Volume XI – Australia During the War

Introduction by Michael McKernan

The Australian War Memorial would like to acknowledge the kind permission of the author and the assistance of the University of Queensland Press in making this Introduction available on–line.

In the opinion of one of Australia’s most elegant contemporary historians, “to write the history of one’s own society’s very recent past demands daring of the writer and tolerance of the reader”. The reader must accept the danger of a lack of perspective and the writer, who has lived through the events he describes, might be inclined to justify the arguments and the actions that he then supported.1

Contemporary history now enjoys something of a vogue. For example, most federal elections will attract book–length studies, published within weeks of polling day, and quite confident in their judgments. History was once about the past that was “another country”, but in many cases now, its landscape is only too familiar.

Official military history has often been conceived as contemporary history. Publication of The Times History of the War began well before any of its writers could have predicted when the great war would end, or which side would emerge victorious. C.E.W. Bean at first seriously anticipated that his multi–volumed work, the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, could be finished within three or four years of the signing of the peace treaty. Military history had a tradition of contemporaneousness and Bean had many models to follow. Contemporary political history, however, was quite another matter and required the daring of the writer and the tolerance of the reader. Above all else, as the chronicle of the writing of this volume will show, the work demanded the patience and industry of Bean, the series’ general editor.

Bean had not at first envisaged that his history would include an account of the homefront and he may have come to regret that he submitted to pressure from W.A. Watt, the acting prime minister, and George Pearce, the Defence minister, to include such a volume in his schema. It is easy to understand why the ministers urged the volume on Bean. His history would be a matter of record, acknowledging for all time the brilliance of that leader, the bravery of that soldier and, ultimately, would commemorate the achievement of all who had fought for Australia. In this account the government would be largely invisible. Remote from the councils of war, government decisions in Australia were peripheral to the momentous events in Europe. In very few matters only could it be said that Australian decisions even vaguely affected the war on the western front, and in the case of conscription, because the ministers were on the losing side, they might have wished to ensure that the justice of their case was well and widely understood.2

Bean, who had left Australia with the first contingent in October 1914, had no first–hand knowledge of the contribution of Australians on the homefront, but he might not have been reluctant to incorporate this topic into his history. Ever keen to promote to the world his high regard for Australia’s contribution, he might easily have accepted the wisdom of placing the conscription debates in the context of the extraordinary Australian contribution of men and materials. By including all these homefront matters in one volume, Bean would be spared the need to deal with political matters in his military volumes. As he wrote in November 1921, “I was really grateful for this decision [to commission a homefront volume] as it left me free to discard nearly all political questions and devote myself to the A.I.F. in the field”.3

He may well have been less grateful, as events unfolded, that the acting prime minister chose the author for the homefront book. Bean wrote to his publisher, George Robertson, in 1920, the author “was not originally chosen by me for this work”. Watt, taking a closer interest in this volume than the others, nominated Thomas W. Heney as the author and Bean, who knew Heney well, concurred. Heney, whom Bean later described as an “independent radical”, had been editor of the Sydney Morning Herald throughout the war years and was excellently placed, therefore, to know what had been going on. As his editorials amply demonstrated, he was “sound” on the question of conscription, no doubt a prime consideration.4

Perhaps Watt felt that he also owed Heney a favour, for in choosing him to be a member of a press delegation to Britain in 1918 Watt had placed Heney in a difficult position with his proprietor, J.O. Fairfax. Eventually, because of the tension between proprietor and editor, Heney resigned his plum editorial job, and at the time of his appointment to the official history he was living the precarious existence of a freelance journalists.5

Although Heney was not Bean’s choice, the general editor fell in with the appointment readily enough. Heney, the third generation of his family to work for the Sydney Morning Herald, joined the paper in 1878 at the age of sixteen, and was appointed editor in 1903. Bean joined the staff in 1908. Heney was, noted the Herald’s historian Gavin Souter, the first editor “to face the world completely without a beard”. He had written two novels and “fair to middling poetry” but, journalism aside, was a complete newcomer to history.6

