Inside Story

“My God, it would have been easier than I thought”

The Gallipoli campaign wasn’t the pointless disaster of Anzac mythology

Mark Baker 24 April 2020 2471 words

The lucky ones? Wounded Anzacs arrive back in Sydney from Gallipoli.

In the epilogue to his brilliant account of the Gallipoli campaign, Alan Moorehead wrote of a visit to the old battlefields of the Dardanelles in the 1950s. He described a scene hard to reconcile with contemporary Australia’s infatuation with the place and its history.

Moorehead ranged over the peninsula with the venerable Major Tasman Millington, who had arrived in 1919 to help establish the imperial war graves and stayed for forty years to tend them. “Except for occasional organised tours not more than half a dozen visitors arrive from one year’s end to the other,” Moorehead wrote. “Often for months at a time nothing of any consequence happens, lizards scuttle about the tombstones in the sunshine and time goes by in an endless dream.”

In the years leading to the centenary of the landing in 2015, Anzac Cove and its rugged, scrubby hinterland was in danger of being trampled to dust by hordes of Australian pilgrims anxious to tap the wellspring of our national identity — the place where our traits of courage, sacrifice, mateship and resilience against impossible odds were first displayed to an awestruck world despite the perfidy of hopeless military leaders driving a lost cause.

Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of Australians, old and increasingly young, have flocked there. In April 2015 more than 10,000 attended the dawn service, with thousands more turned away in a hotly contested ballot for spots on the crowded shore. While the traffic has eased in the aftermath of the saturation commemorations of the centenary, the fervour lives on.

But this year the Anzac battlefields will once more be as deserted as they were a week before Christmas 1915, when the last of the diggers stole away in the depths of night, miraculously without a single casualty. Now Turkey and Australia, reunited in peace, are united in lockdown as the coronavirus reigns. And as a planet under quarantine ponders how we might build a better post-pandemic world, perhaps we might also consider a rethink of the view of the Gallipoli campaign in Australian history.

The assessment of the campaign still taken as gospel by most Australians — and still driven monotonously through Australian school curriculums — is that Gallipoli was an unmitigated and pointless disaster driven by callous British generals and leavened only by the heroism of the first diggers, 7600 of whom died needless deaths while another 18,000 were wounded.

The foundation of that mythology was largely the work of two journalists, one of whom essentially plagiarised the other. Between them they sowed the popular fiction of Australians as some kind of military master race and, in tandem, the equally exaggerated thesis that the campaign was an ill-conceived folly that did nothing to advance the Allied cause in the Great War.

Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett was a buccaneering beat-up merchant straight from the pages of Evelyn Waugh’s classic satire on the press, Scoop. Doyen of the small group of correspondents accredited to cover the campaign, the man from the London Daily Telegraph was an inveterate gambler, a voracious womaniser and a serial bankrupt. He also had a fine and sometimes ferocious pen.

Ashmead-Bartlett’s florid account of the landing at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915 was the first to be published in Australia, a week before the hapless official Australian correspondent, Charles Bean, beset by accreditation problems, was able to get his relatively lacklustre dispatch through. The British journalist’s story, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 May, caused an eruption of patriotic jubilation as readers who had spent days fearing the worst rejoiced in a victorious account that might have seemed too good to be true.

The journalist described “a race of athletes” storming ashore and rushing the enemy’s trenches with empty rifle magazines and just the “cold steel” of their bayonets: “It was over in a minute. The Turks in the first trench either were bayoneted or ran away.” He wrote of wounded men cheering as they were towed back to hospital ships. And he described a Turkish counterattack the next morning met by a two-hour barrage from British warships: “Then, amidst the flash of the bayonet and a sudden charge by the Colonials… the Turkish broke… and fell back, sullen and checked. They kept up incessant fire throughout the day, but the Colonials had now dug themselves in.”

The dispatch, immediately reprinted and distributed to schools by the NSW government, was written four days after the landing. By then Ashmead-Bartlett knew full well how perilous the military situation was, how close the commanders had come to abandoning Anzac Cove during the mayhem of the first night, how massive the casualties had been and how, far from being safely dug in, the troops were clinging desperately to the hillsides under relentless Turkish fire. The truth was that while the Anzacs had indeed fought tenaciously, they had little to show for their huge sacrifices and they and their leaders had gravely miscalculated the strength and determination of the Turks.

