Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 - Volume I Introduction

Volume I – The Story of Anzac from the outbreak of war to the end of the first phase of the Gallipoli Campaign, May 4, 1915

Introduction by K S Inglis

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.

“DEAREST PARENTS”, wrote Charles Bean at 8.35 P.M. on 24 April 1915: “The date is the only thing that I can indicate our position by – you will know by the time two or three days have passed where we are and what we are doing.”1 Edwin and Lucy Bean were living in retirement in Melbourne. Their thirty–five year old son was aboard the transport Minnewaska steaming from the Greek island of Lemnos towards Turkey, where he would land next morning and begin to chronicle the performance of men in the Australian Imperial Force.

Life had prepared Bean well for his task. His birth was Australian, his upbringing imperial. His father had been educated at Clifton College, one of the newer public schools, and the University of Oxford, and was among young men invited to the Australian colonies in the 1870s to help give sons of well-to-do people as nearly an English education as could be managed out here. When Charles was born his father had been in Australia six years and was headmaster of All Saints’ College, Bathurst. As soon as Charles could read he began to learn the legends of empire. “Australians, almost as much as English”, he was to write, “had been brought up on tales of Crecy and Agincourt, Trafalgar, Waterloo, the Indian Mutiny and the Crimean, Afghan, Zulu and other British wars; the bound volumes of the English illustrated papers, with pictures of some of these campaigns, were in constant use in many homes”.2 The family moved to England in 1889, and Charles attended his father’s old school. Clifton was now rich in imperial tradition: such old boys as Douglas Haig and William Birdwood were serving in the Bengal Lancers and the Egyptian Army; and while Bean was at school another old boy, Henry Newbolt, published verses in which the cry “Play up! play up! and play the game!”, learned on the school cricket field, saves the day on the field of battle. Like his father he went on to Oxford, reading the Greek and Latin classics, and like his father he tried without success to get into the Indian Civil Service. Then he studied law, and was admitted to the bar in London, before sailing in 1904 for Sydney, where he dabbled in law and schoolteaching before deciding to go in for journalism.

In 1907 the Sydney Morning Herald printed a series of articles in which Bean perceived Australians as the best of Britons, and celebrated the bushman rather as Kipling did other outriders of empire, invoking Kipling’s phrase “they little know of England who only England know” and suggesting that the bushman’s life turned him into a natural warrior. He joined the staff of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1908, and in 1909 was sent to the far west of New South Wales to write about the wool industry. “The young reporter was not enthusiastic…” he admitted later, until it “flashed upon him that the most important product of the wool industry was men; it was responsible for creating some of the outstanding national types.”3 The real Australia, he called the wool country, and he savoured the idiom and bearing of its people. The articles were published as On the Wool Track (London, 1910). This assignment produced another series of articles, based on a journey down the Darling river in a small steamer; these too became a book, whose title referred jocularly to a great imperial preoccupation of the day: The Dreadnought of the Darling (London, 1911). The author was later to cherish a passage which began with an account of comradeship in the back country and ended with a prophecy that if ever England were in trouble, she would discover “in the younger land, existing in quite unsuspected quarters, a thousand times deeper and more effective than the more showy protestations which sometimes appropriate the title of ‘imperialism’, the quality of sticking…to an old mate”. “Mate” was an important word for him; and although by now his accent was not far from standard English, he could always be picked as an Australian by his pronunciation of it.

From 1910 to 1912 Bean represented the Herald in London, living with his parents, who returned to Australia soon after he did. Late in June 1914 he began to write a daily commentary for the Herald on the European crisis which led to war at the beginning of August.

In September the Imperial Government invited each dominion to attach an official correspondent to its forces. George Pearce, Minister for Defence in the federal Labor Government, asked the Australian Journalists’ Association to nominate a man, and in a ballot of members Bean won narrowly from Keith Murdoch of the Melbourne Herald. His father drove him, on 15 October, to Port Melbourne, where he boarded the troopship Orvieto and sailed with the first contingent of Australians who had volunteered for the war.

