Gallipoli and the Anzacs

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The Battle of the Landing,
25 April – 3 May 1915

War Correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett
– The Gallipoli letter to Asquith PM

Ashmead-Bartlett's Letter to Prime Minister Asquith

The letter, dated 8 September 1915, written by Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett to British Prime Minister Asquith , was one of the most important factors in the decision to evacuate the Gallipoli Peninsula. The carbon copy (reproduced above) is among the Bartlett papers in the Mitchell Library. The contents of the letter detail the disastrous nature of the Gallipoli campaign including the “muddles and mismanagement” of the military leadership which Ashmead-Bartlett believed “beat anything that has ever occurred in our Military History.”

Facsimile: Ashmead-Bartlett’s letter to Asquith

This is a carbon copy of the original letter sent by Ashmead-Bartlett to Asquith (dated September 8, 1915) that contributed to the withdrawal of troops from the Gallipoli Peninsula and the downfall of Sir Ian Hamilton. (In the collection of the State Library of NSW) ... Enlarge letter

September 8th 1915

Dear Mr Asquith

I hope you will excuse the liberty I am taking in writing to you but I have the chance of sending this letter through by hand and I consider it absolutely necessary that you should know the true state of affairs out here. Our last great effort to achieve some definite success against the Turks was the most ghastly and costly fiasco in our history since the Battle of Bannockburn. Personally I never thought the scheme decided on by Headquarters ever had the slightest chance of succeeding and all efforts now to make out that it only just failed owing to the failure of the 9th Corps to seize the Anafarta Hills bare no relation to the real truth. The operations did for a time make headway in an absolutely impossible country more than any general had a right to expect owing to the superlative gallantry of the Colonial Troops and the self-sacrificing manner in which they threw away their lives against positions which should never have been attacked. The main idea was to cut off the southern portion of the Turkish Army by getting astride of the Peninsula from Suvla Bay. Therefore the whole weight of the attack should have been concentrated on this objective, instead of which the main attack with the best troops was delivered against the side of the Turkish position which is a series of impossible mountains and valleys covered with dense scrub. The Staff seem to have carefully searched for the most difficult points and then threw away thousands of lives in trying to take them by frontal attacks. A few Gourkas obtained a lodgment on Chunuk Bair but were immediately driven off by the Turkish counter attacks and the main objective Koja Chemen Tepe was never approached. The 9th Corps miserably mishandled having failed to take the Anafarta Hills is now accused of being alone responsible for the ultimate failure of the operations. The failure of the 9th Corps was due not so much to the employment of new and untried troops as to bad staff work. The generals had but a vague idea of the nature of the ground in their front and no adequate steps were taken to keep the troops supplied with water. In consequence many of these unfortunate volunteers went three days in very hot weather on one bottle of water and were yet expected to advance carrying heavy loads and to storm strong positions. The Turks having been given ample time to bring up strong reinforcements to Anafarta, where they entrenched themselves in up to their necks, were again assaulted in a direct frontal attack on August 21st. The movement never had the slightest chance of succeeding and led to another bloody fiasco in which the unfortunate 29th Division who were brought up especially from Helles, and the 2nd Mounted Division (Yeomanry) were the chief suffers. As the result of all this fighting our casualties since August 6th now total nearly fifty thousand killed wounded and missing.

The army is in fact in a deplorable condition. Its morale as a fighting force has suffered greatly and the officers and men are thoroughly dispirited. The muddles and mismanagement beat anything that has ever occurred in our Military History. The fundamental evil at the present moment is the absolute lack of confidence in all ranks in the Headquarters staff. The confidence of the army will never be restored until a really strong man is placed at its head. It would amaze you to hear the talk that goes on amongst the Junior commanders of Divisions and Brigades. Except for the fact that the traditions of discipline still hold the force together you would imagine that the units were in an open state of mutiny against Headquarters. The Commander in Chief and his Staff are openly spoken of, and in fact only mentioned at all with derision. One hates to write of such things but in the interests of the country at the present crisis I feel they ought to be made known to you. The lack of a real Chief at the head of the army destroys its discipline and efficiency all through and gives full rein to the jealousies and recriminations which ever prevail amongst the Divisional Leader.

