Exposing the story behind the myth of the Gallipoli letter
IF you watched David Davin-Power’s excellent documentary Gallipoli: Ireland’s Forgotten Heroes on RTE1 last Tuesday – and if you didn’t I’d strongly recommend you catch up with it before it disappears from the RTE Player – BBC2’s Gallipoli: When Murdoch Went to War was an ideal companion piece.
To quote a famous line from John Ford’s western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” According to legend, the famous “Gallipoli Letter” written in 1915 by Australian journalist Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert, toppled a general, shook a government and effectively ended the bloodbath that was Gallipoli. As is often the case, the truth was far more complicated and interesting.
“My father certainly shook up the establishment,” said a smiling Rupert, making a rare appearance on television outside of the the news bulletins. “I think I’ve shaken them up over a longer period and a lot more. I often wonder if he’d have approved of what I’ve done.”
We’ll never know the answer to that, since Murdoch Sr died in 1952, but there’s no denying that Rupert is a chip off the old block.
“Keith Murdoch understood how to promote Keith Murdoch,” said historian and former war correspondent Max Hastings, who likened his work practices to those of his son.
After his early ambition to be a Fleet Street journalist was thwarted due to his severe stammer, Murdoch rebooted his career in Australian newspapers.
When war broke out, he secured a job as managing editor of an Australian news service based in London.
Murdoch, a fierce nationalist, spent his time reporting from the home front and built close relationships with the generals, especially General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Anzac forces, which were under the control of the British Army.
His enthusiasm turned to bitterness, though, when he finally did get to spend a few days at the Turkish frontline. Appalled by the huge loss of life and what he considered Hamilton’s mismanagement of the campaign, Murdoch found a similarly disillusioned ally in English war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, a dandy who paraded around in a silk dressing gown and quaffed champagne.
It was Ashmead-Bartlett and not Murdoch who wrote the first draft of the fateful letter. In an effort to evade the military censorship that reporters’ despatches were subject to, Ashmead-Bartlett wrote a damning account of the Gallipoli battle, singling Hamilton out for particular ire, and gave it to Murdoch to deliver to the Australian Prime Minister. But somehow word got out. Military police intercepted Murdoch in Marseille and confiscated the letter.
On his return to London, Murdoch rewrote the letter from memory, directing his bile at the “red feather” British officers and adding some untruths and embellishments of his own, including the outright lie that Anzac troops were forced at gunpoint by their own officers to charge the beach at Gallipoli.
The letter exploded like a bomb in the British press, destroying the career of Hamilton – who, according to many of the historians interviewed here, was an honourable, compassionate man and, despite his failure to fully grasp the hopelessness of the situation in Gallipoli, a first-rate officer. He was never again given another command.
It made Murdoch. He was hailed as a truth-telling hero and built a media empire that he bequeathed to his son. The story might be different if Murdoch had followed his original plan and become a clergyman.