The uncensored Dardanelles

The Uncensored Dardanelles by Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett

One of the most important of all books on the ill-fated campaign, though hated by Cyril Falls, who wrote (in his War Books): “This book is, from the military point of view, chiefly interesting as an explanation of the prejudice and distrust which soldiers cannot avoid when they have to do with war correspondents of a certain type. It also illustrates to what follies vanity and cocksureness may lead a man in the position wherein Mr Ashmead-Bartlett found himself, even when that man is strikingly able, a clear writer, and an experienced war correspondent.”

Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett was the eldest son of Sir Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett (1849-1902). Born in 1881, he was educated at Marlborough College. In 1897, at the age of 17, he accompanied his father to Turkey as the guest of the Sultan and followed the Turkish army in its campaign against the Greeks. At one point the party was arrested by the Greeks as spies. Ashmead-Bartlett had begun studying to become a barrister when he left with his regiment for the South African War in February 1900. At the end of May he was taken ill, sent home and spent 7 months in hospital. By early in 1901 he was in Marseilles and Monte Carlo, supposedly for recuperation (A/3), and in May 1901 he returned to London to stay with his uncle and aunt, the Burdett-Coutts, and continued his legal studies.

It was not until 1904 that he began his career as a war correspondent by covering the siege of the Russian port of Port Arthur by the Japanese, entering the city with the victors. His account, Port Arthur: the siege and capitulation (London 1906) was well received. For the next few years he mixed a full social life in London and the country and in Paris (as described in his diaries) with periods as a war correspondent and writer and a developing political career. As Reuters’ special correspondent he accompanied the French army in Morocco (1907-08), the Spanish in Morocco (1909) and the Italians in Tripoli (1911). At home he fought the safe Labour seat of Normanton in Yorkshire for the Conservatives in January 1910 and the Liberal seat of Poplar in December 1910. He was then employed by the Daily Telegraph to be its correspondent in the Balkans and he covered the two Balkan wars of 1912-1913.

As correspondent for the Fleet Street papers, Ashmead-Bartlett, who worked for the The Daily Telegraph, covered the 25 April 1915 landing at Anzac Cove. He had gone ashore at Anzac Cove at 9.30 pm on the evening of the landing and, wearing an non-regulation green hat, was promptly arrested as a spy but was released when the boatswain who had brought him ashore testified for him.

Ashmead-Bartlett was responsible for the first eyewitness accounts of the battle. His report of the landing was published in Australian newspapers on 8 May, before the reports of the Australian correspondent, C.E.W. Bean. His colourful prose, unrestrained by the pursuit of accuracy which hampered Bean’s dispatches, was thick with praise for the Anzacs and went down well with the Australian audience:

“There has been no finer feat in this war than this sudden landing in the dark and storming the heights, and, above all, holding on while the reinforcements were landing. These raw colonial troops, in these desperate hours, proved worthy to fight side by side with the heroes of Mons, the Aisne, Ypres and Neuve Chapelle.”

On 27 May 1915, Ashmead-Bartlett was aboard HMS Majestic, a British battleship anchored off W Beach at Cape Helles, when it was torpedoed by the German U-boat U-21. Two days earlier he had seen HMS Triumph go down off Anzac, the first victim of the U-21, and he was well aware that the Majestic would likely suffer the same fate. On the night of 26 May he helped drink the last of the ship’s champagne. He had his mattress brought up on deck so that he would not be trapped in his cabin. Ashmead-Bartlett survived the sinking but lost all his kit. He sailed for Malta to acquire a new wardrobe.

As the battle progressed, Ashmead-Bartlett’s reports became highly critical which left him in disfavour with the British commander-in-chief, General Sir Ian Hamilton. Instead of returning to the Dardanelles from Malta, he went on to London, arriving on 6 June, to report in person on the conduct of the campaign. During his time in London, he met with most of the senior political figures including Andrew Bonar Law (the Colonial Secretary), Winston Churchill (by that time displaced as First Lord of the Admiralty), Arthur Balfour (Churchill’s replacement at the Admiralty) and the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. He was also questioned by the Secretary of State for War, Horatio Kitchener.

When he returned to Gallipoli, Ashmead-Bartlett established himself on the island of Imbros which was also the site of Hamilton’s headquarters. Here he lived in relative safety and comfort, even having brought his own cook from Paris. Returning to the pensinsula, he witnessed the new landing at Suvla during the August Offensive:

“Confusion reigned supreme. No-one seemed to know where the headquarters of the different brigades and divisions were to be found. The troops were hunting for water, the staffs were hunting for their troops, and the Turkish snipers were hunting for their prey.”