At the present time the army is incapable of a further offensive. The splendid Colonial Corps has been almost wiped out. Once again the 29th Division has suffered enormous losses and the new formations have lost their bravest and best officers and men. Neither do I think even with enormous reinforcements, that any fresh offensive from our present positions has the smallest chance of success. Our only real justification for throwing away fresh lives and fresh treasure in this unfortunate enterprise is the prospect of the certain cooperation of Bulgaria. With her assistance we should undoubtedly pull through. But as I know nothing of the attitude of Bulgaria or Greece or Italy I am only writing to give you a true picture of the state of the army and the problems with which we are faced in the future if we are left to fight the Turks alone. Already the weather shows signs of breaking and by the end of this month we cannot rely on any continuous spell of calm for the landing of large bodies of troops at some other point on the coast. In fact the season will soon be too late for a fresh offensive if another is contemplated. We have therefore to prepare against the coming of the winter or to withdraw the army altogether. I am assuming it is considered desirable to avoid the latter contingency at all costs for political reasons owing to the confession of final failure it would entail and the moral effect it might have in India and Egypt. I am convinced the troops could be withdrawn under cover of the warships without much loss far less in fact then we suffer in any ordinary attack. I assume also that the future of the campaign out here must be largely dependent on the measure of success that attends our fresh offensive, in conjunction with the French, in the West.

It is no use pretending that our prospects for the winter are bright. The Navy seems to think it will be able to keep the army supplied in spells of calm weather provided a sufficient reserve of food munitions and ammunition is concentrated while the weather holds at the various beaches. The outlook for the unfortunate troops is deplorable. We do not hold a single commanding position on the Peninsula and at all three points Helles, Anzac and Suvla Bay we are everywhere commanded by the enemy’s guns. This means that throughout the winter all the beaches and lines of communication to the front trenches will be under constant shell fire. Suvla Bay is especially exposed. The Turks are firing a fair amount of ammunition but it is obvious they are feeling the shortage or else are carefully husbanding their supply otherwise they could shell us off the Peninsula at some points altogether. But it must be remembered that as soon as they are absolutely certain our offensive has shot its bolt, and that we are settling down in our positions for the winter, they will be free to concentrate their artillery at certain points and also to bring up big guns from the forts and therefore we must expect a far more severe artillery fire on the beaches during the winter months than we are exposed to at present.

A great many of the trenches which we hold at present will have to be abandoned altogether during the winter as they will be underwater, and preparing a series of defensive works which will ensure us against sudden surprise attacks. We could thus hold our positions with fewer men and rest some of the divisions from time to time in the neighboring islands.

We ought to be able to hold Helles without much trouble but even if we commence our preparations in time we shall be faced with enormous difficulties at Anzac and Suvla Bay. Our troops will have to face the greatest hardships from cold wet trenches and constant artillery fire. I believe that at the present time the sick rate for the army is roughly 1000 per day. During the winter it is bound to rise to an even higher figure. I know one general, whose judgement is usually sound who considers we shall lose during the winter in sickness alone the equivalent of the present strength of the army. This may be an exaggeration but in any case our loss is bound to be very heavy. The whole army dreads beyond all else the prospect of wintering on this dreary and inhospitable coast. Amongst other troubles the autumn rains will once more bring to view hundred of our dead who now lie under a light covering of soil.

But I suppose we must stay here as long as there is the smallest prospect of the Balkan alliance being revived and throwing in its lot with us even if they do not make a move until next Spring. I have laid before you some of the difficulties with which we are faced in order that they may be boldly met before it is too late. No one seems to know out here what we are going to do in the future and I am so afraid we shall drag on in a state of uncertainty until the season is too far advanced for us to make proper preparations to face the coming winter in a certain measure of comfort and security. At the present time some of our positions gained by the Colonial Corps high up on the spurs of the hills on which the Turks are perched cannot be considered secure. A sudden counter attack vigorously delivered would jeopardise the safety of our line and might lead to a serious disaster. There will have to be a general reshuffling of the whole line and some of our advanced posts will have to be abandoned during the winter months.

I have only dealt with our own troubles and difficulties. The enemy of course has his. But to maintain as I saw stated in an official report that his losses in the recent fighting were far heavier than ours is a childish falsehood which deceives no one out here. He was acting almost the whole time on the defensive and probably lost about one third of our grand total.

You may think I am too pessimistic but my views are shared by the large majority of the army. The confidence of the troops can only be restored by an immediate change in the supreme command. Even if sufficient drafts are sent out to make good our losses we shall never succeed operating from our present positions. A fresh landing on a grand scale north of Buliar would probably insure success but the season is late and I suppose the troops are not available. If we are to stay here for the winter let orders be given for the army to start its preparations without delay. If possible have the Colonial troops taken off the Peninsula altogether because they are miserably depressed since the last failure and with their active minds, and positions they occupy in civil life, a dreary winter in the trenches will have a deplorable effect on what is left of this once magnificent body of men, the finest any Empire has ever produced. If we are obliged to keep this army locked up in Gallipoli this winter large reserves will be necessary to make good its losses in sickness. The cost of this campaign in the east must be out of all proportion to the results we are likely to obtain now, in time to have a decisive effect on the general theatre of war. Our great asset against the Germans was always considered to be our superior financial strength. In Gallipoli we are dissipating a large portion of our fortune and have not yet gained a single acre of ground of any strategical value. Unless we can pull through with the aid of the Balkan League in the near future this futile expenditure may ruin our prospects of bringing the war to a successful conclusion by gradually wearing down Germany’s colossal military power.