From Colombo on 15 November he sent back to the newspapers his first reports of Australian involvement in war, describing the sinking of the German raider SMS Emden by HMAS Sydney. Between Colombo and Aden he interviewed many witnesses to fill out his knowledge of that historic encounter. As a craftsman, he reflected, he was doing unfamiliar work. “Generally I have had to describe and explain merely a state of affairs which have already become facts - the wool trade; the life in the bush or on the rivers. Here it is a new set of facts every day.” He wrote these words in a diary which he had decided to make, as he noted on 27 November, “my chief personal record of the war”.4 Already he was thinking not only of newspaper readers but of posterity, for there was an informal understanding between Pearce and Bean that the correspondent would later be the historian, and in the weeks between the Australians’ arrival in Egypt on 3 December and their departure for the Dardanelles, Bean spent what hours he could on “the book”, intending at this time to write a single volume. When he had to compose a painful despatch in January about why a ship-load of “bad hats” were being sent home, he imagined writing quite otherwise later. “I think the Australian will have to rely on the good things he does to wipe out the bad ones…I fully expect the men of this force will do things when the real day comes which will make the true history of this war possible to be written.” Once Bean knew that he and the AIF were heading for the Dardanelles in an amphibious operation such as had never before been attempted, the prospective historian was elated. “It is the chance of a life time”, he wrote on 8 April. “It means I shall eventually be able to give the Australian people an account of one of the most interesting events in History from a position closer than that of any observer who has been allowed to write his impressions in the present war.”

Senior Australian officers took him into their confidence. Major-General Bridges, commander of the AIF, “treated me as one of his staff,” Bean wrote later, “except in this, that he gave me no orders & left me to write & do what I pleased”.5 It was otherwise with the British. On 1 April, the day all leave was cancelled, Bean had still not received the permission he needed from imperial authorities to go to the front. Three days later, as he packed, his request was somewhere in London between the War Office and the Admiralty. He was given permission to go on 8 April, after intercession by the Australian High Commissioner, Sir George Reid - but only on condition that he did not write a word until sanctioned to do so. General Sir Ian Hamilton, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, had been amiable towards the Australian correspondent in conversation at Alexandria on 31 March; but on 19 April, when Bean asked Hamilton’s chief of staff to allow him to write on terms lately granted to Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, representing the newspapers of London, he was met with rude condescension.

“I must say that I breathe again to be back amongst Australian manners after these experiences of the English official”, Bean wrote, and went on, in a phrase recalling Kipling’s, to deplore the inability of “the run of Englishmen who have never left England” to treat a stranger properly. (Though he did mention other names, he was distinguishing this type from such officers as Major-General W.R. Birdwood, commander of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, who had been born in India and served there, and who in Bean’s estimate was good with strangers, including Australians. As Bean wrote in this book: “It was Birdwood’s nature to look past the forms at the man himself” [see p. 120].) Bean was appalled by the English reluctance to accredit the correspondent of “an Australian force come all across the world to help them in the stiffest business they may yet have undertaken…” If anything had been needed to seal the reporter-historian’s Australian patriotism as he set off with the AIF for its first battle, that encounter did it. A cable from Hamilton to London eventually got Bean his sanction, but even then his first two despatches from Gallipoli were held up by English officials in Alexandria and did not reach Australian papers until nearly a week after they had printed Ashmead-Bartlett’s account of the landing, composed for the press of London.

Bean went ashore at Anzac Cove about 10.15 A.M. on 25 April, not quite six hours after the first Australian had landed. He was to stay on the peninsula for the whole of the campaign, the only correspondent to see it from beginning to end, and having, as he hoped, a perfect vantage point for recording the Australians in action. Day after day, night after night, he set down in his diaries what he was seeing and hearing and what men said when he asked them about their experiences. Like everybody else on both sides he got little sleep during the first week of the struggle. At midnight on 30 April he was lying in his dugout when he heard that the Turks had broken through the Australians’ line. He asked where. An officer told him, and added: “I hope you have your field dressing with you.” He set off at once. “I…didn’t much want to go but I thought this is a show I ought not to miss – it may mean heavy hand to hand fighting & I may hear the Turks charging and shouting ‘Allah’ & see what a Turkish charge is like.” That report turned out to be false; but there were plenty more “shows” to observe, including an unsuccessful attack by Australian and New Zealand soldiers on 2 and 3 May in which about a thousand of them were killed. He wrote many pages in the diary on 3 May, often falling asleep as he scribbled.

