Charles Bean and the Anzac Legend

anzac sunWhat if the fates conspired to draw a new nation, mortified by its convict origins and unsure of its status in the world, into the most cataclysmic war the world had ever seen, calling forth vast numbers of its young men, eager, bold and brave, to have them travel halfway across the world, to be thrown into one of the greatest military gambles in history at Gallipoli, only to have it fail, at colossal cost; and then to demand of the survivors and even more young volunteers that they venture on to France and Belgium, and to engage there in even more battles of previously unimaginable carnage, leaving tens of thousands dead and maimed, sharing a great victory, but scarring a generation and searing the soul of a nation; and what if amongst it all there was a man with the right mix of skills and knowledge, the energy, tenacity and courage, officially commissioned to record it all, to spend every waking hour in every battle zone he could access, talking to every soldier he could, analysing and reporting on every battle, every blunder and every triumph of the young nation’s army as it plunged into and through the Great War?

It seems that certain people appear in history destined to accomplish one great task, and that family, circumstances and events conspire to equip them for their mission. Nobody better exemplifies this phenomenon than Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean, Australia’s official war correspondent in the Great War, the editor of the twelve-volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 (of which he himself wrote Volumes I to VI), the driving force behind the establishment of the Australian War Memorial, and the man who first formulated and gave shape to the Anzac legend.

Bean’s was a prodigious achievement that easily surpassed the efforts of any other war correspondent or military historian of the war. Not only did he publish his first volume before any other official historian in 1921, he achieved an unsurpassed precision. As Denis Winter points out in Making the Legend: The War Writings of C.E.W. Bean (1992), to match the level of detail achieved by Bean in his six volumes of the History relative to the number of troops involved, the British would have had to produce eighty-four volumes, but managed only sixteen. Moreover, Bean’s approach to his task was pioneering. As Winter recounts, he shunned the usual official approach, based on the Prussian account of its 1870 war with France, which produced a “narrative shorn of critical comment, devoid of controversy and describing accounts from the single viewpoint of the high command”. Bean’s perspective was quite different: “His narrative switched from platoon commanders in battle to corps headquarters in the rear and all points between, with the mind of the high command only one of several” perspectives mobilised to reveal the full story. Moreover, he was prepared to describe failed military actions in detail and to offer strong criticism of military commanders. And above all, “Bean filled his pages with soldiers; some 6550 of them and each with a footnoted biographical sketch,” as Winter notes. This was a Herculean achievement in itself, which immortalised in the Official History the efforts of the mass of the soldiers who fought for Australia in a manner that also has no parallel elsewhere.

But Bean offered a vision also, declaring that the main theme of the Official History “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 recognized as the supreme test for fitness to exist?

His answer was unambiguous. As he explained in his tract In Your Hands, Australians (1918): “the big thing in the war for Australia was the discovery of the character of Australians. It was character which rushed the hills at Gallipoli and held on there.” Bean had come to the view that “the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born” on April 25, 1915, and this belief informed his writings, his vision of Australia, and how the nation should honour the sacrifice of the Anzacs.

Bean’s early volumes appeared at a critical time in the writing of Australian history, during the nationalist first phase in the production of military histories of the war that Jay Winter and Antoine Prost identify in The Great War in History (2005). Such works were concerned with “the stuff of national character”, and Bean’s work in particular “exemplified this approach to military history [as] the chronicle of the birth of [a] nation”. The perspective Bean offered on the Gallipoli campaign transformed “a complete defeat [into a] noble sacrifice”, worthy of a new country, making it “the backdrop to what was essentially a national foundation myth”, and it proved extraordinarily successful in dealing with the social trauma of the post-war years. As Geoffrey Serle observes in From Deserts the Prophets Come (1973), Bean’s work was “unquestionably the outstanding historiographical achievement of the interwar period”, making “a fascinating contribution to defining Australian identity”.

It is therefore an indictment of the study of Australian history in the iron grip of the Left that Bean’s unparalleled contribution was marginalised for much of the past century. Nowhere is this attitude better illustrated than in Joan Beaumont’s Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War (2013). Beaumont provides some overdue acknowledgment of Bean’s importance but then betrays the shallowness of this gesture by making an egregious error: stating that Bean was born in England and was English, when in fact he was born in Bathurst and was Australian, a fact that is fundamental to his formulation of the Anzac legend. Throughout her book Beaumont pontificates on the Anzac “legend”, “myth” and “charter”, in this qualified fashion, as if it is a phantom, or something baseless, contrived or discredited, and yet she is ignorant of this most crucial fact about its principal progenitor, whose singular sense of the soul of his country illuminated that legend.

