1879-1968 | NSW | War Correspondent & Historian
Bean was Australia’s first official war correspondent – elected by his peers – who chronicled every action of the Australian Imperial Force at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. His objective and meticulous newspaper reports, which helped mould the image of bronzed Anzacs and define a new nation, were the first draft of history – literally, for he was to write six volumes of the official AIF war history and edit a further six along with several other books; a mammoth undertaking of four million words. He was also instrumental in establishing the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
More than a century after Charles Bean accompanied the Australian Imperial Force to war to report on a young Australia’s military commitment to the British Empire, the access that he enjoyed to both the commanders and to the frontline troops remains extraordinary compared with the experience of modern war correspondents.
Almost every history of the First World War, and every present day Australian journalistic account of the fighting, owes a great debt to the painstaking and often heroic work by Bean during his four years with the AIF in the Dardanelles and on the Western Front. The irony is that Bean’s broader legacy has been largely overlooked and often misunderstood. This is because, while his war-time journalism was all too often lacklustre because of over-zealous military censorship, what is not well known is Bean’s immense post war contribution to an understanding of the war. The extraordinary access and insights he recorded in his private notes and diaries during that conflict remain unsurpassed by any Australian journalist in any conflict since and have formed the basis for many a history.
Bean’s privileged access to the top wartime military leaders meant he often learned the detail of pending attacks and battles and, incredibly, he was then free to roam the battlefield to see for himself the truth of how effective such attacks had been. In truth, he often knew more than the generals commanding and not without good reason he became a close confidante of British and Australian commanders.
It is his extraordinary, painstakingly detailed (and often harrowing) private notes and diaries written during the war that remain one of his greatest achievements. Bean’s private notes laid bare the truth that British Prime Minister Lloyd George acknowledged could never be told during the war. “If people really knew,” Lloyd George lamented, “the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and they can’t know.”
Most journalists sent to cover wars today are constrained by the unprecedented risks and lethal nature of modern warfare, choosing to operate either at great peril as freelancers – risking kidnap or death – or undertaking to operate as ‘embedded’ correspondents with a military force. Either is a Faustian choice that all-too-often compromises journalistic freedom.
Today, far too often, a fear of media publicity blowback constrains the military’s willingness to open its soldiers up to journalistic scrutiny. Bean, like all correspondents during World War 1, was legally bound by strict British Army official censorship laws which required that all his copy be vetted by an official (British) military censor before it was telegraphed home for publication – a condition that no journalist would ethically submit to today.
Very early in the war, as Bean watched the futile waste of men and boys on Gallipoli, he realised there was little opportunity to tell the Australian public during the war the full truth of what he was seeing. Not only would a candid account have been censored, it was also made clear to Bean by his editors at the Sydney Morning Herald that his role was to be a cheerleader for the war. His editors disliked his careful attempts in his stories to honestly detail the terrible losses suffered by Australia for very little strategic gain; they demanded stirringly patriotic tales of derring-do from their correspondent. Bean tried to provide them with what they wanted but ultimately his zealous dedication to recording the truth of what he saw undermined his stature as a journalist during the war.
Depressingly for Charles Bean, all too frequently the Australian newspapers he was chosen by his peers to represent chose instead to publish the jingoistic copy from his contemporaries such as British journalist Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett. Frequently, Australian battles were presented by less scrupulous journalists as advances, gains or victories when those reporters were in fact being fed untrue accounts by propagandists inside British Army intelligence.
Early in the war, at the Dardanelles during the Battle of Krithia in May 1915, Bean witnessed how thousands of Australian soldiers were needlessly sacrificed in a completely forlorn attack on a Turkish village. While his carefully crafted stories tried, within the constraints of military censorship to reveal the losses, the Australian public was told, falsely, that the town of Krithia had been taken and that the battle was a huge victory. While church-bells were rung in Australia to celebrate a fraudulent victory, it was Charles Bean who counted the corpses of young Australian dead scattered across the plain; at great personal risk he roamed the battlefield providing care to the wounded.
