Inside Story

The myth of Keith Murdoch’s Gallipoli letter

The legendary dispatch failed its first test nearly a century ago in London

Mark Baker 27 June 2016 3117 words

Ambitious agenda: prime minister William Morris (Billy) Hughes and Keith Murdoch photograhed in France on 3 July 1918. Australian War Memorial

The evacuation of the last troops from Gallipoli in January 1916 presaged a disastrous year for Britain’s Asquith government. Humiliation at the Dardanelles was followed by the Easter Rising in Dublin, the fall of Kut al Amara in Mesopotamia in April and the wholesale slaughter on the Somme in July.

Desperate to stave off defeat in the House of Commons, the government bowed to pressure and convened two commissions of inquiry. One was to examine the disaster in Mesopotamia, the other Gallipoli. Both would meet in closed session and be denied access to sensitive official papers, but they were still an extraordinary indulgence for a nation in the depths of war.

The Dardanelles inquiry began its hearings in August 1917. Inevitably, a key focus was the conduct of Sir Ian Hamilton, the sacked commander-in-chief of the campaign at Gallipoli. Sir William Pickford, an eminent judge and privy councillor, chaired a commission made up of politicians, diplomats and senior military officers. From the outset, the Gallipoli jury appeared to be stacked against Hamilton and in favour of Keith Murdoch, the journalist whose damning “Gallipoli letter” was credited with being a catalyst for the decision to abandon the Dardanelles campaign.

Although the four MPs on the commission were uncontroversial appointments, the diplomats and senior officers were anything but. NZ high commissioner Sir Thomas Mackenzie was joined by his Australian counterpart, Andrew Fisher, Keith Murdoch’s long-time friend and the man who, as prime minister, had given Murdoch a commission to visit Egypt in late 1915 to report on the military postal services. Admiral of the fleet Sir William May took his place alongside field marshal William Nicholson, a peer and former chief of the imperial general staff who had been recalled from retirement at the start of the war to serve on the Committee of Imperial Defence. Irascible and sharp-tongued, “Old Nick” was also a career rival of Ian Hamilton dating back to their Boer war days.

The new Australian government of Billy Hughes, who had succeeded Fisher as prime minister in October 1915, was opposed to the establishment of the commission and to the appointment of Fisher as a commissioner. The government thought the inquiry, even behind closed doors, was a sign of weakness in wartime, and it was concerned about the impact on army recruitment of any criticism of the Gallipoli campaign and the already burgeoning legend of Anzac heroism. In the end, Hughes agreed to accept the inquiry but on condition that the Australian government was not officially involved. Asquith then confirmed Fisher’s appointment on the basis that he was “a nominee of the home government.”

Hamilton had lobbied against Fisher’s appointment, writing to Asquith questioning the high commissioner’s impartiality and pointing out Fisher’s close relationship with Keith Murdoch. “Mr A.K. Murdoch was introduced to me by Mr Fisher,” he wrote.

He would never have got to the Dardanelles had it not been for my respect for Mr Fisher. His letter deprecating the conduct of British generals, staff officers and troops was addressed to Mr Fisher. Mr Fisher is a friend of Mr Murdoch’s. Therefore, the judgement of Mr Fisher might hereafter be held to have been biased in advance.

The plea got short shrift at 10 Downing Street. Sir Maurice Bonham Carter, Asquith’s principal private secretary, told Hamilton that while his point about the relationship between Fisher and Murdoch had occurred to the prime minister, Fisher’s character was such that Asquith “does not think he need be biased by Mr Murdoch’s opinions.”

Hamilton, who still harboured ambitions for another fighting command in a war that had a long way to run, worked hard behind the scenes and at the hearings in defence of his actions at Gallipoli – and in defence of the reputations of his trusted senior officers and the men in the trenches. He saw his task as not about defending or explaining fatal errors but about convincing those now sitting in judgement of what had been achieved and what more might have been achieved had the government held its nerve.