Given this situation, Ross Coulthart’s new study, Charles Bean (HarperCollins, 2014), must be welcomed as a worthy companion to Dudley McCarthy’s stirring biography, Gallipoli to the Somme: The Story of C.E.W. Bean (1983), which has long been out of print. Coulthart’s book is very accessible although it lacks the poetic grandeur that McCarthy frequently achieves. Instead, Coulthart, as a war correspondent himself, frames his project in terms of Phillip Knightley’s book The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker (1975), interrogating Bean’s histories, diaries and other writings to answer the question:

How accurate an account of the real war did Bean give … and what were the stories he didn’t tell? And how faithful to the reality of what he actually witnessed is the legend he crafted about the diggers?

It appears that Coulthart set out to write an exposé but, as he recounts Bean’s exploits, he discloses instead that Bean fought tooth and nail to provide the most detailed and accurate account of the exploits of the AIF that was humanly possible. Ultimately, as Coulthart concludes:

Bean was unable to peddle the falsehoods and mawkish bunkum spouted by so many other correspondents because, unlike most of his journalistic contemporaries, he was almost always there on the spot to witness the grim reality of the blood and the mud. Bean was obsessed with the simple truth, the fundamental journalistic tenet that the facts should tell the story.

Coulthart also describes many occasions when Bean was confronted with the classic war correspondent’s dilemma: whether a demoralising military setback should be revealed to the public in its stark immediacy or whether there is a deeper purpose to be served through restraint. Generally, when Bean followed the latter path in his dispatches he recounted the relevant events in unrestrained detail in the Official History.

It’s notable that Coulthart goes against the grain of most academic discussions of Bean and the origins of the Anzac legend by recognising that it was indeed “character which rushed the hills at Gallipoli and held on there”:

What Charles Bean realised as he roamed the hills of Gallipoli and the battlefields of the Western Front was that he was witnessing the emergence of a distinctive, proud and resilient Australian national character.

Coulthart suggests that Bean was “cast from obscurity onto the national stage” as the chronicler of the war, and to some extent this is true. More accurately, it might be said that: “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”, because it’s very difficult to imagine that anyone else could have emerged from obscurity or anywhere else with the unique set of qualities that Bean brought to the task, or that in his absence the Anzac legend would have taken the form it did.

Central to these qualities was Bean’s affection for and instinctual responsiveness to Australia as a frontier society and the values of bush stoicism it embodied. He was born in Bathurst on November 18, 1879, and educated there at All Saints’ College, where his father was headmaster, and at Clifton College and Oxford University in Britain, after the family moved there in 1889. Uncertain of his future upon graduation, he returned to Australia and worked variously as a lawyer, teacher, journalist and social historian before a series of events saw him become Australia’s official war correspondent, and eventually editor of the Official History. In addition, he edited the Anzac Book (1916), which collected stories, poems, illustrations and cartoons produced by soldiers in the trenches. This became a best-seller, and remains in print. He also wrote Anzac to Amiens, a popular one-volume history of the war that first appeared in 1946, along with earlier works that contributed to the Anzac legend as it developed.

These books included On the Wool Track (1910) and The Dreadnought of the Darling (1911), in which essential elements of the legend can be found, as Bean explored the epic vastness of Australia while on assignment for the Sydney Morning Herald. He’d become a journalist once he realised that his true vocation was to write. Finally resolved, he left the law, taught himself shorthand, and became a junior reporter in 1908, struggling to survive on a pittance before his initiative and herculean capacity for work propelled him up the ladder.

One of his assignments involved an epic 1160-kilometre journey to Broken Hill to report on the rival proposed railway routes to the booming mining town; another saw him on the roof of Australia, covering the opening of the Kosciusko Hotel; while another saw him on a riverboat steaming down the Darling River; and a further epic journey followed the footsteps of Charles Sturt from the upper reaches of the River Murray to its mouth, where he sat on a sandhill, meditating on the vast catchment of the Murray-Darling basin that brought the waters of half a continent to the sea:

So this is the end … I can see them, the freshes from the Queensland hills, the snow of Kosciusko, the Macquarie marshes, the Darling lakes, the Anabranch, the Warrego … sitting here I can see them all, within 25 yards of my left foot.