The terrible reality of warfare soon made him discard part of the vocabulary men of his generation and class had been brought up to use about deeds that won the empire. He stopped calling a bloody exchange of bullets, bayonets, bombs and shells a “show”; and on 4 May, the quietest day so far, as he sat in spring sunshine, scarcely able to believe that the distant crack of a sniper’s bullet was not ball hitting bat in the nets at Clifton College, he wrote a simple sentence that completed one stage of his self-education as war historian: “I don’t know what a ‘spirited attack’ means.”

This volume ends with that quiet day. “The book” about the AIF was to become many books as the war dragged on and Bean resolved to offer as memorial to the soldiers a full and accurate account of what they had done, conceiving it to be his duty, as he puts it in the preface, “to record the plain and absolute truth so far as it was within his limited power to compass it” (see p. lxiv). The modesty was genuine; but he knew that he was uniquely well placed to do the job, having observed the men of the AIF at close hand for four years. The odds must have been long against his surviving it all to become their historian.

Early in 1919 Bean went back to Gallipoli, inspecting the field of battle as Turks had known it and talking with Turkish officers. Late in the year, the federal Government having accepted his proposal for a vast official history, he and his staff moved to the homestead of Tuggeranong, about twenty kilometres from Canberra, in wool country. There he met and married Ethel Clare Young, a nursing sister at the Queanbeyan hospital. Within a year he had finished his book, which runs close to a quarter of a million words. It appeared in October 1921, eight years earlier than the first volume of the British official history of the Gallipoli campaign.

The historian’s own diaries and his notes of what other people told him formed a larger part of his sources for The Story of Anzac than for his volumes on France, both because conditions on Gallipoli did not encourage the making and preserving of formal documents and because the AIF had as yet no War Records section.

Bean the journalist pursued every informant who might help him get the story right and complete: through most of 1920, until the volume went to press, he was in correspondence with men lately returned, about episodes they had lived through. Bean the lawyer was rigorously sceptical towards all testimony, his own included. During the fighting on 2 May a medical officer had said to him: “I am convinced that the stories brought down by the wounded are absolutely valueless as evidence.” When Bean deposited his diaries in the Australian War Memorial in 1946, he stuck on each of the 226 notebooks a warning that began” “These writings represent only what at the moment of making them I believed to be true.” As he says in the preface to this volume, he was “driven by experience to adopt the legal rules of evidence, discarding all hearsay except under special guarantees” (see p. lxiii). Bean the classical scholar was kept firmly in check, except in the closing paragraphs, where he let himself praise the homely heroes of his epic in a manner informed by his feeling for the language and literature of ancient Greece.

Perhaps inevitably, most of Bean’s informants were officers: the long list of prefatory acknowledgement (see pp. lxii-lxiii) includes only one sergeant, two corporals, and two privates; not until Bill Gammage’s The Broken Years (Canberra: ANU Press, 1974) was there a book about the AIF based on the perceptions of the men in the ranks. The soldiers are nevertheless the subject of Bean’s narrative to an extent unprecedented in official military historiography and unmatched in the British official volumes about the war.

In another respect the work was unusual – Bean believed unique – among official war histories: it was subject to no censorship. The author nevertheless imposed a sort of censorship on himself, by omitting nasty details. His account of the misbehaviour in Egypt which forced Bridges to send men home in disgrace is much less vivid than the version in his diary. The death of Lieutenant-Colonel G.F.Braund, shot by a sentry who took him for a Turk, is reported, but in the small print of a footnote (see p.599n) and without the information, noted in the diary, that the sentry’s shot blew the top of Braund’s head off. The reader is given no help in these pages to imagine what bullets, shrapnel and bayonets do to flesh and blood and bone; and the only photograph of wounded men shows them in need of a helping hand, but whole (see facing p.553).

The historian had emancipated himself from the rhetoric of the illustrated papers, but his pursuit of the truth stopped short of horror.

