Charles (CEW) Bean
Repatriated to Australia
Charles Edwin Woodrow (CEW) Bean, historian and journalist, was born on 18 November 1879 in Bathurst, where his father was headmaster of All Saints' College. In 1889, his father resigned owing to ill health and took his family to England.
In England, Charles attended Clifton, a school rich in British imperial tradition. In his last year at school, he became house captain. In 1898, he won a scholarship to Oxford where he studied classics. He graduated with second-class honours and then studied law. He was called to the bar of the Inner Temple in 1903. He taught briefly at Brentwood School in Essex, where his father was headmaster, and then sailed to Sydney in 1904. He was admitted to the New South Wales bar that year.
While Bean was establishing his law practice, he wrote some articles for the Evening News, a newspaper edited by AB 'Banjo' Paterson, and worked as an assistant master at Sydney Grammar School. Finding that he preferred writing over teaching or law, Bean became a junior reporter on the Sydney Morning Herald in 1908.
In 1909, he was sent to far west New South Wales to write a series of articles on the wool industry. This assignment influenced his perceptions of nationality and the differences between urban and rural Australians, as well as between Englishmen and Australians. During this time, he wrote a passage about comradeship in outback Australia. He finished it with a prophecy that if ever England were in trouble, she would discover in Australia 'the quality of sticking ... to an old mate'.
Between 1910 and 1912, Bean lived with his parents in London while he represented the Sydney Morning Herald there. He reported on the building of the three Royal Australian Navy cruisers: HMA Ships Australia, Melbourne and Sydney.
In 1913, he returned to Sydney, but he disliked his job as leader-writer and took several assignments out of the country. From June 1914, he wrote a daily commentary on the European crisis.
In September 1914, each dominion was invited to attach an official correspondent to its forces. Bean narrowly beat Keith Murdoch of the Melbourne Herald in the Australian Journalists' Association nomination ballot and was elected to be Australia's first official war correspondent.
He travelled to Egypt with the first contingent of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF)in October 1914 onboard HMT Orvieto. He was a civilian with the honorary title of Captain, appointed as Official War Correspondent AIF.
While Bean was in Egypt, he caused some resentment both in Australia and Egypt. Under instructions from General William Bridges, commander of the Australian forces, Bean sent an early dispatch about the rowdiness of Australian soldiers.
In April 1915, Bean sailed from Egypt with the main body of the AIF. He went ashore at Anzac Cove on 25 April, some 5 hours after the first troops had landed. Despite that, Australians didn't read his dispatch about the landing: it was held up by the British authorities in Alexandria until 13 May. Instead, they read a more sensational account written by English war correspondent, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett. One army private wrote to his mother in July 1915:
I have been reading some Sunday Mails to hand with the pictorial honour lists and account of our doings in Gallipoli. They are fairly accurate. Bean's is more accurate if not so graphic as Ashmead Bartlett.
[Letter, Private John Sloan to his mother, 4 July 1915, PR00035, Australian War Memorial]
Bean accompanied two Australian brigades during an unsuccessful and costly attack at Cape Helles 2 weeks later. He was recommended for the Military Cross for the help he gave to wounded men under fire on the night of 8 May. As a civilian, Bean was ineligible for the award but he was mentioned in dispatches instead.
Bean's bravery was well-known. He was the only correspondent to stay on Gallipoli from April until December, despite being hit by a bullet in the right leg on 6 August 1915. Instead of being evacuated to a hospital ship, Bean lay in his dugout until 24 August, having the wound dressed each day until he was able to go out and watch the fighting again.
After the evacuation of Gallipoli, Bean edited The Anzac Book (London, 1916), which he compiled from drawings and writing by the soldiers.
The seeds of the official history series were sown when he was in France from 1916 to 1918 with the AIF. Conscious of his responsibilities to the men, he decided that:
The only memorial which could be worthy of them was the bare and uncoloured story of their part in the war.
[Charles Bean, quoted in B Nairn and G Serle (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, Melbourne University Press, 1979, p.227]
Even earlier, on Gallipoli, Bean had noticed the Australians avidly collecting battlefield relics. It occurred to him that there should be a war museum in Australia.
Bean envisaged a monument to honour the victims of war: a place where families and friends could come and grieve; a museum for war relics and safe storage for the records that would contribute to an understanding of war. His views were deeply influenced by his direct exposure to the effects of war. In his time at Pozières, he had visited the battlefield soon after fighting. He described the war-torn landscape of Pozières created by modern artillery:
Imagine a gigantic ash heap, a place where dust and rubbish have been cast for years outside some dry, derelict, God–forsaken up-country township. Imagine some broken–down creek bed in the driest of our dry central Australian districts, abandoned for a generation to the goats, in which the hens have been scratching as long as men can remember. Then take away the hens and the goats and all traces of any living or moving thing. You must not even leave a spider. Put here, in evidence of some old tumbled roof, a few roof beams and tiles sticking edgeways from the ground, and the low faded ochre stump of the windmill peeping over the top of the hill, and there you have Pozières.