Unintentionally, no doubt, Bean misrepresented to Heney the nature of the task he was to undertake. Instead of warning his “old chief” of the difficulties and dangers of writing contemporary political history, Bean suggested that the manuscript, which he estimated at 120, 000 words, should take no more than nine months to write. Heney was to draw largely, if not entirely, on newspaper reports for his narrative and would be paid £600 for his labours. As Bean later confessed, “I blame myself for having at first greatly under–estimated the time and labour necessary for the work”. When Heney was commissioned, in October 1919, Bean was thinking and acting like the journalist that he was, and only gradually did he become aware of the scope and nature of his historical enterprise. The Heney authorship was particularly instructive to Bean in this regard and concentration on Heney’s trials will throw a light on Bean’s work as an editor and on the emergence of Bean as a historian.7

As a good journalist, Heney tackled his project according to his brief and made such progress that by June 1920 he was in a position to send the first part of his manuscript to his editor. Bean did not like what he read. He complained to Heney that the manuscript lacked detail and relied too heavily on newspaper accounts of the events described. Greater use, Bean counselled, should be made of the records of the premier’s conference at the outbreak of the war, of personal reminiscences and, particularly, of official records in government files. Heney was not greatly alarmed by this criticism, explaining to Bean that when he had had the opportunity of reading more of the manuscript, his fears would be allayed. Heney lightly suggested that Bean might have to commission another volume to include all the material that he now indicated was missing and he reminded his former junior that “the art of being a bore is saying everything”.8

Heney laboured on diligently and in October 1920, twelve months after his initial appointment, he sent off the draft of his completed manuscript. He also advised Bean that, as most of his work on the book now over, he had accepted the editorship of the Telegraph in Brisbane. Bean cannot have been happy with the manuscript he had received because, some months later, he sent it to be read by T.G. Tucker, Australia’s “most eminent classical scholar”, who had, at the height of the adulation accorded W.M. Hughes during his London triumphs, described the prime minister’s oratory as rivalling and, indeed, surpassing that of Demosthenes.9

Tucker, professor at the University of Melbourne, proved to be a tough reader. He advised Bean that the manuscript needed “very stringent revision”, causing Bean to offer the job to Tucker himself at a suggested fee of £500. The classicist declined, explaining that “only when I came to the actual revision did I realise how atrociously bad much of [the manuscript] is”. Tucker found Heney’s work “puerile, mawkish, loose in construction, padded and written in a style unworthy of any man of letters”, and he reminded Bean that as the entire history would be judged on its weakest part, Heney’s work might drag down the whole edifice.10

But at this stage little else of the edifice had been constructed and Bean may have wondered whether the academic was setting the standard a little too high. He did not show the report to Heney, who worked on, plugging the few gaps that Bean had identified and commenting, cheerfully enough, that his task “approaches completion”. This was in September 1921. Bean probably shocked Heney when he replied in October that both Professor Tucker and the publisher had told him that the manuscript required “very heavy revision”, but he tried to treat his author gently: “I will not worry you with [their reports] … such things are always unpalatable and even mortifying in the extreme”. Heney reluctantly agreed that more work was needed, stating plaintively that “it adds to my grief and anxiety about the [book]”.11

Bean himself began to rework the text despite his own heavy labours as the author of the six operational volumes. He still hoped, rather bravely in the face of Tucker’s report, that the manuscript could form the basis of a good book. He told Robertson in March 1922 that he expected to submit it soon to the government for clearance and that it was now “infinitely better than it was”. He had himself put in three or four months’ work on the manuscript “and Professor Tucker nearly as much”. For the next eighteen months or so, Bean remained optimistic about Heney’s work. He told his author that the book would be published in 1923 and in January 1924 he wrote to congratulate Heney on returning to Sydney journalism as the editor of the Daily Telegraph and to advise that Heney’s book was the next to be published. The delay, as he had been explaining for some time, was because of the other books ahead of Heney’s in the queue.12