The book begins with a sketch of the society which had nurtured the soldiers and which had become Bean’s spiritual home since he returned to it in 1904. Australians had developed “a peculiar independence of character”, an indifference to rank and wealth, which had led some people to wonder whether they would tolerate the discipline necessary for an effective army (see pp. 5–6). Certainly their officers could not treat them as if they were docile Tommies (see pp. 47–48). But the recruits of 1914 proved easy to train, Bean reports. “The bush still sets the standard of personal efficiency even in the Australian cities. The bushman is the hero of the Australian boy; the arts of the bush life are his ambition; his most cherished holidays are those spent with country relatives or camping out. He learns something of half the arts of a soldier by the time he is ten years old…” (see p.46).

So far as Australia held a prevailing creed, Bean suggests, “it was a romantic one inherited from the gold-miner and the bushman, of which the chief article was that a man should at all times and at any cost stand by his mate” (see p.6). In resolving without question to go to war alongside England, Australians were rallying to “an old friend in danger – Australia’s oldest friend” (see p.15). And in the AIF, as at home, the strongest bond was that between a man and his mate (see p.6).

In five chapters Bean describes the raising of the AIF, its journey to Egypt, and its training in the desert. He gives one chapter to the Turkish expedition against Egypt and one to the unsuccessful Allied naval attack on the Dardanelles. Then he shows the men of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps leaving Egypt, and sets out the plan which delivered them to Gallipoli.

Until he began writing, Bean intended to make this volume go as far as 29 June, devoting three chapters to events on 25 April, though keeping three more chapters in hand for the landing if necessary. But the first day burst the bounds he had set for it, occupying in the final version nine chapters, of more than ninety thousand words – surely the most detailed account ever given of a day in the lives of Australians. The day was already a legend, and Anzac Day an institution (though not yet a national holiday), when Bean sat down at Tuggeranong to write of it.

As an act of homage to brave men he wanted to reconstruct it in as much detail as his sources would permit. He wanted also to show that the soldiers’ inability “to effect a tithe of what had been intended” (see p.602) on the peninsula was not their fault. The message of his moment-by-moment, shot-by-shot narrative of the landing is that no men could have taken more Turkish ground at Anzac Cove than those Australians and New Zealanders did. (It is not always clear when he means his judgements of Australian performance to apply also to New Zealanders.) With uncharacteristic vehemence he rejects, as “utterly opposed to the facts”, a common British view that Australian troops had “advanced in a half-disciplined rush far beyond the positions which they should have occupied” (see p.602). The Australian soldier, Bean declares, “had scattered to the winds once and for all the notion often reiterated, that an Australian force would be ineffective through lack of discipline” (see p.605). Indeed, the Australians displayed in these first days what seemed to Bean a remarkable kind of collective self-discipline, which obliged every man to pay no heed at all to shell fire “even by so much as turning a head or lowering the pannikin from which he was drinking” (see pp. 547–48). Moreover, the landing dissolved all doubts about the relation between Australian men and their officers: once the appointed leaders revealed “character and competence”, they were given freely all the obedience they needed (see pp. 549–50).

The main reasons for the failure of the plan to overrun the peninsula, Bean concludes firmly, were that the invading army was only half large enough, and that the planners had an unwarranted contempt for the Turkish army. Why were these errors not corrected before they proved fatal? Because the expedition was launched “without time for due thought or preparation, against an enemy already prepared for it by the earlier naval attack” (see p.604). The disaster evident by 4 May 1915 was of imperial, not colonial making. Bean implies throughout the narrative and proclaims on its last page that for the soldiers whom he was writing to honour – the two thousand dead as well as the men still alive on 4 May – those ten days of Anzac were a triumph.

K.S. Inglis
Department of History, RSSS
Australian National University
25 April 1980


  1. This letter is in the Bean Collection, Australian War Memorial (AWM), Canberra
  2. C.E.W.Bean, Anzac to Amiens (Canberra: AWM, 1946), p.9.
  3. C.E.W.Bean, On the Wool Track (Sydney: Sirius Books, 1963), p.vii.
  4. The diaries are in the Bean Collection, AWM
  5. C.E.W.Bean, “Account for Effie” (1924), in the Bean Collection, AWM.