[CEW Bean, Letters from France, Melbourne, 1917, pp.113-114]
During these hellish weeks, Bean became convinced of the need to tell people in faraway Australia of the achievements, endurance and suffering of their family members and friends in France. Bean's dream eventually resulted in the opening of the Australian War Memorial in 1941. His batman and unofficial clerk, Arthur Bazley, remembers Bean musing on this future memorial:
I can still remember nights in August 1916 when—after busy days in which he tramped the Pozières battlefield, visiting our units in the line and our batteries in rear of them, looking in at aid–posts and casualty clearing stations he would return to our camp at the edge of Becourt Wood … there in the twilight CEW [Bean] would sometimes talk for a while of the thoughts he was turning over in his mind concerning an Australian war memorial museum.
[Arthur Bazley, quoted in Dudley McCarthy, Gallipoli to the Somme: the Story of CEW Bean, Sydney, 1983, pp.259-260]
When the Australian War Records Section was set up in London, John Treloar who headed the section, together with Bean and others, organised collecting stations for relics from the Western Front. Australian troops went into the field carrying labels to attach to the more than 25,000 relics that they collected. Official war artists and photographers were commissioned to document Australians at war. As Director of the Australian War Memorial from 1920 until his death in 1952, Treloar did more than anyone to ensure that Bean's vision was achieved.
In 1919, Bean returned to Gallipoli where he studied the battle from the Turkish perspective and reported to the Commonwealth Government on the disposal and maintenance of the Australian war graves.
In May 1919, Bean returned to Australia and recommended an official history and a national war memorial which 'for all time' would 'hold the sacred memories of the AIF'. The government accepted his proposals.
Later in 1919, Bean, his staff and all their records moved into Tuggeranong homestead near Canberra to write The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918.
In January 1921, Bean married Ethel Clara Young, a nursing sister at the Queanbeyan hospital. Padre Dexter, a chaplain who had been on Gallipoli, conducted the ceremony.
The first 2 volumes of the official history – The Story of Anzac – appeared in 1921 and 1924. Bean himself wrote 6 volumes about the infantry divisions (2 on Gallipoli and 4 on France) and edited the other 6 volumes. The huge project contained nearly 4 million words. The last volume appeared in 1942, 23 years after Bean had started the project.
His theme, Bean wrote:
May be stated as the answer to a question: How did this nation, bred in complete peace, largely undisciplined except for a strongly British tradition and the self-discipline necessary for men who grapple with nature … react to what still has to be recognised as the supreme test for fitness to exist?
[Charles Bean, quoted in B Nairn and G Serle (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, Melbourne University Press, 1979, p.228]
Bean's diaries (226 notebooks) were full of the men's experiences and what caused them to react differently in battle. Bean wrote of the AIF and the ordinary soldiers:
A fair cross…section of our people … that the company commander was a young lawyer and his second in command a most trusted mate a young engine driver and so on.
[Charles Bean, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, Melbourne University Press, 1979, p.228]
His approach brought a colonial scepticism to the traditional British style. He wanted to produce an account that could be read by everyone. He was also very conscious of his responsibility as a war correspondent:
The war correspondent is responsible for most of the ideas of battle which the public possesses … I can't write that it occurred if I know that it did not, even if by painting it that way I can rouse the blood and make the pulse beat faster – and undoubtedly these men here deserve that people's pulses shall beat for them. But War Correspondents have so habitually exaggerated the heroism of battles that people don't realise that real actions are heroic.
[Charles Bean, personal records, 'Ashmead Bartlett and a crisis', item 892, 3DRL/6673, Australian War Memorial 38]
The Official History was paid for by the Department of Defence and published by Angus and Robertson in Sydney. Despite Bean's request that it be uncensored, important passages were removed from The Royal Australian Navy volume, at the request of the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board. One other passage was questioned and 'easily settled'.
The long-awaited Australian War Memorial opened in Canberra in 1941.
During these years, Bean was also working hard to create the Commonwealth Archives. In 1942, he became chairman of the new Commonwealth Archives Committee.
Bean declined offers of a knighthood but did accept honorary degrees from two universities in recognition of his achievement with the official history series. In 1952, Bean became chairman of the Australian War Memorial board.
After spending time in England in 1924, Bean and his family settled Lindfield, in Sydney. In 1956, they moved to Collaroy. Bean was admitted to the Concord Repatriation General Hospital in early 1964 with failing health. He died there on 30 August 1968, aged 88.
- NAA: B2455, BEAN CEW, Bean Charles Edwin Woodrow: SERN CAPT: POB N/A: POE N/A: NOK F Rev Bean E, item 4028768 (1914-1920).
- Charles Edwin Bean (1879–1968), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Australian National University, Canberra.
- Dr Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean, personal records, manuscript: 'Ashmead Bartlett and a crisis', item 892, 3DRL/6673, Australian War Memorial 38.
- Private John Sloan, letters, PR00035, Australian War Memorial.