Book review: The Gallipoli Letter

By Gordon McLauchlan

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The Gallipoli Letter, by Keith Murdoch. Photo / Supplied
The Gallipoli Letter, by Keith Murdoch. Photo / Supplied

The historical preoccupation with Gallipoli becomes easily comprehensible when you remember that 8141 Australians and 2721 New Zealanders died during the brief campaign. Add the thousands wounded and psychologically damaged and you have a national trauma that has lasted for a century. Then think of the carnage of Anzac losses on the Western Front, and it seems beyond understanding that people could have tolerated this madness.

The population of New Zealand at the time was about one million. To put Gallipoli in the context of today's population, imagine a campaign - in Afghanistan, for example - that cost 10,884 New Zealanders' lives within six months.

What this book reveals is the beginning of colonial independence, a sense that we needed to detach ourselves from the European ethos that ordinary men should obey, unquestioningly, the whims of their "betters". This urge for moral independence came more strongly, I think, from Australia than from New Zealand.

Keith Murdoch's letter arose from the concern of the Australian Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, that Australian troops under British command were being used in a fruitless, ill-conducted campaign in the Dardanelles. Information on what was happening was not forthcoming from the British command. Fisher sent Murdoch, a journalist and friend, to visit Gallipoli, ostensibly to check on how well the soldiers' mail was being distributed; but his clandestine mission was to check on how the campaign and the Australian troops were faring.

Murdoch spent time in Cairo and four days on the peninsula talking to Australian officers and the frontline troops themselves. His letter, also given to the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, was considered a critical factor in the dismissal of the British commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton, and the ultimate withdrawal of all British troops from the Dardanelles.

The letter is a scathing attack on the arrogance of the British staff officers enjoying luxurious quarters on ships offshore, while their men lived and died in the filth and disease of trenches, constantly under fire from Turkish artillery and snipers on the high ground.

In places the letter is a strange amalgam of the romantic nonsense about patriotism and war that was current then and a new realism - as though the writer was not fully aware of his new, practical, colonial common sense.

Sir Keith Murdoch went on to become a newspaper magnate in Australia, but on a scale modest in comparison with that of his son, Rupert.
This is a small, handsome book with a substantial introduction by historian Michael McKernan.

The Gallipoli Letter, by Keith Murdoch, Allen & Unwin, $30.

Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland writer.

- NZ Herald

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