A further assignment took him into the outback to explore the wool industry. Searching for a theme that would capture the reader’s attention, Bean focused on the people of the industry, explaining in On the Wool Track that, while “the wool industry turns out wool and meat … and many other things … the most important things it turns out are men”, men who possessed a unique set of characteristics that Bean would later locate at the core of the Anzac legend. The book became a best-seller, appealing not only to Australians in the cities who had little idea of the outback, but also to Britons and Americans fascinated by the Great South Land that had just become a nation. It was a grim land, as Bean discovered:

The grass had long since disappeared; the face of the country was shifting red and grey sand, blowing about wherever the wind carried it. The fences were covered; dead sheep and fallen trunks had become sandhills. Millions of trees were killed; the birds were dropping dead.

It was also an atavistic land where the distance between domesticity and savagery was small. Left untended, docile stock quickly devolved to their primitive origins, with the descendants of domestic pigs long before released into the bush now looming as “fierce active brutes [with jaws] gnashing till the foam flakes away … For the tameness is easy to rub off, but the wildness is not.” And, of course, the same danger of degeneration existed always for the people of the outback. Unsurprisingly, some men would wake in fright, their “nerves broken down under the conditions, and they had to flee from the back country in fear for their sanity”. Writing shortly after Joseph Conrad published Heart of Darkness, Bean realised, like Conrad, that civilisation was a fine veneer, beneath which there lay darkness, even madness. In such a harsh and unforgiving land men and women had to stand firm before adversity, work hard, make sacrifices, co-operate and help each other as they struggled to survive together and build a life. It was an environment that didn’t encourage hierarchy or servility, but bred instead the stoicism, egalitarianism and mateship that Bean was later to locate at the core of the Anzac spirit.

The book’s connection with the Anzac legend was recognised by H.M. Green in A History of Australian Literature (1961), where he remarked that it well depicted “the outback that has created some of the most vital of the types that went to make up the Anzacs”:

The outback Australian’s self-confidence, his independence, his readiness to “work a point”; his quiet resourcefulness, and also his terrible habit of leaving a thing when it is “near enough”; all these attributes are illustrated by anecdotes, often humorous, occasionally tragic, always picturesque … The description of the country itself is only less interesting than that of the people it helps produce.

In these books and during the few years before he set forth with the AIF to far distant Gallipoli, Bean came to realise the place that the land would long hold in the imagination of his nation. As he put it in The Dreadnought of the Darling:

The Australian, one hundred to two hundred years hence, will still live with the consciousness that, if he only goes far enough back over the hills and across the plains he comes in the end to the mysterious half desert country where men have to live the lives of strong men. And the life of that mysterious country will affect the Australian imagination much as the life of the sea has affected that of the English.

As Coulthart acknowledges:

When Bean later wrote about the feats of the Australian men who became the soldiers of Gallipoli and the Western Front, he was heavily influenced by the memories of his time in the outback.

But there was much more to these crucial memories than Bean’s journalistic expeditions in the bush as an adult; he’d been born on the expanding edge of Australian civilisation and spent his formative years there. His parents, Edwin and Lucy Bean, were a determined, educated and idealistic young couple whose example he never ceased to admire and respect. They had moved to Bathurst to begin their lives together, taking on the challenge of running a struggling college in the oldest inland town in Australia, 203 kilometres west of Sydney at the end of the first road to cross the Blue Mountains. Bathurst was initially intended as the administrative centre for further agricultural development of the region, but it was transformed into a boom town by the discovery of gold in 1851. Later it became a centre for coal-mining and manufacturing, and also a transportation hub for coach and rail services, and in the 1880s it had a population of some 8000 people, with the surrounding district supporting a further 20,000.

Physically, it was a vast, harsh world, and Charles’s early years were marked by a drought in which sheep and kangaroos starved in their thousands beside the brackish water of rivers reduced to a string of waterholes. As McCarthy recounts, men materialised out of the haze, as if they were “walking through a great sheet of glassy water”, swagmen broken in spirit, “plodding on from nowhere to nowhere, knowing nobody, expecting nothing, nothing to hope for, eyes fixed on the ground ahead … looking neither right to left”; along with shearers, riding or on foot, “making their way over the endless plains”, searching for work and prepared to shear a hundred sheep for 17/6.

