In the early 1890s an English schoolteacher took his ten-year-old son to the museum room in the Hotel du Musée, near the battlefield of Waterloo. The boy was fascinated by the relics of the famous battle and dreamt of creating his own museum as he picked up what he imagined were relics of the fighting in the fields outside. The boy was Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean. His experience at Waterloo was a foretaste of the labours that would occupy most of his adult life: the establishment of the Australian War Memorial and the writing of the official history of Australia during the First World War.
Bean was born in Bathurst, New South Wales, on 18 November 1879, but his family moved to England ten years later. On the completion of his secondary education he won a scholarship to Hertford College, Oxford, where he studied classics and graduated with 2nd class honours. Bean returned to Australia in 1904, was admitted to the New South Wales Bar and for the next two years traveled on the legal circuit around the state. This experience led to The impressions of a new chum, a description of Australia through the eyes of someone returning after a long absence; the manuscript was not published, but material from it was printed as eight articles in the Sydney Morning Herald. They foreshadowed some of the themes that would recur in Bean's later work, particularly the idea that Australians represented the best of the British race and that the finest of them lived in the bush. With publication behind him, Bean decided to become a journalist, and he joined the Herald as a junior reporter in June 1908.
One of Bean's first assignments was as special correspondent on HMS Powerful, flagship of the of the Royal Navy squadron on the Australian station. Bean assembled his reports into The flagship of the south, a book which he published himself. Shortly afterwards he was sent to western New South Wales to do a series of articles on the wool industry. At first uninterested in the subject, Bean soon hit on the idea that the most important product of the wool industry was men on whose labour it depended, and he described their lives in sympathetic detail. Once again he put the articles into a book, On the wool track, published in 1910.
In mid-1914 Bean was given the task of writing a daily commentary on the gathering crisis in Europe. Although he could not have known it, he had begun writing about the conflict that would come to dominate his life. In September he won a ballot held by the Australian Journalists Association to become Australia's official war correspondent, narrowly defeating Keith Murdoch. Bean remained a civilian but held the honorary rank of captain. He travelled to Egypt with the first contingent of the AIF and landed at Gallipoli at 10 am on 25 April, a few hours after the dawn attack. Having annoyed some Australian troops in Egypt for reports in which he revealed that some men were being discharged and sent home for indiscipline, Bean won their admiration on Gallipoli. Two weeks after the landing he was recommended for a decoration for his bravery during the Australian charge at Krithia; as a civilian was ineligible for the award, so he was mentioned in dispatches instead. 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.
Bean had noticed that Australian soldiers were devoted collectors of battlefield souvenirs and imagined that a museum featuring these objects might be created after the war. But it was not until he had witnessed the carnage on the Western Front in the second half of 1916 that he began to conceive a memorial that would not only house battle relics, but also commemorate those who had been killed. He had also become aware that the British and Canadians were planning to create their own war museums. In November 1916 Bean suggested to the Australian Minister for Defence, Senator Pearce, that photographs and relics of the fighting around Pozières should be put on display in a national museum. Pearce, whose motives were more narrowly political, was beginning to agree that a national institution could be useful, if only to mollify the state governments: they were demanding relics to commemorate the service of their own troops.