Montana Viewpoint: Murdoch lore; maybe it’s in the genes

Jim Elliott

In Australia the name of Keith Murdoch is revered as the man who had Australian and New Zealand Army Corps troops (known collectively as “Anzac”) saved from further annihilation in the World War I bloodbath which was the battle for Gallipoli.

The Gallipoli campaign was the ill-advised British attempt to defeat Germany’s Turkish allies at the Dardanelles which was the route to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the Black Sea. A victory there would not only defeat the Turks, but would open the seaway to Russia, then an ally of Great Britain.

Murdoch’s letter on his battlefield findings is reputed to have saved Anzac soldiers’ lives as well as hastened the removal of the British commander at Gallipoli, and the eventual abandonment of the Gallipoli campaign itself.

In September 1915, Murdoch, a young Australian reporter from a family with powerful political connections was sent to assess the hospital and mail situation in Egypt, and as long as he was in the neighborhood and just happened to have a letter of introduction from the Australian Prime Minister, why not drop in and see the commanding officer at Gallipoli, General Sir Ian Hamilton. While there, he might observe the conditions of the Anzac troops.

After explaining at some length to the General why he—Murdoch—felt he could best serve Australia as a reporter and not a soldier, he requested permission to visit Anzac troops on the battlefield and record his impressions. The general permitted this after Murdoch signed a standard agreement that the reporter would obey the rules of wartime censorship then in place; meaning that whatever he wrote would have to be cleared by the military censor.

Murdoch, it would appear, had developed a quasi-political agenda to remove the Anzac troops from battle, which, as a consequence, would eventually give victory to the Turks. He furthered this agenda by praising the bravery and physique of the Anzac troops while making derogatory and incendiary comments about British troops and leadership.

Although Murdoch did visit the Australian troops for from two to four days, he gathered most of his impressions of conditions from a well-known British reporter named Ashmead-Bartlett who had an adversarial relationship with Hamilton. Since Ashmead-Bartlett had a great deal of knowledge of the issues, Murdoch asked him to write a letter discussing the situation which letter Murdoch would then smuggle to the British Prime Minister by hand-carrying it to London. Hamilton found out about the letter and had it confiscated from Murdoch on his arrival at the French port of Marseille.

Nothing daunted, in London Murdoch then wrote his own letter to the Australian Prime Minister, praising the Australian troops and denigrating the British soldiers as cowardly physical and mental weaklings and their leaders as inept, thus further violating the terms of the signed agreement to obey the rules of wartime censorship.

In a particularly damning and untrue statement Murdoch wrote that because of alleged British cowardice “[A]n order had to be issued to [British] officers to shoot without mercy any [British] soldier who lagged behind or loitered in advance.” That letter was sent to the Australian Prime Minister who sent it to the British Prime Minister, who took it for gospel. As a result, Hamilton was sacked, and the British Secretary of War, Lord Kitchener was seriously embarrassed and tendered his resignation, which was not accepted.

In 1916 Murdoch appeared before a British government Commission of Inquiry examining the failure of the Gallipoli campaign. When questioned on the source of his patently false statement about the “order” to shoot soldiers, Murdoch could not remember the source, but then thought it might have been in a journal written by a British officer. He then believed the journal had been shown to him by a reporter who had possession of it. He could not recall the name of the British officer or the reporter, or how he had come to see the journal.

Notwithstanding the evidence of falsehoods and subterfuge, Keith Murdoch became an Australian hero. The Australians felt that because of Murdoch’s letter the Gallipoli campaign was abandoned, and the lives of Anzac troops spared by removing them from battle. In 1981 a movie titled “Gallipoli” was made about the Anzac troops and Murdoch’s role in bringing the troops home.

One of the principal financial supporters of the film was Murdoch’s son, Rupert, whose media empire owns, among many other companies, Fox News. Perhaps the apple does not fall far from the tree.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.