As a boy, Charles enjoyed all the adventure and mischief that life on the frontier offered, including endless horse-riding with his brothers and mates, prospecting for gold amongst the ruined diggings, shafts and old mullock heaps, or swimming in the Macquarie River under the threat of a hefty fine for bathing there between “8 a.m. and 4 p.m. in view of the public”—a fine Charles’s grandfather in Tasmania would happily have paid, as he had offered the boy ten shillings if he could swim all the way across the river.

Charles saw a great deal of the country as he accompanied his father on visits to families on the land interested in sending their sons to All Saints’. And he began his lifetime habit of keeping a journal and writing detailed letters about his experiences, illustrated with detailed sketches and even paintings of things he had seen, a skill that greatly enhanced his later work on the war. Years later, Charles himself described his memories of this time:

a vast low-lying continent … the old house on the hill with its red gables, iron roof and long curved avenue of pines; a picture of a colliery on the mountains, caught long ago haphazard from the windows of a passing train—the tall chimneys smoking angrily, a solitary wheel turning over the pit’s mouth, and the steep sides of the Blue Mountains frowning at you from above …

Images and memories tumbled over each other in these recollections as Bean recalled the rich and indelible experiences of his childhood on the frontier, experiences that shaped his sense of the Anzac spirit as it manifested itself at Gallipoli and the Western Front. As McCarthy observes:

Of such as all of these, and many thousands more like them, were the sounds and sights, the people, the memories and the legends, which would form such a potent mix in those years as later to impel Charles Bean across many great battlefields with his countrymen, simply that he might tell the story of what they did.

Bean’s attitude towards the British Empire and his sense of its place in history were other formative influences on his work. Predictably, Coulthart decries Bean’s “blind jingoism for imperial Britain”, his “tub-thumping … imperialist prophecy”, and his “pro-British prism”. He deprecates an era when “the British Empire was still seen as mythically great” and colonial administrators were imbued with a sense of responsibility for the care and advancement of other races. He also feels that the sense of imperial duty that Edwin and Charles Bean felt must have been “crushing”. There is a considerable degree of anachronistic thinking here, as Coulthart acknowledges. In fact, it appears that Edwin and Charles found the roles they came to play in the empire anything but burdensome, and indeed to have been inspiring. They were both exemplary products of the empire, brought to England from far-flung dominions to receive an education that left them seeking to realise its finest ideals in service to the empire and its peoples. As Niall Ferguson observed in Empire (2003) about India under the Victorians: they wanted it “to be ruled by the ultimate academic elite: impartial, incorruptible, [and] omniscient”.

Edwin Bean had been born in India in 1851, and like most Anglo-Indian children he was sent to England to complete his schooling, first at Clifton College and then at Oxford where he showed himself to be a diligent scholar. However, his academic results were insufficient to gain admission to the elite Indian Civil Service, which would have allowed him to return to the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire to serve his people there. Engulfed by shame and disappointment, Edwin never returned to India, accepting instead an appointment as a private tutor in Tasmania—a place he could barely find in an atlas.

A classics scholar stymied at the very outset of his career but still instilled with the highest ideals of service, Edwin set sail in 1873 for the other side of the world, prepared to try his luck in a place infamous for a convict past of dreadful cruelty but where, nevertheless, the institutions and values of British civilisation had taken root. As McCarthy observes, Tasmania was “a crucible in which the extraordinarily diverse elements being poured into it were being transformed”, and opportunities existed for “new chums” prepared to make a go of it. Within a decade he was married with a family, and had become a successful educator. Alongside Lucy, as McCarthy recounts, Edwin pursued at All Saints’ “that dream of … creating a school which would become a centre in this new land for the propagation of the ideas and ideals which he most cherished”, and which had been nurtured at Oxford only a decade before.

Charles’s young adult life paralleled that of his father to a remarkable degree. Like Edwin, at Oxford he took Greats, and honed his Greek and Latin, studied Homer, Virgil and the Greek tragedians, wrestled with ancient and modern philosophy, and explored the history of the classical world from the first appearance of democracy in Greece to the rise of the Roman republic, the vicissitudes of the empire, the birth of Christianity, and its triumph over the pagan world. He studied The Histories by Herodotus and The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, which provided epic accounts of wars that determined the shape of world history. He meditated upon the decline and fall of the Roman empire and reflected upon its meaning for the British Empire that he and his father wished so fervently to serve.

