37. “They Rose To The Occasion” : the AIF’s image emerges victorious

This post looks at the narrative of the AIF at Gallipoli as it was presented in 2 newspapers of the time: The Argus as a Melbourne metropolitan daily and the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, published twice weekly, as the local paper for the Shire of Alberton.

At the time, newspapers were the only media source of information. From the very start of the War they were subject to strict censorship, and the release of information covering ‘war news’ was highly controlled. In Australia, there was intense interest in the AIF’s fortunes, matched with the understanding that its first engagement in the War would represent a defining moment in the young nation’s history. Before Gallipoli there were 2 overriding preoccupations: would the AIF prove itself as equal to the British army on the field of battle; and how would the AIF mark itself as a distinctive Australian fighting force? Further, the first major campaign involving the AIF represented the chance to counter the negative publicity it had drawn to itself in Egypt. Overall, even before the first shot was fired, the legendary status of Gallipoli was assured.

The first reports of the landings at Gallipoli came very early. On Monday 26 April 1915 The Argus reported on the ‘allies’ landing in the Dardanelles. The troops were described as British and French and the Australians were not specifically listed. There were significant inaccuracies in relation to the landing sites given. Two days later – Wednesday 28 April – there were more accounts of the landings: they had taken place at several points on the Gallipoli Peninsula, covered by a naval force. The reader was reassured, falsely, that:

In spite of serious opposition from the enemy behind strong entrenchments and entanglements, the Allied forces were completely successful.

On 30 April there was a map of the Dardanelles with landing sites, but there were still major inaccuracies.

On 4 May came the first indication of casualties – the Roll of Honour – giving the AIF dead as 10 officers and 42 other ranks, plus another 96 wounded. In the same edition came the first of the congratulatory telegrams. The Governor General was reported to have congratulated Birdwood on the Australian troops’ … successful entry upon active field service. Birdwood’s cable responded that the … troops have all done splendidly. Importantly, there was also reassuring praise from the British. The Secretary of State for the Colonies, speaking on behalf of the Admiralty, cabled praise for the Australian troops. The First Lord of the Admiralty (Churchill) was reported as extending congratulations to both Australia and New Zealand … on the brilliant and memorable achievements of their troops in the Dardanelles. Churchill was also reported as claiming that Admiral de Roebeck in charge of the British Fleet had expressed the fleet’s … intense admiration of the feat of arms of the Australian land forces.

On 6 May there was an article with the headline Heavy Losses of Officers. The death toll had doubled to 108, the majority of whom were officers. The Argus noted that if so many officers had been killed the number of deaths from the other ranks must have been far greater. It stated that despite the level of casualties, people appeared determined to see the campaign through; and it claimed that the true extent of casualties needed to be revealed as soon as possible. The tone of grim determination was being established.

On May 7 The Argus gave the first account of the actual Australian landings on 25 April. It was sourced from the Reuter’s correspondent in Cairo and it claimed to be the … first report of the actual fighting during the landing of the Australasian troops at Gaba Tepe. There was an accompanying map, showing the point of landing near Suvla Bay. The key headline was “Nothing Stopped Us”. The account highlighted the fighting qualities of the Australians:

When approaching the shore the Australians and the New Zealanders jumped from the boats into water that was often neck deep, and waded to land. They found the Turks occupying the ridges, and took three of these in succession in a running fight, extending over a length of three miles.

The picture of the Turkish defenders was far less complimentary. Prior to the campaign it been widely and popularly believed that the Turks, an inferior race, would be no match for the superior forces of the white British Empire. Now this seemed to be exactly what had happened:

One Australian said afterwards: – “Nothing stopped us. Our big lads lifted some of the Turks on the end of their bayonets and the other Turks ran screaming and howling in fear.”

The inferior Turks were also uncivilised:

The ambulance men were under fire, the Turks making a dead set against them, and shooting them down mercilessly. … It has been established that the Turks used dum-dum bullets.

The Turkish losses were great:

The Turks’ losses were enormous, the bayonet rushes of the Australians and New Zealanders causing great slaughter.

The same article made the incorrect claim that Krithia was practically captured.

May 7 also saw the first article in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – to do with the Gallipoli campaign. There was a brief reference noting that the list of dead was increasing and that as only officers’ names had been released to that point, the true casualty rate must have been far greater and worse news was to come. There was a local connection because one of the dead officers, whose name had been published, was a Major Hamilton from Malvern who had married a local girl – Una Bland, daughter of Mr & Mrs W Bland of – Yarram. He was described as … a brave man who had died for his country.

