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Gallipoli on Film

The legend of Gallipoli formed quickly in Australian hearts, based on the report of a man who wasn’t quite there. Australian feature film companies re-created the landings of 25 April 1915 on film, and that footage is still often presented as real. Paul Byrnes untangles the mythology of Gallipoli on film.

In fact, I have never seen anything like these wounded colonials in war before. Though many were shot to bits, and without hope of recovery, their cheers resounded throughout the night and you could see in the midst of a mass of suffering humanity arms waving in greeting to the crews of the warships. They were happy because they knew they had been tried for the first time, and had not been found wanting … No finer feat has happened in this war than this sudden landing in the dark, and the storming of the heights, and, above all, the holding on while the reinforcements were landing. These raw colonial troops, in these desperate hours, proved worthy to fight side by side with the heroes of the battles of Mons, the Aisne, Ypres and Neuve–Chapelle.
Ellis Ashmead–Bartlett, 1915

Australians read these stirring words in their newspapers of 8 May 1915. They were the first report of the landings at Gallipoli 13 days earlier, on April 25, and they told us what we wanted to hear: that the New Zealand and Australian troops had not ‘let the side down’ in their first major engagement of the First World War. There were no photographs of the troops in action, and no footage of them landing. The sole Australian war correspondent, CEW Bean, had a stills camera but no way of transmitting pictures back quickly. Many soldiers took photographs too but these would not surface till after the war, when they returned home. The First World War was the first widely photographed war, but the Gallipoli landing was virtually un-photographed. How is it then that most Australians have seen footage of the landing? It’s shown on television every Anzac Day, and in countless documentaries. Longboats pull into the shores at Gaba Tepe in full sunlight; troops rush ashore past debris and dead mates; a Turkish machine gunner on the hill fires down at the ant-like Anzacs scrambling up the ridges.

The footage is fake, of course, or more accurately, re-creation. Two re-creations were staged by Sydney film companies within weeks of the news of the landings. The theatrical firm JC Williamson’s filmed over 1,000 men storming ashore at Obelisk Bay in Sydney Harbour, with assistance from the military authorities, to make Within Our Gates, or Deeds that Won Gallipoli (1915), directed by English actor and playwright Frank Harvey. This was a melodrama about a German spy blackmailing a German-Australian clerk in the War Office in Melbourne. Repenting of his treachery, the clerk enlists and dies at Gallipoli. The film opened in Melbourne on 19 July 1915 and ran for a long season, to enthusiastic crowds. The film is lost, save for about six seconds of landing footage preserved in a later compilation (the AH Noad Film, held by the Australian War Memorial).

In fierce competition, Australasian Films had already restaged their own Gallipoli landings at Tamarama beach, just south of Bondi, again with official support. Many of the soldiers in that film were in training at Liverpool, west of Sydney. They would soon be sent to the Western Front in France. This film, The Hero of the Dardanelles (1915), directed by Alfred Rolfe, opened on 17 July 1915, pipping its rival by two days. It too was very popular.

The fact that two films were made, and shown simultaneously in theatres, shows just how strong was the perceived public demand for images of Gallipoli. Without television, Australians relied on newsreels for moving images of recent events, but there was no newsreel footage available. That meant it had to be invented, or re-created. These two features films used what information was available – which was very little – about what the area looked like, and imagined the rest, with the aid of advice from military officers who were themselves relying largely on their training and imaginations.

The initial sources were also limited. The English war correspondent Ellis Ashmead–Bartlett, whose report was the first published in Australia, did not witness the landing, except from the deck of a ship. He did not go ashore until 9.30 pm on the 25th, about 17 hours after the first Anzac troops. CEW (Charles) Bean, the sole Australian war correspondent, was ashore by 10 am on the 25th, almost 12 hours ahead of Ashmead-Bartlett, but his report of the landing was delayed by red tape. Bean was not yet recognised by the British General Headquarters as an official correspondent. His report was not allowed through until five days after Ashmead-Bartlett’s had been published in Australia. Bean’s account was more sober and dry, and probably more accurate, but Ashmead-Bartlett’s ripping prose set the tone for all the early depictions of Gallipoli on film: a gallant landing under fire, the Anzacs storming the cliffs, bayonets quenched in Turkish blood, grim heroes holding on to hard-won holes in ‘bare crumbly sandstone’. Most of it was true, if gained by second-hand sources, but it was the interpretation rather than the facts, that made this report so welcome in Australia.

