Charles Bean was Australia’s official war correspondent during the First World War. His papers form probably the single most significant collection of personal records held by the Australian War Memorial. Fundamental to the collection are the 286 volumes of diaries, notebooks, and folders kept by Bean during and after the war. He later made alterations and additions to these records, which did more than just assist him in his work as official correspondent. Because he knew he would also probably write a history of Australia’s part in the war, he compiled the diaries and notebooks in the expectation that they would become important source material. This they did.
Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean was born on 18 November 1879 at Bathurst, New South Wales. He was the first of three sons of Edwin Bean, an English-born schoolmaster, and his wife Lucy. Educated in Australia and Britain, in 1898 he began study at Oxford University; in 1903 he took a Master of Arts degree, and in 1904 a Bachelor of Civil Law.
Returning to Australia in 1904, he worked as a lawyer and briefly as a teacher before joining the staff of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1908. Between then and the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, he travelled widely, representing his paper and establishing a reputation as a fine journalist. From childhood he had had a passionate interest in all things military, and in 1910 he told his parents of his hopes of an appointment one day as a war correspondent: “I can’t imagine anything so happy.” His hopes were fulfilled in August 1914 when he was chosen by fellow journalists to be Australia’s official war correspondent.
For the four years of the war he reported on the activities of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), usually keeping as close to the front line as possible, and making a daily record in a series of personal diaries and notebooks. These, he hoped, would also assist him in writing an official history of Australia’s involvement in the war. Returning home in 1919, his proposals for an official history – and for the establishment of a national war memorial in the form of a museum – were accepted. Bean took up his appointment as official historian in 1919, based first at Tuggeranong, near Canberra, and later at Victoria Barracks in Sydney. In 1921 he married Ethel Clara Young, known as Effie (and sometimes Essie). She was a nursing sister at Queanbeyan hospital.
The 12 volumes of the Australia’s official history appeared between 1921 and 1942. Bean edited the series and wrote six of the volumes himself. His summary volume, Anzac to Amiens, was published in 1946. An official medical history by A.G. Butler was also brought under Bean’s general editorship. During these years, and almost to the end of his life, Bean was active in a wide variety of civic and war-related organisations, and he wrote a number of books inspired by these interests. In 1942 he became chairman of the new War Archives Committee, subsequently the Commonwealth Archives Committee. He was a member of the Committee (later Board of Management) of the Australian War Memorial for 40 years, and its Chairman from 1952 until 1959. He refused a knighthood but accepted an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Melbourne and an honorary Doctor of Laws from the Australian National University.
He died on 30 August 1968 after a long illness and was survived by his wife and their adopted daughter Joyce.
For further biographical information:
The diaries, notebooks and folders
The diaries and notebooks begin when the first contingent of the AIF left Melbourne for overseas in October 1914, and end with the Australian Historical Mission to Gallipoli in March 1919. Bean knew before the embarkation in 1914 that he would probably be asked to write the official history and he had more than contemporary despatches in mind when he wrote his diary entries. His outstanding personal record of the war years consists of 286 items. By convention they are called diaries. It would be more accurate to describe the majority of them as notebooks and folders containing records of interviews, notes of military records and correspondence, cuttings, sketches, and maps; and throughout the war Bean continually added detail to his descriptions of earlier fighting. The records also include, however, chronologically arranged passages of the author’s thoughts and feelings; these are a wonderful record from the perspective of an educated and thoughtful observer. Within detailed narratives and notes describing battles and engagements, Bean often recorded his own reactions of fear, revulsion, and grief. There are also sharply observed moments reminding us of the human cost of war: a girl in white stockings and her “little bow legged father” seeking shelter in a basement in Albert, in France; a padre in a trench next to Bean’s sorting through the effects of dead men; French civilians weeping at the funerals of Australian soldiers.
Sketch maps are a key feature of the notebooks. In conducting interviews, Bean found that the sight of a notebook would often “dry up” an infantry officer. So he would often begin by sketching a map and inviting the officer to mark the key points. This would be the “ice-breaker”, and thereafter Bean could scribble as hard as he liked.
Bean was very conscious of the documentary importance of the diaries, particularly for the Gallipoli campaign, when no official Australian organisation existed to gather unit records. Roaming freely, he noted down conversations with men of all ranks, from privates to senior commanders and politicians. Evidence like this would never have been captured in any other way, he believed. In an article published in 1938 he wrote that for the human side of his story especially, he saw diaries as “by far the most important source”. The information contained in them was collected by a “trained investigator [himself], mainly at the time of events, and in most cases from the actors themselves”. In 1942, when offering them as a gift to the Australian War Memorial, he made the even greater claim that in writing the official history, then just complete, he had found them “roughly” to “weigh in historical value about as much as the whole official record of the Australian infantry, each being complementary to the other.”