Years later, Bean would travel to the birthplace of Western civilisation, sailing through the Aegean with a huge company of modern warriors, past Troy, and on to Gallipoli on the other side of the Dardanelles, where once again the fate of empires would be decided. And later still, as Bean produced his dispatches and his volumes of the Official History, the sense would repeatedly surface that he was bearing witness to the unfolding of Australia’s Iliad, as her young soldiers passed through war and into history. It was a theme also found throughout poems, newspapers, popular writings and histories that addressed the war, including Gallipoli (2001) by Les Carlyon, who asks the reader to visualise the scene at the Dardanelles: “History’s stadium is much as it was. You are seeing pretty much what Alexander the Great saw.”

Unfortunately, Bean suffered several serious illnesses towards the end of his time at Oxford and his results were insufficient to gain him a position in the elite Indian or South African civil services. As his situation came to echo that of his father he reacted in a similar fashion. After spending time as a private tutor in Tenerife, doing some teaching, and gaining admission to the Bar, he decided he should head for Australia, arriving in Hobart in 1904, just in time for Christmas with his overjoyed grandparents, who had last seen him as a child. Like his father he set out to make a life for himself in the Great South Land, and the final decade in the personal formation of Australia’s greatest military historian began.

Accompanying Bean’s intuitive grasp of bush stoicism, his awareness of Australia as a frontier society within the British Empire, and his classical education and deep sense of history, was his lifelong enthusiasm for military and naval affairs. This was derived from his father, who was a student of military history and served in the Volunteer Forces after the family moved to Britain. With England as a base, the family embarked upon many continental journeys, visiting the sites of numerous famous battles including Waterloo. Bean later recalled with a characteristic eye for detail the museum they visited there, remembering all of the 355 exhibits listed in the official guide, which he still possessed, along with many others. He and his two brothers scoured the countryside looking for souvenirs, picking up bits of old harness that became “imagined relics”. As McCarthy observes: “It is likely that in these roamings the seeds were gathered from which the Australian War Memorial would ultimately grow.”

Also important was Bean’s time at Clifton, which he entered in 1894. It was rich in the British imperial tradition and two ex-students had major roles in the Great War: Field Marshal Douglas Haig and Field Marshal William Birdwood; while another Old Cliftonian was Henry Newbolt, remembered as the author of the poem “Vitaï Lampada”, set on the school’s hallowed cricket ground, “The Close”, where a match serves as a metaphor for honour and valour in battle—“Play up! play up! and play the game!” Many Old Cliftonians served in the Boer War, including some of Bean’s friends who died. As Coulthart remarks, “it is not difficult to understand the crushing sense of imperial duty that both Bean father and son felt as alumni of Clifton”.

In 1895, Charles witnessed the elaborate re-enactments and celebrations surrounding the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Gravelotte, a pivotal engagement in the Franco-Prussian War. Fascinated by the manoeuvres and displays, he recorded the scene in an accomplished watercolour of the parading German troops, while also writing out from memory the music to which they marched. Charles had demonstrated this attention to military detail in 1893 at Portsmouth, where he carefully explored Victory, Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, and the ill-conceived Hero, designed with a ram as her primary weapon, along with guns of sufficient power to endanger the ship itself whenever they were fired. As McCarthy observes, the thirteen-year-old Charles cast “an almost professional eye over every inch of the Hero”. On one side of each page he made sketches of the ships, with a key to their written description provided on the other. Thereafter, he recalled during the Great War, “I used to know most of the types in the navy on sight [and] I read pretty well every book I could get hold of about the navy”. At school the Navy and Army magazine was his chief interest, along with the Times’s naval news and the annual Navy Estimates.

Charles subsequently joined the School Engineer Corps at Clifton, contemplating a military career. Even after he took advantage of several scholarships and went to Oxford in 1898 to do Greats, he considered switching to mathematics and science with a view to a career as an army engineer, before settling for service in the Oxford University Battalion of the Oxfordshire Light Infantry. (In 1908 this became the 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry—usually shortened to the “2nd Ox and Bucks”—and in August 1914 it arrived on the Western Front as part of the British Expeditionary Force, subsequently taking part in the battles at Mons, on the Marne, and at First Ypres. In five months the unit of some 1000 men sustained 632 casualties. The toll was similar in its many subsequent battles, and by the end of the war only sixty-six soldiers remained from the original 2nd Ox and Bucks. Charles would most likely have served with this unit if he had remained in England.)

