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Charles Bean Speech

Charles Bean Speech

Australian National Museum of Education
Pantowora St
Bruce ACT, 2617

Document Relating to the Presentation to School Children of 
The Peace Souvenir Medallion 1919

A document written at the request of the Australian Commonwealth Peace Celebrations Committee in 1919 (see transcript) was circulated to all schools to be read on the occasion of the presentation of the Peace Souvenir Medallions to all Australian school children up to the age of 14 years, and also aged up to 16 years if their parents were in the armed forces. The nationwide distribution of medallions began in March 1919.  The document, written by the AIF’s Official War Correspondent, CEW Bean, was titled The Great War 1914–19. It was written to be read to children, not only as a celebration of the Allies’ victory to mark the end of the Great War but also as a celebration of the peace. The text of Charles Bean’s document was written in a style designed to emphasise to children the sacrifice of Australian service men and women who lost their lives in the various theatres of the Great War during 1914–1918. It also encouraged recognition of Australia’s role on the world stage as a consequence of our willing participation in the conflict.  

The medallion to which this document relates is a silvered bronze medallion of 27 mm diameter, with the obverse bearing the words ‘Peace/1919/Australia’, above which is the image of a female figure of Peace with two flying doves. The reverse carries the legend ‘Victory – The Triumph of Liberty and Justice’ within a wreath supported by the image of a soldier and a sailor, below which are the words ‘The Peace of 1919’. This medallion was designed by Douglas Richardson of Melbourne, and due to the large number to be distributed the medallion was minted by six firms: Amor, Stokes, Parkes, Schlank, Angus & Coote and Platers.

In the document there is an emphasis on explaining to children the reasons underlying Australia’s willing involvement in the war.  For example Bean, in phrases simple and to a certain extent emotively appealing to the imagination of the young, says about those who enlisted:

They drilled, they practised, they exercised. Some people even laughed at them. Nobody laughs at them today.  For they were Australians who rushed forward to prevent a dreadful thing from happening in the world.

In the last paragraph of the two-page foolscap document, Bean concludes with sentences more evocative of a memorial to those service men and women who were killed during the conflict and a recognition of those who survived.  He says:

And while we offer thanks on their return to those who won for us this right to make our country one of the greatest and our nation the happiest upon earth, while the flags flutter and hands are waving, let us not forget that, to many of those to whom we owe the most, our thanks can never be given.

One can imagine a school principal standing in front of the assembled pupils of his or her school, reading out Bean’s proud and emotive words, after which all the children assembled would be given a bright shining medallion to pin to their school uniforms, with a striped red, white and blue ribbon. Just such an occasion is described in the September 1919 issue of the Footscray Technical School’s magazine, The Brown and the Red.  Under the heading ‘Peace Day Celebrations’ is a paragraph as follows:

Friday July 18th found the day school assembled in the double room. All were in good spirits, for was not this the day we were celebrating Peace and the Peace Medals were to be given out?

The article goes on to describe the official ceremony, with addresses and speeches by invited local dignitaries and ex-servicemen, including a Colonel Webb.

It may be significant that the official name of the Medallion, as it is referred to on page one of the document, is ‘Peace Souvenir Medal’, rather than the ‘1914–1918  Victory Medal’, as it became known by later generations.  Parliament member Edward Corser suggested in the Commonwealth Parliament that a medal should be struck to be issued to school children. Following its approval, the Commonwealth Department of Defence was responsible for its production and distribution.  A total of 1,670,000 medals were issued.   

One may wonder why this document appears to be quite rare today. Given the fact that in 1918 there was a total of 10,759 government and non-government schools in Australia, and assuming at least one copy of the document would be sent to each school, there should be many copies still existing in school archives. We can only speculate that after the document was read at each formal school assembly, and the medallions were distributed, the principals would have no further need of such an item of printed ephemera, its function and purpose having been discharged.   Probably most of the documents were consigned to the school principals’ waste paper bins.  In the case of a surviving original copy of the document lodged in the Mowbray House School Archives, one has to be grateful for the foresight of the school’s headmaster, Mr. Lancelot Bavin, who was meticulous in his preservation of his school’s records.  This school’s archives are now in the keeping of the Australian National Museum of Education.

