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The remarkable life of one of Australia’s greatest war correspondents

7 October 2016 294 views No Comment

Phillip Schuler
ALLEN & UNWIN, $32.99

Two books, both entitled ‘Gallipoli’, have stood the test of time. The first, published in 1956, is by Alan Moorehead. The second, published in 2001, is by Les Carlyon, who breathed new life into Moorehead’s magnificent account of the ill-fated campaign.

Now we have a third excellent book about Gallipoli that takes the form of a biography of one of the finest war correspondents Australia has produced and who eventually died as a soldier, aged 27, on Flanders Fields on June 23, 1917.

This remarkable human being was the Melbourne-born journalist Phillip Schuler. Mark Baker’s narrative of his short but heroic life deftly interweaves the personal, the political and the military.

At the beginning of this well-constructed and brilliantly illustrated biography, Baker reveals that Schuler’s father, Frederick Schuler, who stood under 1.5 metres tall, was editor of ‘The Age’ for 26 years, from January 1, 1900.

It was for ‘The Age’ that Schuler , the youngest of our First World War correspondents , wrote some of the most moving prose to come out of Gallipoli. Handsome, flamboyant and gregarious, Schuler was also an accomplished photographer, who took with him the finest German folding camera money could buy.

Featured throughout Baker’s biography are some of Schuler’s shots of Australia’s official war correspondent Charles Bean , who reciprocated by often photographing Schuler. Indeed one of the best photos is of a dapperly dressed Schuler at the Grand Continental Hotel in Cairo in early 1915, taken by Bean, who wrote the following of his fellow correspondent and friend: “He was of delicate, almost fastidious tastes, fond of flowers, scrupulously neat even under conditions of discomfort.”

As Baker reveals, during Schuler’s first weeks at the Grand Continental, his fellow guests included Lawrence of Arabia, who was then a junior British intelligence officer.

To complement his evocative dispatches, Schuler methodically used his camera to record what he saw. Along with the pictures taken by Bean, they comprise the most substantial Australian photographic trove from the first year of the war.

Among Schuler’s photographs were, as Baker explains, “a series of iconic images from the trenches at Gallipoli that would help define the campaign for generations of Australians”. It was only after Schuler’s compelling account of what actually happened at Gallipoli, ‘Australia in Arms’, was completed in early 1916 that he ceased being a war correspondent and joined the Australian Imperial Force.

As well as revealing much about Schuler’s passionate private life, central to Baker’s book is an exposé of Schuler’s journalistic rival, Keith Murdoch, who after a mere four-day visit to Anzac Cove in early September 1915 made his name lobbying against the Gallipoli campaign.

Significantly, Murdoch experienced no action, let alone any of the fighting about which he wrote in such harsh yet confident judgment.

Baker’s thesis is that in his politically influential 7500 word letter from London in late September 1915 addressed to the Australian Labor prime minister Andrew Fisher and also to the British prime minister Henry Herbert Asquith, and substantially influenced by English war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, Murdoch very much exaggerated the negative case. This included inflating the number of Allied casualties.

Although Baker’s assessment of Murdoch’s withering critique of the Gallipoli campaign seems valid, it remains true that Murdoch’s highly public written intervention was extremely important in establishing the idea of Gallipoli being a military disaster.

While it is likely that the evacuation of British and Anzac troops from the peninsular would have happened anyway, Murdoch’s letter was a major force in accelerating the process.

Thus while Baker may have overplayed his hand in his negative assessment and rather punishing portrayal of Murdoch, this well-researched biography of Phillip Schuler is a most impressive achievement.

Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University and author of 39 books, including three biographies, and a memoir ‘My Name is Ross:An Alcoholic’s Journey.’

The Age & The Sydney Morning Herald, October 8-9 2016, Spectrum, Books p 25.

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