Using the records
Bean was not blind to the limitations of the diaries and of eyewitness accounts in general and he left a warning for all future users. As a condition of the gift of his papers to the Memorial in 1942 he stipulated that the Memorial attach to every diary and notebook a caveat. The wording of the caveat was finalised in 1948. It reads:
These writings represent only what at the moment of making them I believed to be true. The diaries were jotted down almost daily with the object of recording what was then in the writer’s mind. Often he wrote them when very tired and half asleep: also, not infrequently, what he believed to be true was not so – but it does not follow that he always discovered this, or remembered to correct the mistakes when discovered. Indeed, he could not always remember that he had written them.
These records should, therefore, be used with great caution, as relating only what their author, at the time of writing, believed. Further, he cannot, of course, vouch for the accuracy of statements made to him by others and here recorded. But he did try to ensure such accuracy by consulting, as far as possible, those who had seen or otherwise taken part in the events. The constant falsity of second-hand evidence (on which a large proportion of war stories are founded) was impressed upon him by the second or third day of the Gallipoli campaign, notwithstanding that those who passed on such stories usually themselves believed them to be true. All second-hand evidence herein should be read with this in mind.
In addition, many of the diaries contain invaluable annotations added by Bean mainly during the 1920s and 1930s, when he was writing the official history, but also as late as 1958. Some diaries include shorthand, esoteric abbreviations, diagrams, sketches, and occasional attachments such as letters, maps, and newspaper cuttings.
While the series consists predominantly of diaries and notebooks written by Bean as official war correspondent, there is also material created by Bean after the war, in his capacity as Official Historian (1919–1942). These “folders” contain research material, notes, and correspondence concerning the Official History, and were donated to the Memorial by Bean along with the diaries and notebooks in 1942; they have been retained within this series.
Two sets of typed copies were made of the diaries in the 1920s: the Memorial holds one of the typed copies and the second set of copies was given to the Mitchell Library, Sydney, in 1948 and are held there at MLMSS 159. Readers of the online version should note that the original diaries, notebooks, and folders were used for digitisation.
Arrangement and control of the records
The diaries and notebooks were donated to the Memorial in 1942. Under the conditions of the gift, many were lent back to Bean at his request. They were accessioned in 1947 as 3DRL 606, and the numbering system used by Bean has been retained.
Over a period of many years, both before and after 1942, the Memorial received other donations of material from Bean. During the 1980s most of these donations were consolidated and arranged as Official Records Series AWM38. The diaries, therefore, are now regarded as forming a sub-series of AWM38. Item-level descriptions of the entire AWM38 series are available on RecordSearch.
A card index to the diaries was prepared by Arthur Bazley, Bean’s batman during the war and later one of his chief research assistants. It covers about half the diaries and is organised by name, unit, and subject. It is held at AWM38, items A1 to A16, and is available in the Memorial’s Research Centre.
Extracts from the diaries relating to Gallipoli, published in two editions by Kevin Fewster (see Sources and further reading), also function as finding aids of sorts.
Related records and publications
Bean’s diaries and notebooks may be read in conjunction with:
- The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, published in 12 volumes between 1921 and 1942.
- AWM38, of which the diaries form a sub-series
- AWM4, Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914–18 War
- AWM44, Official history, 1914–18 War, manuscripts
- AWM25, Written records, 1914–18 War
- AWM26, Operations files, 1914–18 War
- PR00283, Personal papers relating to Charles and Ethel (Effie) Bean, 1885–1997
If you are planning to cite these records in a publication, keep in mind that correct and consistent citation assists researchers in the future.
An example of a full citation reads:
AWM38 [Official History, 1914–18 War: Records of C.E.W. Bean, Official Historian], 3DRL 606/116 [diary June–September 1918], entry for 28 July 1918.
The abbreviated citation reads:
AWM38, 3DRL 606/116, diary entry 28 July 1918.
Please do not cite the URL (web address) at the top of the screen. The first page of each digitised file gives the details you need: that is, the series number and item number for that record.
Sources and further reading
- AWM315 [Australian War Memorial registry files – second series], 419/008/001 parts 1–4 Bean, Dr C.E.W. – disposal and use of private diaries and war records.
- C.E.W. Bean, “The writing of the Australian official history of the great war – sources, methods and some conclusions”, Journal and proceedings of the Royal Australian Historical Society vol. 24 part 2 (1938): 85–112
- C.E.W. Bean, “The technique of a contemporary war historian”, Historical studies Australia and New Zealand vol. 2, number 6 (November 1942): 65–79
- Kevin Fewster, Gallipoli correspondent: the frontline diary of C.E.W. Bean (Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1983)
- Kevin Fewster, Bean’s Gallipoli: the diaries of Australia’s official war correspondent (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2007)
- Dudley McCarthy, Gallipoli to the Somme: the story of C.E.W. Bean (Sydney: John Ferguson, 1983)
- Michael Piggott, A guide to the personal, family, and official papers of C.E.W. Bean (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1983)
- Denis Winter, Making the legend: the war writings of C.E.W. Bean (St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1992)