The National Library of Australia

Murdoch's Gallipoli letter, 1915

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  • The Gallipoli Letter, 1915
Image of: Artefact
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Did you know?

‘The Gallipoli Letter’ never made it out of Europe. On his way to London, Murdoch was arrested in the seaport of Marseille by the French military, which confiscated the letter. As a result, when Murdoch made it to London, he had to write a replacement letter to Fisher, in a similar style to the one that he had written with British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett.

What do you think?

Do you agree with the Australian Government's imposition of censorship on journalists during World War I?

A military disaster

The Gallipoli letter is an 8000-word private report which was written by Keith Arthur Murdoch (1885–1952), with the help of a British war correspondent, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett (1881–1931), after visiting the Gallipoli peninsula in September 1915. It describes the organisation and conditions of the Gallipoli campaign. It was sent to Andrew Fisher (then prime minister of Australia) and Henry Herbert Asquith (then prime minister of the United Kingdom). Murdoch’s 28-page letter helped to establish the idea of Gallipoli as a military disaster.

Fisher sent Murdoch to Gallipoli for an honest report on the campaign. Contrary to the rules of censorship, Murdoch wrote and sent his letter without submitting it to the military censors. In the eyes of some, this was a grave betrayal of Murdoch’s role at Gallipoli. Murdoch, however, strongly defended his action on the grounds that his letter was not for publication but for the information of the prime minister.

Whether or not Murdoch did the right thing in sending the letter without censorship, it had a serious impact and brought about rapid results. It is asserted that Murdoch’s letter led directly to the ending of the Gallipoli campaign, and the evacuation of British and Anzac troops from the peninsula.

In the letter, Murdoch is highly critical of the British officers and the role that they played in the Gallipoli disaster. He is full of praise and admiration for the Australian troops, who he believes are noble and courageous in their approach to battle and the possibility of death.

It is the tragedy of Gallipoli that its most successful aspect was the covert and dangerous withdrawal of troops from the peninsula. Between 8 and 20 December 1915, about 90 000 allied soldiers were secretly withdrawn from Gallipoli. There were very few casualties. Many of those soldiers, however, went on to fight and die on the battlefields elsewhere in Europe and the Middle East.

Murdoch returned home to continue his career as a journalist and eventually to establish himself as one of Australia’s first ‘media barons’. Throughout his life, he remained a powerful and influential figure on the Australian scene.

The way that Murdoch described the young Anzac soldiers that he met contributed to the myth of the ‘Anzac’—the brave, self-sacrificing soldier with a larrikin spirit and a deep sense of mateship. This myth-making has been the inspiration for many creative works, including books, films and television series, that try to represent what it meant to be an Anzac.

The National Library of Australia is home to a huge range of World War I memorabilia, such as photographs, propaganda material and correspondence. Murdoch’s Gallipoli letter provides an insight into one aspect of a mighty and terrible war.