Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 - Preface by Robert O’Neill

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 Preface available on-line.

This twelve-volume series represents an outstanding accomplishment by its six authors and its general editor, Dr. C.E.W. Bean. On publication, the individual volumes soon won recognition as major sources in the field of modern Australian history, and the series has gained an international reputation as one of the most accurate, perceptive and unvarnished accounts of any nation’s experience in the War of 1914-1918.

The history was commissioned by the Australian Governement in 1919, although Senator George Pearce, the Minister for Defence, had suggested to Bean as early as October 1914, before his departure for Egypt as official war correspondent, that he might write the full history of Australia’s part in the war. Bean took this suggestion seriously and began to keep records of a range and depth which were far greater than those required by journalism. In January 1916 after watching the final evacuation of Australians from Gallipoli during the previous month, he took to London for publication the manuscript The Anzac Book, a compilation of accounts of Anzac experiences written by the participants themselves. In 1917 some of his despatches covering the campaign in France in 1916 were published as Letters from France.

As the war continued he thought more about the shape of the history. Initially he hoped to write a single-volume account but he came to acknowledge that in such a limited space he could not do justice to the exploits of Australian servicemen, the mass of evidence he had garnered, and the public interest in knowing the full story of Australia’s participation in what had been a controversial war of unprecedented cost. Accordingly, he designed a series of twelve volumes: two on the Gallipoli campaign (Vols I and II), and four on the Australian Imperial Force in France (Vols III-VI), all six to be written by Bean; and one each on the Light Horse in Sinai and Palestine, by H S Gullett (Vol.VII); the Australian Flying Corps, by F M Cutlack (Vol.VIII); the Royal Australian Navy, by A.W. Jose (Vol.IX); the New Guinea operations in 1914 and the military administration of the former German protectorate, by Seaforth Mackenzie (Vol.X); Australia’s political, economic and social experience during the war, by T.W. Heney (Vol.XI); and a volume of photographs of Australians at home and in action (Vol.XII). Heney died after several years work on Vol. XI and it was re-commenced by Ernest Scott, Professor of History in the University of Melbourne. In addition three medical history volumes were planned, to be written by Dr. Graham Butler, the first medical officer to reach shore at Anzac in 1915.

Bean’s plan was accepted by the Australian Government and he was commissioned to take charge of the project. He had done much more in the last years of the war to lay securely the foundations of this work, which was of hitherto unparalleled magnitude in Australia. He pressed hard for the establishment of the Australian War Records Section to gather and collate records. His arguments persuaded the authorities and the section began work in 1917, under Major John Treloar, who was later to become the Director of the Australian War Memorial, 1920-1952. Bean also took pains to see that Australian war artists and photographers were appointed and had access to the battle front. In early 1919 he returned to Gallipoli on his way home from France to inspect the battlfield from the Turkish side and gather more evidence. He arrived in Melbourne in May and commenced work with the intention of completing his task within five years. Late in 1919 he moved to Tuggeranong homestead in the Australian Capital Territory, in order to avoid interruptions and to be in the heart of the country he loved. He soon discovered, as did his successors in writing the official histories of Australia’s part in the War of 1939-1945 and the Korean War, that to write a detailed, accurate and readable account of the nation’s part in a war, when granted full access to the records, is an extremely time-consuming task. He could not avail himself of the excuse common amongst historians that unavailabilty of evidence prevented full treatment of some important episodes or aspects of the story. Twenty-three busy years of painstaking, exacting and often tedious work were to follow before the task was completed, or twenty-eight in all, including the five years field work provided by the war itself.

Bean’s aim in writing the history was to answer a series of questions he posed himself:

The first question for my fellow-historians and myself clearly was: how did the Australian people – and the Australian character, if there is one – come through the universally recognised test of this, their first great war? Second was the question: what did the Australian people and their forces achieve in the total effort of their side of the struggle? Third: what was the true nature of that struggle and test so far as Australians took part in it? How well or ill did our constitution and our preparations serve us in it? What were their strengths and weaknesses? And what guidance can our people or others obtain from this experience for future emergencies?1

He based his answers to these questions only partly on official records of the battalions, brigades and divisions, the ships and squadrons, about which he and his fellow authors were writing. They, and Bean in particular, relied substantially on personal experiences of the war. Bean records in the preface to the First Edition of Vol.I:

The writer himself, either on the day of battle or soon afterwards, visited as far as it lay in him to do so, every important trench or position mentioned in this and the following five volumes and of most of them he kept detailed notes. By the kind trust of the authorities and of the men and officers of the AIF he was enabled throughout the four years of the war to make a rule of being present, while the events narrated in these volumes were actually happening, on some part of every battlefield on which Australian infantry fought – the only important exceptions being the battle of Fromelles in 1916 (which he was only able to reach some hours later, when troops were being withdrawn), and the battle of Hermies, which occurred in 1917 while he was for a short time unavoidably absent in England.2

Bean lost no time in applying his investigative and interpretative talents to exploit the rich store of knowledge he had gathered. His first volume appeared in October 1921 and was received with praise, although, as is the fate with most significant works, it also attracted its critics. Gullett’s Vol. VII, Cutlack’s Vol. VIII and the photographic volume appeared in a spate in 1923, followed by Bean’s own Vol. II in 1924. In 1925 poor health compelled him to move his office, records and staff of four from the cold, high plains of Tuggeranong to the milder climate of Sydney, where he worked in Victoria Barracks for the next seventeen years. Mackenzie’s Vol. X was published in 1927, followed by Jose’s Vol. IX in 1928. Bean’s Vol. III appeared in 1929. It had been a staggering achievement of eight volumes produced in ten years, of which Bean had written three while editing and providing general guidance for the authors of the other five. During these years he had advanced in age from forty to fifty and had gained world-wide recognition for the accuracy of his work and originality of his approach to the writing of official war histories. The Royal United Services Institution in London awarded him the Chesney Gold Medal in 1930. The University of Melbourne awarded him a D.Litt. and the Government offered him a knighthood, which he declined.

