Phillip Schuler

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

 

Mark Baker

Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2016

Paperback   352pp   RRP $32.99

 

Reviewer: Rob Ellis, June 2021

           

Phillip Schuler left school in 1905 and enrolled in the Law Faculty of the University of Melbourne. Had he continued his studies, he may well have become a leading jurist or barrister.

Instead, in 1909, after completing his first year at Law School he became a cadet journalist at The Age. There he came under the guidance of the then-editor of that august newspaper, his father, the reclusive and sometimes hot-tempered editor, Frederick Schuler, who served David Syme, the newspaper's campaigning proprietor, for 26 years as editor, and several years as Chief of Staff.

In his formative years as a cadet, Philip formed a deep friendship with Roy Bridges [1885-1952], another cadet, with whom he formed a close friendship.  Later, Schuler also worked with a third cadet, Keith A Murdoch [1885-1952], but it cannot be said that their early friendship endured.

As a young cadet journalist, Philip Schuler covered a visit to Australia by General Sir Ian Hamilton, then Inspector-General of the Overseas Forces of the British Empire.  Philip, having had some years’ service in the Australian Militia, was assigned to cover the tour for The Age.  This was the start-point of a firm & close friendship which lasted for the remainder of Schuler's short life.

When General Hamilton was appointed to the command of the Allied Forces for the Dardanelles Campaign of 1915, Schuler was able to obtain access to the Gallipoli Peninsula, and to report freely to his paper, without much of the restrictive censorship imposed on most other correspondents. The only official Australian correspondent, the older and experienced C E W Bean, with whom Schuler had become friends on the troopship from Australia to Egypt, became his mentor, adding some polish to the younger man's raw talent. Bean became editor of The Official History of Australia in the War and gave guidance to Schuler on his account of the Gallipoli campaign, Australians in Arms [T Fisher: Unwin 1916 – copies are still available from booksellers], which is considered by many to be one of the better coverages of that ill-fated campaign.

However, the Gallipoli Campaign was not the be-all and end-all of Philip Schuler's life. In 1917, having had his book published, he enlisted in the A I F and was posted to the Supply Train of General John Monash's newly-formed 3rd Division, initially as a private, but rising rapidly to the rank of Lieutenant. He was mortally wounded by an artillery shell on 23 June 1917, dying two days later.

Philip Schuler was handsome, gifted, full of life, intelligent and witty, a gentle person, authentic, loyal, and hard-working. He never married, but he left behind an illegitimate son in Australia. He had, in 1915, committed himself to and planned to marry Nelly Rabinovitch, a young and beautiful widow & mother of 2 young daughters. She was of Russian and Egyptian parentage, and both sides of her family were among the social and economic elite of early 20th century Cairo. Nelly's relationship with Schuler was never formalised, and Philip was killed before he could return to Cairo to marry his beloved, who mourned him for much of her life. It seems it was very deep and sincere, love.

It is not unusual for a biography to evolve into lesser biographical studies of some of the more significant participants in the main subject's life, or to a particular set of events that are central to it.

As Schuler made his reputation almost entirely from his reporting of the Dardanelles Campaign, his work there, and the ramifications of it make a substantial and well-presented part of the book. There is also informative coverage of the Dardanelles Commission of 1916-1917. This was an attempt to explain away the catastrophe that was the whole operation; it was also an attempt to pin blame on General Sir Ian Hamilton for all that went wrong – but this failed. The Commission found that Hamilton had been given an almost impossible task, with inadequate forces which were inexperienced and poorly led [especially at Suvla Bay].

Keith Murdoch, [who later became Sir Keith and an Australian media baron] and Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, an official British correspondent for the English 'Daily Telegraph', did not come out well, either from their reporting of the campaign or the findings of the Commission, Neither does Andrew Fisher, ex-Australian Prime Minister, who had been Australia's representative on the Commission. General Hamilton's reputation could not be saved – he was never to receive another command and finished his otherwise distinguished career as Lieutenant of the Tower of London.

This is a well-written and well-researched book, illustrated with photographs of Schuler and his family and friends [who were many], and of the Gallipoli battlefield as Philip saw it. Mr Baker has brought to life the work, career and family of a brilliant young journalist, and his role in bringing an open and unbiased account of a major event in Australia's history to the people of Australia.

It is a sad story, because it covers the short life of a journalist who, had he lived longer, may have been a distinguished member of that elite group of highly respected Australian journalists who have covered so much of our country's history. Mark Baker has made a significant contribution to this field.

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