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Mr Bean goes to war

Not everyone who went to fight in World War One carried a gun. There was one particular man whose weapon of choice was a pen. This man was established as an Anzac legend and although he was cremated after death, a memorial to him stands in the Pillars of Bathurst.


When Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean was born in 1879 at Bathurst it was unlikely his parents Edwin and Lucy Madeline (nee Butler) knew he would become Australia's first and possibly greatest war correspondent of his time.


Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean, Australian historian and war correspondent. Courtesy Australian War Memorial.


Charles' approach to writing was that he 'determined never, if possible, to write a sentence which could not be understood by, say, a housemaid of average intelligence'. He wanted to make a living from writing rather than in law, despite his studies and qualifications. He had already written articles for the Evening News, edited by Banjo Paterson. On his editor's advice, he became a junior editor in 1908 with the Sydney Morning Herald.


Shortly after this he started writing articles as a special correspondent on HMS Powerful, flagship of the Royal Navy squadron. Bean assembled his reports into The flagship of the south, a book which he published himself.


By 1914, as tension gathered in Europe, Bean was writing a daily commentary. It was the first step on what would become his special interest that would dominate his life. In September of the same year, he won a ballot held by the Australian Journalists Association to become Australia's official war correspondent, narrowly defeating Keith Murdoch, who would go on to establish a newspaper empire.


He travelled to Egypt with the first contingent of the Australian Imperial Force, as a civilian, although he held the honorary title of captain. He landed at Gallipoli at 10am on 25 April, only a few hours after the dawn attack.


Two weeks later Bean's bravery was noticed in dispatches, during the Australian charge at Krithia, for the help he gave to wounded men under fire. The only correspondent between April and December, in August Bean was shot in the leg but refused to leave the peninsula; remaining in his dug out, he had his wound dressed daily until it was healed. He stayed on Gallipoli throughout the campaign, continually sending stories back to Australia and filling the first of the 226 notebooks he would amass by the end of the war.


The idea of a war museum came about when Bean noticed Australians loved to collect battle souvenirs. This was strengthened in the second half of 1916 on the Western Front, when he desired a place to not only house battle relics, but also commemorate those who were killed. He suggested this to the Australian Minister for Defence, Senator Pearce.


By 16 May 1917, a unit known as the Australian War Records Section began operations. This could be considered the birth of the Australian War Memorial. War relics were described as sacred things by Bean in the Commonwealth Gazette. He felt a strong obligation to the sacrifice being made by Australia's troops.


Early in 1919 he returned to Gallipoli as the head of the Australian Historical Mission to collect relics for the Memorial, obtain Turkish accounts of the campaign and report on the condition of war graves. It took 23 years for Bean to write the official history of the Great War. The first two volumes of the history, The Story of Anzac, appeared in 1921 and 1924.

Despite a kidney ailment which saw it removed, and he wife Ethel Clara Young moving to the warmer climate of Sydney, from Canberra, where he wrote six volumes about the infantry divisions: the two on Gallipoli, and four on France. He edited eight more and he and a colleague annotated the volume of photographs. The final volume came out in 1942. He was congratulated by Prime Minister John Curtin when the final volume was published.


In 1930 the Royal United Services Institution gave Bean an award for the first three volumes, and he received an honorary degree from the University of Melbourne in the same year. Just before the final volume of the official history being published, Bean saw his second ambition become a reality with the opening of the Australian War Memorial on 11 November 1941. By then the Second World War was in its third year.


Pillars of Bathurst commemorating CEW Bean, writer and historian. Courtesy Anzac Portal


Bean's series on the Great War saw four million words committed to immortalising the men who died during the conflict. To this day, no Australian historical writing has ever matched such a scale.

By 1964 Bean was suffering from dementia and he died in Concord Repatriation Hospital in 1968. He was cremated after a memorial in St Andrews Cathedral, Sydney.


References

  • K. S. Inglis, 'Bean, Charles Edwin (1879–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bean-charles-edwin-5166/text8677, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 November 2022.

  • 'Charles Bean', Australian War Memorial, accessed 27 November 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/about/organisation/history/charles-bean

  • 'Charles Bean', Wikipedia, accessed 27 November 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Bean


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