No sooner had he erected the gilded pedestal on which he placed the Anzacs than Ashmead-Bartlett began to attack its foundations. And before long he would be aided in his task by the arrival of a gormless Australian journalist who stopped briefly at Gallipoli on his way to manage a cable news service in London.

The British journalist had grown up and grown famous in the freewheeling era of correspondents who flitted unchecked between opposing military and political forces in a series of colonial wars and local skirmishes across Europe and North Africa in the decade before the first world war. He was infuriated by strict new controls on the movement of journalists and the censorship of their work imposed by Whitehall in late 1914. At Gallipoli he vented his spleen against the commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton, even though Hamilton was not responsible for the rules and, as a champion of greater press freedom, did his best to bend them.

As the stalemate reached in those first hours at Gallipoli remained largely unchanged in the months that followed and a major offensive mounted in August failed to break it, the frustration of the politically well-connected Ashmead-Bartlett boiled over. He resolved to write to British prime minister Herbert Asquith arguing that the campaign be aborted and Hamilton sacked. Censorship controls made it impossible for him to send such a letter, but he found a willing smuggler for it with the arrival at Gallipoli in early September of journalist Keith Murdoch.

Murdoch, who sixteen years later would pass the gene of political intrigue and self-promotion to his son Rupert, was an enthusiastic conscript to the conspiracy. The letter was duly penned, but the courier only got as far as Marseilles before he was intercepted by military police who seized it. Undeterred, Murdoch proceeded to London where he audaciously produced a far more incendiary 8000-word epistle of his own — informed by the coaching he had received from Ashmead-Bartlett, his patchy recollections of what the British journalist had written, and scattered impressions formed during the mere four days he’d spent on the ground at Gallipoli. It was a beat-up that, a generation later, would have put to shame his son’s Fleet Street rags.

The Murdoch letter, addressed to former Australian prime minister Andrew Fisher, the high commissioner in London, synthesised what would become the two unshakeable pillars of popular Australian perceptions of Gallipoli: all the British commanders were terrible and the Anzac troops were strapping, almost god-like heroes: “It is stirring to see them, magnificent manhood, swinging their fine limbs as they walk about Anzac. They have the noble faces of men who have endured. Oh, if you could picture Anzac as I have seen it, you would find that to be an Australian is the greatest privilege the world has to offer.”

Murdoch declared that the August offensive had cost the Allies 35 per cent of their strength, or 33,000 men. (In fact, total Allied casualties were 21,500 against vastly greater Turkish losses.) He claimed that during the ill-fated August landings at Suvla Bay, officers were ordered to “shoot without mercy” any troops who lagged or loitered. (No such orders were issued.) He claimed that many of the 90,000 troops who landed at Suvla had died of thirst. (Although there were severe water shortages, none of the troops at Suvla — actually 30,000 in number — died of thirst.) He said an Australian general was “staggered” to see the IXth and Xth Corps retreating from the Anafarta Hills behind Suvla. (Staggering indeed: there was no Xth Corps at Suvla.)

Unlike Ashmead-Bartlett, who had not attacked Hamilton by name — instead leaving it to the reader to draw the obvious conclusion — Murdoch went straight for the jugular. After smearing the British troops as “toy soldiers… merely a lot of childlike youths without the strength to endure or brains to improve” and dismissing Hamilton’s entire headquarters staff as lazy cowards (never mind that three of them had won the Victoria Cross and would later die in battle), he denounced the general (himself twice nominated for the VC) and demanded his sacking. “I cannot see any solution which does not begin with the recall of Hamilton,” Murdoch wrote. “It is plain that when an army has completely lost faith in its general, and he has on numerous occasions proved his weaknesses, only one thing can be done.”

The intrigues of Murdoch and Ashmead-Bartlett found willing ears in London, where frustration was already mounting over the lack of success in the Dardanelles and pressure was growing from the generals on the Western Front to divert the men and matériel from Gallipoli to bolster their struggle. In mid October, Hamilton was recalled to London and, ignoring his argument that victory was within the Allies’ grasp, the government soon confirmed plans to evacuate.

And so Gallipoli was cast in Australia as a defining moment of our national character but an abject military failure.