Imagine Heney’s surprise and disappointment, therefore, when eighteen months after this Bean returned the manuscript to Heney saying that “in its present form I cannot send the book forward”. The correspondence in the Bean papers may be imperfect, or perhaps Bean and Heney had met to discuss the manuscript, but if not, the shock to Heney must have been enormous. What had made Bean change his mind about a manuscript he had been prepared to send to the printer? Again, there is little evidence apart from Bean’s comment that his “sole aim” was that “the history should be worthy of the effort of the Australian people”. It may well be that Bean’s expectations for his history had grown significantly since he had accepted Heney’s book and that, mindful of Tucker’s warning about the weakest link, he realised that he could no longer tolerate Heney’s mediocre manuscript. Certainly, from Heney’s point of view, the project had grown in stature since he was first commissioned for nine months’ work.13

The question that Bean now had to face was whether or not he should cut his losses, jettison Heney and start all over again with a new writer. Heney endangered his position by advising Bean that he would need six months leave of absence from the Daily Telegraph if he were to revise the manuscript to Bean’s satisfaction. Bean approached the government for permission to engage an additional author, “a man of standing”, who would be paid £500 to £600 to rework the manuscript and who would be credited as joint author. Cabinet approved this solution in August 1925.14

The choice of author now exercised Bean’s mind and at first he sought to entice Sir Archibald Strong of Adelaide to the project. Strong, professor of English, was known as a poet and essayist and his only substantial work of scholarship was his Short History of English Literature. The paucity of historians in Australia had led Bean first to a classicist and now to a litterateur in his search for a political and economic historian. Understandably, Strong turned him down, recommending Ernest Scott, professor of History at Melbourne. Scott, wrote Strong in a neatly barbed way, was suited to the project because of his “peculiar training and experience and knowledge”. Indeed, Scott was an academic rarity, a professor without a degree who had come to the university via journalism and Hansard reporting.15

Scott looked at the manuscript for Bean and in May 1926 advised the despairing official historian that he could not accept the commission. It was “neither possible nor desirable” to revise the manuscript because in the first chapter, for example, “there is only one paragraph I would leave as it stands”. Bean believed that he had little option but to place Heney back in the harness; everyone else had turned him down. He was motivated, too, by a desire to be kind to Heney, but whether Bean ever wondered if his kindness was misplaced is, of course, unknown.16

Several factors, Bean wrote, influenced his decision to retain Heney. Watt had selected him, and it was preferable to stick with the publicly announced appointment. Furthermore, Heney was his “old chief”, “down on his luck” because he had just lost the editorship of the Daily Telegraph. To lose his authorship as well would be a “dreadful blow”17

Heney went back on the public payroll, receiving £1/5/–a day to work in Melbourne on the government files that he had so far ignored. He wrote cheerful letters to Bean detailing his progress, and he impressed a government officer in Melbourne who gave him desk space. The old man was, the officer reported, “wonderfully brainy and capable”. Alas, the revised manuscript did not bear out this assessment. General Brudenall White, one of Bean’s heroes, read the work and told Bean that it was “neither record nor history”. It was, he wrote, “merely a newspaper article - and not much better founded than the usual newspaper product”.18

At this point poor Heney’s health broke down; he later alleged that this was because of his Melbourne exertions. In February 1928 Bean wrote to Mrs Heney asking if her husband’s health was sufficiently improved to permit him to be told “the bad news”. It was, and in March Heney resigned. Heney behaved very well, placing all his notes and the entire manuscript at Bean’s disposal. He did request, understandably, that if any major part of it were to be used in the finished product he should receive “due acknowledgment”. He also asked if, given his lengthy exertions, the effect on his health of the Melbourne venture and his “heavy disappointment”, some compensation might be payable. Cabinet accepted his resignation and approved the payment of £50. Heney died in August 1928.19

