Notes from the Western Front

Hearing that Australians were to attack on the Somme in 26 February 1917, Bean went up near Martinpuich to get a view. His telescope was a regular companion. Later on that day he moved even closer

Charles Bean was 35 years old when he went off to the Great War as Australia’s official war correspondent; from this position as an eye-witness he was also duly appointed the official war historian. Australian-born and English educated, he had been working as a journalist, author and newspaper feature writer before he was selected for his new task.

The war would change Bean’s life and set him on a course dedicated to the recording and telling of his countrymen’s part in the war. No nation was as well served by a war historian, and no country’s participation was as thoroughly detailed as in the volumes of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–18 that he wrote. Bean also became the driving force in the creation of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, one of the nation’s most renowned institutions.

It has been said that no other Australian saw as much of the fighting in the war as Bean did. It is certainly unlikely that anyone saw more. When it was over, the British Army Censor, Colonel Neville Lytton, who knew Bean’s work well, wrote: “He is now writing a history of the Australian achievements in the war, and it should be one of the most interesting of all war books, for he has seen and felt.”

Lytton’s comment brings to mind the encounter that Bean had with Major General Ewen Sinclair MacLagan, who had commanded the first wave of troops ashore on Gallipoli and was, in September 1918, commanding a division as the Australians entered their last weeks of battle. Laughing heartily, he told Bean: “Well, you old bird of ill-omen, I knew you would be here, you always are when anything’s doing.”

Bean also left a lesser-known legacy, a trove of personal diaries, note-books and papers. Although closed to researchers throughout his lifetime, they were released some years afterwards. Thirty-five years ago the Gallipoli parts of the diaries, edited by Kevin Fewster, were published as Gallipoli correspondent. Now Bean’s extensive diaries of the Western Front are at last available in print for the first time.

Charles Bean appears in a corner of a photograph by the famous British war photographer Ernest Brooks at Pozières in August 1916; a German shell bursts on the horizon.

For four and a quarter years, since the first contingent of the A.I.F. sailed from Melbourne, I had kept a detailed note of what I saw, heard and thought. Often … I sat at my diary during most of the night because that was the time of least interruption. Sometimes daylight found me still at it – occasionally, by some strange process of mental effort, falling asleep at each full stop and then waking to write each successive sentence. It had required 226 notebooks.

The Western Front diaries of Charles Bean is a major Australian War Memorial undertaking and one of its important activities marking the Centenary of the First World War. It contains selected extracts, extensively annotated, from the diaries that Bean kept while following three years of fighting in France and Belgium, including his times spent in Britain. The book is illustrated with maps and many of Bean’s own photographs and sketches. With hundreds of these and other images, this could well be described as a private illustrated diary of the war.

The published selections give readers a detailed insight into Charles Bean’s thoughts and his experiences. They tell us a lot about the war; about the main characters, from the King and Lloyd George and the generals, to the ordinary soldiers in trenches; of men facing battle; of courage and sacrifice. They also reveal a lot about their author. This is not a biography, as Bean has already been well served in that form, but rather a glimpse into aspects of a vital period of the war from the pen of a close and trained observer.

Each entry provides an intimate and immediate view of events. After the war Bean did not sanitise these private writings but instead had a notice attached to the cover of each notebook. In part, it says:

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.

Still, the recollections from these notebooks became a vital aid and the foundation for much of his later writing. The diaries were not written in stone, however, and in later years Bean sometimes added small notes and comments expanding on an entry or adding some clarification. Such comments, which are included, show how the war changed Bean, just as it did many other men

On the way up to Pozières Bean stopped at a comforts fund coffee stall. In his diary, he wrote of the “tall fellow … a gaunt grim kind of clean-shaven Australian with kindly deep lines all over his long face” serving there; he was later killed.

Western Front warfare was different from what Bean had experienced on Gallipoli. It was not only on a far greater scale and with weapons of the most devastating capacity, but it was fought over a wide distance. In France he needed a car and a driver. Travelling across war-ravaged rural tracks and roads provided its own adventures; broken springs, innumerable punctures, spinning on ice, and travelling at night with someone holding a dull oil lamp to illuminate the way, were some of the adventures from which he was lucky to survive.