The local paper was always keen to promote the link to the local community and one of its preferred options was to include the letters sent back to Australia from local men serving in the AIF.

The same edition of the local paper reprinted an article from the The Age about men flocking to recruiting stations as the list of casualties grew. Rates of volunteering seemed tied directly to casualty levels. This was said to be the British way and another example of true British determination in the faced of tragedy:

Last week the recruiting figures were growing smaller and smaller, and fears were raised that there were few men left to come forward voluntarily. On Monday [3 May], simultaneously with the publication of the lists of Australia’s killed and wounded, the men came forward again in the old way, eager to do their part in the fighting.

Then on 8 May – some 2 weeks after the event – The Argus published the extensive account by Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett of the initial landing on 25 April. This piece turned out to be one of the most significant newspaper reports in Australia’s history.

Ashmead-Bartlett was a war correspondent for the British. He had seen service as a lieutenant in a British unit in the Boer War in and had worked as a war correspondent in the Russo-Japanese War (1904). In its introduction to the article, The Argus emphasised his credentials, noting that he was … chosen to represent the British press at the Dardanelles … and claiming that he was at … the very forefront of war correspondents. This claimed status as the British expert was employed to give credibility to his account. Ashmead-Bartlett went ashore at Gallipoli on the night of 25 April.

Any reader of the account by Ashmead-Bartlett would have been left in no doubt that the Australians had proved themselves on the field of battle to be the equal of the British troops. Apart from anything else, the claims were highlighted in the headlines of the article: They Rose To The Occasion and No Finer Feat in the War. Equal to Mons and Neuve Chapelle.

The article described in detail the fighting qualities of the Australians who had morphed into a race of athletes:

The Australians rose to the occasion. Not waiting for orders, or for the boats to reach the beach, they sprang into the sea, and, forming a sort of rough line, rushed the enemy’s trenches.
Their magazines were not charged, so they went in with cold steel.
It was over in a minute. The Turks in the first trench were either bayoneted or they ran away, and their Maxim was captured.
Then the Australians found themselves facing an almost perpendicular cliff of loose sandstone covered with thick shrubbery. Somewhere, half-way up, the enemy had a second trench, strongly held, from which they poured a terrible fire on the troops below and the boats pulling back to the destroyers for the second landing party.
Here was a tough proposition to tackle in the darkness, but those colonials, practical above all else, went about it in a practical way.
They stopped for a few minutes to pull themselves together, got rid of their packs, and charged their magazines.
Then this race of athletes proceeded to scale the cliffs without responding to the enemy’s fire. They lost some men but did not worry.
In less than a quarter of an hour the Turks were out of their second position, either bayoneted or fleeing.

He was impressed by the reckless and ruthless pursuit of the enemy – But then the Australians whose blood was up, instead of entrenching, rushed northwards and eastwards, searching for fresh enemies to bayonet. – and the courage of the wounded. He claimed he had never seen the like of it before:

The courage displayed by these wounded Australians will never be forgotten. Hastily placed in trawlers, lighters and boats, they were towed to the ships, and, in spite of their sufferings, cheered on reaching the ship from which they had set out in the morning.
In fact, I have never seen anything like these wounded Australians in war before.
Though many were shot to bits, without the hope of recovery, their cheers resounded throughout the night. You could see in the midst of the mass of suffering humanity arms waving in greeting to the crews of the warships.
They were happy because they knew that they had been tried for the first time and had not been found wanting.

While the Turks were referred to as a brave enemy, there were other less flattering descriptions of them:

Amidst the flash of bayonet and the sudden charge of the Colonials, before which they broke and fled, and amidst a perfect tornado of shells from the ships, the Turks fell back, sullen and checked.

and

Early in the morning of April 26 the Turks repeatedly tried to drive the colonials from their position. The colonials made local counter-attacks, and drove off the enemy at the point of the bayonet, which the Turks would never face.

Interspersed with the account of the fighting there was more commendation from the British. The British PM (Asquith) was quoted as declaring in the House of Commons:

The landing of the Australians and New Zealanders was opposed by a heavy fire at point-blank range, but they carried their positions with a rush, and their attack was pushed forward with the greatest dash.

