Charles Bean and the Anzac Legend

charles beanAustralia is unique among all the nations that fought in the Great War because of the way in which the Anzac Legend developed as a central part of its collective memory and national identity. It is also unique in the way in which the meaning and validity of the Legend has been continually contested: by those who want to discredit it and destroy it; and by those who want to protect and preserve it. This conflict has been central to Australia’s cultural history since the Legend first emerged amidst the violence, tragedy, and heroism of the Great War and its immediate aftermath.

Central to the creation and popularization of the Legend of was Charles E. W. Bean (1879–1968), an Australian lawyer, teacher, journalist, war correspondent, social historian, military historian, and driving force behind the establishment of the Australian War Memorial. In particular, Bean is renowned as the editor of the 12-volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Moreover, he himself wrote Volumes I-VI, which deal with the activities of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) at Gallipoli, France and Belgium, and managed to have the first volume published in 1921, before the official histories of any other nations appeared. He also edited the best-selling Anzac Book (1916), compiling stories, poems, illustrations, and cartoons produced by soldiers in the trenches, as well as Anzac to Amiens (1946), a popular one-volume history of the war.

This was a phenomenal achievement, which dwarfs the efforts of any comparable war correspondent or historian of the Great War from any country. As Denis Winter points out in Making the Legend: The War Writings of C.E.W. Bean (1992), in terms of the detail achieved by Bean in his volumes of the History relative to the number of troops involved, “the British would have required eighty-four volumes to match Bean’s six and the Canadians’ nine”, but they managed only sixteen and one respectively. Also, as Winter points out, Bean’s approach to his task was pioneering:

Most official histories [took] Prussia’s account of its 1870 war with France as their model. A narrative shorn of critical comment, devoid of controversy and describing accounts from the single viewpoint of the high command became the accepted formula. Bean’s perspective was very 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.

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 6,550 of them and each with a footnoted biographical sketch”. This was a Herculean achievement in itself, which immortalized in the Official History the efforts of the mass of the soldiers who fought for Australia in a manner that has no parallel elsewhere.

It is therefore a grim measure of the success of the campaign waged by the left against the Anzac Legend over the past half century that Bean is almost unknown. At the time of the centenary of Australia’s entry into the war there was virtually no mention of Bean or the role he played. One exception was the ALP historian, Troy Bramston, writing in The Australian (“A lesson writ large in blood”, 4/8/2014), who briefly mentions Bean’s view that “the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born” at Gallipoli but dismiss it as “manifestly a tendentious claim”.  Bean was also mentioned at the time (31/7/2014) in a talk to the National Press Club by Ashley Ekins, the Head of Military History at the Australian War Memorial. The purpose of Ekins’ talk was to debunk (once again) the Anzac Legend and to pathologize Bean, its principal intellectual source, insisting that Bean must have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or “late-onset melancholia”, despite his achievements stretching over decades.

Ekins’ view seems to serve as a counterpoint to that expressed by the Director of the AWM, Brendan Nelson, in his “Reflections” published in Wartime (No.67, Winter 2104). Nelson cites Bean to support the view that a positive national identity is essential if a nation is to sustain itself through history and that the anecdotes of mateship and casual heroism amongst the Anzacs recorded by Bean are an invaluable resource, especially for young people: “As Bean concluded, the good and the bad, the greatness and the smallness of their story, would be their nation’s possession forever”. For Ekins however, Bean was mentally ill.

This contrast should not be surprising as Nelson is not of the left but is a moderate liberal and an ex-leader of the Federal Coalition, while Ekins is part of the leftist coterie of military historians committed to the destruction of the Anzac Legend that dominates our elite institutions, including the AWM, the Australian National University and the Australian Defence Force Academy. Characteristically, he is also the supervising editor of Wartime, the AWM’s anodyne military history magazine, which includes in every issue the politically correct assurance that “it is not the intention of the [AWM] to sensationalise human tragedy that is the result of war, nor to promote militaristic or chauvinistic sentiment”, which is no doubt a relief to readers.

This attitude towards Bean is part of the larger failure of Australian historians to engage in any significant way with intellectual and cultural phenomena that are not of the left. As Dudley McCarthy observed a generation ago in Gallipoli to the Somme: the Story of C.E.W. Bean (1983; all references are to this book unless otherwise specified), “Bean’s work has been rather stonily ignored by Australian academic historians”, and this was a view echoed recently in Ken Inglis’s monumental Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (2008): “Although C.E.W. Bean … was more prolific and possibly more popular than any other writer of Australian history, all the others virtually ignored him”.

The battle to define Australia’s national identity is at the core of this issue. Bean may be seen as the antithesis of the coterie of Australian historians who have dominated the discipline for the past half-century: where Bean views the nation’s history in heroic terms, they see it exclusively in terms of guilt, failure, and shame. Indeed, Bean’s history was part of the first phase in the production of military histories of the war and, as acknowledged by Jay Winter and Antoine Prost in The Great War in History (2005), it was therefore concerned with “the stuff of national character” like other comparable work at the time. As they say of Bean, his work in particular “exemplified this approach to military history [as] the chronicle of the birth of his nation”. The perspective Bean offered on the Gallipoli campaign transformed “a complete defeat [into a] noble sacrifice”, worthy of a new country, and made it into “the backdrop to what was essentially a national foundation myth”. It is precisely this ‘myth’ that contemporary military historians now rage against, preferring their own bleak dirge of racism, xenophobia, and exploitation, to the uplifting hymn of heroic nation building composed by Bean.  

Perhaps if Bean had accepted one of the three offers of a knighthood that he received it would have been much more difficult to marginalize him, and if he had been accorded his rightful status then he might have served as a rallying point for those who might have been prepared to hold out against the radical hegemony that has reduced Australian history to its present pathetic state. However, it was not to be and when Bean received the offers he remained true to the ideals that he enshrined in his books and reiterated in response to the first offer in 1940: “I have for many years held that in Australia the interest of the nation would be best served by the elimination of social distinctions”, and so he declined the offers, preferring to see himself, as he said, as “a plain Australian”. On the other hand, he was proud to accept recognition of his intellectual achievements as an historian, accepting the Chesney Gold Medal from the Royal United Services Institution in 1930, as well as several honorary doctorates.

As it presently stands, this lack of awareness of Bean’s work is doubly tragic. First, it robs the Australian people of knowledge of how the Anzac Legend came into being as Bean addressed the question central to his historical enquiries: “How did the Australian people – and the Australian character … come through the universally recognized test of this, their first great war?” Second, it denies us the opportunity to know about a man who epitomized many of the most laudable qualities of the Federation generation of young Australians who saw their country become a nation and then stepped forward to fight for its future in the Great War.

Merv Bendle is a frequent contributor to Quadrant and Quadrant Online

Leave a Reply