Despite these unhappy nine years, Bean had made little progress towards producing the homefront volume the government had commissioned. Six operational volumes had been published. Bean turned again to Professor Scott, who became the only academic to write in the official military history series until Professors Butlin and Schedvin wrote the economic volumes of the World War II series. Scott had migrated to Australia from Britain in 1891 and had first been employed as a journalist with the Melbourne Herald. Later he became a parliamentary reporter, first for Victoria and then for the Commonwealth, and it was during this time that he wrote three works of history, the most substantial of which, The Life of Matthew Flinders, became that explorer’s standard biography. On the basis of Scott’s published work he was appointed to the chair of History at the University of Melbourne where he taught until his retirement in 1936. He was a superb lecturer. A student of his, later a colleague, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, noted that Scott was “the most hard–working academic I was ever to know in a life–time spent in universities”. She also observed that Scott was “informed and intelligent but not profound”.20

Scott made almost no use of Heney’s manuscript or notes. Only in two places in the text was Heney quoted at length; once in a footnote describing the rush of Australians to enlist, and later, over three pages, describing his fund–raising efforts by various charities. Scott even insisted on doing all the research anew, for, as he explained to Bean, “the full significance of the events seems to have evaporated when one simply takes abstracts made by somebody else”. So Bean had to accept that the homefront volume would be further delayed.21

In July 1928 Scott submitted a draft plan of the book which Bean described as “very workmanlike”. The work was to be divided into five major sections (“books”), but only four of these sections appeared in the published work. Scott’s aim was to describe the background - political, social, industrial and economic - against which Australia’s effort at the front was set. His volume presumed a close correlation between the achievements of the troops in the field and the work of those who organised them, reinforced them and supplied them from home. Scott tried to demonstrate that the remarkable achievement of Australians in battle was matched by an equally remarkable commitment of resources at all levels at home. In pursuing this objective, Scott met the criticism of those who believed that only the troops in the field reached heights of patriotism of which all Australians could be proud, and countered, in particular, the view that people on the homefront were unpatriotic because of the defeat of conscription.22

Scott’s great contribution lay in the wealth of detail in his history. If at times his judgments were so well–balanced as to be bland, nevertheless he addressed all the issues that the war provoked and set out a great deal of the evidence. Unlike Heney, Scott made the official record his starting point and his devotion to duty, referred to by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, is abundantly evident. He must have spent years reading the files and taking his notes. He placed little reliance on newspaper accounts of events. Scott also had access to the papers of the governor–general Sir Ronald Munro–Ferguson (later Lord Novar). The governor–general played a remarkably activist role in Australia during the war and kept detailed accounts of his discussions and doings. His papers, now in the National Library of Australia, allowed Scott intimate access to the federal political process. Scott was not so fortunate in coming to terms with the lives of ordinary Australians.

The fifth division in his 1928 plan for the book was entitled “the citizen and the war” and was to include chapters on the patriotic funds, legislative and judicial changes caused by the war and Australian literature about the war. Only a discussion of the patriotic funds found a place in the published book. Bean could see little need for a discussion on literature which Scott defined very broadly as “not merely the historical work, but also the poetry and prose in the widest sense and also the art, serious and caricature”. It is a shame that Scott was talked out of including this section, because it might have helped to alleviate the remoteness from the lives of ordinary people from which his volume suffers. To be sure, Scott was no social historian, but the use of some personal reminiscences, such as Bean had suggested to Heney, might have made his book both more attractive and more accurate. As H.M. Green remarked, this was the one thing lacking in Australia During the War:

whose inclusion would have brought it much more closely in touch with the basic principle enunciated by Bean: Scott shows clearly how the Australian community was affected by the war … but he says nothing about the effect of the war upon the average individual and family, and the nature of their responses.23