There were many greater dangers, and battle held its own particular terror and horrors. Bean never forgot his approach to the battlefield at Pozières:

[31 July 1916] You strike the dead on the Chalk Pit Road. From there I was told to go straight along the road and I should find a communications trench. There was not a soul in sight – only the powdered grey earth of the craters with a trodden path through it. No signs of any trench of ours – all as still and dead as a deserted ash heap. I turned back – and followed the goat track path to the right. There were only blackened dead – and occasionally bits of men – torn bits of limbs unrecognizable, along it. I wandered on for 5 minutes without seeing a sign of anyone till I came to a gradually improving trench – quite deserted – peopled only by dead men half buried – some sitting upright with bandaged heads – apparently little hurt except for the bandaged wound – others lying half covered in little holes they had scratched in the trench side.

The correspondent’s cousin, Lieutenant Leo Butler, was killed in this fighting and Bean, with a heavy heart, attended his simple burial. In the years afterwards, he went back there when he could. On one of these occasions he commented solemnly, “Pozières is one vast Australian cemetery.”

Bean had several cousins and friends, as well as his brother, fighting in the war. He worried about them; great events sometimes became personal. He sought out his family members. His cousins, Arthur and Duncan Maxwell, both highly decorated officers, were some of his heroes. But as Bean saw more of the suffering and endurance of the troops it became the ordinary suffering soldier that he most admired.

After a time, heroic deeds and bold victories were dulled by the smoke, stench and bloodshed of battles:

[8 October 1917] I feel awfully anxious - terribly anxious – about tomorrow. These major generals back there, they don’t know how nearly the Broodseinde crest held us up. They don’t realize how much and desperately hard it will be to fight down such an opposition in the mud, rifles choked, Lewis guns out of action, men tired and slow. Every step means dragging the foot out of the mud – you can’t nip around craters when you want to outflank opposition. I shall be very surprised if this fight succeeds.

The Western Front Diaries of Charles Bean contains extracts from some of Bean’s other writings, with a few pieces referring to him taken from the diaries of his young and invaluable assistant, Arthur Bazley, and the war photographer Frank Hurley. These provide a mirror to his descriptions and help provide points of comparison. Numerous other historical and biographical details have been inserted by the editor to extend the context.

Bean was accompanied by the photographer Herbert Baldwin when he visited the Australians’ headquarters at Hénencourt in February 1917. They were joined by MacDowell, the British war cameraman, who filmed the men sliding on the old chateau’s frozen pond

Bean was not a religious man in a practising sense, but he did hold to basic Christian values. Many of his beliefs were challenged by the frightfulness of the war:

[Christmas Day 1916] Our 18-pounders gave the Germans about 2 minutes’ bombardment. As we came away we could see big German shrapnel falling in retaliation over near Bazentin. It was a cheerless day – low hurrying clouds, a cold, but not bitter, wind; more strafing than usual, but not like a day of bombardment. One couldn’t, for the life of one, wish the men there a “Merry Christmas”’ – I couldn’t. A “Good Day” as we passed was all that I could get up my throat. The other was too much of a mockery.

Reporting on the fighting consumed much of Bean’s time. He remembered the lost pre-war years as “a forgotten paradise”. On one fine sunny day he found a chance to rest in an old quarry near Grévillers:

[29 April 1917] Lying down out of the wind with the warm sun beating down, and the birds singing in the dry ragged branches of the shattered old trees which ring the place around, I dropped half asleep. With one’s eyes shut, one couldn’t help feeling as if one were on some hillside overlooking the Thames or some big valley – with great green drowsy trees on either side of the slopes, and the golden crops far down the expanse.

One opened one’s eyes and there was the ruined village and the grey dusty shattered red brick and faded roof beam coloured Grevillers at the far end of the grey ragged tall tree limbs – with its few pale red patchy tiles and the roof timbers gridironing the pale blue horizon.

