Charles Bean and the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918

We live in a time when historical sources are becoming increasingly accessible, when historical knowledge and interpretation are growing and changing at an unprecedented pace. The internet, the medium which allows you to read these words, has changed both how historians conduct research and how they distribute the result of their work.

The Memorial itself has embraced digital technology in controlling its collection and making it available, and in bringing interpretation of Australia’s experience of war to people through its website wherever they may be.

Still, you might wonder why the Memorial should be making available in digital form a series of books first published over eighty years ago. Surely a history so old has been superseded?

The Official history of Australia in the war of 1914–1918, which Charles Bean directed and edited between 1920 and 1942, remains one of the great achievements of Australian history. While later studies have elaborated, revised and challenged many aspects of it, it retains its integrity as the single greatest source of interpretation of Australia’s part in the First World War.

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Bean working on files during the writing the First World War Official History.
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Bean’s history remains notable, even unique, because it was the work of a participant, one who instigated the collection of the archive on which it was based. It was the product of an individual vision, of one man who worked with a tiny staff of co-authors and dedicated colleagues.

It was written by men who had lived through the Great War, men who worked with a profound sense of the sacrifice that Australia had made in that war. They wrote from first-hand knowledge of those who had fought, in many cases having shared the experience of war. Bean himself landed on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, had been wounded in August, and had been present at practically every battle in which Australians participated on the Western Front. He wrote the two Gallipoli and four Western Front volumes, the heart of the enterprise.

The volumes of the history they produced became the largest single historical project undertaken in Australia to that time. Only the massive Historical records of Australia – a collection of colonial official documents rather than of interpretation – was comparable. Of subsequent projects only the official history series of the Second World War was larger, while the ambitious bicentennial series, Australians, a historical library, was the work of dozens of researchers and writers. As the work of an individual historical vision, Bean’s six volumes are perhaps comparable only to Manning Clark’s six-volume History of Australia.

Bean’s history is also notable in an international context. Official histories of the Great War were produced by many other nations. They mainly followed the model of the European “staff” history, technical studies produced by soldiers for soldiers, volumes of dry narrative.

Bean’s Australian official history adopted a very different style, a reflection perhaps of his background as a journalist. In his own writing (as he condescendingly put it) he “determined never … to write a sentence which could not be understood by a housemaid of average intelligence”. He dealt with a relatively small army and navy, though these were forces which had played a notable part in several aspects of war. Accordingly, Bean’s history focused on the experience of Australians generally at the front line, devoting attention to them as individuals, often charting their part in actions minute-by-minute, depicting their movements in hundreds of “thumb-nail” sketch maps.

Readers often find this devotion to detail overwhelming. But Bean’s entire work was animated by a guiding principle; that the history was to be a memorial to those who had served, suffered and died. The big question he set out to explore, as he later explained, was “how did the Australian people … come through the first universally recognised test of this, their first great war?” It was answered by the ringing nationalism of his most profound conclusion that through service and sacrifice in the war “Australia became fully conscious of itself as a nation”. While he could lose himself and his readers in masses of detail, Bean’s exploration of and reflection on that original profound question gives his history and enduring quality, one that extends beyond the simple desire to record the facts of Australia’s part in that conflict.

Charles Bean was a complex man. Though Australian-born (in Bathurst in 1879), he had been educated in British public schools and at Oxford. Returning as a young lawyer after federation, he rediscovered his native land in a series of bush journeys. Elected as Australia’s official correspondent to the AIF in 1914, he soon realised that an official history would be his responsibility, and it determined the course of the rest of his life.

Bean’s history is neither definitive nor flawless. He tended to lionise those whom he admired and to omit what he found uncomfortable, and he has been criticised for failing to thoroughly master the details of tactical or technological development. It is even arguable that the very thoroughness of his work has tended to deter his successors from tackling such a massive project, that its authority impels later researchers to follow his lead rather than chart their own.

Even so, Bean’s history remains one of the great works of Australian historical literature, satisfying and stimulating on several levels. So thorough was his command of the sources and so clear was his narrative that Bean’s volumes are still used as an essential reference, often as a starting point for research today. Perhaps it owes its longevity and continuing relevance to the epic nature of the story it tells, a story which, as they demonstrate every 25 April, still engages the feelings of the Australian people. This powerful connection between Bean the historian and Australia’s understanding of its history justifies the Memorial’s decision to make his history available to new readers in this form.

Further reading:

K.S. Inglis, “Bean, Charles Edwin Woodrow”, Australian dictionary of biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1979)

Dudley McCarthy, Gallipoli to the Somme: the story of C.E.W. Bean, (Sydney: John Ferguson, 1983)

Denis Winter (ed.) Making the legend: the war writings of C.E.W. Bean, (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1992)

For further discussion of each volume, see also the various introductions to the volumes written for the edition published by the University of Queensland Press in the early 1980s (included in this digitised version).

Dr Peter Stanley
Principal Historian
Australian War Memorial (1980 - 2007)