Both author and editor accepted that political questions presented the greatest difficulty. From the outset, Bean recognised that ministers and former ministers would pay closer attention to this volume than to any other in the series because it assessed their performances and those of their parties. It was a volume which would be relevant to the continuing political debate and might even rekindle the sectarian fires and social divi­sions so greatly exacerbated by the war. Bean reminded Scott that “there is certain to be objection if we go any further than is essential for the purpose of the history into political events”, and indeed Bean rewrote some at least of Scott’s work to make it acceptable in Canberra. He explained to his author that he had “exercised all [his] ingenuity in the endeavour to preserve the points made by you, and at the same time to steer clear of rocks upon which I am certain we should strike if the text were”.24

A discussion on official censorship of Bean’s history and the self­censorship that Bean himself exercised is beyond the scope of this introduction. There is ample evidence that Bean shaped the manuscript for Scott’s volume to suit his own ideas of propriety, to achieve balance and to reflect comments made by ministers, and senior public servants. It is unclear whether this procedure was peculiar to this troublesome volume. Most of those scholars who have returned to study Bean’s history recently have ac­cepted that some censorship was exercised. At its simplest, Bean was the kind of man who did not wish to give offence.

A minor episode showed the difficulties Bean encountered. Scott had quoted W.M. Hughes as saying that the Germans were “a nation of liars”. Hughes remained a minister in Lyons’s government, a government itself concerned not to give offence to the Germans as the world struggled to preserve an uneasy peace. While Bean was not sympathetic to the government’s position, asking “what importance do we attach to what Hindenburg or Hitler said of us in 1914–1918?”, nevertheless the state­ment was amended and Hughes was quoted as remarking, more decorously, that “the Germans were entirely untrustworthy”.25

No less trying was the politicians desire to bathe in the limelight. Senator Pearce, for example, returning a couple of draft chapters to Bean, complained that there was “no reference to the fact that during Mr Hughes’s absence in England I was Acting PM as well as Minister for Defence”. Scott did not object to this particular piece of “big–noting” because he liked Pearce (“I know him to be sincere”) and “of course, he knows so much”.26

If Bean rewrote parts of Scott’s manuscript to meet government objections, and potential objections, he also rewrote to provide greater balance. Scott had little time for the anti–conscriptionists, even refusing to include a photograph of Archbishop Mannix in his book, although conceding that “he was, of course, very important”. Bean confided to the Commonwealth solicitor–general, R.R. Garran, in April 1934 that he had been reworking Scott’s manuscript steadily since Christmas. “I have found”, he confessed, “that I have had to add or amend pretty freely”. It was conscription that concerned Bean most. He found that he needed to add balance to Scott’s work: “a statement of the views held by the more important sections that were against conscription ought to be stated and the scales held rather more evenly between the two sides”.27

As with Heney’s work, so with Scott’s: Bean played a substantial role in the final shaping and writing of the book. Although now an academic and therefore more used to scholarly ways than Heney, Scott apparently displayed a high level of errors in his note–taking, which Bean discovered just as the manuscript was to go to the printer. He checked as much as he could, correcting where necessary, but as Scott had read the governor-general’s papers in Scotland, these could not be checked. Bean wondered whether some kind of general disclaimer was required, conscious of the advice given many years ago, that the weakest book could call all the others into question. Perhaps Bean worried too much or performed his correcting task extremely well, for a random comparison between Scott and files held at the Australian Archives indicates how frequently in his narrative Scott merely paraphrased the official record.28

Australia During the War, the eleventh volume of Bean’s history and the second last to appear, was finally published in December 1936, eighteen years after the conclusion of the events it describes. No doubt Bean was relieved to have the troublesome volume out of the way and, in congratulating Scott, wrote that “the volume should be deeply appreciated by the Australian people”. Scott, who had found the writing of contemporary history “peculiarly interesting”, received favourable reviews and good sales. His colleague, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, either absent–mindedly or critically, dismissed Australia During the War, claiming that after his appointment to the chair in 1912 “he never wrote another major historical work although he continued to write scholarly papers and books for the general reader”.29