Thankfully, the medallions appear to have survived much more successfully than copies of their associated Charles Bean documents.  Apart from their historical significance as tangible manifestations of a reminder of a world conflict in which Australians featured significantly a century ago, these metal artefacts have a very great durability. Also because 1.6 million of them were produced, it is less likely that they would be thoughtlessly discarded, particularly within families whose ancestors were attending Australian schools in 1918.  These medallions turn up in local history museums, historical society collections, coin fairs, trash and treasure markets and school fetes.  Many of them remain safely preserved by Australian families together with other Great War memorabilia.

(The above notes were prepared by Geoffrey Burkhardt to accompany the Australian National Museum of Education’s copy of C.E.W. Bean’s letter to schools, together with the Peace Medallion as issued to all Australian primary school children.)

Australian National Museum of Education

November 2016.




[To be read on the occasion of Presentation of Peace Souvenir Medals.]

THE GREAT WAR, 1914-19

By Mr. C. E. W. BEAN.

Official War Correspondent with the Australian Imperial Force.

(Written at the request of the Commonwealth Peace Celebration Committee).


It is over. The enormous effort of the men–yes, and women and children–of every decent nation is finished. The last gun has sounded. The last troop-train winds homewards. The last big transports, turned homeward, are punching white foam out of the southern rollers. The vast ammunition factories will presently settle down to enrich the world with peaceful goods. The trains will carry busy passengers and commerce; the big steamers will move about the world with teeming holds; the little trawlers will unship their guns and go forth to their fishing; the earth will become itself again and Australia will settle down to carve out her new and splendid future. For the submarines which scattered murder across the seas are now safely chained in a British port. And the Army which almost forced a wicked religion upon the world is beaten and harmless through the heroism of the world’s good men. We are free to be happy again. Sixty thousand Australians bought us this happiness with their lives.

Some of you may remember how, five years ago, when war fell upon the world, there marched past our windows men in every sort of civilian dress, with their white shirt sleeves rolled up and carrying wooden rifles. They drilled, the practised, they exercised. Some people even laughed at them. Nobody laughs at them to-day.

For they were Australians who rushed forward to prevent a dreadful thing from happening in the world. The rulers of Germany determined that, because Germany was a mighty power, therefore she should have her way whether right or wrong. A small sister nation has offended her and she determined to try upon the world her wicked rule that whoever stood in the way of a strong nation, right or wrong, should be crushed. She knew that she was strong–and that was all she cared for. She had practised soldiering with all her people and had prepared huge cannon and immense factories of ammunition. In the fateful week in August, 1914, when France and Russia were deeply occupied with other things, she fell on them swiftly at full strength. She had small chance with the French forts and mountain barriers. But because the little Belgium nation, which lay near by, possessed a flat country to march through, and was too weak to keep their great armies out of it, the Germans suddenly marched into its land which they had promised to protect, and struck at France a vile blow in the back. And when the Belgian nation, small though it was, struck back at them, they burned the villages and killed the people in order to cow them into quietness.

Britain hated war and was hesitating to fight. But, on the moment when they heard of what happened in Belgium, the British people flung themselves straight in beside the French across the path of the Germans. In Australia and in New Zealand, 12,000 miles away, men said: “So long as we are alive in the world we shall give all we have so that this sort of thing shall not happen in it.” They left their offices, their tools and farms, and hurried to offer themselves to cross the sea. They drilled in their shirt sleeves. In two months they were formed into regiments and the first splendid force of them sailed from the West.

