explains the importance of the Dardanelles/Gallipoli operation for the British Empire – which not only included the War against Germany and Turkey but also that of keeping the Moslem and lesser races in general in their place, below the white man:

“ It would seem, therefore, that the forcing of the Dardanelles will drive between Germany and what is left of Turkey a wedge of far greater extent than is represented by the mere strip of territory that will fall into the possession of the Allies. The Turks will be cut off from their supplies of weapons, ammunition, and skilled advisers. There will be a rapid end of them as a fighting possibility, and a deadly menace to the whole of our Eastern Empire will be removed. For the plot to rouse the fanaticism of the 300,000,000 Mohammedans of the world into a religious war against Great Britain has still to be considered… the idea itself is an insidious poison, that has been diligently scattered by German emissaries in all the dark and uncivilized places of the earth. It has been sedulously fostered by such lies as Germany alone knows how to disseminate. It would be impossible to exaggerate the danger it still holds for civilization. Savage and half savage tribes in Africa and the East are watching the issue with true homicidal interest. All their latent savagery is stirred by the return of an era of unchecked violence and bloodshed. The Kaiser, who has already figured in their eyes as the protector of Mohammedanism, and has even been represented to them as a renegade Christian, has led his armies into the lands of the Christian… The prestige of Great Britain, in which they have an inherited belief, the more implicit because it has never before been challenged, is now at stake. It suffices still to hold them in check, though every baser instinct in them is stirred by the daily record of carnage and savagery…”

 “In these circumstances an attack is launched at the very heart of Turkey. The Holy War becomes for the Sultan a war of self-preservation. The seat of the Turkish Empire is threatened; it seems about to pass away from his possession into the hands of the all-conquering English. The heathen must still wait for the event, sullen and watchful. And this mighty issue, the prestige of the British flag in all the dark places of the world, is being decided in the Straits of the Dardanelles. While Constantinople stands, the few white men who are holding hundreds of thousands of coloured men in check, not in one place but in many, live in a deadly peril. Had Constantinople never been attacked, they might well have been carried away ere now in a flood of barbaric licence. When Constantinople falls, the floodgates will be securely fastened again, and the British prestige will stand higher than ever, both in Africa and in the dangerous Far East. In view of these considerations, it is easily possible to regard the attempt on the Dardanelles as the main point of the Allies’ offensive…”

“The Allies, on their part, display that coherence of plan which has marked their conduct of the war since its very beginning… In confident unison they are enduring all, until the determining factor in the struggle has been revealed. May not that factor be declared when the Christian God is once more worshipped under the dome of St. Sophia?….” (pp.10-19)

It is perhaps not politic to say today that a primary motivation of the Gallipoli operation was to maintain the white Anglo-Saxon with ‘the whip-hand’ over the ‘lesser breeds’ – be they mere Moslems or ‘coloureds’.

The other aspect that is largely and handily forgotten about Gallipoli relates to the ‘Balkan Alliance.’ The letter carried by Murdoch, extrapolating the mind of the British ruling class concerning an alternative to withdrawal and humiliating defeat, notes: “I suppose we must stay here as long as there is the smallest prospect of the Balkan alliance being revived and throwing in its lot with us even if they do not make a move until next Spring”.

The same book, The Dardanelles: Their Story and Their Significance in the Great War ’, cited above, also refers to this aspect of the Gallipoli operation in relation to the Balkan Alliance and the British capture of Constantinople/Istanbul:

“The reasons which caused its founder to select the city as the new capital of the Roman Empire apply with equal force to-day. Apart from its naval importance, as the key to the Straits, Constantinople occupies a position of the highest strategical significance, from the military point of view alone. Its possession would mean to any of the existing nations of South-east Europe a nucleus spot for the creation of an Empire that might well vie in might and influence with the great Empires that have already had their seat there. When Constantinople passes into the hands of the Allies the momentous choice can no longer be deferred by the Balkan States. It will indeed be strange if, when the magnitude of their interests has been considered by them, they cannot set aside the differences that have paralyzed them through the first months of the war. In the great settlement that is before Europe the question of paramount importance to them is the disposal of Constantinople. Only one way exists for any of them to claim a voice in the settlement of that question. Which of them will refuse to take that way when Constantinople shall have fallen into the hands of the Allied Powers?” (p.12)

Perhaps the author did not realise that Sir Edward Grey had at that moment promised Istanbul to the Russians. Perhaps he never imagined the Foreign Secretary would overturn British policy of a century that “the Russians shall not have Constantinople.” Or perhaps he was just a good judge of things and understood that promises were made to be broken, when circumstances change.

Of course, due to unexpected Turkish resistance, Britain got no further than the shores of Gallipoli in 1915 and could not take and hold Constantinople as bait for the prospects of a new Byzantium. It had to wait until 1918 to do that and use the Greeks as its catspaw after subverting their neutrality and organising a coup against the Greek King.

To end on an interesting note, a few years ago the film Gallipoli (with Mel Gibson) was made in Australia. It is, to say the least, not very favourable to the British. It took three years for the filmmakers to secure funding for the film, and the Australian Government’s film agency declined support for it. The film was eventually produced by R&R Films, a production company owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Note: A very interesting questioning of the whole shambles at Gallipoli is currently being conducted by Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor as part of their First World War Hidden History project. It can be read here.


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