To treat his lengthy work so dismissively is unfair. It is an impressive achievement in contemporary history, and despite the appearance during the last fifteen years or so of more detailed studies of Australia during the great war, Scott’s history continues to be consulted, and deservedly so. With his job done, at the end of 1936 Scott retired from the university and “with two dogs, a garden and an orchard, and more unread books deserving attention … I shall have days of delight I hope”. Ernest Scott died in 1939.30

Michael McKernan
Deputy Director
Research Collections and Services
Australian War Memorial
May 1988


  1. W.J. Hudson, “1951–72” in F.K. Crowley (ed.), A New History of Australia (Melbourne, 1974), p. 504.
  2. C.E.W. Bean to J.M. Fowler, MHR, 14 November 1921, Bean Papers, Australian War Memorial, 3 DRL 7953, item 15. (Note: all further matter from the Bean Papers in this introduction will be found at this reference.)
  3. Ibid.
  4. Bean to George Robertson, 6 July 1920; Bean to Thomas W. Heney 17 January 1924 (“independent radical”).
  5. Gavin Souter, Company of Heralds (Melbourne, 1981), pp. 121–23.
  6. Souter, Company of Heralds, p. 107.
  7. Heney to Bean 17 July 1920; Bean to Heney, 11 June 1925 (“I blame myself”).
  8. Bean to Heney 25 June 1920; Heney to Bean 3 July 1920.
  9. Heney to Bean, 9 October 1920 and 26 November 1920 (editorship); Scott, Australia during the war, p. 324 (Tucker).
  10. T.G. Tucker to Bean, 11 July 1921; Angus and Robertson Ltd to Bean, 11 July 1921; Tucker to Bean, 25 August 1921.
  11. Heney to Bean, 12 September 1921; Bean to Heney, 7 October 1921; Heney to Bean, 25 October 1921.
  12. Bean to Robertson, 24 March 1922; Bean to Heney, 16 June 1922 and 17January 1924.
  13. Bean to Heney, 11 June 1925.
  14. Heney to Bean, 21 July 1925; Bean to J. Newman, Department of Defence, 25 July 1925; Newman to Bean, 10 August 1925 (Cabinet’s decision).
  15. H.M. Green, A History of Australian Literature, vol. 1 1789–1923 (Sydney, 1961), p. 713; Sir Archibald Strong to Bean, 23 April 1926; Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Solid Bluestone Foundations (Melbourne, 1983), pp. 160–61.
  16. Ernest Scott to Bean, 24 May 1926.
  17. Bean to Newman, 15 June 1926.
  18. Bean to Newman, 7 December 1926 (pay); Heney to Bean, February 1927; Newman to Bean, 31 March 1927; General Sir Brudenell White to Bean, 21 July 1927. Heney had sent White two chapters without any prompting from Bean.
  19. Bean to Mrs T.W. Heney, 14 February 1928; Heney to Bean, 22 March 1928; Souter, Company of Heralds, p. 123
  20. Fitzpatrick, Solid Bluestone Foundations, pp. 160–1, 163, 168.
  21. Scott to Bean, 3 July 1928.
  22. Bean to Scott, 6 July 1928.
  23. Green, History of Australian Literature, p. 759.
  24. Bean to Scott, 12 February 1933.
  25. This difficulty is summarised in a letter from F. Strahan, secretary of the prime minister’s department, to Bean, 4 August 1936.
  26. Senator Sir George Pearce to Bean, 7 June 1933; Scott to Bean, 2 May 1933.
  27. Scott to Bean, 15 May 1933 (Mannix); Bean to Sir Robert Garran, 10 April1934.
  28. Bean Papers, Australian War Memorial, 3 DRL 7953, item 17, passim.
  29. Bean to Scott, 5 November 1936; Fitzpatrick, Solid Bluestone Foundations, p.164.
  30. Scott to Bean, 12 November 1936.