Scott’s Vol.XI appeared in 1936; Bean’s own last three volumes, IV, V and VI, were published in 1933, 1937 and 1942 respectively. Not content with his labours at the age of sixty-three, he set to and produced a one-volume summary account of Australia’s part in the 1914-1918 War, Anzac to Amiens, which was published in 1946. This productivity was all the more remarkable when we remember that Bean was also engaged in pursuit of other important goals throughout these years. He fought hard to bring the Australian War Memorial into being and the success of his efforts through the economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s is commemorated in one of the finest memorial collections of relics, books, pictures and papers in the world. It is also fitting that the Memorial should have become the administering agency for the writing and production of Australia’s official war histories. He was a founder of the League of Nations Union to help ensure the preservation of peace. In 1942 he became Chairman of the Commonwealth Archives Committee and did much to establish the systematic collection, storage and ordering of official records of all kinds. After a long illness, he died on 30 August 1968, at the Concord Repatriation Hospital, Sydney.

He was the first to caution that his work was not perfect and was careful to publish corrections of earlier mistakes in later editions of his volumes. It could be said that our record of Australia’s participation in the 1914–1918 War is incomplete in that there is no volume which deals principally with matters of strategic policy, war diplomacy and civil-military relations. Nonetheless his twelve volumes comprise one of the most remarkable achievements of Australian historiography and distinguish him as a historian of the first importance.

The AIF was fortunate, as are Australians today, in having an account of one of our most formative national experiences from one who concluded his final volume with such spirit and feeling for his subject of twenty-eight years.

Twenty-three years ago the arms were handed in. The rifles were locked in the rack. The horses were sold. The guns were sheeted and packed in storage for other gunners. The familiar faded-green uniform disappeared from the streets.
But the Australian Imperial Force is not dead. That famous army of generous men marches still down the long lane of its country’s history, with bands playing and rifles slung, with packs on shoulders, white dust on boots, and bayonet scabbards and entrenching tools flapping on coutless thighs – as the French countryfolk and the fellaheen of Egypt knew it.
What these men did nothing can alter now. The good and the bad, the greatness and smallness of their story will stand. Whatever of glory it contains nothing now can lessen. It rises, as it will always rise, above the mists of ages, a monument to great-hearted men; and, for their nation, a possession for ever.’3

A distinguished member of the AIF, who served from the landing at Gallipoli to the end of the war, has indicated the respect Bean earned amongst those of whom he wrote.

There is no account anywhere written from such an unofficial detached point of view, nor is there one which carries more weight as an accurate description of events and details. It is the work of an eye-witness gifted with the rare talent and the still rarer opportunity of sifting evidence, obtained at the time of the events and subjected to the most searching comparison with other reports and records from both sides of No-Man’s-Land. The result is invaluable to military students of all ranks and every nationality, for Bean makes it possible to realise the value of the individual leaders, commissioned and non-commissioned, or, best of all, self-appointed. The account supplied the answer to the question that every soldier has hitherto asked in vain: ‘I know the orders that were issued, but how did the action pan out from the point of view of the platoon and of the individual soldier? What was the work of actual executives?’ As a rule a glimpse can only be gleaned from fiction; assuredly not so from the pages of military history as written by professional soldiers, for military history is usually written by field officers who have forgotten that they were subalterns.4

A wider perspective of Bean is given by Professor Inglis, in concluding his fine Murtagh Macrossan lecture of 1969:

People who knew Charles Bean admired and loved him. At the memorial service Angus McLachlan spoke of the devotion, amounting almost to worship, which Bean won from his friends. His public life may be seen in two contexts. He is in that line of writers and other makers who have affected the way Australians regard themselves and each other and their land; a line that has in it, among others, William Charles Wentworth, Henry Lawson, Tom Roberts, Henry Handel Richardson, Robin Boyd, W.K. Hancock and Sidney Nolan. He is also in the line of disinterested patriots, men who serve and chasten and exhort their people without fear or self-regard. In England they have included John Stuart Mill, R.H.Tawney and George Orwell; in Australia H.B. Higgins, John Curtin, John Latham, A.A. Conlan, Brian Fitzpatrick and J.K. Murray. Australian by accident of birth, English by education, he made his own discovery of Australia between 1904 and 1914, reported with care and pride the Australian experience of war, commemorated the men who died in it, and worked quietly to enhance the lives of another generation. He is a man to remember.5

Robert O’Neill
Head, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre
Australian National University
May 1980


  1. C.E.W. Bean, “The Writing of the Australian Official History of the Great War – Sources, Methods and Some Conclusions”, Royal Australian Historical Society, Journal and Proceedings XXIV (1938) pt. 2, p. 91
  2. C.E.W. Bean, The Story of Anzac. The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–18. 12 vols (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1921), I: xxix-xxx.
  3. C.E.W. Bean, The AIF in France During the Allied Offensive, 1918.The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–18. 12 vols (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1942), VI: 1096.
  4. Quoted by A.W.Bazley, “Writing the Official History of World War I at Tuggeranong” in Canberra Collection, ed. P.A.Selth (Kilmore, Victoria: Lowden, 1976), p. 248. Bazley assisted Bean throughout the war, accompanying him abroad as batman in 1914 at the age of eighteen. From 1919 to 1939 he served as a member of Bean’s small staff.
  5. K.S. Inglis, C.E.W. Bean, Australian Historian (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1970), p.32.