Here was a tough proposition to tackle in the darkness, but these Colonials are practical above all else, and went about it in a practical way. They stopped for a few minutes to pull themselves together, got rid of their packs and charged the magazines of their rifles. 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 had been hurled out of their second position, all either bayoneted or fled'
Ellis Ashmead–Bartlett, 1915

That’s vivid writing from a man who was still on a ship two kilometres offshore. Given the lack of sources, it’s perhaps remarkable that the first re-creation got it anywhere close to reality. Most of The Hero of the Dardanelles (1915) is lost, but a section was reused in 1928 in an amateur production called The Spirit of Gallipoli (1928). This kind of cannibalisation of earlier films was relatively common in the silent era. The later film shows a young recruit reading a book while he’s in camp at Liverpool, near Sydney: Australia and the World War, by SH Perry. He imagines the landing at Gallipoli, which is presented using Alfred Rolfe’s 1915 re-creation footage.

The older that footage gets, the more real it becomes, in a sense. It has been used often in documentaries to illustrate the Gallipoli landings, almost never with any explanation that it is a re-creation based, at best, on shaky sources. It was mythical when it was made in 1915; as the mythology of Gallipoli has grown, the footage has become more solid, because it looks like it was made at the time and place it depicts. Instead of becoming more ‘fake’, it has become more ‘real’ with age.

Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett deserves to be better known in Australia than he is. His report of the landing was an exaggeration, but it had a major impact on the formation of the Gallipoli mythology. Even less well known is that Ashmead-Bartlett supplied the only known real footage of the allied soldiers on Gallipoli, and that he had a major part in ending the campaign. He declared it a failure before the British generals were prepared to do so, in a secret letter intended for the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith (of which more later).

Ashmead-Bartlett’s cine camera was supplied by Sir Alfred Butt, a London impresario, during the correspondent’s unscheduled return to the UK in early June 1915. His notes and possessions were lost in the sinking of HMS Majestic, off Gallipoli, on 27 May, so he returned to London to re-equip. He came back to Gallipoli with about 10,000 feet of film, a heavy, boxy cine camera (thought now to have been an Aeroscope) and very little idea how to use it. Nevertheless, he shot footage of the Anzacs at Anzac Cove and the British at Suvla Bay and Cape Helles, as well as troops embarking at the nearby island of Imbros. Charles Bean records in his diary that he took Ashmead-Bartlett to Quinn’s Post at Gallipoli on 22 July, to shoot cine pictures. Ernest Brooks, the Admiralty’s official photographer, helped Ashmead-Bartlett to use the camera. In September, Brooks took over most of the filming and he is believed to have shot the most dramatic sequence in the film – a line of soldiers firing vigorously from within a trench. The resulting footage was cut together and first shown in London on 17 January 1916, under the title With the Dardanelles Expedition. Charles Bean later secured a copy for the soon-to-be established Australian War Memorial in 1919. Bean wrote a set of titles for the footage, some of which were wrong and have confused historians ever since.

There is ongoing debate about what the pictures show. What survived was a bare 20 minutes of footage of Gallipoli, in poor condition. It has recently been digitally restored by the Australian War Memorial and Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital company, a special effects house in New Zealand. In 2007, the Australian War Memorial announced that it had found another 50 seconds of unknown footage of the campaign, which is believed to have been shot by Ashmead-Bartlett. It was part of a compilation of First World War footage bought by the memorial in 1938 – the AH Noad Film. It is believed to show the beach at Anzac Cove in one long shot, and another closer view of troops on a beach – possibly the British at Suvla Bay, north of Anzac Cove.

From early on, Ashmead-Bartlett began writing increasingly critical news reports about the conduct of the campaign. He voiced his concerns privately to politicians during his visit to London in June, but these misgivings grew stronger after the failure of an allied offensive in early August. When Keith Murdoch, a prominent Australian journalist, visited Gallipoli in early September, he agreed to carry a private letter from Ashmead-Bartlett to Herbert Asquith, the British Prime Minister, denouncing the British leadership. That letter was confiscated from Murdoch by a British officer in Marseilles. Murdoch then wrote his own 8,000-word version of the denunciation while en route to England. He sent that letter to the Australian Prime Minister Andrew Fisher on 23 September 1915, and it was circulated among many British politicians. It is often cited as one of the main contributing factors in the recall of the commander of the Gallipoli campaign, Sir Ian Hamilton, on 17 October, and the decision soon after to evacuate Gallipoli. For writing the original letter, Ashmead-Bartlett was sent home by the War Office, and never allowed to report from a British front line again. He toured Australia and New Zealand in 1916 giving a series of lectures that were highly popular – and he was dogged by military censors wherever he went. Charles Bean wrote in his diary that, ‘It was a brilliantly written letter – rather overstating the case as Bartlett always does, but a great deal of it is absolutely unanswerable and badly needs understanding’.

