The notebooks and diaries of C.E.W. Bean provide valuable insight into the last days of the First World War. Bean was Australia’s sole official correspondent and he worked assiduously throughout the four years of the war recording events, often from the front line.
Charles Bean was staying in Lille, France during November, 1918. He was an experienced investigator and interviewer and his diaries of the weeks before Armistice detail the emotions and concerns of those who knew the war was coming to an end. Bean, who generally had access to all levels of command, writes of conversations with Generals John Monash and William Birdwood and discusses the opinions of members of the international press and political leaders including Australia’s Prime Minister Billy Hughes on the peace process. Bean spent much of his time throughout the war interviewing Australian soldiers and recording their stories. During the last months of the war he takes the time to observe and record the feelings of average French civilians noting their opinions and feelings towards Germany.
The weeks leading up to Armistice are described by Bean in his diary as subdued. He wrote “I think it is the dead who rise up between the survivors” that prevents “any sort of Bacchanalian rejoicing”. Journalists and those in command that Bean talked to were initially sceptical about Germany’s intentions. After the Kaiser and his son had abdicated and fled on the 10 November, scepticism turned to a concern about what position Germany would be in to negotiate peace and who was in command. He noted conversations that he had with military commanders, politicians and journalists and recorded their concerns about the potential break up of Germany. Many feared that the country would slide into Bolshevism. Bean wrote that if Germany split there may not be money to compensate Belgium and France. By November Bean did not support the demands on Germany strongly expressed by Billy Hughes. Australia’s Prime Minister was in France lobbying through the press and political channels for extensive reparations for all the Allied countries including Australia. Bean described the speech that Hughes gave to the French War Cabinet as unrealistic.
Bean observed and recorded the feelings of some of the French citizens that he encountered. The French people were calling for broad compensation from Germany for the destruction and devastation of their country. Bean was billeted with an elderly French civilian woman in Lille and was meeting her in the morning for coffee on the 11th of November. He describes in his diary some of her experiences during the war including the destruction of her home. On the morning of the 11th he was getting ready before meeting her and heard a “few hoarse cheers from the street”. He notes the cheers were by men from a British labour company and mentions “a few of the Lille people strung out on either side of their road through the square”. He “could hear a child’s tin trumpet bleating” in the distance and guessed that the war had ended but wrote that this was only confirmed to him later.
Bean had planned to spend most of 11November visiting the battlefield of Fromelles. He intended to photograph and record details of the site before it became altered after the war. At 11 o’clock he was near Fromelles and mentioned being photographed by Casserly who was accompanying him from the Official Photograph Records Section in front of an old estaminet aptly called “Fin de la Guerre”. Bean described the battlefield of Fromelles as “full of our dead”. He describes Australian kit strewn everywhere and a cluster of Australian water bottles near a water channel. He speculated that the injured may have made their way there to get water.
As Bean made his way home from the Fromelles battlefield he noticed as he passed through the villages’ a few French youths walking about mainly with the tricolour draped on their shoulders – not waiving them. And as it got dark he noticed lights in the villages for the first time and an old lighthouse that hadn’t worked for four years. “There has been little shouting – not so much as on a Saturday night at home. It is quiet now – 11: 45 pm. And so it is Peace.”
The AIF was not fighting at war’s end. Heavy casualties and the 1914 enlistees being given long term leave had reduced many of the battalions to as little as 150 men. Most of the AIF were on recreation leave behind the lines from early October 1918. Bean records that although the men were designated to be on three months leave, after one month, many of the units were brought back into the line. It was proposed that some would be going into battle in early November. These battles were postponed and thankfully the war ended.