A nation’s eyes, ears

24 Apr, 2015 02:00 AM
Bean was a meticulous researcher and accurate writer with a deep love of Australia and Australians

BATHURST-born Charles Bean left Australia a legacy that is almost certainly unique in modern military writing - a history of a nation's involvement in a major war written by a person who witnessed almost all the biggest battles.

Bean worked alongside the soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) from the morning they struggled ashore onto the Gallipoli peninsula on April 25, 1915, until the day they finally could put down their guns on the blood-soaked Western Front in France on November 11, 1918.

Incredibly, he was wounded just once when a stray bullet struck him in the upper part of the right leg as he returned in darkness from an inspection of the front line trenches soon after the Australians launched their legendary attack on the Turkish lines at Lone Pine, Gallipoli, on August 6, 1915.

The Australians won an astonishing seven Victoria Crosses (VCs) during a four-day bloodbath to successfully hold the captured Lone Pine trenches (now the site of Australia's main memorial on the Gallipoli battlefield).

Bean, Australia's official correspondent of World War I and, later, its official historian and the driving force for the establishment of the Australian War Memorial, refused an operation to remove the bullet because he feared he would miss too much of the action on Gallipoli.

The bullet was still in his leg when he died on August 30, 1968, aged 88.

Bean was recommended for the Military Cross for rescuing a wounded soldier at Gallipoli but could not accept the honour because he was a civilian despite his honorary rank of captain.

He exposed himself to enemy fire countless times during the war and regularly helped bring in the wounded.

Charles Edwin Woodrow (C.E.W.) Bean was born on November 18, 1879, at Bathurst where his father, Edwin - a classical scholar born in India but educated at England's Oxford University - was headmaster at All Saints College.

Charles Bean, the eldest of three boys, was a pupil at All Saints until he was nine, at which time his father decided to take his young family to England.

Charles Bean attended Brentwood College, Essex, when his father was appointed its headmaster in 1891.

Later he attended Clifton College, Bristol (his father's old school) before completing arts and law degrees at Oxford.

Like his father, he didn't quite achieve his full academic potential at university and this contributed to his decision to return to Australia at the end of 1904, aged 25.

Bean worked for a short time as a judge's associate in Sydney but the turning point in his life came when he started contributing articles for Sydney newspapers including the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH).

He joined the full-time reporting staff of the SMH in 1908 and quickly worked his way up from "junior" reporter to one of the newspaper's most respected writers.

The lanky, redheaded Bean was a meticulous researcher and accurate writer with a deep love of Australia and Australians.

His editor at the SMH sent him on three odysseys into the NSW outback which generated material for a series of well-read articles about the people of the inland and also two minor classic books, "On the Wool Track" and "The Dreadnought of the Darling".

These major writing assignments into the tough inland provided Bean with an insight into the people who battled the harsh Australian environment to produce the young nation's wealth and who would soon provide the backbone of the AIF.

Bean was the SMH's London correspondent from 1911-13 but had returned to Australia by the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

He immediately lobbied the government for appointment as Australia's official war correspondent, a job he narrowly secured over Keith Murdoch (father of Rupert).

Bean sailed off with the first Australian troops on October 21, 1914, and was with them for most of the next four years, taking photographs and filling hundreds of diaries with the details of every battle and skirmish.

The information he collected in these diaries provided material for the constant stream of articles he wrote for Australian newspapers during the war and as the major source of information for the 12-volume "The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18".

Bean and his small team finished the last volume in 1942.

C.E.W. Bean personally wrote six volumes and edited the rest.

Later he compressed the 12-volume work into one book for easier reference, "Anzac to Amiens".

Bean's history is virtually a day-by-day account of the AIF's involvement in the war.

Much of his writing was based on what the soldiers involved in the fighting told him or from his own observations.

He saw our greatest defeats (including 5533 men of Australia's 5th Division killed or wounded at Fromelles in one night in July, 1916, and our horrific losses around nearby Pozieres a few days later) and our greatest victories as the Australians spearheaded the assault which pushed the Germans back across the Somme in the second half of 1918 and to eventual defeat.

Australia's contribution to the defeat of Germany and its allies in the Great War was remarkable.

Large numbers of the soldiers who helped forge the Anzac legend were from the bush and their courage and character will never be forgotten - thanks to C.E.W. Bean.

Vernon Graham

Vernon Graham

is the group editor of Fairfax Agricultural Media


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