Bean cheated death many times, and he already carried a wound from the early days on Gallipoli. He described a typical excursion to the front:

[18 September 1917] We pushed along the battered trench until we found an officer. The men were in little undercut pozzies in the front side of the trench – we passed two, in neighbouring pozzies with a blood-splashed waterproof sheet covering the entrance, and the flies buzzing around the bloodstained legs and putties which protruded – otherwise we should not have known the men were not alive. We came at last to the officer, a poor little startled boy, horrified by the sights of the shelling.

Next day:

I had a cold, and in order to keep in the open as much as possible I went up to the fore slope of the hill. Some old Mena [Egypt] sergeant who recognized me gave me tea – and just as we finished, down came a heavy German barrage … concentrated on the Hooge hilltop. It was very hot indeed – but I saw no man hit, and myself got back through the trench and then running across the open.

Bean and the photographer Hubert Wilkins joined Australians in a trench on Broodseinde Ridge in October 1917. Bean noted: One or two short lengths of trench had been covered over with brown, red and yellow tarpaulin and men seemed to be living fairly dry under them. We took some photos of them.”

In recent years, with the exploits of Sir John Monash receiving much attention, Bean has been the subject of some minor controversy. In mid-1918 Bean, along with Keith Murdoch, opposed Monash’s appointment to command of the Australian Corps. The diaries show that Bean did recognise Monash’s ability and was not concerned that he should be promoted, but he considered that Major General Brudenell White was better fitted to command the fighting corps.

It is a contentious subject, but Bean had every reason to be impressed by White. Still, it was not appropriate for him to try to intervene in the appointment. In fact, Monash had little to worry about from Bean (although Murdoch could be another matter). Of course the diaries present Bean’s side of events, and reveal his concern for his and Monash’s relative positions:

[2 September 1918] Murdoch is a most forceful man – he goes straight to Monash and tells him what he thinks. Monash keeps on fair terms with him, and says that he does not mind plain talk. Monash has less respect for me – he is very dissatisfied with the publicity he is getting, and has always been a man who would have liked to have his own publicity in his own hands. I often think he would like to get rid of me if he could – of course he would; I sometimes think he will try, but Keith doubts it.

A fortnight after the Australians’ brilliant capture of Mont St Quentin in September 1918, Charles Bean (left) accompanied Australian Prime Minister W.M. “Billy” Hughes to explain the conduct of recent operations. During this visit Hughes told Bean of his plan to allow men who had enlisted four years earlier to have their first home leave. 

Bean had seen the fittest of the Australians in action on Gallipoli, but by 1918 the recruiting standards had been lowered to compensate for the drop in volunteering and the great toll of casualties. Early that year he saw the arrival of the first of the fresh, untested American troops:

[18 February 1918] One felt today as though one had been walking among ghosts. Wherever one goes one is struck more and more by the likeness of these men, amongst whom we have been moving, to the men of the old 1st Division at Mena Camp and behind the lines in Gallipoli.

Despite the strain, the AIF’s greatest achievements came in 1918. It was then that Bean acknowledged how important experience and training had become:

[1 October 1918] One never realised before today what a difference training has made to the Australians. I sometimes find myself wondering whether our men now, with their experience will be capable of dashing far into fearful losses such as they faced, half trained at Pozières; but one or two instances show well enough that losses don’t deter them. Their great value as soldiers now is the manner in which they achieve their results while avoiding the losses which they used to have.

In 1918, as the Germans approached, Bean photographed an old French veteran of the Franco-Prussian War who refused to be evacuated. “I have no reason to go,” he said, adding “I was in the 1870 war – I lost this arm there.”

Throughout the war, Bean had to deal with censors in his published writing. However the censor’s pen could not extend to his private opinions as expressed in the diaries. For more than four years he was witness to the Australians’ successes and disasters, and saw the men’s strengths and frailties. He also had opportunity to work among, and to judge the contribution of, political and military leaders. Much of this is described, and it stands alongside descriptions of the immense work that this remarkable man did to ensure the deeds of the AIF are always remembered.

For more stories on the First World War, purchase a copy of Wartime issue 84 here.

About the author

Peter Burness AM recently retired from the staff of the Australian War Memorial after 43 years as a senior curator and historian. He is the author of several books and the editor of The Western Front diaries of Charles Bean, published by NewSouth.