So it was that this small army from the barely known lands of the South ranged itself by the side of every good and great nation of the world. Beside the splendid army of France the slender British line, barely one man deep in its early water-filled trenches, amongst the sodden ditches and hedgerows, with scarcely ammunition even for its few guns, was holding the Germans who looked down with their monstrous artillery behind the opposing hills. Behind the Germans the valleys and woods were stacked with their huge shell dumps; the explosives, the bombs, the machine guns had for years been pouring out of their whirring workshops as a river runs into the sea. They had fleets of aeroplanes, huge zeppelins; military railways crossed their country like a gridiron; troop-train crept after troop-train in constant procession; endless motor lorries steamed down their roads. They had prepared for generations.  They were vastly strong. But all their strength could not crush the spirit of Belgium. Blow after blow was driven into France, burning the farmhouses, turning towns into ruins, splintering the forests, ploughing and shattering whole miles of land; yet the French people only set their teeth the more firmly. The Germans battered the British infantry with their huge guns, and the British guns had scarcely a shell to reply; weeks, months, years British soldiers had to suffer the crash of day-long bombardments and hear their owns guns bark scarcely once or twice in return. Yet, with cannon against mere rifles, that colossal artillery could not tame their spirit. On to the weaker side, thank God, beside the great and generous and unprepared nations of the world, the small army of Australia and of New Zealand went.

They were only eight divisions amongst over two hundred in the great armies of Britain and France. But they played their part to the uttermost. They fought with consummate loyalty to their friends beside them. Sunken in the Somme mud till the frost bit the flesh from their bones, or sweltering kneedeep in the dust of the Jordan valley, they shared their best with the others, heart and soul. Beside their friends and their Allies, in Gallipoli, in France, in Palestine, in Mesopotamia, in Russia, and on the seas, everything that was asked of them they gave. From the first hour to the last, in every turn of fortune, together they stood.  Strained by suffering such as the world has never known, holding fast long after all hope had died, struggling in unbelievable efforts, the great armies of the Allies at last turned back the tide. They broke the Germans in west and east. The sailors of Germany refused to sail. Her people and army gave up the fight. And the long struggle came suddenly to its close.

And what is the end? The nation which attempted to force on the world the rule that only the strong had rights, that small and weak things must go to the wall, that treaties were useless and any powerful people could break its given word–that nation itself has been broken because the best men of all countries determined by their lives or their deaths to prevent it. A great fear has been lifted from the world. Treaties are become binding again. The world has ruled that not even the strongest nation shall dare to break her given word; that be a nation never so small, if she has right upon her side a scrap of paper may protect her. The world has exacted from the great breaker of treaties a terrible punishment.

And our own young country–what does the peace mean to her? Australia rides safely in harbor to-day, a new nation. Five years ago the world barely knew her. To-day, the men who went to fight for her have placed her high in the world’s regard. During four long years, in good fortune and ill, they so bore themselves that when the tide changed, the great and free nations beside whom they fought and with whom they emerged counted Australia amongst them. She has been given a place in the conference of nations; the great world has recognised her right to mould her future as she pleases. That is what the Australian force not only in France, Gallipoli, and Palestine, but in Mesopotamia, in Persia, in Russia, and on the seas, has done for Australia.

And while we offer thanks on their return to those who have won for us this right to make our country one of the greatest and our nation the happiest upon earth, while the flags flutter and hands are waving, let us not ever forget that, to many of those to whom we owe the most, our thanks can never be given. They who raised Australia to the very height of the world’s regard–the gay welcome in our streets is not for them. For others the cheers, the smiles. The rejoicings which they so often longed for, they will never see. Twelve thousand miles from home they sleep for ever on the bleak moorlands where by their lives the place of Australia in the world was won. Yet, could they speak, they would not call us to weep. Their lives they gave cheerfully, grandly, knowing the cause; and they have won for their country more than they ever hoped to win. Only by one means can we work out our thanks to them–by continuing the task which they were forced to drop when the bullet took them, and devoting our lives to make this country the happy, great, and generous land whose future with their death they gave into our hands.


By Authority: ALBERT J. MULLETT, Government Printer, Melbourne.



Further information      

Australian National Museum of Education (ANME)