Keith Murdoch 1915Popular wisdom and official histories would have us believe that Sir Ian Hamilton’s career and the Dardanelles offensive were brought to an end by an unknown junior Australian journalist, Keith Murdoch. [1] In Australia, his role has been given iconic status amongst the myths surrounding Gallipoli, but as we have detailed in the previous blog, the decision to remove Hamilton had already been taken on the recommendation of Maurice Hankey, aided and abetted by Major Guy Dawnay. The intervention of Keith Murdoch did play a vitally important role in that it deflected attention away from Hankey and the Secret Elite, making it appear that the truth about the Gallipoli disaster was suddenly exposed by a tenacious journalist. As Alan Moorehead observed in his masterly history, Murdoch’s ‘entry into the explosive scene is one of the oddest incidents in the Gallipoli campaign.’ [2]

So who was Keith Murdoch and how was he able to gain access to the heart of the British Establishment? A Son of the Manse, his father was a Scottish Presbyterian Minister who had emigrated to Melbourne in 1884. Murdoch sought a career in journalism but was handicapped by a serious speech defect. He went to London in 1908 in an attempt to break into Fleet Street and have his impediment cured, but unlike any other young aspirant newspaperman he had ‘ a sheaf of introductions’ from the Australian Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin. [3] One year earlier, Deakin had attended the Colonial Conference in London and was befriended by Alfred Milner with whom he formed a close bond. [4] Milner was the acknowledged leader of the Secret Elite and the most influential spokesman on Imperial affairs. Given his own journalistic connections, Alfred Milner would have been a natural contact to advance the young Murdoch’s career. On his return to Australia in November 1909, Keith Murdoch became Commonwealth parliamentary reporter for the Sydney Evening Sun and was soon in close contact with Deakin’s successor as Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, and other leading Labour Party Ministers. He helped found the Australian Journalists’ Association (AJA) in 1910 and was totally sympathetic to the developing ideas of Milner and his Round Table associates. [5]

Murdoch had sought the position of Australian Press War Correspondent but was beaten into second place in the AJA election by Charles Bean who later became the official Australian War Historian. Disappointed by this failure, Murdoch sought new horizons, and was ‘told privately’ that a job associated with The Times in London was his if he wanted it. [6] The 29 year-old, left Melbourne again on 13 July 1915 to become editor of the United Cable Service at The Times offices in London.

Letter of introduction for Keith Murdoch signed by both the Australian Defence Minister and countersigned by Sir Ian Hamilton.

Official accounts relate that he was asked by the Australian government to break his journey at Egypt in order to enquire into complaints about delays in soldiers’ mail. It was odd that for such a unremarkable task, Murdoch carried letters of introduction from both the Australian Prime Minister (Andrew Fisher) and Minister of Defence (George Pearce). The Prime Minister’s letter specifically stated that ‘Mr. Murdoch is also undertaking certain enquires for the Government of the Commonwealth in the Mediterranean theatre of war.’ [7] How peculiar. A journalist had been asked to conduct an investigation on behalf of his government rather than his employers. There were many Australians at Gallipoli who could have undertaken such a mundane inquiry, which begs the question of Murdoch’s real purpose. What was he sent out to do? What were his private instructions from the Australian government?

Keith Murdoch at Gallipoli 1915

On arriving at Cairo in mid- August, he wrote to Sir Ian Hamilton and was duly given permission to visit  Gallipoli and speak to the Australian troops. Hamilton somewhat gullibly wrote in his diary that Murdoch ‘seems a sensible man’ [8] but wondered why his duty to Australia could be better executed with a pen than with a rifle. [9] Keith Murdoch spent four days there and met Charles Bean and two other Australian Journalists. Given that there were at least three other independent Australian journalists already there, why was Murdoch given his rather bizarre task of investigating mail? More pertinent to all that followed, he held confidential meetings with Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, the British war correspondent. According to Murdoch’s biographer, Desmond Zwar, Ashmead-Bartlett was disgusted by Hamilton’s handling of the campaign and asked Murdoch if he would take a sealed letter addressed to Prime Minister Asquith and post it when he arrived in London. [10] Ashmead-Bartlett, on the other hand, related a different story. According to his recollections, Murdoch, fearful of the impact on Australian morale of a winter campaign, ‘begged’ him to write a letter to the authorities which he would carry uncensored to London. Ashmead-Barlett coached Murdoch on what to say when he reached England, ‘but he wants something definite under my own signature.’ [11] Why did Murdoch need a signed statement, and what had any of this to do with the mail?

