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Keith Murdoch, Father Of Media Baron, Disclosed Disaster At Gallipoli


In Peter's report we heard a reference to letters that were sent from the front at Gallipoli. Well, one letter actually helped lead to the withdrawal of Allied Forces. It was written by a reporter, a 29-year-old Australian named Keith Murdoch, the father of media baron Rupert Murdoch. Peter FitzSimons is the author of the recent book, "Gallipoli," and he says Keith Murdoch was there for four days.

PETER FITZSIMONS: He lands at Gallipoli and he's absolutely goggle-eyed at what he's seeing. And for four days he's escorted uphill, down dale, through the trenches, sees the Turkish trenches, sees the grenades, sees the artillery, sees the appalling conditions after a long summer when men are dying of dysentery and all the rest. And he gets backs to the other correspondents, and he says to them, you know, he says, I'm totally shocked. I can't believe this. Is it because I am a neophyte? Is it because I don't understand warfare? And they say, no, it's every bit as bad as you think it is. And he says, well, we better do something.

SIEGEL: The result was a 25-page typed letter to the Australian prime minister. (Reading) This unfortunate expedition, he wrote, (reading) has never been given a chance. It required large bodies of troops. It required a great leader. It required self-sacrifice on the part of the staff, as well as that sacrifice so wonderfully and liberally made on the part of the soldiers. It has had none of these things.

I asked Peter FitzSimons how important Murdoch's letter was in bringing the campaign to an end.

FITZSIMONS: Well, it wasn't a sole effort. There was a move at the time, but it was a catalyst. So what had happened was there was great discussion in Great Britain of, you know, how is it we've lost all these men? We've lost tens of thousands of men between the Australians and the Brits and the Indians and the rest of it, and we haven't moved a yard since the day we landed. And Murdoch went from cabinet minister to cabinet minister to the prime minister, Herbert Asquith. And he was the one that agitated him. Basically, he had two themes. One was General Hamilton, who was the British general who was in charge of the whole thing, he says he's not up to it. He's got to be moved on. You've got to sack him. And the other one was, you think it's bad to have lost 25,000 men so far? If you leave them there for winter, if they are in those open trenches when the snow falls on the Dardanelles, you'll lose them all. You've got to get them out.

SIEGEL: This is how the very noted Australian-born writer and reporter, Phillip Knightley, described the Murdoch letter. He wrote, (reading) it was an amazing document, a mixture of error, fact, exaggeration, prejudice and the most sentimental patriotism, but the basis of the charges, that the Gallipoli expedition was in danger of disaster, was correct.

Would you agree with that appraisal?

FITZSIMONS: I agree with - I agree with every word. And it was - you know, a lot of it was overblown. And a lot of it was hotly denied when it came out, most particularly by Hamilton. And there was a particular part of the letter where he said that British officers were bathing in ice baths while Australians were dying, you know, a few hundred yards away from dehydration and all the rest. Now, that was hotly denied. And I suspect, you know, (laughter) in the grand tabloid tradition, that his son would - son would ring to the forum and lead the world in tabloid media. Maybe that was a part of that.

SIEGEL: I read the letter, by the way, the typed copy that's - you can read images of it online. I gather the Australian National Library considers it a very valuable document of the time.

FITZSIMONS: Well, it's not our version of the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta, but it's not bad. I love it. When I read it first time - I read it 10 years ago, and I was stunned at how eloquent it was and how impactful it was. I think it's a great letter, and good on him.

SIEGEL: Peter FitzSimons, author of the book, "Gallipoli," thank you very much for talking with us today.

FITZSIMONS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.