Ashmead-Bartlett had obtained a movie camera while in London with which he captured the only film footage of the battle. On 21 August he was watching from Chocolate Hill when the British IX Corps launched the final attack of the campaign, the Battle of Scimitar Hill. While filming, he was buried when an artillery shell landed nearby but was quickly dug free.

When Australian journalist Keith Murdoch arrived at Gallipoli in September, Ashmead-Bartlett found a receptive audience for his commentary and analysis of the campaign. Murdoch travelled to London carrying a letter from Ashmead-Bartlett — it is disputed whether Murdoch knew the contents — which damned the campaign, describing the final offensive as “the most ghastly and costly fiasco in our history since the battle of Bannockburn.” The letter, intended for Asquith, was intercepted in Marseilles and on 28 September, Ashmead-Bartlett was told to leave Gallipoli.

On his return to London, Ashmead-Bartlett gave an “interview” to The Sunday Times (it was on opinion piece presented as an interview to circumvent censorship rules). Published on 17 October, it was the first detailed account of the campaign and was widely circulated, published in The Times and Daily Mail as well as in Australian papers.

Short of money, Ashmead-Bartlett undertook a lecture tour of England and Australia. He reported on the fighting on the Western Front in France. Following the war he fought in Hungary against the Bolsheviks. He spent two years as a Conservative MP. He died in Lisbon in 1931.

The Assembly of the Armada

I came to be associated with the Dardanelles Expedition in the following manner. At the commencement of the war no Special Correspondents were allowed in the field, a state of affairs which speedily led to discontent amongst the public, who felt that they were entitled to hear of the gallant actions of our soldiers and sailors on land and sea. This veto on the Press gave rise to a widespread belief that the truth was being concealed, and that many grave events were taking place which were being purposely hidden by the authorities. The main obstacle to overcome was the hostility of Lord Kitchener, who was-as he had ever been throughout his career-bitterly opposed to War Correspondents. Sir John French took an entirely different view. He desired to utilise the Press, believing that descriptive accounts of their actions, subject to an intelligent censorship to prevent information from reaching the enemy, encouraged the troops in the field and the public at home. For many months Lord Kitchener remained adamant. Time and time again deputations waited on him, but never got further than Sir George Arthur, his private secretary. Protests were written by newspaper proprietors, and Cabinet Ministers intervened, but in vain. All propositions, however reasonable, were invariably turned down by that great man, who entirely failed to realise, at this stage, that if he wished to make the war a national one, and to induce the whole nation to take part in it, it was necessary to interest the people and to employ an extensive propaganda for this purpose. Neither were precedents lacking which should have warned Lord Kitchener and his advisers that they were pursuing a policy which had been tried before, and had singularly failed. Since the days of Russell, Kinglake, and Archibald Forbes, War Correspondents have played an honourable and valuable role in every campaign, and no British Army has ever had cause to regret their presence at the front. A long line of illustrious writers have added prestige to British arms from Afghan’s snows to the South African veldt. During the Russo-Japanese War the question of War Correspondents became an international one. The British, American, and Continental Press had gone to great expense to send their best men to Tokyo to accompany the Japanese armies. For months these poor ” Die Hards,” amongst whom were such well-known names as Richard Harding Davis, John Fox, Martin Egan, William Maxwell, Bennett Burleigh, and Frederick Palmer, to mention but a few, remained in Japan unable to reach the front, receiving scraps of information thrown to them from headquarters in Tokyo, spending a great deal of money and losing much time, but without obtaining any of those tangible results which are the sole justification for their existence from the editor’s, proprietor’s, and public’s points of view. The months passed and many left Japan as their newspapers were unable to stand the financial strain. When only a remnant of the original band remained, the Japanese Government suddenly awoke to the fact that they were deliberately failing to make use of this great weapon of free propaganda to advertise their cause—just when they most required the financial assistance of Europe. Then, ” As if by stroke of the enchanter’s wand,” the Correspondents found themselves no longer outcasts unwanted and ignored, but honoured guests whose presence in the field was regarded as essential to the success of the Japanese cause.

Arrangements were made to divide them into three groups to accompany the different armies, and, pending the inevitable delays, they were entertained lavishly in Tokyo at dinners, luncheons, garden parties, whilst the fairest Geishas were laid at their feet as some slight compensation for the cavalier manner in which they had been treated since their arrival. From that hour the Japanese cause gained prestige ; the deeds of the Japanese armies received their due recognition, and, finally, during the negotiations, which ended in the Treaty of Portsmouth, the Island Nation had secured an excellent Press throughout the world.

