In the lead up to this year's Anzac Day, many Australians will have headed to Turkey to mark the occasion at the dawn service. So it's worth asking: Why are we obsessed with Gallipoli?
To question our endemic preoccupation with a 103-year-old campaign is to examine something fundamental to our national identity. Maybe that's why it feels sacrilegious to pull on its threads. But it shouldn't be wrong to explore, respectfully.
To do this we need to look at the movements of one man: aspiring journalist and future father-in-law of Jerry Hall, Keith Murdoch.
This was half a century before the Murdoch media empire would consume the planet and Keith was the 30-year-old son of Scottish migrants in Melbourne. Afflicted with a bad speech impediment as a child, Keith had grown into a rather determined—borderline obsessive—reporter for the Sydney Sun, who was scratching around for war stories in Europe.
The Murdochs were well connected to Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, who was frustrated with his country's engagement in a war that he couldn't receive regular updates on. In fact, Fisher didn't learn of the Gallipoli landing until after it was over.
Keith Murdoch seized upon Fisher's frustration, and offered his services. He would head to Gallipoli under an innocuous pretence, and quietly report back to Fisher on what was really going on. It was a plan Fisher and Australian defence minister George Foster Pearce approved of, and Murdoch took off on what would be one of the most eventful pieces of war journalism in Australian history.
It was just not the most accurate.
Murdoch arrived in Gallipoli on 3 September 1915. Allied forces had been there since April, and the campaign that would later fall into legend had already taken place. But it was the mythologising of Murdoch's own perception of Gallipoli—mythologising that would be actively encouraged by Rupert and the rest of the Murdoch clan—that would come to define this time. As many have noted since (including Tom DC Roberts in his book Before Rupert: Keith Murdoch and the Birth of a Dynasty), this tendency towards mythology is exactly the problem.
Murdoch claimed to have spent a lot of time in the trenches amongst the troops. This is a claim that is not specifically refuted, but perhaps given more context by Sir Ian Hamilton, the British commander of the Dardanelles campaign, who would later note that Murdoch had spent far more time at the press correspondents' camp on the Island of Imbros. But given what Keith would later say about the British command, the sniping from Hamilton is not entirely unexpected.
On the Island of Imbros, Murdoch met British correspondent Ellis Ashmaed-Bartlett, a man who had initially been in favour of the British campaign, but had since turned against it. The two men hatched a plan for Ashmaed-Bartlett to write a letter that Murdoch would smuggle out and deliver to British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. The letter outlined the reality of the situation on the ground, the incompetency of the command, and the plummeting morale of the troops. With the British imposing strict guidelines on what could and could not be reported by the press—guidelines that were enthusiastically agreed to by Murdoch upon his arrival—smuggling this information out of Turkey was no easy feat.
Hamilton discovered the journalists' plot, and had the military police seize the letter as soon as Murdoch arrived at Marseilles. But Murdoch remembered the contents, and wrote his own letter to the Prime Minister, his criticisms heavily influenced by Ashmaed-Bartlett's observations of things Murdoch himself hadn't actually seen. What we're talking about here are memories of second-hand information. It resulted in this letter.
Murdoch's narrative of an incompetent military command was one he was careful to balance against the concept of the proud Australian soldier. His 8000-word letter to Fisher became more emotive as he went on, his prose becoming more grandiose as complex situations were sanded down into a more palatable, simple narrative. In what can now be seen as a preview of the journalism encouraged in sections of Rupert's own media empire. Keith Murdoch admitted to having no insight into military strategy, but nevertheless attacked Hamilton's strategy with ferocity.
Murdoch, sensing that advocating for withdrawal would be tantamount to advocating defeat, instead insisted that the Prime Minister bolster the existing forces with new troops. He characterised the Australian soldiers as being "game to the end," forcing a singular narrative upon them that was more in line with the rah-rah heroics of war novels than with the muddy ambiguities of reality. It was a narrative that did not extend to British soldiers, described in Murdoch's letter as idiots and cowards.
The contents of Keith Murdoch's letter does not necessitate a belief in the opposite—that the Australian soldiers were not brave or that the British military command was not incompetent—but his version of the narrative certainly struck a chord back home. The letter was widely republished and almost single-handedly immortalised the failed campaign. It's possible that without Keith Murdoch many people would never have heard of Gallipoli, and the name would never have come to represent sacrifice or national pride. Indeed Australians are only too happy to see ourselves as unerringly virtuous heroes pitted against an impossibly incompetent bureaucracy. It's a story that hasn't changed much in 101 years.
Leaving aside the fact that the repetition of the word "Gallipoli" without context has led to a widespread belief that the campaign was a victory for Australia—let's never forget that Alan Bond described his 1983 America's Cup win as the greatest Australian victory since Gallipoli—all of the soldiers who were there are now gone.
We are a generation removed from first-hand memories of what actually happened there, and it's becoming easier with every passing year for Australia to forget the lessons we might have learned. That sending human beings onto a battlefield must be the last resort, and when it is done, it must be more carefully-planned than simply rushing the guns. That not only must we be careful how we remember the war and the soldiers, but how we choose to report it.
Thirteen years after we joined the USA in Iraq, spurred on by a media largely controlled by Keith Murdoch's son, it's hard to believe that we've taken the right lessons away from this. And for the sake of the soldiers we send overseas, we should spend some time on April 25 reflecting upon this fact.
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