Charles Edwin Woodrow 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, and in his last year 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 and 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 practice, he wrote some articles for the Evening News, a paper edited by A B ‘Banjo’ Paterson, and worked as an assistant master at Sydney Grammar School. Finding that he preferred writing to teaching or law, Bean became a junior reporter on the Sydney Morning Herald in 1908. In 1909 he was sent to write a series of articles on the wool industry in the far west of the state. 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 and he finished 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 Herald over there and reported on the building of the three Royal Australian Navy cruisers: Australia, Melbourne and Sydney. In 1913 he returned to Sydney but 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 Australias first official war correspondent.
He travelled to Egypt with the first contingent of the Australian Imperial Force in 1914, as a civilian with the honorary title of captain. While he was there he caused some resentment both in Australia and Egypt when, under instructions from General Bridges, commander of the Australian forces, he 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 about five and a half-hours after the first troops. Despite that, Australians didnt 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 two 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 but as a civilian was ineligible so was mentioned in dispatches. His bravery was well known and 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 he 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 in 1916–18 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, at Gallipoli, Bean had noticed the Australians avidly collecting battlefield relics and it occurred to him that there should be a war museum in Australia.
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 which they collected. Official war artists and photographers were commissioned to document Australians at war. John Treloar, who became the director of the Australian War Memorial in 1920 and remained there for thirty-two years, did more than anyone to ensure that Beans 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 graves. In May he 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 and later in 1919 the historian, 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 two volumes of the official history – The Story of Anzac – appeared in 1921 and 1924. Bean himself wrote six volumes about the infantry divisions – two on Gallipoli and four on France – and he edited eight of the other volumes. The huge project contained nearly four million words and the last volume appeared in 1942, 23 years after he 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]
Beans diaries (226 note-books) were full of the mens 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 and 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 cant 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 peoples pulses shall beat for them. But War Correspondents have so habitually exaggerated the heroism of battles that people dont 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 Defence Department and published by Angus and Robertson in Sydney. Despite Beans request that it be uncensored, critical passages were removed from The Royal Australian Navy volume, at the request of the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board and one other passage was questioned and ‘easily settled’.
Beans view that ‘the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born’ on the 25th of April 1915 is embodied in both his own writings and in his vision for a war memorial. He 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. The long-awaited Australian War Memorial was finally opened in Canberra in 1941.
During these years Bean was also working hard to create the Commonwealth Archives and in 1942 he became chairman of the new Commonwealth Archives Committee. He 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.
Bean had travelled to England for medical treatment in 1924 and he and his wife moved to Lindfield in Sydney when they returned. In 1956 they moved from Lindfield to Collaroy. Eight years later he was admitted to the Concord Repatriation General Hospital. He died there on 30 August 1968 aged 88.
- ‘Charles Bean’, in B Nairn & G Serle (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol 7, Melbourne, 1979, pp 226–229.
- 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.