The Press foresaw, but the majority of the soldiers did not, that a like situation would arise in the World War. Public interest began to slacken, recruits did not pour in as had been anticipated, and munition workers failed to display that keenness which patriotism and duty demanded, if their comrades at the front were to receive adequate support. Yet the public were not to blame, the authorities were responsible. How could the masses appreciate the war in its true orientation, as long as they were mentally fed on official bulletins of three or four lines, recording the fact that we had either taken or lost a trench in Flanders ; that the Russians had advanced or retired so many kilometres to or from rivers with unpronounceable names, or had captured towns the nomenclature of which is not included in the curriculum of our Board School education?

The Landing at ANZAC

APRIL 24th. Throughout the morning there were scenes of unwonted activity in Mudros Bay. The warships changed their anchorage and took up fresh stations, and the crowded transports slowly made their way to the entrance of the harbour. At 3 p.m. our boats brought the 500 men of the 11th Australian Infantry on board for the last time. Numbered squares had been painted in white on the quarter-deck, and on each of these a company fell in. The men were then dismissed and made their way forward to the mess decks. The hospitable British tars handed over their limited accommodation to the newcomers, who were to bear the brunt of the attack. At 5 p.m., our force, the Second Division of the fleet, consisting of the Queen, Prince of Wales, London, and Majestic, with four transports bearing troops, and the covering ships Triumph, Bacchante, and Prince George, slowly steamed out of the bay. As we passed through the long lines of waiting transports, our bands played the national anthems of all the Allies, and deafening cheers greeted our departure. It was the most majestic and inspiring spectacle I have ever seen, but withal there was an atmosphere of tragedy. Many, now full of life and hope and joy, will never see another sun sink to rest. The weather was beautifully fine, and when we had cleared the entrance of the bay we turned our backs on Gallipoli and steamed due west to pass round the far side of the island of Lemnos, en route for a secret rendezvous only known to the Admiral. It is painfully obvious that we can only effect a local surprise, because the Turks, in Sir Ian Hamilton’s own words, knew of the exact composition of his force before he ever left Egypt, and now they must have learnt from their aviators and spies, scattered amongst the islands, that our preparations are complete. They can also calculate on our striking between the waning of the old moon and the rising of the new. At six o’clock the Australian contingent fell in on one side of the quarter-deck, and the crew of the London on the other. Captain Armstrong read Admiral de Robeck’s proclamation wishing success to all ranks. His place was then taken by the ship’s chaplain, who conducted a short service, and, as he uttered solemn prayers for victory, the men stood with bowed and bared heads. The Australians were then taken to the mess deck, where a hot meal was served out to them by the crew ; then, after a smoke, they turned in to obtain some rest before dawn. It was the last sleep for many a brave warrior from ” Down Under.” At seven o’clock dinner was served in the wardroom, where the Australian officers were entertained as our guests. Everyone feigned an unnatural cheerfulness, the wine passed round, not a word was said of what the morrow might bring forth, yet over the party there seemed to hover the dread angel of death. After this tragic repast we surrendered our cabins to our Dominion friends, and snatched some sleep in the wardroom chairs. At sunset all lights were extinguished, and we steamed slowly through the night to an unknown destination, and to an unknown fate.

April 25th. At 1 a.m. the fleet came to a dead stop and all on board were roused. I visited the mess decks, and watched the Australian troops having a final hot meal before falling in. They were as calm as if about to take part in a route march. At 2 a.m. the men fell in by companies on the numbered squares, of which I have already spoken. Our boats had meanwhile been lowered and attached to the steam pinnaces. Each battleship had towed three extra pinnaces from Mudros in addition to her own.

There was only a faint sheen from the stars to light up the dramatic scene on deck. This splendid contingent from Australia stood there in silence, as the officers, hurrying from group to group, issued their final instructions. Between the companies of infantry were the beach parties, whose duty it was to put them ashore. Lieutenants in khaki, midshipmen—not yet out of their ‘teens—in old white duck suits dyed khaki colour, carrying revolvers, water-bottles, and kits almost as big as themselves, and sturdy bluejackets equipped for the shore. At 2.30 a.m. the pinnaces towed the boats alongside, and the Australians climbed down the wooden ladders. Thanks to the constant rehearsals there was no confusion, no overcrowding, and not a single mishap occurred. The tows then went astern, each battleship trailing four behind her. At 3 a.m., the fleet began to move slowly towards the shore until, a little after 4 a.m., the distant silhouette of the coast became visible for the first time. At 4.30 a.m. the Queen, London, Prince of Wales, and Majestic were in line about three thousand yards from the shore. The signal was then given for the tows to cast off, and make their way to the beach. It was still very dark and each pinnace, towing four boats, locked like a great snake as it slowly forged ahead . . .

For more despatches from Gallipoli see here: Ashmead Bartlett’s Despatches from Gallipoli An Epic of Heroism

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