Beating the censor – Ashmead-Bartlett's efforts to reveal the real story of Gallipoli
Ashmead-Bartlett's letter to Prime Minister 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)
September 8th 1915
Dear Mr Asquith
I hope you will excuse the liberty I am taking in writing to you but I have the chance of sending this letter through by hand and I consider it absolutely necessary that you should know the true state of affairs out here. Our last great effort to achieve some definite success against the Turks was the most ghastly and costly fiasco in our history since the Battle of Bannockburn. Personally I never thought the scheme decided on by Headquarters ever had the slightest chance of succeeding and all efforts now to make out that it only just failed owing to the failure of the 9th Corps to seize the Anafarta Hills bare no relation to the real truth. The operations did for a time make headway in an absolutely impossible country more than any general had a right to expect owing to the superlative gallantry of the Colonial Troops and the self-sacrificing manner in which they threw away their lives against positions which should never have been attacked. The main idea was to cut off the southern portion of the Turkish Army by getting astride of the Peninsula from Suvla Bay. Therefore the whole weight of the attack should have been concentrated on this objective, instead of which the main attack with the best troops was delivered against the side of the Turkish position which is a series of impossible mountains and valleys covered with dense scrub. The Staff seem to have carefully searched for the most difficult points and then threw away thousands of lives in trying to take them by frontal attacks. A few Gourkas obtained a lodgment on Chunuk Bair but were immediately driven off by the Turkish counter attacks and the main objective Koja Chemen Tepe was never approached. The 9th Corps miserably mishandled having failed to take the Anafarta Hills is now accused of being alone responsible for the ultimate failure of the operations. The failure of the 9th Corps was due not so much to the employment of new and untried troops as to bad staff work. The generals had but a vague idea of the nature of the ground in their front and no adequate steps were taken to keep the troops supplied with water. In consequence many of these unfortunate volunteers went three days in very hot weather on one bottle of water and were yet expected to advance carrying heavy loads and to storm strong positions. The Turks having been given ample time to bring up strong reinforcements to Anafarta, where they entrenched themselves in up to their necks, were again assaulted in a direct frontal attack on August 21st. The movement never had the slightest chance of succeeding and led to another bloody fiasco in which the unfortunate 29th Division who were brought up especially from Helles, and the 2nd Mounted Division (Yeomanry) were the chief suffers. As the result of all this fighting our casualties since August 6th now total nearly fifty thousand killed wounded and missing.
The army is in fact in a deplorable condition. Its morale as a fighting force has suffered greatly and the officers and men are thoroughly dispirited. The muddles and mismanagement beat anything that has ever occurred in our Military History. The fundamental evil at the present moment is the absolute lack of confidence in all ranks in the Headquarters staff. The confidence of the army will never be restored until a really strong man is placed at its head. It would amaze you to hear the talk that goes on amongst the Junior commanders of Divisions and Brigades. Except for the fact that the traditions of discipline still hold the force together you would imagine that the units were in an open state of mutiny against Headquarters. The Commander in Chief and his Staff are openly spoken of, and in fact only mentioned at all with derision. One hates to write of such things but in the interests of the country at the present crisis I feel they ought to be made known to you. The lack of a real Chief at the head of the army destroys its discipline and efficiency all through and gives full rein to the jealousies and recriminations which ever prevail amongst the Divisional Leader.
At the present time the army is incapable of a further offensive. The splendid Colonial Corps has been almost wiped out. Once again the 29th Division has suffered enormous losses and the new formations have lost their bravest and best officers and men. Neither do I think even with enormous reinforcements, that any fresh offensive from our present positions has the smallest chance of success. Our only real justification for throwing away fresh lives and fresh treasure in this unfortunate enterprise is the prospect of the certain cooperation of Bulgaria. With her assistance we should undoubtedly pull through. But as I know nothing of the attitude of Bulgaria or Greece or Italy I am only writing to give you a true picture of the state of the army and the problems with which we are faced in the future if we are left to fight the Turks alone. Already the weather shows signs of breaking and by the end of this month we cannot rely on any continuous spell of calm for the landing of large bodies of troops at some other point on the coast. In fact the season will soon be too late for a fresh offensive if another is contemplated. We have therefore to prepare against the coming of the winter or to withdraw the army altogether. I am assuming it is considered desirable to avoid the latter contingency at all costs for political reasons owing to the confession of final failure it would entail and the moral effect it might have in India and Egypt. I am convinced the troops could be withdrawn under cover of the warships without much loss far less in fact then we suffer in any ordinary attack. I assume also that the future of the campaign out here must be largely dependent on the measure of success that attends our fresh offensive, in conjunction with the French, in the West.
