Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, March 27, 2023

Remembering a Veteran: C.E.W. Bean, Australian War Reporter and Official Historian

Charles Bean Atop the Great Pyramid at Cheops
Prior to the Gallipoli Invasion

By James Patton

Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean (1879-1968), MA DLitt (hon) LLD (hon), was born in Bathurst, New South Wales, on 18 November 1879. His father was an Anglican clergyman and a school master. 

When Charles was nine they moved to England. In 1898 he won a scholarship to Hertford College, Oxford, where he graduated with a 2nd in classics and then studied the law. In 1904 he returned to Australia and was admitted to the New South Wales Bar. For the next two years he rode the legal circuit, clerking and seeking briefs. He also wrote The Impressions of a New Chum, in which he first defined "The Australian Character" based on his encounters with people in the demanding environment of the outback—mate-ship, resilience, and stoic endurance even in the face of adversity. 

The book was not published, but excerpts ran in the Sydney Morning Herald in a series called “Australia”, and in 1908 he was hired on as a Herald reporter.

One of his first assignments was to write a series about the HMS Powerful, flagship of the Royal Navy squadron on the Australian station. Later these reports were published as With the Flagship of the South, in which he recommended that Australia needed its own navy. Next he returned to the outback to file articles on the wool industry. He hit on the theme that their most important product was actually the "Australian Character" of the laborers and he concentrated on the detail of their lives. Again he drew books from the articles, publishing On the Wool Track in 1910 and The Dreadnought of the Darling in 1911.

In 1913 he began a daily column which in mid-1914 became a commentary on the events in Europe. In September it was decided that Australia would send one official correspondent with its expeditionary force. The Australian Journalists Association held an election which he won, narrowly defeating the Sun’s Sir Keith Murdoch KBE (1885-1952), later the father of media mogul Rupert Murdoch AC, who nevertheless managed to wangle a brief visit to Gallipoli in September 1915. 

Bean remained a civilian, although he wore an officer’s uniform (with no "pips"), and had officer’s privileges. In October 1914 he went to Egypt with the 1st Australian Imperial Force (AIF), then landed at Gallipoli at 10 a.m. on 25 April 1915. With the 2nd Australian Brigade when they attacked at the Second Battle of Krithia on 8 May, he was put forth for the Military Cross for rescuing wounded. As a civilian he was ineligible, but he got a Mention in Dispatches. In August, he was wounded but refused evacuation, remaining in his dug-out with daily care. He was there from beginning to end, writing the first of his 286 notebooks. He filed regular stories and included his own photos. In 1916 he published The Anzac Book, which included material that he collected from the soldiers. 

At Gallipoli he noticed that soldiers were collecting souvenirs and he had the idea of a national museum featuring battle relics, photographs and documents. In November 1916, Bean found a sympathetic ear in the Minister for Defence, Sen. George Pearce KCVO (1870-1952), whose motives were narrowly political—one national institution could mollify the demands from state governments for funding to commemorate the service of their own. In September 1917, Bean made his case in the official Commonwealth Gazette, calling war relics "sacred things". 

Charles Bean on the Western Front

Although it took many years to build the museum at the Australian War Memorial (AWM), he was a key player in its development. In 1932 he gained the funds to purchase the Pozières Mill site on the Somme for perpetuity. 

With the possibility of a detailed history in mind, he also urged the systematic collection of records. In May 1917 the Australian War Records Section (AWRS) began operations under the command of Lt. (later Lt. Col.) John L. Treloar OBE (1894-1952), who later would be the Director of the AWM for 32 years. The stated purpose of the AWRS was to keep Australia’s war history completely distinct from Britain’s. 

The war's end brought Bean no respite. In November 1918 he published In Your Hands Australians, a short book in that outlined his vision of a new Australia which would be a result of the war experience; the triumph of the "Australian Character." He wrote: "It was character which rushed the hills at Gallipoli and held on there during the long afternoon and night, when everything seemed to have gone wrong and there was only the barest hope of success..." 

In 1919 he returned to Gallipoli at the head of the Australian Historical Mission to collect relics for the memorial, obtain Turkish materials and report on the condition of the graves (which of course was appalling). He wrote about this experience in Gallipoli Mission, not published until 1948.

On his return to Australia after four and a half years overseas, he began the official history. He estimated that this would take five years; however it ran to 12 volumes and wasn’t completed until 1942. He wrote the first six volumes and edited the rest.

In 1930, the British Royal United Services Institute gave him the Chesney Gold Medal for the first three volumes, and he received his first honorary doctorate.  Over the early years sales of the official history were good (mostly to libraries) and it was critically acclaimed. When the final volume was completed, Prime Minister John Curtin (1885-1945) congratulated Bean on his achievement. However, he turned down any honors from the Crown. In 1946 he produced a single-volume version called ANZAC to Amiens. He also contributed the Australian section of The Empire at War by Sir Charles Lucas KCB KGVO (1853-1931). 

On 11 November 1941 Bean saw his second ambition realized when the AWM opened. The style of the structure reflects his desire for the building "to at once be museum, monument, memorial, temple and shrine…"  He served on the Board of the AWM from 1919 to 1963. 

Having witnessed the horror of WWI, he had fervently hoped that there would never be another such conflict. In the early 1930’s he was an active member of the British League of Nations Union (1918-1948). During WWII he wrote a pamphlet called "The old AIF and the New in 1940" and "War Aims of a Plain Australian," in which he decried the failure of Australians to live up to the ideals of the Diggers. He also worked as press liaison in the Department of Information, and in 1942 he became chairman of the committee which created the national Archives. In 1943, he persuaded the government to commission an official history of WW2, which he didn’t write. In 1946 he recorded "The ANZAC Requiem," a meditation that was broadcast for many years on ANZAC Day. 

Bean Working the Australian Official History in 1935

After WWII he was financially strapped. The body of his work was not generating much income; the only copyright he still held was for ANZAC to Amiens. In 1952 he became chairman of the Board of the AWM (an unpaid position) and was commissioned to evaluate WW1 relics for inclusion in the collections. In this role, his principles were to "avoid glorification of war and boasting of victory" and "perpetuating enmity…”

Between 1947 and 1958 he chaired the Promotion Appeals Board of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. In 1950 he wrote a history of Australia's non-government schools called Here, My Son. His early books, The Dreadnought of the Darling and On the Wool Track, were republished in new editions. He planned a series of biographies but only one was written: Two Men I Knew, about the Generals Bridges and White. It was Bean’s last book.

Often described as modest, he said he was "too self-conscious to mix well with the great mass of men", yet it was the ‘great mass of men’ that he commemorated and whose respect he coveted. Many who worked with him held him in high regard. General Sir Brudenell White KCB DSO (1876-1940) said of Bean: "That man faced death more times than any other man in the AIF, and had no glory to look for either. What he did – and he did wonders – was done from a pure sense of duty."

In 1964 he fell ill, dying in August 1968. The AWM wrote: "His official history of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 is his greatest monument, and the Memorial that he imagined in 1916 is the main repository of Australian military history, a museum and a memorial to the fallen. Included in its collection are the notebooks, letters and diaries that he started when he left Australia in 1914." These occupy 27 meters of shelf at the AWM Archives. There are also numerous memorials and facilities dedicated to him throughout Australia; there is even a postage stamp. 

Sources include The Australian War Memorial

1 comment:

  1. Lest we forget CEW Bean not only in Australia but also in all the war memorials as he was so meticulous with his history. I regret that i never met him. Margaret Australia