Unsurprisingly, Bean used his knowledge of naval affairs to establish his credentials as a military writer in Australia in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. After suffering a massive defeat on land, the Russians sent the imperial fleet from the Baltic on an epic 33,000-kilometre voyage around the world to confront the Japanese navy. Bean was one of the few commentators who realised that the approaching battle would be the first great trial of the modern type of battleship, writing in the Herald that it would be a vital test of “the whole genus of armoured ships”, upon which the security of the British Empire and Australia depended. As it transpired, the Battle of the Tsushima Straits (May 27–28, 1905) saw the annihilation of the Russian fleet. It also vindicated the theory that the key to victory in such battles was battleships with a preponderance of large, long-range guns, and effective range-finders, rather than a mix of large, medium and smaller guns, as had been the prevailing policy. Bean had predicted that it would likely be “the most important sea-fight since the days of Nelson”, and this assessment was echoed by experts in naval warfare.

In October 1905 the British began the construction of HMS Dreadnought, which adhered to the new policy and provoked the fateful naval arms race between Britain and Germany. Bean later covered the celebrated visit of the American Navy’s “Great White Fleet” during its epic circumnavigation of the globe, travelling on the redoubtable HMS Powerful to Auckland and publishing With the Flagship in the South (1909), illustrated with excellent drawings and watercolours. It drew upon extensive discussions with naval officers and grimly acknowledged that war with Germany “would be desperate”.

Between 1910 and 1912 Bean was the Herald’s London correspondent and, as McCarthy observes, “it seemed that nothing that could possibly be of interest to the paper escaped his attention … and every­thing he wrote bore the marks of most careful investigation and special knowledge”. This was especially so with defence matters, on which he wrote regularly, ranging from the Balkan wars to the construction of the core of Australia’s first naval fleet, the two cruisers, HMAS Sydney and HMAS Melbourne, and the battlecruiser, HMAS Australia. He also published Flagships Three in 1913, in which he explored the history of seapower, from a Viking ship unearthed from beneath the Scandinavian sands, to the Powerful, with her singular contribution in the Boer wars, and the Australia, the future of his country’s role as a naval power in the Pacific. Called back to Sydney to become the Herald’s senior leader writer, from June 1914 he wrote a daily commentary on the European crisis as it intensified and moved remorselessly towards the outbreak of the Great War.

Then, in September 1914, Bean had his career-defining “big break”. Australia, along with the other British Empire dominions, was invited to attach an official correspondent to its military forces as they entered the war. Bean had already been lobbying desperately to accompany the AIF on its mission, and eventually, in a fiercely contested ballot, he narrowly defeated Keith Murdoch of the Melbourne Herald for the Australian Journalists’ Association nomination as Australia’s official war correspondent. Undeterred, Murdoch contrived to be sent to Gallipoli and later covered much of the war alongside Bean, intervening controversially with the British and Australian governments on various strategic issues.

And so it transpired on October 21, 1914, that Bean was aboard HMAT Orvieto, the flagship of the AIF transport fleet, ready to depart for the Middle East. He was thirty-four; he knew Australia and especially the bush, the people who lived there, and their stoic posture towards the challenges of life; he was a product of the British Empire at its zenith and he identified strongly with its civilising mission; he’d made himself familiar with modern military matters and the officers who’d shortly be leading his country in war. Above all, he knew the desperate hopes Australia had invested in the young volunteers about to depart and he possessed a fierce desire to stand witness to his country’s birth in battle.

History had now brought him to this spot, and he gazed down from the high decks at his beloved father standing on the Melbourne docks below. He’d said a sad farewell to Lucy earlier—like innumerable other Australian mothers she couldn’t face the trip to the wharf to watch their sons disappear over the horizon into a war that was already known for its indiscriminate and mass carnage. It was a moment of immense loneliness, as McCarthy recounts, and also grim exhilaration, but after a time Bean brought his emotions under control, turned and went below to his cabin, preparing to greet men with whom he’d share the inconceivable experiences of the next four years. In their company he was beginning an odyssey that would define his life, enshrine their exploits, and shape Australia’s national identity.

Mervyn F. Bendle has written extensively on the First World War in Quadrant, most recently “Anti-Anzac: The Authorised Biography” in the October issue.


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