Reports by war correspondents at the landing

Beating the censor – Ashmead-Bartlett's efforts to reveal the real story of Gallipoli

An excerpt from – The First Casualty – From Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker

Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett

by Phillip Knightley
Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London, 1975, pages 100–103.

Enlarge Telegram sent on 3 Sept 1915 by Ashmead-Bartlett
The telegram sent on 3 Sept 1915 by Ashmead-Bartlett to the Daily Telegraph in London reporting on a major attack during the Gallipoli campaign. The significant erasures and modifictions made by the military censor were typical treatment for all of Ashmead- Bartlett's correspondences. (In the collection of the State Library of NSW)

But an incident involving Keith Murdoch, a young Australian newspaperman, father of the present Fleet Street magnate Rupert Murdoch, shows that a determined correspondent could make his protest heard. Suspect though Murdoch's motives might have been, his report on the bungling at Gallipoli cost a general his job, contributed to the decision to abandon the campaign, and confirmed the opinion of the general staff that war correspondents were dangerous meddlers and that it had been a mistake ever to have imagined otherwise.

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. The Australians had arrested him in civilian clothes and had nearly shot him as an English-speaking Turkish spy; he had been torpedoed in the Majestic; and he was extremely unpopular with the young officers at GHQ because he was always predicting disaster. 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.

Enlarge Telegram detail Telegram detail
Details from the above telegram which show the military censor having erased the names of the brigades identified in the report - "the 87th" brigade is changed to "one" brigade, " the 86th" is replaced with "another brigade" and "a third brigade" is written in place of the 88th. This was to stop the enemy knowing the actual troop formations and strengths present at Gallipoli. Also removed are all references to what Ashmead-Bartlett called "the famous twenty ninth" including the following: "...everyone felt that if the twenty ninth failed no other troops could hope to succeed". (In the collection of the State Library of NSW)

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. Nevinson had either overheard Ashmead-Bartlett and Murdoch talking or had been tipped off by one of the batmen, who, the correspondents suspected, was a spy for GHQ. Hamilton, although at first amused by Murdoch's gall, had acted quickly. 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 marshalled 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.

Murdoch could see no solution to the problems of Gallipoli while Hamilton remained in command: “Undoubtedly the essential and first step to restore the morale of the shaken forces is to recall [Hamilton] and his Chief of Staff [Lieutenant General Sir W. P. Braithwaite], a man more cordially detested in our forces than Enver Pasha [the Turkish War Minister].... It is not for me to judge Hamilton, but 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.”

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.

Enlarge Copy of Ashmead-Bartlett's letter to Asquith
This is a carbon copy of the original letter sent by Ashmead-Bartlett to Asquith (dated September 8, 1915) that contributed to the withdrawal of troops from the Gallipoli Peninsula and the downfall of Sir Ian Hamilton. (In the collection of the State Library of NSW)

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.

Here what concerns us is that, although the war correspondents in Gallipoli faced the same difficulties over censorship and were subjected to the same pressures from the general staff as on the Western Front, one, Ashmead-Bartlett, helped by Keith Murdoch, succeeded in getting out a fresh eye-witness account of what was happening there. If the war correspondents in France had only been as enterprising, the war might not have continued on its ghastly course.

– Phillip Knightley, 1975

Ashmead-Bartlett's Letter to Prime Minister Asquith

Read Letter Detail of letter to Asquith
Detail from the above letter in which Ashmead-Bartlett detailed his concerns that the truth about Gallipoli was not being told. (In the collection of the State Library of NSW)

The letter, dated 8 September 1915, written by Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett to British Prime Minister Asquith , was one of the most important factors in the decision to evacuate the Gallipoli Peninsula. The carbon copy (reproduced above) is among the Bartlett papers in the Mitchell Library. The contents of the letter detail the disastrous nature of the Gallipoli campaign including the “muddles and mismanagement” of the military leadership which Ashmead-Bartlett believed “beat anything that has ever occurred in our Military History.”

A letter by the Principal Librarian of the Public Library of NSW, dated 5 April 1916, explains how this original document of such significance came into the Library's possession and how this carbon copy came to be annotated in handwriting by Ashmead-Bartlett.

Ashmead-Bartlett's views about the military generals and censors are also evident in the excerpts from his War diary and in a specific extract from his diary on Censorship.

State Library of New South Wales logo*The images on this page are courtesy of the State Library of NSW