Reports by war correspondents at the landing

Biography – Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett (1881–1931)

Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett

Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett (1881–1931), journalist and war correspondent, was the eldest son of Sir Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett MP who was civil Lord of the Admiralty between 1885 and 1892. Sir Ellis’ interests took him to various theatres of war: the ‘Bulgarian atrocities’ in 1877–8; with the Turkish army during their war with Greece in 1897; and in 1899 he witnessed some of the early stages of the Boer War, in which two of his sons took part.

His son, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett followed in his father’s footsteps. At the age of 16 he accompanied his father with the Turkish army in the Graeco-Turkish war and he served as a subaltern in the Bedfordshire Regiment in the Boer War. He was a special war correspondent with the Japanese army in the Russo-Japanese war (1904); with the French campaign in Morocco (1907) and with the Italian army in Tripoli (1911). In 1912 he was at the Turkish Headquarters during the First Balkan War.

Not surprisingly, Ashmead-Bartlett was keen to join the Dardanelles campaign and on 11 March 1915 he wrote to Winston Churchill requesting permission to ‘accompany the forces to Constantinople’. Although he was a journalist with the Daily Telegraph he had organised to apply as the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association representative so that he could supply accounts of the operations to the whole of the London press as well as for numerous other British, European and American newspapers. Thirteen days after his letter to Churchill, Ashmead-Bartlett received a letter from the British Admiralty advising that his application had been approved. Included in the letter were clauses outlining the terms of his travel and advising that he was ‘expected to conform to the general regulations issued by the British War Office for the guidance of press correspondents in the field’. He was also requested ‘to refer to a Major in the Royal Naval Division for instructions regarding censorship.'

Play Video Ellis Ashmead Bartlett
One of the telegrams sent by Ashmead-Bartlett to the Daily Telegraph in London reporting on the Gallipoli campaign. It shows the heavy military censorship that the War correspondents text was subjected to. (In the collection of the State Library of NSW)

Ashmead-Bartlett arrived off Gallipoli during the naval campaign to breach the Dardanelles and so was comfortably ensconced by the beginning of the land operations. With no apparent embarrassment about his superior surroundings as an observer of the carnage, Ashmead-Bartlett’s dispatches often mentioned his comfortable living conditions. Charles Bean, the Australian war correspondent, commenting on the opulence of Ashmead-Bartlett’s surroundings at the correspondents’ camp at Imbros, wrote that ‘in camp he lives like a king and couldn’t think of putting up with the sort of discomfort that satisfies some of us’. However, when the occasion demanded, Ashmead-Bartlettcould rough it. On the night before the landing, the ship’s officers entertained some of the Australian army officers on board HMS London in the wardroom. Ashmead-Bartlett wrote that in an effort to give the officers as much rest as possible he and the ship’s crew gave up their bunks to the officers and he ‘snatched a few hours sleep on the floor’ of his cabin.

On 25 April, the pinnaces from the battleships were so busy transporting the men that Ashmead-Bartlett did not actually step onto the peninsula until about 9.30 that night. He wrote later that as he arrived ashore, he was arrested as a spy by an Australian colonel, but was released almost immediately. He spent the next hours travelling around from ship to ship: his pinnace from the London had been commandeered to carry General Birdwood’s Anzac evacuation request to Sir Ian Hamilton and Ashmead-Bartlett travelled from ship to ship with the messenger. By his own account, he arrived back on board London at about 3 am on 26 April.

Ashmead-Bartlett’s dispatch about the landing at Anzac Cove on 25 April was the first to reach Australia and a detailed account was published in Australian papers on 8 May 1915. Unfortunately, staff at GHQ (General Headquarters) had not recognised Charles Bean as an official correspondent and his dispatch was not published in Australia until 13 May.

Years after the war, in 1927, one Australian official historian, A W Bazley, wrote:

Bartlett’s dispatch was a brilliant one, despite a number of inaccuracies, and its publication in Australia led, I believe, to an immediate increase in the number of volunteers offering for the AIF.

[A W Bazley, in a letter to John Treloar, 7 February 1927, 12/3/47, Australian War Memorial 93]

Bean agreed:

His written dispatches are full of life and colour, hit hard, and give a brilliant idea which is remarkably true. He exaggerates a bit to make his points … and yet he’s a lover of the truth.