Lastly, there was the greatest of claims, under the headline, No Finer Feat in the War. Equal to Mons and Neuve Chapelle.

There has been no finer feat in this war than this sudden landing in the dark and storming the heights, above all holding on whilst 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.

Both the tone and intention of Ashmead-Bartlett’s account were that of the Imperial Boys-OwnAt 3 o’clock, when it was quite dark, a start was made for the shore. There was suppressed excitement. Would the enemy be surprised or on the alert? – but the more relevant point is that the report suited the time perfectly. Here was what was accepted as definite, independent and expert proof from a British war correspondent that the AIF had come though its ‘baptism of fire’ and could count itself as a genuine part of the British Army. Moreover, here also was the beginning of something special: a fighting force that had its own, unique qualities. And now that the ‘truth’ had been presented in the paper it could never be undone. Ashmead-Bartlett’s account became the incontestable foundation for everything that was to follow.

There was more of Ashmead-Bartlett in The Argus on 10 May. Again he portrayed the Turks as not having the nerve to stand up to the Anzacs. And under the heading “These Colonials are Exceptions” he wrote:

Most troops, when under fire, especially volunteers with only a few months’ training, keenly feel losses at the beginning, more especially if these occur before they have had time to settle down, but these colonials are the exception to the rule.
Despite their heavy losses, the survivors were as keen as ever.

There was more praise for the AIF from Birdwood:

General Birdwood told Mr. Ashmead-Bartlett that he could not sufficiently praise the courage, endurance, and soldierly qualities of the colonials. The manner in which they hung on to the position day and night was magnificent, considering the heavy losses, the shortage of water, and the incessant fire of shrapnel to which they were exposed in a position where they were without cover. They also had to face incessant infantry attacks of the enemy, after they retired to a contracted line. They set their teeth, and refused to budge a foot.

Ashmead-Bartlett found the Australians reckless, careless and dismissive of danger. He wrote, under the headline, Bathing Under Shrapnel Fire:

These colonials are extraordinarily good under fire, often exposing themselves rather than take the trouble to keep under shelter of the cliff. One of the strangest sights was to see the numbers bathing in the sea with the shrapnel bursting all around them.

On 11 May, in The Argus under the headline – The Dardanelles Australians’ Bravery. Disdain Of Cover. – an unnamed correspondent continued the same theme of reckless indifference:

An account has been received at Athens from an eyewitness of the recent fighting in the Dardanelles. He states: “The heaviest losses were borne by the Australians and New Zealanders, whose one fault was a complete disdain of cover. Their bravery and dash were amazing. In some cases the men, after rushing the first Turkish trenches in ten minutes, charged ahead despite the appeals of the officers, penetrating several miles inland and suffering heavily when Turkish reinforcements compelled them to retreat.

Back in Gippsland, the account by Ashmead-Bartlett was published, in full, in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – on 12 May, 4 days after it appeared in The Argus. The same edition ran a short report on local casualties. It gave total losses to that time as 172 dead and 936 wounded and specifically referred to several locals who had been wounded:

Private A .W. C. Avery, son of Mr. and Mrs. Geo Avery, Port Albert and Private F. W. Butler, Jack River and Private H. George, Murrumbeena, who some years ago was a resident of Port Albert, and later was employed in a store at Yarram.

Both Butler and George were subsequently killed. Avery was discharged as ‘medically unfit’ in 1917.

The local paper also began to publish its own accolades for the AIF. On 14 May, it reported a Reuter’s cable:

The “Times” states: – ‘The essence of the Dardanelles enterprise is the resource and vigour of the Australians and New Zealanders, who have been asked to carry out a task which would test the mettle of the most seasoned soldiers. They have already done well, and are now facing more deadly obstacles with the passion of enthusiasm.

In The Argus, Bean’s account of the Gallipoli landing did not appear until 15 May and by that point Asheamd-Barlett’s account had already effectively written the history of the event. Bean’s report – dated Alexandria, May 13 – was introduced as an account of the later stages of the landing of the Australian troops at Gaba Tepe. It was described as supplementing the earlier account by Ashmead-Bartlett. Bean’s account was more precise and while it lacked the jingoism of Ashmead-Bartlett’s style it did reinforce the heroic efforts of the AIF:

“Early on the second morning the 8th Battalion (Victoria) repelled four Turkish charges, and the 4th Infantry Battalion (New South Wales) made a most gallant attack with the bayonet. They drove the Turks back through the scrub till they came on the Turkish camp. Nine-tenths of our men went straight through that, until they were faced by three machine-guns in position farther back, and came under the fire of a battery. This battalion (the 4th) was afterwards ordered to retire somewhat, as its position was difficult to support.