I have taken the liberty of writing very fully because I have no means of knowing how far the real truth of the situation is known in England and how much the Military Authorities disclose. I thought therefore that perhaps the opinions of an independent observer might be of value to you at the present juncture. I am of course breaking the censorship regulations by sending this letter through but I have not the slightest hesitation in doing so as I feel it is absolutely essential for you to know the truth. I have been requested over and over again by officers of all ranks to go home and personally disclose the truth but it is difficult for me to leave until the beginning of October.

Hoping you will therefore excuse the liberty I have taken.

Believe me

Yours very truly

The Rt. Hon. H.H. Asquith
10 Downing Street


Letter from Principal Librarian about Ashmead-Bartlett's letter to Prime Minister Asquith

A letter by the Principal Librarian of the Public Library of NSW, dated 5 April 1916, explains how this original document of such significance came into the Library's possession and how this carbon copy came to be annotated in handwriting by Ashmead-Bartlett.

PUBLIC LIBRARY OF NEW SOUTH WALES

5th April 1916.

Messrs, Angus & Robertson, Ltd., Castlereagh Street,
Sydney.

Dear Sirs,

Referring to my conversation with Mr. George Robertson yesterday concerning the proposed purchase of originals of despatches from Mr. Ashmead-Bartlett, I have to say, with the approval of the President of Trustees, that I shall be glad if you will endeavour to purchase for the Trustees the documents mentioned on the rough list submitted to Mr. Robertson by Mr. Bartlett, comprising the original typewritten despatches before alteration by the censor, and the same as altered, Mr. Bartlett’s memorandum to the British Cabinet concerning the state of affairs at the Dardanelles, and his briefer memorandum submitted at Mr. Asquith’s request on the same subject, together with any other similar documents which may have been offered by Mr. Bartlett; the whole at a price not exceeding £300. We expect that you may be able to secure these documents at no greater sum than £200, but as the papers mentioned are typewritten and presumably contain no manuscript other than Mr. Bartlett’s signature, it is desirable that if possible the author should add manuscript annotations where such would serve to explain or elucidate any part of the despatches or other papers, or would add value by connecting them with circumstances which may have arisen since the papers were written; such, for instance, as a note attached to the letter to Mr. Asquith, stating that this was forwarded at Mr. Asquith’s request as more suitable for submission to Cabinet than the longer memorandum dated June 6th, 1915, also that Mr. Bartlett considered that this shorter memorandum to Mr. Asquith led to his, Mr. Bartlett’s, withdrawal and probably the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula; and any similar particulars which might increase the value of such documents.

In order that Mr. Bartlett should be encouraged to make such manuscript addenda, we are willing to pay him an extra sum on receipt of the documents, such sum to be estimated by us after considering the increased value which such documents would possess through the addition of such manuscript memoranda.

Whatever else should be added in the way of manuscript, it is necessary of course that each document should bear the autograph signature of Mr. Bartlett.

We desire that you and your agents in London should take such precautions as you may consider necessary to ensure that these originals of the despatches and memoranda should be the only copies sold or distributed in any way by Mr. Bartlett, except that he may have the permission which be preparation of the book which he mentions he will at some future time publish concerning the whole matter.

It is desirable also that Mr. Bartlett should make a statutory declaration guaranteeing that these documents are really what we purchase them for, that is, originals of despatches and memoranda as he has offered to sell to Mr. Robertson according to the rough memorandum in Mr. Robertson’s possession.

Your commission on the transaction will of course be at the rates customary between us, that is 10 per cent. On the maximum limit price of the Trustees, viz., £300; and the Trustees will recoup you any expenses which you may consider it necessary to undertake in arranging and completing the transaction.

We understand and agree to the condition of purchase mentioned by Mr. Bartlett, namely that the documents after purchase by the Trustees will be regarded as confidential, and locked away in the Mitchell Library safe during the continuance of the war and for a period of two years after the declaration of peace. We desire you to exercise your own excellent judgment in making the arrangements which you consider necessary to safeguard the Trustees in your dealing with Mr. Bartlett.

I am, dear Sirs,

Yours faithfully,

W.H. IFOULD,

PRINCIPAL LIBRARIAN.