Murdoch’s Gallipoli Letter

Murdoch’s Gallipoli Letter
Inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register
10 March 2015

The National Library’s Gallipoli Letter written by journalist Keith Murdoch in 1915 has just been inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register. The acknowledgment of this key item from the Library’s collection by the UNESCO program is very significant. Being included on the Register is the highest level of recognition for archival material and is part of UNESCO’s global effort to enhance awareness and support for the preservation of documentary heritage collections.

The James and Bettison Treasures Curator Nat Williams with Murdoch's Gallipoli Letter

Reading the Gallipoli letter one can imagine the bright, young, ambitious journalist that wrote it. Not yet 30, Keith Murdoch (1885–1952) wrote the letter shortly after arriving in London to take up a new job and, he was angry. He had just witnessed the bloodshed and chaos on the Gallipoli peninsula and his words were crafted to shock and to provoke a response. They certainly did.

It is in many ways an audacious piece of writing—8,000 words running to 25 pages of strongly expressed opinion and, on some occasions, avoiding the facts for effect. It was written to Murdoch’s friend Andrew Fisher, the Australian Prime Minister, who had asked for an honest appraisal of the situation. He received a searing indictment of the cavalier British attitude towards the troops and their suffering. Murdoch describes “an atrophy of mind and body that is appalling…It is like the look of a tortured animal. Men living in trenches with no movement except when they are digging, and with nothing to look at except a narrow strip of sky and the blank walls of their prisons cannot remain cheerful or even thoughtful.” He describes the British soldiers and territorials as “merely a lot of childlike youths without strength to endure or brains to improve their conditions.” They are also described as “toy soldiers.” The English must have loved receiving his observations. 

Murdoch’s sometimes sentimental lionising of the young Australians he witnesses at Gallipoli set the tone for the later assessment by official War correspondent C E W Bean that “it was on the 25th of April, 1915, that the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born.” Whether one agrees with this sentiment in 2015, a century later, is of course arguable. If accepted, this notion implies that it was only warfare, heroic deeds and suffering on a gigantic scale that brought us to where we are today. Murdoch’s stinging critique of the British administration of the Gallipoli campaign and of the unnecessary suffering it caused, and was likely to cause if prolonged, had more immediate objectives - the removal of the British Commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton. Within three weeks of Murdoch’s letter being written it had been circulated by British PM Asquith as an official War Cabinet paper and the decision was made to withdraw Hamilton. The winding up of the deadly and unproductive campaign would soon commence. The letter had hit its mark via the powerful press baron Lord Northcliffe, the owner of The Times, and through its Editor Geoffrey Dawson and some key disaffected politicians such as Lloyd George.  Contrary to Hamilton’s projections of the number of casualties (up to 50%) that would be faced if a withdrawal took place, the peninsula was evacuated with great stealth and without loss of life. 

Bean later criticised Murdoch for evading the terms of the official censorship declaration which he had signed at Gallipoli and also for overstating the case. The latter felt that as he was writing to his Prime Minister, at his request, that he was absolved from this stipulation. Murdoch also felt, no doubt, that the terrible loss of life experienced in only five months and the looming winter situation with its potential death toll freed his hand. Bean later wrote that Murdoch was 'glowing with patriotism' and 'dearly loved the exercise of power', and that he should have made his case without such 'gross overstatements'. Almost twenty years later Murdoch wrote to Bean admitting that he had made some mistakes which he regretted. 

Dame Marie Roslyn Bashir ADCVO and James and Bettison Treasures Curator Nat Williams at the State Library of New South Wales, Thursday 5 March 2015

In the age of tweets and door stop interviews where public attention is often distilled down to seconds, to read such a lengthy and well-meant diatribe is refreshing. You can view the digitised version of the Gallipoli Letter in our catalogue. Find the time to read Murdoch’s memorable letter and see what you think. Then visit it in the Treasures Gallery.              

The Gallipoli Letter was given to the National Library in 1970 by Rupert Murdoch with other material from his father’s personal papers. There is a finding aid for more information. 

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