Hamilton was invited to propose a number of witnesses who should be summoned to give evidence. High on his list was Phillip Schuler, the Age’s correspondent at Gallipoli, who had since enlisted and was serving on the Western Front. “I put his name into my category of important witnesses, who should without fail be called – not as my witnesses but as the best witnesses,” Hamilton told Schuler’s close friend, Richard Dowse.

And he expressly told the commission that Schuler’s evidence would be needed to balance that of Keith Murdoch:

Murdoch is one of two civilian pressmen who came to the Dardanelles in the capacity of guests. His views have been selected as being worthy of being printed and circulated amongst cabinet ministers. I now ask that the other be also given a hearing. His name is Mr Phillip Schuler. He is the son of the editor of the “Age” newspaper of Melbourne. The only difference between his qualifications and those of Mr Murdoch are that he stayed longer on the Peninsula; that he saw fighting; and that he has since joined and is serving in the ranks.

In the end, all the witnesses Hamilton proposed were called – except for Schuler. No reason was given. When Schuler wrote to Hamilton from France expressing his disappointment at not being invited to appear, the general made a fresh request to the commission, in mid 1917, for him to be brought to London. Again it was refused without explanation.

Phillip Schuler on board HMAT Orvieto, the flagship of the first AIF convoy, en route to Egypt in late 1914. Charles Bean/Australian War Memorial

At the outset, Hamilton urged the commission to table the original “Gallipoli Letter,” penned by British correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, which Keith Murdoch had agreed to carry to London before he was intercepted, and the letter confiscated, by military police at Marseilles in September 1915. He also sought the tabling of the embellished version of the letter, which Murdoch had then drafted and circulated to senior officials, including Andrew Fisher, when he finally reached London. Hamilton argued that the letters were “the final causes of a momentous and, I believe, ruinous decision” to withdraw from the Dardanelles. His request was not granted.

Keith Murdoch’s day in court came on 5 February 1917. It was a humiliating moment for the journalist who, in the eighteen months since delivering his letter to Fisher, had propelled himself into a position of remarkable power and influence in London. While his day job involved running a nondescript Antipodean news service in a corner of the London Times office, Murdoch had by late 1916 become in effect Australia’s de facto high commissioner. The ailing Andrew Fisher might have been a long-time friend and the prime minister who had given Murdoch his initial passport to power, but the journalist was quick to usurp Fisher’s London role as soon as the opportunity arose.

Billy Hughes had been unhappy with Murdoch’s Gallipoli escapade and the inquiry it helped trigger, and had demanded that in future no Australian correspondents be permitted to visit the front lines without prior approval of the Australian government. But, as Murdoch biographer Desmond Zwar would later write, Hughes saw the journalist – with his growing connections to the all-powerful press baron Lord Northcliffe and a clutch of senior politicians and officials – as more likely than Fisher to advance his ambitious agenda in Britain.

When Hughes arrived in Britain for a four-month visit in March 1916, Murdoch hosted a private dinner for the prime minister at his apartment. It was attended by a group of the most powerful men in London: munitions minister Lloyd George, press magnate Lord Northcliffe, chief of the imperial general staff William Robertson, colonial secretary Andrew Bonar Law and Times editor Geoffrey Dawson.

As soon as Hughes established his headquarters in a grand suite at the Hotel Cecil, Murdoch was brought in as a key assistant, publicist and political adviser. But several hours of intense questioning before the Dardanelles commission would expose the shallow foundations on which that prestige had been built. Fortunately for Murdoch, it would be years before the full details became public.

On the Monday of Murdoch’s appearance, chairman Sir William Pickford was joined by Field Marshal Nicholson, Andrew Fisher, Admiral May, Sir Thomas Mackenzie and Welsh MP Walter Roch. Sir Ian Hamilton had been diffident about directly challenging Murdoch’s conduct when he gave evidence a month earlier, but Pickford had no such qualms. The venerable judge quickly assumed the role of prosecutor.

After reading verbatim the undertakings Murdoch had given Hamilton to “faithfully observe” any conditions imposed in return for permission to “record censored impressions in the London and Australian newspapers” at Gallipoli, Pickford drew the first of a series of highly damaging admissions from Murdoch about his limited knowledge and expertise in composing the letter to Fisher.