So Ashmead-Bartlett left Gallipoli in early October. He missed the evacuation, just as he had largely missed the landing on 25 April, but his words and moving pictures had an enormous impact, both then and now. The sentiments of his landing dispatch can be seen in many of the films that came after – from The Hero of the Dardanelles in 1915 to Peter Weir’s 1981 masterpiece, Gallipoli. ‘This race of athletes’, in Ashmead-Bartlett’s words, becomes the literal storyline in that film, in which two young sprinters enlist together, and one dies in a charge that should never have been allowed to proceed. The look of the soldiers and the trenches in this film is almost identical to what we see in Ashmead-Bartlett’s Gallipoli footage: dusty men in baggy shorts and broad hats, in chalky sandstone trenches.

In one sense, Peter Weir returned some sense of accuracy and truth to our collective vision of what Gallipoli looked like, because the film was able to rely heavily on research and primary sources such as the Ashmead-Bartlett film. In another sense, Weir’s film continued the line that begins with Ashmead-Bartlett’s original dispatch – young heroes pounding up the cliffs, only to be let down by incompetent British generals (even if this was not Weir’s intention). Charles Bean’s dispatch was more accurate, sober and based on what he saw himself; he was on the ground earlier and stayed longer then Ashmead-Bartlett, but his account was a week late in getting to Australia. Even if it had arrived at the same time, Ashmead-Bartlett’s report told Australians what they wanted to hear.

In one of his most bitter moments, Charles Bean wrote vehemently about this desire for embellishment. His diary of 26 September 1915:

The success of an army like ours chiefly depends on what proportion of these strong independent-minded men there is in it. And in the Australian force the proportion is unquestionably undoubtedly high – may account to 50 per cent or more. I have seen them going up against a rain of fire and the weaker ones retiring through them at the very same time – the two streams going in opposite directions and not taking the faintest notice of one another.

Well, this is the true side of war – but I wonder if anyone would believe me outside the army. I’ve never written higher praise of Australians than is on this page, but the probability is that if I were to put it into print tomorrow, the tender Australian public, which only tolerates flattery, and that in its cheapest form, would howl me out of existence. One has some satisfaction in sticking to the truth in spite of the prejudice against it – the satisfaction of putting up some sort of fight. But I have a suspicion that I’ve spoilt my chances forever of being some day tolerably well off.


  • Myth Maker: Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, The Englishman Who Sparked Australia’s Gallipoli Legend (2005)
    Brenchley, Fred and Elizabeth
    Publisher: Brisbane: John Wiley and Sons ISBN 1740311183
  • 'More vivid than the written word': Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett's film, With the Dardanelles Expedition (1915) (2004)
    Dutton, Philip
    Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Volume 24, Issue 2, June, pp 205–22
  • Bean's Gallipoli: The Diaries of Australia's Official War Correspondent (2007)
    Fewster, Kevin (Editor and annotator)
    Allen and Unwin ISBN 9781741750881
  • Australian film, 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production (1998)
    Pike, Andrew and Ross Cooper
    Melbourne: Oxford University Press ISBN 0195507843
  • The Hero of the Dardanelles and other World War I Silent Dramas (2005)
    Reynaud, Dr Daniel
    NFSA Monographs ISBN 06423651
  • Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years (1989)
    Shirley, Graham and Brian Adams
    Sydney: Currency Press ISBN 0868192325

Titles in this collection

Gallipoli 1981

Gallipoli remains one of the most loved of all Australian films. It’s one of Weir’s most nakedly emotional films and one of his most poetic.

The Hero of the Dardanelles 1915

Hero is the first surviving feature film depiction of Australian troops of the First World War and includes images of a real army camp and real soldiers, in training at Liverpool, NSW.

With the Dardanelles Expedition c1915

The only known moving images of the 1915 campaign at Gallipoli, shot mostly by English war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett.