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Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]



Charles Bean is widely regarded as the most influential of those who contributed to the creation of Australia’s Anzac legend. There were other important figures, such as C. J. Dennis, who wrote the best-selling account of Ginger Mick’s transformation from urban larrikin to Anzac hero; Bean stands out, however, because of his unique role as official war correspondent and historian, his wartime proximity to the Anzac experience, and the enormous output of his writings about the war.

The scope of Bean’s Anzac endeavours was prodigious. As Australia’s official correspondent he was based with the AIF and wrote regular reports for the national press. He also edited a series of Anzac annuals, was responsible for some of the AIF newspapers, and published his own 1916 press reports in Letters from France. Apart from his writing he was active in various AIF political campaigns, including efforts to persuade the soldiers to vote for conscription, and attempts to boost the status of the AIF and establish a more independent Australian force. Anticipating his future task as war historian, he gathered oral and documentary evidence about Australian participation in the war, and created an Australian War Records Section which was responsible for collecting documents and relics for his proposed war museum and archive. To the same end he sought the appointment of Australian war artists and photographers, and was the dominant figure on a committee that met in London to vet their work. After the war Bean became general editor of the twelve volume Australian official history of the Great War, wrote the six volumes about the AIF, and had a leading role in the creation of the Australian War Memorial.

Bean’s Anzac writings have had immense influence upon the ways in which Australians understand their participation in the Great War. Patsy Adam-Smith records in her own 1978 best-seller, The Anzacs, that ‘for those researching this war one Australian stands out beyond all others […] This writer is indebted to the man, Bean, as is anyone who searches for reality in the study of that time’. As this acknowledgement implies, for the most part Bean’s war writings have been regarded as a realistic and truthful account. Yet examination of the evolution of Bean’s representation of the Anzacs, in both his journalism and his history, shows how he constructed a particular version of the experience of Australians at war.1

My argument is that Bean’s Anzac legend-making provides a superb example of the ‘hegemonic’ process whereby a legend was created, not by excluding the varieties and contradictions of digger experience, but by using selection, simplification and generalisation to represent that complexity. Bean’s representation of Australians at war was a result of the interaction between his pre-conceptions and his experiences with the AIF; his Anzac account was bounded by the limitations of his official roles and fashioned into an evocative narrative. He produced an idealised version of the Anzac experience which, nevertheless, captured and expressed key elements of digger culture and identity, and was resonant and appealing to many Australian soldiers.

Chapter 5 assesses Bean’s history-writing in the context of postwar Australian society and politics. This chapter focuses on Bean’s wartime writing, exploring the preconceptions he brought to the war and the ways in which they were remoulded by his Anzac experience; the constraints of writing at war and the influences of civilian and digger readers; and, crucially, how Bean’s writing was used by Australian soldiers as they sought to comprehend and articulate their war.

An English Australian

Charles Bean’s Anzac legend was influenced by a world view shaped during his pre-war years in England and Australia. Bean was born in the New South Wales country town of Bathurst in 1879. His father Edwin, who came from a British imperial family with East India Company connections, emigrated to Australia in 1873 to be a teacher in a private school. In 1877 Edwin Bean married Sarah Butler, the daughter of a Tasmanian solicitor, and together they moved to Bathurst where Edwin was to be headmaster of All Saints’ College, and where Charles Bean apparently had an idyllic rural childhood. Twelve years later the family returned to England, where Edwin Bean was appointed headmaster of Brentwood School in Essex and Charles became one of his first pupils. In 1892 Charles enrolled at Clifton College in Bristol, and then, in 1898, he won a scholarship to read Classics at Oxford.2

In his education and family life Charles Bean was imbued with the values of service, honour, patriotism and valour which comprised the public school ethic of imperial England. He also had the martial upbringing typical of a boy of that imperial epoch and class. Bean later recalled that, like many Australian and English children, he was ‘brought up on tales of Crécy and Agincourt, Trafalgar, Waterloo, the Indian Mutiny and the Crimean, Afghan, Zulu and other British wars’. In his teens he was thrilled by trips to Waterloo and to his father’s Volunteer Force training camps, and after one visit to Portsmouth Bean developed a detailed interest in the British navy which inspired him to read every book he could find on the subject. He joined the School Engineer Corps at Clifton and the Oxford University Battalion of the Oxfordshire Light Infantry.3

Bean’s martial and imperial enthusiasm was fuelled by his pride in the heritage and values of the Anglo-Saxon race. A few years before the war he defended the ‘pure old Cross of St George’ against critics of ‘flag wagging’, and explained ‘what that flag means to me […] whether it has five stars upon it or a maple leaf’:

It stands for each and every one of these ideas — for generosity in sport and out of it, for a pure regard for women, a chivalrous marriage tie, a fair trial, a free speech, liberty of the subject and equality before the law, for every British principle of cleanliness — in body and mind, in trade or politics, of kindness to animals, of fun and fair play, for a politeness […] that will be made good in real life by real sacrifices if need be, for the British Sunday, for clean streets and decent drainage, for every other canon of work and sport and holiday, and a thousand and one ideas, wrung out by British men and women from the toil and sweat and labour of nine hundred years […] that made the Anglo-Saxon life worth living for the Anglo-Saxon.4

The passage marks Bean as a man of liberal ideals, but it also signals an ignorance of social divisions and living conditions in Britain, and a very English chauvinism, which were born of Bean’s own limited experience. It reveals a concern with moral and physical cleanliness which would recur in Bean’s Anzac writings, and it evokes an interest in national character which Bean sustained when he returned to Australia. In 1902 Bean failed the examination for the Indian Civil Service. He took a degree in law instead, and in 1904, twenty-five years old and eager for change, he sailed for Australia.

Bean settled in Sydney, where he dabbled in teaching and the law, including a stint as the associate of a circuit judge whose duties included tours of outback New South Wales. He began to write newspaper articles about his impressions of Australia, and in 1908 joined the Sydney Morning Herald as a junior reporter. The editors were impressed with his background knowledge and skilful reporting, and offered him special assignments to report on naval and military affairs and on life and work out in the country. By 1914 he was the successful author of two books on naval subjects and two books dealing with impressions formed on his outback travels.5

Like other English immigrants of his generation, Bean’s pre-war life and writings display a creative tension between Australian and English identities. He idealised Australia as an Anglo-Saxon oasis in the Pacific, and was convinced that the transplanted race needed to be protected from the oriental threat. He shared the ideas of contemporary social Darwinism, which assumed that there was an innate relationship between race and moral and cultural traits, and he was convinced that the English were pre-eminent because of their superior characteristics. Bean’s racial attitudes would change, but the notion that the character of each individual exemplified distinctive national traits would remain the central explanatory tool of his life’s writing. This idea dovetailed with a typically Victorian personal philosophy which assumed that an individual of sound character could determine his (rarely her) own fate, regardless of personal privilege or economic power. For Bean, individuals and nations were the main actors of history; race and physical environment were its driving forces.6

In fact, Bean gradually began to judge the Australian character as a racial improvement. In his travels around rural New South Wales he concluded that the Australian environment, and bush life in particular, brought out the very best in the Anglo-Saxon race. In the struggle to tame their harsh environment Australians had developed qualities of resourcefulness and independence which were stifled in the cramped industrial cities of Europe. Bean’s thinking coincided with a popular notion about the progress of the British race in the frontier lands of the New World. Although there was some anxiety about the work discipline and social behaviour of colonials — especially in Australia with its convict origins — the ‘Coming Man’ of the White, imperial frontiers was idealised in adventure fiction and boys’ culture, and became the most resonant symbol of Australian character.7

Bean also believed that Australian social and political relationships were a distinct improvement on the British model. For example, the rigour and isolation of bush life promoted ‘mateship’, the quality of sticking to your mates through thick and thin. In the decades preceding the First World War the meaning of ‘mateship’ was contested in Australian political culture, with the mateship of workers espoused by radicals during the strikes of the 1890s opposed to a mateship which included men of different classes. Writing almost twenty years after these strikes, and with an idealised notion of class and society, Bean portrayed shearers and labourers as mates with their sheep station bosses, and thus contributed to a conservative appropriation of the language of mateship. Freed of the feudal shackles of the Old World, Australia was, according to Bean, a more egalitarian society. As he later wrote in his history: ‘Probably nowhere were the less wealthy folk more truly free, or on such terms of genuine social equality with the rich, in dress, habits and intercourse’.8

Bean’s ideal Australian may have been an improved breed of Anglo-Saxon manhood, but his Coming Man was not politically independent, let alone republican. In the pre-war period Bean easily accommodated his rediscovered Australian identity with imperial loyalty. As a journalist he approved the militarisation of Australian society, which included the introduction of compulsory military training for boys and the creation of an Australian navy for national and imperial defence. In 1911 his book, The Dreadnought of the Darling, prefigured Australian participation in the impending war by stretching the concept of mateship to define the imperial relationship. If ever England needed help, he wrote, it would be found:

[…] in the younger land, existing in quite unexpected quarters, a thousand times deeper and more effective than the more showy protestations which sometimes appropriate the title of ‘imperialism’, the quality of sticking — whatever may come and whatever may be the end of it — to an old mate.9

When war was declared in 1914 Bean was convinced of the rightness of Australian participation, and that the extraordinary enthusiasm for enlistment would dispel anxieties about the imperial loyalty of the young race.

In September 1914 the British government invited each Dominion to include an official correspondent with its military contingent. In Australia the Federal government asked the Australian Journalist’s Association to nominate a man for the job, and Bean was delighted when he won a ballot of Association members by a few votes. Over the next four years, Bean’s experiences with the Australian soldiers would alter his attitudes to war and national identity. However his perception of those experiences, and the legend he created, was influenced by his perspective as an upper middle-class English Australian.

Baptisms of fire

Bean’s preoccupations with an ideal and truly Australian identity are evident in the way he handled his first major task, which brought him into immediate confrontation with the larrikinism of Australian soldiers. Having sailed to Egypt with the first Australian contingent in November 1914, he became embroiled in the controversy over the bad behaviour of the Australians in Cairo. Bean’s own view, expressed in a booklet of advice for the soldiers about the culture and history of their temporary home, was that ‘even the humblest Britisher here in the East’ should maintain the reputation of the race for ‘high principle and manliness’. But, as he later recalled, ‘leave-breaking, desertion, attacks upon natives, robbery, and disease began to reach such a pitch as to destroy the great name’ which the Australians should have been earning in their training.10

The Australian commander, General Bridges, decided to discharge several hundred offenders and ship them back home, and asked Bean to send an explanatory despatch to Australia. The despatch, dated 29 December 1915, began by arguing that it would be ‘a deceit upon the people of Australia if it were reported to them that Christmas and the approaching New Year have found the Australian Imperial Force without a cloud in the sky’. He praised the physique, bearing and potential of the Australians, but confessed that there were problems in the AIF caused by ‘a leaven of wasters’:

There is only a small percentage — possibly 1 or 2 per cent — in the force, which is really responsible for the occurrences about which Cairo is beginning to talk; the great majority of men are keen, intelligent young Australians who you will meet enjoying their hours of leisure in front of the cafes, or in the museum, or the zoological gardens, or the postcard shops, dressed as neat as any of the other soldiers in town, and behaving themselves in a way which any rational Australian on a holiday would behave […] But there is in the Australian ranks a proportion of men who are uncontrolled, slovenly, and in some cases, what few Australians can be accused of being — dirty.

He suggested that the older veterans of the South African war were leading young soldiers astray, and concluded that it was necessary to send the miscreants home to preserve the country’s reputation.11

Bean’s despatch was printed in most Australian newspapers and provoked an outburst of indignant correspondence. Some letter-writers were appalled that such wasters had infiltrated the noble AIF, while others condemned Bean’s criticisms of Australia’s bold volunteers. Bean’s portrayal also caused great resentment among the soldiers at Mena Camp. In a letter to his mother, AIF Private K. S. Mackay wrote that ‘the stories are true to a certain extent but not enough to warrant such attention’, and concluded that Bean had ‘done himself and Australia more harm than all the men Australia sent to this or any other war. The men will not forget him either’. Bombardier Frederick Rowe wrote dismissively to his family about Bean’s report that ‘it is lies from start to finish and he has got himself in very hot water’, and described ‘indignant meetings all over the camp’. He enclosed a poem by a mate from his unit which concluded:

Let me tip yer mister Critic

Don’t take walks along the Nile

Else perhaps yer taste its waters

While the boys look on and smile.12

The tension between Bean and the soldiers at Mena Camp is significant in several ways. Firstly, it signals the differences between Bean’s understanding of the soldiers’ behaviour and how some of them thought about themselves. Bean could not comprehend that any ‘genuine’ Australian soldier would want to visit a brothel; his language reverberates with moral and physical disgust for the ‘unheard of vileness’ of Cairo low-life and for the dirty soldiers who could not be true Australians. Bean’s attitude was influenced by the ‘rational recreation’ movement of nineteenth-century England, with its ideal of moral manhood and support for healthy and controlled recreation as an alternative to the popular working-class pleasures of gambling, gaming and drinking. Lack of experience or empathy for working-class life and pleasures caused Bean to project his own values upon the diggers. In turn, the Mena affair reinforced Bean’s personal shyness and distance from the men he so admired, as he recorded in his diary in 1918:

I have been shy of these men — have done my work from outside as a staff officer as it were — I don’t know if I should have mixed with them more if the unpopularity I gained at Mena had not made me shrink from living among the men — anyway I am too self conscious to mix well with a great mass of men.13

The language of Bean’s Cairo report is also revealing. For an official correspondent he was remarkably frank about Australian misbehaviour, but he also used a narrative strategy of distinguishing between the majority of ‘genuine’ Australians and an alien minority, which subsequently became a defining feature of his historical writing about Australians in battle. Yet the public outcry over the Mena affair was a lesson to Bean and the Australian command, and thereafter criticisms of Australian misbehaviour were either censored or played down by Australian publicists, including Bean, to avoid tarnishing the image of the AIF or undermining recruitment.

More generally, the Mena furore reflected and articulated tensions between the official ideal of a soldier in the British army, and the behaviour and identities of the Australians. Within the British army Australian misbehaviour out of the line, and the diggers’ disrespect for military authorities, remained notorious throughout the war, just as the diggers remained suspicious of official prescriptions for their behaviour. Caught between his official role and his admiration for the men of the AIF, Charles Bean would continue to struggle, personally and in his writing, to make safe sense of the disturbing behaviour of some of the Anzacs.

Bean’s other way of coping with Anzac larrikinism was to emphasise its positive features. Like many of the Australians, Bean disliked the British military sticklers who thought the salute was more important than the soldier. In his diary, and occasionally in his public reports, he began to characterise the issue of Australian behaviour out of the line not as a problem of Australian indiscipline, but rather as representing a positive development away from the authoritarianism of the British army. Even amidst the troubles of Cairo he believed that the ‘strong positive virtues’ of the Australians would outweigh their ‘strong positive vices’, and that the diggers would be loyal and well-disciplined in their own way when it really mattered. Like many other Australians, Bean keenly anticipated that the Australian qualities of the men, and hence an Australian national identity, would be triumphantly realised in battle.14

These expectations shaped Bean’s reporting of the Australian initiation at Anzac Cove, though in fact the first press report about the Anzac landing at Gallipoli, rapturously received in Australia on May 8, was filed not by Bean, but by the flamboyant British war correspondent, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett. His report made the most of the mythic ingredients of the landing — the untried soldiers of the new nation, the impregnable cliffs, and the classical setting of Asia Minor — and praised the Australian soldiers:

There has been no finer feat in this war […] These raw colonial troops in these desperate hours proved worthy to fight side by side with the heroes of Mons, the Aisne, Ypres, and Neuve Chapelle.

Undaunted by the cliffs of Gallipoli, the ‘race of athletes’ had demonstrated that ‘colonials were practical above all else’. Australians had been ‘tried for the first time, and had not been found wanting’.15

The lavish approval of the fighting qualities of the Australians set the tone for subsequent stories of the landing. Ashmead-Bartlett’s report had an immediate and influential impact in Australia, in part because he could not be accused of boasting, and because it finally disproved fears about the military discipline and effectiveness of the AIF. Here was an Englishman announcing to the world that Australian soldiers had proved themselves among the best in the Empire, with their own distinctive, practical qualities. Following Ashmead-Bartlett’s lead, Australian politicians and newspapers declared April 25 the national baptism of fire, and claimed that the young country had proved itself a worthy partner of the Empire.16

Bean landed at Gallipoli on the first morning and remained on the peninsula for most of the campaign. Though to his chagrin his own report of the landing was held up until May 13, it also received wide coverage; by May 18 it had been printed together with Ashmead-Bartlett’s report in a pamphlet for New South Wales schools titled Australians in Action: The Story of Gallipoli. Bean’s account was less florid than that of Bartlett. He concluded that the first attack up the cliffs — ‘like a whirlwind, with wild cheers and bayonets flashing’ — would go down in history, but he also stressed that it was no reckless charge, but was directed from the front by junior officers trained to act on their own initiative. Though in his journalism Bean had not yet fully crystallised his assessment of the Australian fighting man, he was already articulating the main themes of the Anzac legend in terms of his prewar preconceptions. After only a few days on Gallipoli he wrote in his diary that ‘the wild pastoral independent life of Australia, if it makes rather wild men, makes superb soldiers’. For Bean, Gallipoli set the standards of the AIF, such as indifference to fire by soldiers and non-combatants (he described Australian soldiers working on the beach ‘careless of any fire, in the good old Anzac way’) and close relations between officers and men, resembling, from Bean’s perspective, the relationship between manager and workers on a sheep station, or prefects and boys in a public school. For Bean, Gallipoli dispelled the doubts of Egypt and proved that the Australians responded to good leadership in battle, and could hold their heads high as soldiers.17

Conversely, events on Gallipoli, and subsequent battles on the Western Front, reinforced Australian bitterness about British command. Though Bean’s war correspondence was characteristically discreet about this bitterness, his diary was seething with criticism. He identified the main cause of the problem as the British class system. For example, he wrote in his diary that the defeats of the British army in April 1918 were not only the fault of Generals Haig and Gough. They had a deeper origin:

[T]he real cause has been as plain as an open book since Suvla Bay [a British military fiasco at Gallipoli] — it is far deeper than the failure of this or that division or general. The real cause is the social system of England, or the distorted relic of the early middle ages which passes for a system, the exploitation of the whole country for the benefit of a class — a system quietly assumed by the ‘upper class’ and accepted by the lower class.18

According to Bean, in this system the British upper class did not need brains or ability to gain command, and British soldiers were not solid yeomen but were rather the feeble products of exploitation, industrialisation and urban decay. The war experience shattered Bean’s pre-war idealisation of British society and confirmed his belief that Australian social and political conditions were a great improvement and had produced a better army. Bean argued that because Australian officers and men came from the same social background and treated each other as equals, they were able to work together in an effective military partnership. He also concluded that the informal discipline system of the AIF encouraged initiative and loyalty, and produced skills of battle rather than of the parade ground.19

Bean remained a staunch imperialist — he hoped that Australia would be a model for ‘a great empire […] young, beginning, active and thinking’ — but his English identity faded and he increasingly identified himself as an Australian. His reports fondly described ‘the familiar old pea-soup overcoats and high-necked jackets and slouch hats of the Australians’, and he came to share the diggers’ apparent preference for dirty old Australian tunics, and their disdain for British uniform issues: ‘The feeling is extraordinarily strong — and I have it too […] I hate seeing them go into a British tunic. It seems to me the hallmark of a different being — a more subservient less intelligent man’.20

Bean and other Anzac publicists like Keith Murdoch and Will Dyson became forthright, nationalist advocates for the diggers and the AIF. Angered by the lack of recognition in the British press for the AIF military successes of 1917 and 1918 (the War Office often assumed that the Australians were British and, therefore, that there was no need for distinction), Murdoch and Bean organised a series of visits to the AIF front-line by influential politicians and writers. They also campaigned for the creation of an Australian national army, and were delighted by the establishment, in November 1917, of an Australian army corps staffed and commanded by Australians. As a result of this amalgamation, the victories of the Australian Corps in 1918 could be unequivocally credited to the Australians, and Bean celebrated these victories as an epic national achievement to rank with the landing at Gallipoli.21

Writing at the cutting edge

When Bean was appointed official war correspondent the Australian government anticipated that he would also produce a history of Australian participation in the war. This dual role of correspondent and historian influenced the way Bean gathered information and wrote about the Australian soldiers. He did not think of himself as an ordinary reporter, and believed that he needed to collect detailed, first-hand evidence for his reports and for the national history; he was usually based with the AIF divisions in order to have ready access to military resources and information.

When, for example, the war correspondents were instructed in June 1915 to transfer from Gallipoli to a base on the nearby island of Imbros, Bean wrote a memorandum to the ANZAC commander General Birdwood arguing that he needed to remain on Gallipoli because ‘the category of news which my duties require me to obtain […] has no relation to that required by journalists responsible to newspapers’.22

This national responsibility complemented Bean’s personal commitment to thorough investigation of the facts of an event so that he could ‘record the plain and absolute truth so far as it was within his limited powers to compass it’. It also suited his interest in individual experience and the ways in which individual character, moulded by race and nationality, influenced the outcome of events. Bean liked to focus on the exploits of individuals and small groups because he believed that wars were often won or lost at the ‘cutting edge’ of battle. Furthermore, Bean believed that because he was responsible to the Australian nation and people and not to any newspaper editor, his job was not to report the activities of other forces or the general trends of campaigns, but was to describe and assess Australian participation in the war. As he wrote in the same memorandum, what he could not get at Imbros were:

[…] the details as to the life, scenes, bearing of men, scenes that will stir Australian pride (there are plenty of such details told to the British people of their soldiers) — which is what the nation I represent wants to hear.

Thus Bean’s perception of his job led him to explore the character and fighting qualities of his Anzac heroes, which he perceived in national terms and which became the main themes of his journalism and history.23

Driven by these perceptions of his role and by a keen sense of duty, Bean was a diligent and brave war reporter. He spent much of his time in or near to the front-line, determined to observe every major action of the Australian forces. At Gallipoli, in particular, he shared the privations and dangers of the soldiers. He was recommended for a decoration for bravery after assisting wounded soldiers — thus regaining the respect of the men he had criticised in Egypt — and was wounded while covering an Australian offensive. Despite the pain and discomfort he remained on Gallipoli so that he could continue his work. In addition to his own observations, Bean amassed the information he required by interviewing Australian soldiers and staff about every battle. Later he described his work at Gallipoli, which marks him as one of Australia’s first oral historians:

Day after day I would walk or climb to some part of Anzac, sometimes of Suvla, and seek from eyewitnesses accounts of events in which they had often been principal participants. They would send me on from one to another, submitting to the closest examination carefully jotted down by candlelight, sometimes until two or three in the morning.24

Figure 2  Will Dyson’s wartime illustration, ‘Captain Bean typing despatches after a hard day at Polygon Wood.’ (c. 1917, crayon, 25.7 × 17.8 cm, Australian War Memorial [9931]).

Then, late into the night — though he was often cold, exhausted and unwell, and the light was so poor that he frequently wrote on top of other words

— Bean transcribed his daytime interview notes and observations into the diary that subsequently became his chief record of the war.

Bean’s diary is an invaluable source for exploring his wartime writing and the ways in which, over time, he gradually articulated and fashioned his account of the Anzacs. The diary has been the subject of historical debate, and it does need to be used with caution. Bean himself noted that because the diary was often written in a stressful situation, his observations and statements were sometimes confused and inaccurate. Bean was also careful about what he wrote in the diary because he was concerned that it might fall into the wrong hands. More importantly, close examination of the copies of Bean’s diaries held at the Australian War Memorial reveals that, far from being a consistent chronological series of day by day accounts, each ‘diary’ contains material written at different times and in very different contexts.

Take, for example, Bean’s diaries of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Diary number 4 contains brief handwritten and shorthand notes which Bean made on the spot during the day. He stopped writing in the early afternoon — it was too difficult and dangerous — and that night recommenced with a slightly more detailed account of the rest of the day. In this diary many of the faded pencil marks have been subsequently retraced in ink; pages have been torn out, and additions and corrections have been made with different writing implements at later dates.

Diaries 5 and 6 also record the events of the landing, and are the diaries that Kevin Fewster edited and published in 1983 as Gallipoli Correspondent. They draw upon the notes in diary 4, and upon interviews with participants which Bean collected in subsequent months and recorded in another set of notebooks (catalogued by the Australian War Memorial as diaries 25 to 28). Textual evidence suggests that the bulk of diaries 5 and 6 were written by Bean towards the end of 1915 and early in 1916. He continued to amend and delete material — certainly in 1920 and 1952 — as he came upon new information or developed new understandings of the events of April 1915. By comparison with diary 4, diaries 5 and 6 are well-worked narratives of the Anzac landing — often switching between past and present tense — which were probably written with a view to publication, or at least as the basis for subsequent historical writing. Contrast, for example, the following passages as Bean observes the landing from his ship.

7.22 Our men seen on top of ridge. (Helio working from further hill face of it 7 [o’clock].) Men quite plainly visible in large numbers — entrenching slightly behind Hill top — walking in quite unconcerned. All wounded in boats. [Diary 4]

Ten minutes later someone sees men upon the skyline. The rumour gradually spreads round. At 7.17 I heard of it [in 1921 Bean recorded in diary 4 that his own watch was thirteen minutes fast by comparison with the Corps Diary]. Through the telescope you can see them, numbers of them — some standing full length. Others moving over it. Certain ones are standing up, moving along amongst them. Others are sitting down, apparently talking. Are they Turks or Australians? The Turks wear khaki, but the attitudes are extraordinarily like those of Australians. Just below them on our side of them a long line of men is digging in quietly on a nearer hill. They have round caps, I think clearly you can distinguish that round disc-like top. They are Australians! And they have taken that second line of hills! [Diary 5]25

In short, the ‘diary’ which is usually quoted in studies of Bean’s work was a carefully constructed narrative written after the event with a view to publication. The line between ‘private’ and ‘public’ accounts is blurred, and diary passages clearly need to be checked for their provenance and for their intention at the time of writing.26 Despite these qualifications, Bean’s diary, which is often an impressively frank and self-questioning document, is still the best source for studying the development and articulation of his wartime thinking, and his handling of the contradictions of the Anzac experience. It provides a useful contrast to Bean’s contemporaneous war correspondence, and reveals how his press reports were affected by the dictates of propaganda and censorship, by loyalty to the Allied commanders and cause, and by Bean’s own idealisation of the Anzacs.

British propaganda and censorship were superbly well controlled during the Great War. The guidelines for literary propaganda were drawn up in London just after the outbreak of war: correspondents were expected to write ‘interesting’ articles and books with small doses of propaganda that were not too apparent and would not detract from their appeal; they were also required to depict the soldiers as ‘cheerful and happy’. The basic rules of censorship — that reports must not provide information for the enemy, needlessly distress the bereaved, or criticise the military conduct of the war — ensured that these guidelines could not be breached.27

The nature of propaganda and the degree of censorship largely depended on definitions of what was distressing or critical. Bean vehemently opposed one official view that lies were justified if they helped the war effort, and argued that the destruction of public confidence in the government could ‘conceivably do far more harm to a nation than defeat’. Bean’s criticism of this form of propaganda was directed specifically at British military censors and was fuelled by a personal and national grudge. The censors often used trivial excuses to block his own reports, and Bean believed with some justification that they were unsympathetic to the national role of an official correspondent from the ‘colonies’. Yet Bean’s anger was largely confined to his diary. He was much too obedient to flout the rules of censorship, and criticised correspondents like Ashmead-Bartlett who tried to make uncensored reports.28

Bean’s own loyalties were more directly influential than censorship in the construction of his wartime account of the diggers. As a confidant of many of the Australian commanders, he refused to betray their trust and the inside information that they provided. When he was critical, it tended to be about the way the Australians were being used rather than about the war itself. He maintained his belief in the Allied cause and would not write reports that might provoke doubt about that cause. As Kevin Fewster remarks, when Bean had to choose between truth, devotion to Empire and loyalty to its military leaders, ‘he invariably chose to keep his criticisms to himself’.29

By his own admission, Bean threw a cloak over ‘the horror and beastliness and cowardice and treachery’ of war, and the Australian public received a highly selective version of the soldiers’ experience. In his Gallipoli diary Bean admitted that soldiers — ‘even Australian soldiers’ — frequently ran away; that they needed to be threatened by their officers; that almost all dreaded the front and some shot off their fingers to escape it. Very little of this was revealed in Bean’s war correspondence, which celebrated the Australians’ successes or, at worst, argued that they were ‘putting a good face upon it under conditions which […] were sheer undiluted misery’. For example, although Bean’s report of the disaster at Fromelles admitted ‘very severe losses’ (Bean was castigated by the British censor for that admission) he included none of his diary criticisms of the mismanagement of the battle, and instead focused on the few soldiers who had reached the enemy lines, characterising the Australian efforts as ‘worthy of all the traditions of Anzac’.30

Within the limitations of censorship and personal loyalty, Bean was a far more rigorous investigator than many other war correspondents, and had a much higher regard for the truth. While others laced their stories with information from official communiqués or with the accounts of hospital heroes, Bean was wary of the official line and despised the exaggerations of ‘Cairo correspondents’. On 26 September 1915, in one of the most revealing passages of his diary, Bean exploded against this type of journalism:

But what wretched cant it all is that they talk in the newspapers […] I can’t write about bayonet charges like some of the correspondents do. Ashmead-Bartlett makes it a little difficult for one by his exaggerations, and yet he’s a lover of the truth. He gives the spirit of the thing: but if he were asked […] ‘Did the first battle of Anzac really end with the flash of bayonets all along the line, a charge, and the rolling back of the Turkish attack’, he’d have to say ‘Well — no, as a matter of fact that didn’t occur’. Well, I can’t write that it occurred if I know that it did not, even if by painting it that way I could rouse the blood and make the pulse beat faster […]31

Bean knew that any initial Australian eagerness for battle was by this time long gone, but that journalists were still being misled by ‘the false literature of other wars’ or were ‘bent on sustaining the national determination in this one’. Experiences at Gallipoli and later on the Somme persuaded Bean to curb ‘any tendency to glorify war’, and to depict ‘as far as possible the suffering and misery of the war’. As a writer at the cutting edge, Bean had realised the inadequacy of what Paul Fussell has termed ‘high diction’ — the romantic rhetoric of war that men of Victorian and Edwardian generations, including Bean himself, had grown up with — for describing the soldier’s experience of modern warfare. Bean’s remedy, which suited his journalistic style, was to describe battle in plain, simple and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ prose, with a minimum of rhetorical flourish.32

Yet despite this avowed intent to record the plain details of battle, the facts of Bean’s war correspondence were still selected and articulated according to his Anzac ideal, and were fashioned to make a good story. Although Bean had realised that some men could not cope with the ‘suffering and misery of the war’, his main impression, and the impression he recorded in his diary and conveyed in his journalism, was of the heroism of the men who stuck to the task. The worse the conditions of war, the more heroic was the ordinary Australian soldier. He wrote in his diary that for soldiers to go into Pozières ‘in spite of their natural state of mind and do all they would is a hundred times finer than the heroics that have been written in the past’, and he elaborated on that theme in his report to Australia about the men of Pozières:

Steadfast until death, just the men that Australians at home know them to be; into the place with a joke, a dry cynical Australian joke as often as not; holding fast through anything that man can imagine; stretcher bearers, fatigue parties, messengers, chaplains, doing their job all the time, both new-joined youngsters and old hands, without fuss, but steadily, because it is their work. They are not heroes; they do not intend to be thought or spoken of as heroes. They are just ordinary Australians doing their particular work as their country would wish them to do it. And pray God Australians in days to come will be worthy of them!33