Sir William Pickford: You reported, and I daresay quite properly, to Mr Fisher a good many things that were said. What we chiefly want is what you know of your own knowledge.

Keith Murdoch: I do not think I can help you much because I only formed impressions. That was all I ever claimed to have. While I was there I formed one exceedingly strong impression on which I acted to my utmost power. As to the military operations and even the condition of the army at that time I should think you would be able to get very much sounder and fuller evidence from other people.

Murdoch claimed that during his “four or five days” ashore at Anzac he had spoken to “almost all” of the Australian generals, other Australian officers and men and “some” English officers. They had left him with the strong impression that “the expedition had wholly failed, the armies were in a parlous position, and that the situation was not receiving due consideration in London.” When pressed to elaborate on his sources, he conceded that he had not obtained information from any British general that the expedition was in serious trouble and that he had not met the English generals whose character and competence he had most severely criticised.

Pickford: It was what you heard other people say about them?

Murdoch: To a large extent, yes – of course, solely it was the impression I formed from the observations of other people. That was inevitable, of course. I could not meet them.

Pickford: Are these criticisms entirely from what you were told by generals and people in responsible positions?

Murdoch: No, I should think, so far as I remember, not a single Australian general criticised a British officer in my hearing.

Pickford: Then was this information from soldiers or from correspondents?

Murdoch: It was from soldiers, and also it was the opinion of some of the correspondents, I think.

Pickford: Did these criticisms come, at any rate to some extent, from information from other correspondents?

Murdoch: To some slight extent, yes.

Pickford: From Mr Ashmead-Bartlett?

Murdoch: Well yes, I certainly talked it over with Ashmead-Bartlett.

During further intense questioning from the chair, Murdoch asserted that despite his written undertaking to observe the strict rules of censorship he was completely within his rights to carry Ashmead-Bartlett’s letter and, after that was confiscated, to draft his own. He insisted that the rules did not preclude a correspondent from communicating with a minister of the Crown – a supposed exemption not even Ashmead-Bartlett had claimed.

As Pickford pressed the point that Murdoch had broken the censorship rules and the journalist’s discomfort intensified, Andrew Fisher, who to that point had listened in silence, sprang to the defence of his friend. In doing so he completely recast the simple commission he had given Murdoch twenty months earlier to take a quick look at the soldiers’ mail services on his way to London.

Murdoch’s letter of engagement from the defence department had specified only that he visit Egypt and made no reference to his visiting Gallipoli, although he did have an official letter of introduction to Hamilton. Now Fisher claimed Murdoch carried “a letter from me to the commander-in-chief for leave for you to visit the Dardanelles in order to make a communication to me of your impressions.” Murdoch’s brief to check on the soldiers’ mail was now stamped by the former prime minister as “a mandate from one self-governing dominion which was directly concerned with the operation of their forces in Gallipoli and elsewhere.”

Fisher then handed a series of rhetorical lifelines to his drowning compatriot:

Fisher: You are Australian born?

Murdoch: Yes.

Fisher: And you naturally felt that you would like to do the best not only for your own particular country but the Empire’s forces now and always?

Murdoch: I think I risked my whole career. I am always prepared to offer everything I have to Australia.

Fisher: You have held senior positions on the most important journals in Australia and have had the confidence of your employers?

Murdoch: Yes, I think so.

Fisher: And you felt that you were not exceeding the expectations of myself and others in making a true report of what you considered the situation in Gallipoli at the time you visited it?

Murdoch: No, I thought I was fulfilling your wishes in the matter and also carrying out my duty.

Fisher: You had no thought of casting a reflection upon anyone or doing anything but giving a non-soldier opinion on the situation. You had no wish to cast reflections nor did you know any of the parties personally or otherwise?

Murdoch: No, I was absolutely unprejudiced.