[CEW Bean, ‘Ashmead-Bartlett and a crisis’, diary entry, 26 September 1915. 3DRL/6673 892, Australian War Memorial 38]

Ashmead-Bartlett’s dispatches praised the prowess and bravery of the troops but became more and more critical of their leadership and what he believed was the futile sacrifice of so many men. On 10 May his dispatch in the Daily Telegraph in London warned readers of the strength of the Turkish troops. This differed from previous reports and was certainly a very different message from that in official GHQ communiques.

Despite the warning about censorship, Ashmead-Bartlett was nevertheless surprised when, in May, the British Admiralty confiscated a package of undeveloped films he had taken: he had been given permission to take his cinematograph and had taken many lantern slides of the operations. Then, on 27 May he lost all his notes and possessions with the sinking of HMS Majestic off the Gallipoli peninsula. Ashmead-Bartlett returned to England to replace his typewriter and wardrobe and while he was there he attempted to advise English politicians of his impressions of the problems in Gallipoli.

He continued to have problems with missing dispatches and censorship after he returned to Gallipoli. On 18 July he complained bitterly:

I thought there were limits to human stupidity but now I know there are none. The censorship has now passed beyond all reason. They won’t let you give expression to the mildest opinions on any subjects …There are now at least four censors all of whom cut up your stuff … All hold different views and feel it is their duty to take out scraps. Thus only a few dry crumbs are left for the wretched public. The articles resemble chicken out of which a thick nutritious broth has been extracted.

[Ashmead-Bartlett, diary, 18 July 1915, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales]

In late August, Australian journalist, Keith Murdoch, received permission from General Birdwood to visit Anzac for four days. Despite having signed the official declaration regarding censorship, he agreed to carry a letter from Ashmead-Bartlett to the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. A British army officer in Marseilles confiscated the letter. Before his ship had reached England Murdoch had composed an 8000-word letter to the Australian Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, which he sent on 23 September. His letter praised Australians lavishly but attacked the British army at all levels. It contained many errors and exaggerations but provided ammunition for the anti-Dardanelles faction in London. It contributed to Sir Ian Hamilton’s recall on 17 October and to the eventual evacuation of the allied troops.

Ashmead-Bartlett was ordered to leave Gallipoli on 2 October. According to Bean, Ashmead-Bartlett’s letter:

...put the state of things in rather a crude light. It was a brilliantly written letter – rather overstating the case as Bartlett always does, but a great deal of it was unanswerable and badly needs understanding.

[Charles Bean, ‘Ashmead Bartlett and a crisis’, diary, 29 September 1915, 3DRL/6673 892, Australian War Memorial 38]

Bean believed the Press Officer kept a spy in the war correspondents’ camp at Imbros and that he had discovered that Murdoch was carrying the letter. After the letter was discovered, the War Office sent a wire to Sir Ian Hamilton ordering that Ashmead-Bartlett be recalled to London. He left Imbros for England on 2 October believing that his career as a war correspondent was at an end – certainly for that war.

After his return home he contracted jaundice and spent a month in hospital. During this time he signed a contract to give twenty-five lectures in England and then to travel to Australia and New Zealand to deliver seventy five more. Ashmead-Bartlett has written that his first lecture in the Queens Hall on October 27 was attended by representatives from the War Office and detectives who had orders to stop him and arrest him if he said anything that was likely to embarrass the government. Nothing happened, and he was left alone for the remainder of his lectures in England but with the ever-present threat of action if he criticised the conduct of the campaign too severely.

He sailed for New York on 22 December 1915 and, once again, found War Office representatives waiting with:

...the customary threats of official vengeance if I exposed their incompetence in the United States.

[Ashmead-Bartlett, ‘Account of trip to Australia and New Zealand’, Microfilm M2586 F6/30, National Library of Australia]

He arrived in Sydney on 11 February 1916 where he was greeted with the news that a welcome on the wharf by a large number of returned soldiers had been forbidden. The State Commandant of the 2nd Military District had refused permission for the returned soldiers to wear their uniform for a guard of honour and march through the city as part of the reception for him. However, that evening he gave his first public speech in Australia when he attended a dinner held in his honour by the Returned Soldiers Association. After the dinner he was presented with a huge picture containing photographs of all the notable Australian soldiers and an address thanking him for what he had written about the Australian troops in Gallipoli.