The grim reality of World War One was that even if Bean had tried to tell the full truth of what he saw of the cataclysmic military command failures on Gallipoli and in Western Front battles such as Fromelles, Pozières, Bullecourt and Passchendaele, the British Army censor’s blue pencil would and did suppress them. He dedicated the rest of his life to honouring the Australian Diggers by revealing the one thing he was not allowed to do during the war – the truth.
Born in 1879 in the thriving farming town of Bathurst inland across the Blue Mountains from Sydney, Charles was the son of Edwin Bean, the headmaster of All Saints College. Imbued by his parents with the British public school ethic of patriotic duty and moral courage, Charles Bean’s childhood and schooling formed him as an ardent imperialist champion of the British Empire. When his family moved to England in 1889 he was a student at Clifton College, Bristol, one of the great public schools, whose alumni included British First World War Field Marshall Douglas Haig and General William Birdwood, who would command the Australian and New Zealand forces at Gallipoli.
After studies at Oxford University, Bean returned to Australia to work first as a teacher and then as a judge’s associate before becoming a journalist. As a reporter on The Sydney Morning Herald, Bean developed a theme of a distinctively Australian national character in his writing – of mateship, stubborn resilience and laconic cheer in the face of adversity – which he best expressed in his books The Dreadnought on the Darling and On The Wooltrack. Bean mythologised the Australian stockmen he met in the outback towns and he took that sense of an independent Australian character with him to war when he was selected by his peers as Official Correspondent in 1914.
Charles Bean soon determined that the full tragedy of the First World War could only be truthfully explained once the conflict was over and hence his greatest legacy was his magisterial Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, which he spent decades writing when he returned to Australia.
It was in his six volumes of the Official History that Charles Bean unleashed his journalistic ardour to bring the truth of this conflict into the public arena. Defying expectations that an official history must be hagiography, Bean painstakingly reconstructed the stories from battles that, until the volumes were published between 1920 and 1942, had never been told. It was his account for example of the devastating Australian losses at The Nek on Gallipoli that formed the basis for Peter Weir’s celebrated movie Gallipoli: ‘…every man assumed that death was certain and each in the secret places of his mind debated how he should go to it…with that regiment went the flower of the youth of Western Australia.’
What Charles Bean understood most about the war was that its bitter denouement was the true beginning of Australia’s sense of itself as a nation, separate from (and newly sceptical of) mother Britain and with a different optimistic and devil-may-care national character. Bean celebrated the youthful laconic Diggers whom he watched marching into the 1918 Battle of Villers-Bretonneux knowing they were going to almost certain death. Those young men, with the Anzac Gallipoli patch on their shoulders, many of whom had signed up to fight for the British Empire four years earlier in 1914, were now defiantly Australian, and Charles Bean was there to honour their sacrifice every moment of the war.
Ross Coulthart is a journalist and best-selling author. His biography of Charles Bean won the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for History.
Outdoor portrait of Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean, Australia's official war correspondent, outside his tent in the AIF camp at Mena. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial
Imbros, 1915. Charles Bean and Ashmead Bartlett. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial
Near Martinpuich, France. Captain C E W Bean, the Australian Official Correspondent, watching the Australian advance through a telescope. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial
Informal portrait of C E W Bean working on official files in his Victoria Barracks office during the writing of the Official History. The files on his desk are probably the Operations Files, 1914-18 War, that were prepared by the Army between 1925 and 1930 and are now held by the Australian War Memorial as AWM 26. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial
Charles Bean portrait, by George Lambert
Queen Elizabeth with Charles E W Bean at the Australian War Memorial in 1954. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial
Charles Bean – If People Really Knew, Ross Coulthart, HarperCollins, 2015
Gallipoli, Les Carlyon, MacMillan Australia,2014
The Great War, Les Carlyon, Picador Australia, 2010
Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Charles Bean (edit), Australian War Memorial Canberra. (12 Volumes). Digitised.