On 8 September Ashmead-Bartlett agreed to write a letter to Asquith informing him of the true state of affairs at Gallipoli. Men had been sacrificed in impossible conditions. No adequate steps had been taken to keep them supplied with water. ‘In consequence many of these unfortunate volunteers went three days in very hot weather on one bottle of water, and yet were expected to advance carrying heavy loads, and to storm strong positions.’ Within four weeks, nearly fifty thousand men were killed, wounded or missing. The Army was in a deplorable condition and the men thoroughly dispirited. ‘The muddles and mismanagement beat anything that has ever occurred in our military history… At present the Army is incapable of a further offensive… I am convinced the troops could be withdrawn under cover of the warships without much loss… We have not yet gained a single acre of ground of any strategical value.’ [12] This was not news to the British Cabinet or War Office, for Hankey and Dawnay had already revealed the full extent of the disaster.

Ellis Ashmead- Bartlett, British  war correspondentWhen Murdoch reached Marseilles he was met by a British intelligence officer with an escort of British troops and French gendarmes and ordered to hand over Ashmead-Bartlett’s letter. [13] It has been suggested that another journalist, Henry Nevison, was eaves-dropping during their private conversation and betrayed them to the authorities, but to this day no convincing explanation has been forthcoming as to how British Intelligence learned of the letter. Murdoch arrived in London on 21 September, made his way directly to the offices of  The Times, and began typing up a report for his own Prime Minster which was highly critical of Sir Ian Hamilton. [14] His first contact just happened to be The Times editor, Geoffrey Dawson, a man at the inner-core of the Secret Elite. [15] According to the Australian historian, Les Carlyon, Murdoch ‘might just as well have been walking around with the sign ‘Pawn’ on his back. Powerful men who wanted Britain out of the Dardanelles, would push him all around the board’. [16] While Carlyon is correct about the powerful men behind the scenes, was Murdoch simply an unwitting pawn or had he already bought into their witch-hunt against Hamilton?

Over the following days Keith Murdoch met with numerous individuals who had been responsible for initiating the Gallipoli disaster including Asquith, Sir Edward Grey, Lord Kitchener, Sir Edward Carson and Winston Churchill.

 Keith Murdoch's letter to Asquith

In an accompanying letter to Asquith, Murdoch criticised Hamilton and the General Staff for ‘disastrous underestimations and stubbornly resisting in the face of hopeless schemes’ and ‘gross wrongdoings’. [17] No mention was made of Hamilton being starved of the men and munitions needed to successfully undertake the campaign or the countless requests that Kitchener studiously ignored. Without checking the accuracy of Murdoch’s accusations, or giving Hamilton a chance to respond, Asquith had them printed on Committee of Imperial Defence stationary and distributed to the Cabinet. [18] Consider the implications. Members of the Cabinet were formally issued with Murdoch’s unsubstantiated report to his own Prime Minister in Australia, as if it was an official British Government document. Was this not fraud?

Murdoch may well have played the role of willing pawn in the Secret Elite’s grand game, but one fact remains irrefutable. From 1915 onwards he was intimately connected to the most powerful men in the British Empire; men who valued his contribution and whose values he shared.