His first lecture was to be held the next day at the Sydney Town Hall. On the morning of the lecture Ashmead-Bartlett was visited by the local military censor, Major Armstrong. He informed him that he was acting under instructions from the Ministry of Defence in Melbourne and that Ashmead-Bartlett was not to say a word until his whole lecture had been screened by the major. This was a problem as Ashmead-Bartlett spoke from notes. Later that afternoon he collected the carbon copies of all the articles and telegrams he had ever written from the Dardanelles – about fifty thousand words – and handed them to the Major saying he would be lecturing from that but wouldn’t know exactly which parts he would use. As he had intended, the major returned all the papers after he had read about a dozen pages. A report in the Sydney Mail on 16 February 1916, stated that the Town Hall was ‘thronged’ for his lecture on 12 February and he was given ‘a very warm reception’. The report continued that Ashmead-Bartlett:

...expressed the earnest hope that every available man in Australia and New Zealand would join his comrades at the front, and so hasten the inevitable victory.

[Sydney Mail, 16 February 1916, Microfilm NX21 101, National Library of Australia]

Ashmead-Bartlett wrote later that he was not bothered again by the military authorities in Australia: probably because of the popularity of his lectures and their propaganda value for recruitment.

The surveillance was resumed when he arrived in New Zealand on 16 April. He was advised that he would be accompanied on his lecture tour by an army colonel who was part of a British mission engaged in training the New Zealanders. Despite the circumstances, the two became quite good friends during their six weeks together.

Arriving back in England he was subjected to a long interrogation at Liverpool during which he was asked to hand over his papers. According to Ashmead-Bartlett he went off to London to reclaim his property from the War Office and to restart his campaign against them in the British press.

On 1 May 1917 a representative of the Dardanelles Commission requested Ashmead-Bartlett appear on ‘Thursday next at 11 o’clock and to give evidence before them’ at the House of Lords. He had previously provided some of his maps of the campaign to the commission.

Ashmead-Bartlett was the Conservative MP for North Hammersmith between 1924 and 1926. He continued to write about the Gallipoli campaign and published The Uncensored Dardanelles in 1928, three years before his death at the age of 50 years.

In 1927, both Charles Bean and John Treloar, the Director of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra tried to trace the Ashmead-Bartlett documents for the Memorial’s collection. They discovered – after lengthy correspondence – that Angus and Robertson in Sydney had negotiated the purchase of these documents with Ashmead-Bartlett early in 1916. They are now in the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

Sources:

  • ‘Sir Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett’, in Sir Sidney Lee (ed) The Dictionary of National Biography, Vol 1, Supplement Jan. 1901–1911, Oxford, 1966, pp 105-6.
  • Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, diary, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.
  • Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, Papers on Gallipoli, Microfilm M2581-6, National Library of Australia.
  • 2nd Military District Registry files: Guard of Honour composed of returned soldiers at Ashmead-Bartlett’s reception (February 1916), item 105/1/85, Australian War Memorial 34.
  • Ashmead-Bartlett’s first dispatch from Gallipoli to the London Daily Telegraph — enquiry suggested by Mr A W Bazley for Australian War Memorial Library, 12/3/47, Australian War Memorial 93.
  • ‘Sir Keith Murdoch’, in B Nairn and G Serle (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol 10, Melbourne, 1986, pp 622–627.
  • Robert Rhodes James, Gallipoli, London, 1989.
  • Sydney Mail, 5 January–28 June 1916, Microfilm NX21 101, National Library of Australia.

Ashmead-Bartlett publications in National Library of Australia:

  • Ashmead Bartlett’s Despatches from the Dardanelles, George Newnes, 1916.
  • Port Arthur, the Siege and Capitulation, Blackwood, 1906.
  • Some of my experiences in the Great War, George Newnes, 1918.
  • The Tragedy of Central Europe, Butterworth, 1923.
  • The Uncensored Dardanelles, Hutchinson, 1928.