What was not recognised at the time, and is still largely forgotten, was how much had been achieved during the eight months of the campaign. The Allied landings in April 1915 were the biggest amphibious assault in the history of warfare, waged against an enemy given months of warning of the impending attack, with superior manpower and firepower and in full control of the high ground. And the lack of men and matériel that hampered the tenacious General Hamilton from the outset would never be properly rectified.

After the war, ample evidence emerged to vindicate Hamilton’s conviction that, had his army stuck it out through the bitter winter into 1916 and been adequately reinforced and resupplied, it would have broken through at Gallipoli, neutralised Turkey and helped bring the war to a much earlier conclusion. It would be revealed that twice — during the naval attack at The Narrows in March 1915 and during the August offensive — the Allies had come breathtakingly close to victory.

In 1917 German journalist Harry Stuermer, who had been based in Turkey, revealed that Turkish defences at The Narrows were at breaking point after the British and French bombardment on 18 March 1915 and, desperately short of ammunition, would have been unable to withstand a renewed attack the following day — had the naval commanders not lost their nerve after losing several warships. Ismail Enver Pasha, the Ottoman war minister, later verified the account: “If the English had only had the courage to rush more ships through the Dardanelles they could have got to Constantinople.”

Stuermer also wrote that the Turkish leadership was convinced the Allies were about to break through in August. There was panic in Constantinople and the state archives and bullion reserves had been moved to Asia Minor in the expectation that the capital was about to fall.

The decision to open a new front at Suvla Bay, north of Anzac, as part of the August push was a brilliant tactic to outflank the Turks that unravelled under the incompetent leadership of the ageing Lieutenant General Frederick Stopford, who inexplicably ordered his troops to pause and rest as soon as they had landed. It was later confirmed that Stopford’s force faced just 1500 Turks who were taken completely by surprise. The general’s prevarication gave the Turks time to reinforce and hold their ground, largely because of the initiative of Colonel Mustafa Kemal, who a decade later would emerge as president of the Turkish republic. When General William Birdwood, one of the most distinguished commanders at Gallipoli, made a return visit in 1936, the Turkish army’s chief of staff, General Fahretein Pasha, told him, “When we saw your troops landing there we were taken utterly by surprise, and we wired Constantinople advising the government to evacuate the capital as the British would be through.”

Keith Murdoch’s great conceit — still propagated through media, movies and miniseries by his doting son — was that his courageous whistleblowing ended an unconscionable slaughter and saved countless Australian lives. What is forgotten is that the Allied toll of 110,000 casualties during the eight months at Gallipoli, terrible as it was, equalled the losses incurred in about three weeks of heavy fighting on the Western Front. The Australians liberated from the Dardanelles, in part through Murdoch’s agitation, headed not for safety but for the more ghastly killing fields of Flanders.

What is also largely forgotten about the retreat from Gallipoli is the impact that the freeing of six divisions of Turkish troops and their German overseers had on the future course of the war. Just as the eight-month campaign had meant those forces were tied down and unable to fight elsewhere — a much-underestimated dividend — their release had very serious consequences. “Within a few months,” wrote Maurice Hankey, the Australian-born secretary of the British War Council, “the Turks were rioting all over the East, capturing our besieged army at Kut (April 29), attacking our vital communications through the Suez Canal (July) and penetrating far into Persia; in August they even sent a corps to help the Germans in Galacia where the Allies, with armies even larger in aggregate than had been employed on the Peninsula, were everywhere on the defensive.”

One of the few who had argued in vain for the navy to persevere in the Dardanelles was Commodore Roger Keyes. Keyes would later be one of the few senior officers to fight strongly in support of Sir Ian Hamilton’s efforts to stop the evacuation and continue pressing the Turks.

In 1925, Keyes, by then an admiral and commander of Britain’s Mediterranean Fleet, steamed through the Dardanelles. Overcome with emotion, he told Britain’s official war historian, Cecil Aspinall-Oglander, “My God, it would have been easier than I thought; we simply couldn’t have failed… and because we didn’t try, another million lives were thrown away and the war went on for another three years.” •

Letters from a pilgrimage: Ken Inglis’s dispatches from his April 1965 trip to Gallipoli with 300 Anzac pilgrims