This week the battlefields of Gallipoli have been as deserted as they were just before Christmas 1915, when the last of the Diggers stole away in the depths of night, abruptly ending the eight-month conflict. Turkey and Australia, reunited in peace, are united in lockdown. And as we ponder building a better post-pandemic world, we might also rethink our view that the Gallipoli campaign was a pointless disaster driven by callous British generals and leavened only by the heroism of the first diggers, 7600 of whom died needless deaths while another 18,000 were wounded.
That mythology was pioneered by two journalists, one of whom essentially plagiarised the other.
The first of them, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, was a buccaneering beat-up merchant straight from the pages of Evelyn Waugh's classic satire, Scoop. His florid account of the landing at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915 was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 May, causing an eruption of jubilation as readers who had spent days fearing the worst rejoiced in a victorious account that might have seemed too good to be true.
That dispatch had been written four days after the landing. By then Ashmead-Bartlett knew full well that while the Anzacs had indeed fought tenaciously, they had little to show for their huge sacrifices and they and their leaders had gravely miscalculated the strength and determination of the Turks.
No sooner had he erected the gilded pedestal on which he placed the Anzacs than Ashmead-Bartlett began to attack its foundations. And before long he would be aided in his task by the arrival of a gormless Australian journalist who stopped briefly at Gallipoli on his way to manage a cable news service in London.
Ashmead-Bartlett had become infuriated by strict new controls on the movement of journalists and the censorship of their work imposed by Whitehall in late 1914. He vented his spleen against the commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton, even though Hamilton, a champion of greater press freedom, was doing his best to bend them.
As the stalemate at Gallipoli continued, the frustration of the politically well-connected Ashmead-Bartlett boiled over. He resolved to write to British prime minister Herbert Asquith arguing that the campaign be aborted and Hamilton sacked. Censorship controls made it impossible for him to send such a letter, but he found a willing smuggler with the arrival at Gallipoli in early September of journalist Keith Murdoch.
Murdoch was an enthusiastic conscript to the conspiracy. The letter was duly penned, but the courier only got as far as Marseilles before he was intercepted by military police who seized it. Undeterred, Murdoch proceeded to London where he audaciously produced a far more incendiary 8000-word epistle of his own - informed by Ashmead-Bartlett's views and scattered impressions he himself had gathered during the mere four days he'd spent at Gallipoli.
The Murdoch letter, addressed to Australia's high commissioner in London, synthesised what would become the two unshakeable pillars of popular Australian perceptions of Gallipoli: all the British commanders were terrible and the Anzac troops were strapping, almost god-like heroes.
Murdoch declared that the August offensive had cost the Allies 35 per cent of their strength, or 33,000 men. (In fact, total Allied casualties were 21,500 against vastly greater Turkish losses.) He claimed that during the ill-fated August landings at Suvla Bay officers were ordered to "shoot without mercy" any troops who lagged or loitered. (No such orders were issued.) He claimed that many of the 90,000 troops who landed at Suvla had died of thirst. (Although there were severe water shortages, none of the troops at Suvla - actually 30,000 in number - died of thirst.) He said an Australian general was "staggered" to see the IXth and Xth Corps retreating from the Anafarta Hills behind Suvla. (Staggering indeed: there was no Xth Corps at Suvla.)
Murdoch found willing ears in London, where frustration was already mounting over the lack of success in the Dardanelles and pressure was growing from the generals on the Western Front to divert the men and matériel from Gallipoli to bolster their struggle. In mid October, Hamilton was recalled to London and, ignoring his argument that victory was within the Allies' grasp, the government soon confirmed plans to evacuate.
What was not recognised at the time, and is still largely forgotten, was how much had been achieved during the eight months of the campaign. The Allied landings in April 1915 were the biggest amphibious assault in the history of warfare, waged against an enemy given months of warning of the impending attack, with superior manpower and firepower and in full control of the high ground. Yet the lack of men and matériel that hampered the tenacious General Hamilton from the outset would never be properly rectified.
After the war, ample evidence emerged to vindicate Hamilton's conviction that, had his army stuck it out through the bitter winter into 1916 and been adequately reinforced and resupplied, it would have broken through at Gallipoli, neutralised Turkey and helped bring the war to a much earlier conclusion. It would be revealed that twice - during the naval attack at The Narrows in March 1915 and during the August offensive - the Allies had come breathtakingly close to victory.
In 1917 it was revealed that Turkish defences at The Narrows were at breaking point after the British and French bombardment on 18 March 1915 and, desperately short of ammunition, would have been unable to withstand a renewed attack the following day. Ismail Enver Pasha, the Ottoman war minister, later verified the account: "If the English had only had the courage to rush more ships through the Dardanelles they could have got to Constantinople."
German journalist Harry Stuermer wrote that the Turkish leadership was convinced the Allies were about to break through in August. There was panic in Constantinople and the state archives and bullion reserves had been moved to Asia Minor in the expectation that the capital was about to fall.
Keith Murdoch's great conceit was that his courageous whistleblowing ended an unconscionable slaughter and saved countless Australian lives. But the Allied toll of 110,000 casualties during the eight months at Gallipoli, terrible as it was, equalled the losses incurred in about three weeks of heavy fighting on the Western Front. The Australians liberated from the Dardanelles headed not for safety but for the more ghastly killing fields of Flanders. The retreat from Gallipoli also freed six divisions of Turkish troops and their German overseers to fight elsewhere - a much-underestimated dividend.
One of the few who had argued in vain for the navy to persevere in the Dardanelles was Commodore Roger Keyes. In 1925, Keyes, by then an admiral and commander of Britain's Mediterranean Fleet, steamed through the Dardanelles. Overcome with emotion, he told Britain's official war historian, Cecil Aspinall-Oglander, "My God, it would have been easier than I thought; we simply couldn't have failed... and because we didn't try, another million lives were thrown away and the war went on for another three years." .
- Mark Baker is author of Phillip Schuler: The Remarkable Life of One of Australia's Greatest War Correspondents (Allen and Unwin). This article was published in in partnership with Inside Story.