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Letter tells of daily blunders
‘I hope whoever started this war will be punished for it. Australia has lost a lot of her best men.’
‘… what I wish to do is to tell the world of the blunders that are being daily committed on this bloodstained peninsula.’
‘Dear Prime Minister I consider it absolutely necessary that you should know the true state of affairs out here’
William James Cree: A trench mortar burst about 3 feet from me and it is a wonder I was not blown to pieces. It will be a while before I will be able to shoot off my shoulder again. I will be going back to the front later on if all goes well. It would be a good thing when it is all over. You can realise how terrible it is when you see your mates falling all around you. Before I came away you would think by the papers that the Australians were nearly at Constantinople but that is all rot and as for the Turk being short of ammunition, the quantity he used to fire at us proves the opposite. The bombs seem to be the worst, although shrapnel is terrible stuff if it gets among a lot of men. I think the Turks are fighting very fairly; equally as fair as we are. War is a dirty business at any time but it can be made worse. I hope whoever started this war will be punished for it. Australia has lost a lot of her best men but I suppose it cannot be helped now. M.C., Maryborough WBB Historical Society, Letters from the Front Line
Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett: It is heart-rending work having to write what I know to be untrue and in the end having to confine myself to giving a descriptive account of the useless slaughter of thousands of my fellow countrymen for the benefit of the public at home when what I wish to do is to tell the world of the blunders that are being daily committed on this bloodstained peninsula. Diary of British journalist Ashmead-Bartlett
As the impasse set in, Australian journalist Keith Murdoch briefly visited Anzac Cove in September on his way to London to manage the Sun’s cable service. Ostensibly he had been sent by Prime Minister Andrew Fisher to check on mail arrangements for the Anzacs but his mission was to find out the reality behind the censorship.
His four days in the area were spent mainly with media at the Lemnos base, where he and Ashmead Bartlett decided to defy censorship to let London know about the futility of the campaign. Their plans were overheard.
Ashmead Bartlett wrote a letter to Prime Minister Asquith to be carried to London by Murdoch. The Prime Minister should know the truth about Gallipoli, Ashmead Bartlett wrote, saying the August offensive had been a ghastly and costly fiasco. Headway had been made for a time in ‘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 that should never have been attacked’.
He said the generals had thrown away thousands of lives with front attacks by carefully searching out the most difficult points through impossible mountains and valleys covered with dense scrub. Casualties since August 6 totaled almost 50,000.
‘The army is 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 army was incapable of a further offensive. The splendid Colonial Corps had been almost wiped out. The 29th Division has suffered enormous losses and the new formations had lost their bravest and best officers and men. Ashmead Bartlett said he did not believe, even with enormous reinforcements, any fresh offensive from our present positions would have the smallest chance of success.
‘The whole army dreads beyond all else the prospect of wintering on this dreary and inhospitable coast,’ wrote Ashmead Bartlett, saying the current sick rate of 1000 a day would rise higher. ‘Amongst other troubles, the autumn rains will once more bring to view hundreds of our dead who now lie under a light covering of soil.
‘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, 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.’
The plans of Ashmead Bartlett and Murdoch were overheard and reported. When Murdoch’s ship docked at Marseilles he was arrested and the letter seized. In London Murdoch on September 23 wrote his own 8000-word version of the seized letter for Prime Minister Fisher, telling him his fears had been justified. Highly critical of General Ian Hamilton and his staff, the letter said Gallipoli was ‘one of the most terrible chapters in our history’ led by a deplorable general staff.
‘The conceit and self-complacency of the red feather men are equaled only by their incapacity. Along the line of communications, especially at Moudros, are countless high officers and conceited young cubs who are plainly only playing at war. … appointments to the general staff are made from motives of friendship and social influence.’
The second offensive at Suvla was an appalling slaughter of fine British youths – ‘to fling them … against such trenches such as the Turks make was murder’.
At Anzac, Australian troops appeared atrophied in body and mind, confined to small dugouts and looking like tortured dumb animals. ‘Supposing we lose only 30,000 during winter from sickness. (In) spring we shall have about 60,000 left. But they will not be an army. They will be a broken force, spent.’
Murdoch’s letter reached Asquith and the War Cabinet. It would be criticised at a later commission as mainly hearsay with many mistakes and exaggerations but it turned the course of history.
General Hamilton was sacked as commander on October 15. His replacement, General Charles Monro, reported that the Allied position at Gallipoli was unique in military history. The secured coastal fringe faced every possible military defect; troops, suffering from diseases prevalent in the region, had no respite as every corner of the land held was exposed to hostile fire; another advance at appalling cost would be doomed for no purpose. The Allies had no hope of taking Constantinople.
Monro recommended evacuation. Kitchener visited Gallipoli, spending two hours at Anzac Cove on November 13. He agreed. The move to abandon the campaign had begun amid gloomy predictions that evacuating while exposed to Turkish fire could cost between 30,000 and 40,000 Allied soldiers.