On 19 May in The Argus there was more from Ashmead-Bartlett. This time he was keen to present failure as success. The British had been well and truly been checked in the south (Cape Helles) but he managed to represent this defeat as follows:

”The British,” he reported, “are not yet in possession of Achi Baba, at the southern end of the Gallipoli Peninsula, but have forced the Turks to disclose the strength and character of the defences, and we are in a position to estimate the difficulty of the task.

For Ashmead-Bartlett the failure had been a stunning success:

Our successful landing administered a staggering blow to the Turco-Germans, who, not without reason, regarded the peninsula as impregnable.

Also, on this occasion, Ashmead-Bartlett acknowledged that the Turks had fought with extreme bravery.

On 19 May, the local paper featured more international congratulations for the AIF. Under the heading of War News an unsourced report noted:

General Sir Ian Hamilton says the Australian troops are fit to meet any troops in the world. Outside the Guards they are the largest and heaviest army in the world.

Another also unsourced report claimed:

The heroism of the Australians at the Dardanelles is stated to be unique in the history of modern war.

The paper reported casualty levels as 255 dead and 1841 wounded. Intentionally or otherwise, the casualty level was increasing in proportion to the praise bestowed on the AIF.

The first poem to feature in The Argus on the action in the Dardanelles did so on 20 May. Predictably it touched on death in the cause of the Empire, with gallant souls set free by death in battle.

On 2 June, Bean’s account of the death of General Bridges featured prominently in the local paper. The tone was heroic: Bridges had scorned danger and had been dodging snipers for months. When he was hit, he did not want his men endangered taking him down to the beach:

General Bridges had proved himself a capable and strong commander, absolutely imperturbable amidst the turmoil of operations and wholly without fear.

There was a reference to the Turks not firing on the stretcher as Bridges was evacuated:

The enemy, probably because he saw it was a party carrying a wounded man, did no fire any shots in this direction till the stretcher had passed.
We have noticed that the Turk, whilst not always a scrupulous or humane fight[er], has sometimes acted very fairly and humanely. It probably depends on the individual.

In the same article Bean wrote about the Turkish attack on the morning of 19 May and the huge losses:

Our men were in magnificent spirits, never shooting without a good target, even sitting on the parapet or traverse, laughing and firing as fast as they could load. The next morning the Turks lying in front of our position were far thicker than I have ever seen. There cannot be less than 1500 dead. Our loss was trifling – certainly not more than one to ten of the enemy, and probably only one to twenty.
I have never seen men in better fighting form. They are earnestly hoping the Turks will attack again, which probably they will in spite of the severe lesson, as they are ready to stake a great deal on driving the Australians into the sea.

In The Argus on 7 June there was a report that set out to explain why earlier optimistic forecasts about the British and allied fleet’s ability to destroy the forts and force the Dardanelles had been wrong. The forts were proving too hard to hit and destroy and the mines and guns of the Turks were too great an obstacle and had caused major ship losses. Therefore the current land invasion, supported by artillery, was required. But the Turkish force by itself was only ever portrayed as a second-rate opponent. Without the leadership of the Germans it would have failed:

The Turkish soldier fights very well behind entrenchments, but he is a very bad gunner, and possesses absolutely no knowledge of the science of war. Had the defence of the Straits been left in his hands alone the Allied fleet would most probably have taken Constantinople by now. But the Turkish army, directed by highly trained German officers, and having advantage of their science and technical skill, is a very different enemy.

On 16 June, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative published a lengthy soldier’s letter home from the young – 18 yo – Syd Collis who was serving in the Medical Corps. He had written it in early May to his father, Mr Geo. Collis of Alberton. At the time, he was based at Heliopolis. He described his work tending to those who had been wounded at Gallipoli:

Soldiers will be returning to Australia now disabled, some with arms and lefts shot off. I saw a chap get his leg amputated. Some have their toes and hands shot off. It was awful that some of them got shot before they landed. Shrapnel is doing the damage. They are standing the pain like Britons, and wishing to get back to the front – quite as anxious as we are. Light Horse is no good, and all of them have volunteered to go to the front as infantry, our crowd included.