It is no use pretending that our prospects for the winter are bright. The Navy seems to think it will be able to keep the army supplied in spells of calm weather provided a sufficient reserve of food munitions and ammunition is concentrated while the weather holds at the various beaches. The outlook for the unfortunate troops is deplorable. We do not hold a single commanding position on the Peninsula and at all three points Helles, Anzac and Suvla Bay we are everywhere commanded by the enemys guns. This means that throughout the winter all the beaches and lines of communication to the front trenches will be under constant shell fire. Suvla Bay is especially exposed. The Turks are firing a fair amount of ammunition but it is obvious they are feeling the shortage or else are carefully husbanding their supply otherwise they could shell us off the Peninsula at some points altogether. But it must be remembered that as soon as they are absolutely certain our offensive has shot its bolt, and that we are settling down in our positions for the winter, they will be free to concentrate their artillery at certain points and also to bring up big guns from the forts and therefore we must expect a far more severe artillery fire on the beaches during the winter months than we are exposed to at present.
A great many of the trenches which we hold at present will have to be abandoned altogether during the winter as they will be underwater, and preparing a series of defensive works which will ensure us against sudden surprise attacks. We could thus hold our positions with fewer men and rest some of the divisions from time to time in the neighboring islands.
We ought to be able to hold Helles without much trouble but even if we commence our preparations in time we shall be faced with enormous difficulties at Anzac and Suvla Bay. Our troops will have to face the greatest hardships from cold wet trenches and constant artillery fire. I believe that at the present time the sick rate for the army is roughly 1000 per day. During the winter it is bound to rise to an even higher figure. I know one general, whose judgement is usually sound who considers we shall lose during the winter in sickness alone the equivalent of the present strength of the army. This may be an exaggeration but in any case our loss is bound to be very heavy. The whole army dreads beyond all else the prospect of wintering on this dreary and inhospitable coast. Amongst other troubles the autumn rains will once more bring to view hundred of our dead who now lie under a light covering of soil.
But I suppose we must stay here as long as there is the smallest prospect of the Balkan alliance being revived and throwing in its lot with us even if they do not make a move until next Spring. I have laid before you some of the difficulties with which we are faced in order that they may be boldly met before it is too late. No one seems to know out here what we are going to do in the future and I am so afraid we shall drag on in a state of uncertainty until the season is too far advanced for us to make proper preparations to face the coming winter in a certain measure of comfort and security. At the present time some of our positions gained by the Colonial Corps high up on the spurs of the hills on which the Turks are perched cannot be considered secure. A sudden counter attack vigorously delivered would jeopardise the safety of our line and might lead to a serious disaster. There will have to be a general reshuffling of the whole line and some of our advanced posts will have to be abandoned during the winter months.
I have only dealt with our own troubles and difficulties. The enemy of course has his. But to maintain as I saw stated in an official report that his losses in the recent fighting were far heavier than ours is a childish falsehood which deceives no one out here. He was acting almost the whole time on the defensive and probably lost about one third of our grand total.
You may think I am too pessimistic but my views are shared by the large majority of the army. The confidence of the troops can only be restored by an immediate change in the supreme command. Even if sufficient drafts are sent out to make good our losses we shall never succeed operating from our present positions. A fresh landing on a grand scale north of Buliar would probably insure success but the season is late and I suppose the troops are not available. If we are to stay here for the winter let orders be given for the army to start its preparations without delay. If possible have the Colonial troops taken off the Peninsula altogether because they are miserably depressed since the last failure and with their active minds, and positions they occupy in civil life, a dreary winter in the trenches will have a deplorable effect on what is left of this once magnificent body of men, the finest any Empire has ever produced. If we are obliged to keep this army locked up in Gallipoli this winter large reserves will be necessary to make good its losses in sickness. The cost of this campaign in the east must be out of all proportion to the results we are likely to obtain now, in time to have a decisive effect on the general theatre of war. Our great asset against the Germans was always considered to be our superior financial strength. In Gallipoli we are dissipating a large portion of our fortune and have not yet gained a single acre of ground of any strategical value. Unless we can pull through with the aid of the Balkan League in the near future this futile expenditure may ruin our prospects of bringing the war to a successful conclusion by gradually wearing down Germanys colossal military power.
I have taken the liberty of writing very fully because I have no means of knowing how far the real truth of the situation is known in England and how much the Military Authorities disclose. I thought therefore that perhaps the opinions of an independent observer might be of value to you at the present juncture. I am of course breaking the censorship regulations by sending this letter through but I have not the slightest hesitation in doing so as I feel it is absolutely essential for you to know the truth. I have been requested over and over again by officers of all ranks to go home and personally disclose the truth but it is difficult for me to leave until the beginning of October.
Hoping you will therefore excuse the liberty I have taken.
Yours very truly
The Rt. Hon. H.H. Asquith
10 Downing Street