Meantime, Ashmead-Bartlett had been ordered home by General Hamilton, and on his arrival in London immediately met with Lord Northcliffe, another powerful figure closely associated with the Secret Elite. [19]  ‘The snowball was now gathering momentum.’ [20] The witch-hunt continued. He told Ashmead-Bartlett  that a great responsibility rested on his shoulders to inform the government, and the country, of the true state of affairs at Gallipoli.  [21]

On 11 October 1915 Bulgaria entered the war on the side of the Central Powers, and a direct route was opened between Germany and Turkey. It was time to get out. Three days later in the House of Lords, Lord Alfred Milner gave his blessing to a withdrawal from Gallipoli: ‘To speak quite frankly, I should have thought that whatever evils had resulted from the disastrous developments in the Balkans there was at least this advantage, that it might have given us an opportunity which may never recur of withdrawing from an enterprise the successful completion of which is now hopeless.’ [22] Milner had spoken. That very night the Dardanelles Committee decided to recall General Hamilton because ‘he had lost the confidence of his troops,’ [23] Hands were reaching down to push him under the water [24] and ’Kitchener was asked to do the drowning.'[25]

On 17 October the chief scapegoat boarded HMS Chatham to begin the long journey home. He was replaced by General Sir Charles Monro who almost immediately recommended evacuation. When Hamilton returned to England he received a very cold reception and people ‘cut’ him and his wife in the street. [26] The Secret Elite made a spectacular gesture in recalling Hamilton and ensuring through their pawns, Murdoch and Ashamed Bartlett, that his career was over. He was dubbed the man responsible for the disaster; responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of men. In truth, no one could have succeeded at Gallipoli under the conditions that Kitchener and the rest of the cabal imposed. But remember, the plan was set to fail. Constantinople could not be given to the Russians.

Kitchener and Birdwood at Gallipoli

In the event, the nightmare was not yet over. Kitchener went in person to Gallipoli in early November and saw for the first time the impossibility of the task. He advised General Birdwood that ‘quietly and secretly’ a scheme should be devised to withdraw the allied forces. [27] On 23 November the War Committee officially decided to evacuate the whole peninsula on military grounds. Three days later the troops, who were still without winter kit, were faced with hurricane force winds and the heaviest rainfall and blizzards to hit the Dardanelles in forty years. Sentries froze to death still clutching their rifles, and five thousand men suffered frostbite. Flood water filled the Allied trenches carrying the rotting corpses of pack horses and Turkish soldiers washed out from their shallow graves. Two hundred British troops drowned. ‘Survivors could think of nothing but getting away from that accursed place.’ [28] On 12 December the men at Suvla and Anzac were told for the first time that they were being taken off. By 9 January the last man stepped safely onto a boat at Helles.

Questions remain unanswered about how the withdrawal was completed without a single casualty.

[1] Denis Winter, Haig’s Command, A Reassessment, p. 291.
[2] Alan Moorehead, Gallipoli, p. 305.
[3] http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murdoch-sir-keith-arthur-7693%5D
[4] A M Gollin, Proconsul in Politics, pp. 136-7.
[5] The Round Table was the name given to Milner’s organisation which promoted imperial ideals and aimed to influence the Dominions and other territories.
[6] Desmond Zwar, In Search of Keith Murdoch, p. 20.
[7] Ibid., p. 22.
[8] Sir Ian Hamilton, Gallipoli Diary Vol. II, 2 September, 1915.
[9] Zwar, In Search of Keith Murdoch, p. 25.
[10] Ibid., p. 28.
[11] Ellis Ashmead-Barlett, The Uncensored Dardanelles, p. 239.
[12] Ibid., pp. 240-243.
[13] Moorehead, Gallipoli, p. 309.
[14] Travers, Gallipoli, p. 274.
[15] Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 312.
[16] Carlyon, Gallipoli, p. 599.
[17] Harvey Broadbent, Gallipoli, The Fatal Shore, p. 246.
[18] Carlyon, Gallipoli, p. 496.
[19] Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the First World War, pp. 146-7.
[20] Zwar, In Search of Keith Murdoch, pp. 40-41.
[21] Ellis Ashmead-Barlett, The Uncensored Dardanelles, pp. 254-5.
[22] Hansard, House of Lords Debate 14 October 1915 vol 19 cc1045-62.
[23] Travers, Gallipoli, p. 275.
[24] Carlyon, Gallipoli, p. 502.
[25] Ibid., p. 503.
[26] Ibid., 504.
[27] Ibid., p. 619.
[28] Moorehead, Gallipoli, p. 327.