Collis focused on the claimed perfidy of the Turks. He told his father that the general consensus was that if you were wounded you needed to keep a bullet to shoot yourself:

They all say keep one bullet for yourself, because if you see the Turks coming and are wounded shoot yourself, because they have gouged our boys eyes out, and cut their heads off with the bayonet.

He also claimed the Turks also shot stretcher bearers, and they were scared of the Australians and ran from them:

The Turks run when the Australians make the bayonet charge. The Australians slaughtered thousands of them, and took lots of prisoners. They have great name and intend to keep it up.

Another report from Bean – dated 13 May, Gallipoli – appeared in The Argus as late as 18 June 1915. It gave a detailed account of the landing and fighting on the first day. The detail covered the specific action of each battalion on the day and the circumstances surrounding the deaths of individual officers. The language was more restrained than Ashmead-Bartlett’s. Bean described how the men pushed inland, with the Turks reluctant to face their bayonets:

With a shout the first boat-loads fixed bayonets, on the inner edge of the beach, and rushed straight up at it, and the Turks did not wait. Later he wrote: The enemy could be seen quite thick upon the third ridge, but they did not attack. … They did not advance; on the contrary, when parties of our men overshot the general line on the second ridge and went up to the third, they retreated before them and waited for reinforcements.

Bean also made the point about the battalions being mixed up and how the men formed small parties and then headed inland under the command of any available officer. It was an example of the men themselves exercising judgement and initiative in the heat of battle. These were troops who could think for themselves.

On 11 August the local paper featured more reports from Ashmead-Bartlett. He was keen to emphasise not just the physical prowess of the Australians:

The colonials are of amazing physique. No European nation possesses anything to compare with them. The Prussian Guard consists of picked men, but they are fat and ungainly. The colonials are great big-limbed athletes, with not a pound of superfluous flesh among the lot.

but also the collective and independent way they discharged their military responsibilities:

It is not so much an army as a community which has come together for the job, and framed its own laws to carry it out. They work in little groups, which are united either by home ties or mutual regard. These groups discipline themselves.

The preceding analysis shows how, in the weeks following 25 April 1915, Australians reading their newspapers were left in no doubt that the AIF’s first major engagement of the War had been an outstanding success. The men of the AIF had proved themselves to be true ‘Britons of the South’. They were at least the match of the British soldiers. They had proved their worth to the Empire. They had also began to craft a distinctive identity: ruthless in battle; contemptuous of danger; physically bigger and stronger than other soldiers; self-disciplined and enterprising; and with a natural cynicism that brought out the larrikin. It was a very tough, reassuring picture of the AIF, infinitely preferable to that of out-of-control, poorly disciplined rabble destroying Cairo, trashing the reputation of Australia and even being sent home in disgrace with VD. It was also a picture that both helped offset the grief generated by rapidly increasing casualty levels and promoted a surge in enlistments.

The preceding analysis also suggests that what was lacking over this period was any independent, objective analysis of the campaign. The reports were filtered through tight censorship, the tone was celebratory and jingoistic and no criticism of the campaign was even entertained. There was no place in the press for doubt, disbelief or question, at least at this early point. The simple motif throughout was the heroic struggle of the Australian soldier, in difficult circumstances, against an enemy who was in every way inferior and who could be treacherous.

Future posts will show how doubts over the worth of the Gallipoli campaign inevitably arose and a complex play of blame and counter-claim developed to cover what came to be seen as an unqualified military disaster. Indeed the historical debate over Gallipoli – certainly in Australia – continues to the present. See, for example, Robin Prior’s defining work, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth.

At the same time, there has never been any chance that the qualities of the AIF, identified and pushed so hard in the popular press in the first few weeks of the campaign, would ever be seriously questioned or significantly qualified.  True, the Turks could be humanised, over the years, to become a more worthy and noble foe; but, realistically, there was little, if any, chance that the hyperbole of Ashmead-Bartlett and others, once published, could ever be scaled back.

For the press of the time, Gallipoli established Australia’s complete loyalty to the Empire, and proved to all back home that its soldiers were at least the equal of the British. For Australia, Gallipoli was – and has continued to be –  more a proof of national character than a military campaign.

References

The Argus

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Prior, R  2009, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney

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