But the cloak of patriotic rectitude Fisher had so deftly wrapped around the embattled journalist soon fell away. When he resumed his examination, Pickford pressed Murdoch on one of the most sensational – and unsubstantiated – allegations in his letter: that “an order had to be issued to officers to shoot without mercy any soldier who lagged behind or loitered in advance” during the August offensive.

Pickford: Did you get that information from any responsible person?

Murdoch: I forget where I got it.

Pickford: It is a very serious allegation.

Murdoch: I do not think it is so serious. It was the diary of a British officer which I saw on the spot.

Pickford: Do you mean a living officer or a dead officer?

Murdoch: A living officer.

Pickford: I should like to know who it was.

Murdoch: I do not know his name. I cannot inform you. All I know is that Mr Nevinson (British correspondent Henry Nevinson) had that diary and it was confirmed, I remember, by an officer from Suvla who I met on the transport returning from Mudros. I do not know his name. He was an artillery officer who had been through Suvla.

Pickford: It is unfortunate you do not remember his name.

Murdoch: It is very hard to remember names. It is a long time ago.

When Welsh MP Walter Roch picked up the questioning, Murdoch would then reveal not only that many of the most damaging allegations he had made in his letter were wrong or unsubstantiated but, much more seriously, that he had deliberately lied to ensure his objective “to startle the government” into abandoning the Dardanelles campaign.

Amid the sweeping condemnation of senior British officers in his letter, Murdoch had belittled the capabilities of the Anzac Corps commander, lieutenant-general William Birdwood. The general, who would be venerated by a generation of Australian soldiers as a strong and compassionate leader and who would end the war commanding the Fifth Army on the Western Front, was declared unfit for such a role by the thirty-one-year-old reporter from Melbourne who had not even spoken to the man during his Gallipoli stopover.

“Birdwood struck me as a good army corps commander, but nothing more,” Murdoch had written. “He has not the fighting quality, nor the big brain, of a great general.” In response to a question from Roch, Murdoch conceded that he had deliberately maligned Birdwood because he was concerned that the general would be seen in London as the natural successor to Hamilton and that he too would resist pressure to abandon Gallipoli:

It was what you might call a highly coloured document written with a set purpose of producing one effect only, and I was afraid it would lead to certain injustices such as the statement about General Birdwood which I deliberately made. I think it was essential to make it as I knew he would probably be appointed to the command if Sir Ian Hamilton were removed, and I thought it was absolutely essential to get a fresh mind out there, and that was the reason I put in a sentence about General Birdwood which possibly is an injustice.

For Sir Ian Hamilton, Murdoch’s startling admission was both an outrage and further vindication of his case that the journalist was prepared to write and say whatever it took to achieve his political objective. On hearing of the evidence, Hamilton wrote to Birdwood, “In its way this retraction of Murdoch’s is a good weather gauge of your steady rise in prestige and popularity. Murdoch felt he had to back out of that particular lie at all costs.”

Hamilton also wrote to the commissioners, asking them to request that cabinet secretary Maurice Hankey circulate Murdoch’s “tardy retraction” to everyone who had seen the Murdoch letter. “As to the evidence of Mr Murdoch as a whole,” he added. “All I can say is I hope generals more fortunate than myself will be protected against the possibility of this kind of backstairs influence being used against them. Unless in the full tide of victory no soldier can stand up against it for long.”

At the end of his appearance before the commission, Murdoch repeated an earlier request that he be given a copy of a memorandum from Hamilton in which the general had delivered a detailed rebuttal of the allegations in the Murdoch letter. Seemingly oblivious to the irony, Murdoch argued that the document amounted to “a violent personal attack” on him and expressed his concern that, without him being given a right of reply, the commissioners might be unfairly influenced.

“I assure you we shall not,” said Sir William Pickford, in a final rebuke before dismissing the witness. “Any more than we shall be influenced, if I may say so, by a good many hearsay statements, which are in your statement, and as to which you have not given us any evidence.” •

This is an edited extract from Phillip Schuler: The Remarkable Life of One of Australia’s Greatest War Correspondents, published by Allen & Unwin.