In Deadline Gallipoli, Foxtel’s two-part drama on the travails of journalism in the trenches of World War I, executive producer Sam Worthington also played a young reporter called Phillip Schuler. Schuler is a real person — and he’s nothing like the character Worthington played.

Schuler was one of a handful of Australian reporters to accompany the troops to Gallipoli, and his dispatches, photographs and book helped form the public’s early understanding of the deadly assault. But while Worthington described him at a press conference as one of four journalists “fighting the upper echelons of the military to get the truth out and stop the carnage”, that characterisation more appropriately refers to Keith Murdoch, who broke military censorship to carry back to the UK an explosive letter highly critical of the war effort.

“I was very disappointed with that miniseries,” Mark Baker, the author of a new biography of Schuler, told Crikey.

“A lot of money was spent on it. You had a very impressive cast of actors and the opportunity to tell the true story. But they opted for a silly distortion of the truth. We know Keith Murdoch and Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett took that position of breaking military censorship. But the other two, Schuler and [official war correspondent] Charles Bean didn’t. They didn’t particularly have a problem with censorship, nor were part of campaign the other two journalists mounted.

“Bean had issues with way the war was fought, but thought censorship was proper … and in his view Keith Murdoch did break the rules. And Schuler absolutely disagreed with Murdoch’s actions.”

Schuler, Bean, Ashmead-Bartlett and Murdoch were the four journalists who had the greatest lasting impact on how the Australian public came to understand what happened at Gallipoli. And they were very different.

Bean, from The Sydney Morning Herald, was voted official war correspondent by the Australian Journalists’ Association. He would go on to play an out-sized role in forming the Anzac legend.

[Keane: the old and the new of Anzac amnesia]

Ashmead-Bartlett was the official British correspondent. A hard-bitten Fleet Street reporter prone to exaggeration, he was highly critical of both the campaign and of Sir Ian Hamilton himself, who was the commander in charge. His accounts were the first published in Australian papers. And his views would greatly influence Keith Murdoch, a well-connected scribe who had narrowly lost out to Bean for the position of official correspondent.

Murdoch arrived late to Gallipoli and spent four days and three nights there. But the actions he took had a large impact on the course of the campaign.

The last of the four, and the youngest, was Schuler, the son of the Age‘s long-time editor Frederick Schuler. He is characterised by Baker as a charming young man and powerful writer and photographer. At one point, Schuler and Murdoch shared a house in Melbourne. But Schuler had a deep personal friendship with Hamilton, the commander highly maligned by Murdoch’s letter, and never forgave Murdoch for the letter. Ironically, Hamilton liked journalists and often bent the rules to let them report on things.

Schuler was of the belief that the British could have taken Gallipoli had they stayed the course. After returning to Melbourne, he wrote a best-selling book, filled with his own photographs, about what was going on in the front. He then enlisted himself. A year later, he died of mortar fire on the western front. A giant of Australia’s war-time journalism, he was dead by 26, his legacy preserved only by historians.

Baker, a former editor of The Age, uses Schuler’s letters and those of the people around him to recreate his brief life.

“I’ve been aware of Schuler for quite a few years,” Baker told Crikey. “I’ve was at The Age for much of my career. Around Anzac Day one year, I started hunting around for coverage and stumbled upon Schuler.

“I started digging into it and came to discover his dispatches were quite remarkable. His writing was so powerful. The book he did had such a huge impact at the time.

“I got a sense at the beginning that there’d been conflict — he’d taken a different view to others as to whether they should keep fighting.”

If anything is clear from Baker’s book, it’s the complexity of the debate about both Gallipoli and how to cover it. It’s a history that’s been simplified by the future successes of Murdoch, whose son has done all he could to safeguard, protect and promote his father’s legacy.

During his brief time at Gallipoli, Murdoch came across Ashmead-Bartlett, who had a bone to pick with Hamilton and had been covering the conflict for some time.

Ashmead-Bartlett impressed upon Murdoch to carry a letter back to Britain for him, castigating Hamilton’s leadership and the Gallipoli effort more broadly. The letter was confiscated before Murdoch could deliver it, so he wrote his own, supplementing his own observations with Ashmead-Bartlett’s.

[The truth about Keith Murdoch’s ‘Gallipoli letter’]

The letter had an explosive effect, leading to Hamilton being stripped of his command and quite possibly helping tip parliamentary opinion in the UK away from the Gallipoli effort.

But more recent scholarship has been critical of Murdoch. The minutes of a private parliamentary briefing where British MPs grilled Murdoch on the contents of his letter, concluding he hadn’t seen much of what he’d spoken of first-hand, are now public, and have done much to undermine the preferred News Corp narrative. As has the first non-authorised biography of Keith Murdoch, Before Rupert, published last year by historian Tom D.C. Roberts.

Baker’s book sheds light on these events, and on the life of Schuler, an important Australian who died young, is little remembered, and whose opinions and mission have been distorted ever since.

Peter Fray

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