Despite his criticisms of the exaggerated heroics of much war writing, Bean did not reject the idea of heroism. He simply redefined it by arguing that the soldiers who endured the horrors of trench warfare demonstrated their own brand of heroism, just as impressive as that of military fiction. Significantly, he defined this heroism of endurance in terms of Australian national character. Thus Australians were more likely to stick to the task than soldiers of other armies, as he wrote in his diary and reported to Australians back home:

[…] the actual truth is that though not all Australians, by any means, do their job, there is a bigger proportion of men in the Australian army that try to do it cheerfully and without the least show of fear, than in any force or army that I have seen in Gallipoli.34

Convinced that the qualities of the Australian soldiers were the reason for their military successes, and determined to convey their experiences in those terms in order to sustain Australian pride and resolve, Bean was clearly not just writing matter-of-fact description. His prose was carefully framed to make particular meanings about the war and about the achievements of the Australian soldiers.

One of the best examples of the literary and didactic aims that were implicit in much of Bean’s war journalism is his account of the Anzac evacuation from Gallipoli. The evacuation took place over several days in December 1915, and appears to have been unnoticed by the Turks, resulting in negligible Anzac casualties. This was a remarkable military achievement, and Bean knew that it would make a good story. On 23 December he recorded in his diary a conversation with a fellow correspondent, who complained that a rearguard action would have made for better news. Bean dissented: ‘I say that battle stories are almost commonplace nowadays; and the spectacle of our whole position gradually left bare to the Turks […] is as good as any battle story’. Bean described the despatch he wrote as one ‘on which I had poured out more care than anything of which I have written here — the only chance one has of even attempting to rival Bartlett’s work’. Though it was delayed and curtailed by the censors, Bean’s report gave the Australian Gallipoli campaign a dramatic conclusion and confirmed its ‘historic’ significance:

Three miles away from me, across a grey, silky sea, lies the dark shape of the land. Eight months ago, just as the first lemon-grey of dawn was breaking over that long lizard-shaped mountain, I watched such signs as were visible of the landing of the Australian troops at Gallipoli. Now, as night falls gradually down upon the same historic scene, I am watching for the signs of their departure […]35

As historian Richard Ely comments about this passage, ‘Bean knew very well how to frame a narrative to enhance its power to move’.

Although the report about the Anzac evacuation had a self-conscious literary tone, Bean was wary of romanticising war and usually concealed his literary art by framing his representations of the Anzac ideal in evocative but simple prose. But his new style of war reporting, which appeared to depict the ‘ordinary heroism’ of Australian soldiers in plain language and without glorifying war, was not always appreciated by Australian newspaper editors and their civilian readership. In September 1915, Bean discovered that the Melbourne Age and Argus were not publishing some of his reports because they were of insufficient interest. He was incensed by the papers’ preference for the ‘wild, sensational inventions’ of the ‘Cairo correspondents’, and retorted that his reports had ‘merely the interest that I risk my life hundreds of times over on the spot itself in order that they may know that every word is as true as it can be’. The charge of ‘insufficient interest’ plagued Bean throughout the war (in 1916 the Argus compared Bean’s writing to that of a bank-clerk’s ledger and claimed that readers wanted less accuracy and more spirit) and his reports were not always printed by Australian newspapers.36

As the war dragged on, civilian Australians gradually began to comprehend something of the misery of trench warfare, and Bean’s war correspondence achieved more thoughtful praise. In October 1916 the Bendigo Advertiser quoted Bean’s account of the Australians at Pozières — ‘ready to weep like little children’ but still ‘doing their job’ — and praised his evocation of the ‘great souled heroes’. By portraying some of the difficulties of life in the line while still praising the Australian soldiers’ forbearance, Bean’s reports began to touch a powerful nerve in Australia, where people were loathe to regard the losses of loved ones as a futile waste. Although the codes of propaganda and censorship made it difficult to bridge the gap between home and front, and ensured that Australians read a sanitised version of the soldiers’ lives, Bean’s correspondence attempted to reduce this gap; an aim that would become his main preoccupation as a historian.37

By the middle of 1917 Bean had recognised that his rigorous historian’s approach was increasingly detracting from what was expected of him as a war correspondent, and he appointed an assistant official correspondent so that he could spend more time on historical research. Bean also realised that he was trying to cater for two very different audiences, and was writing as much for the men of the AIF as for people in Australia. Living among the diggers, Bean identified with their experience and tried to write about it in terms that they would accept. Some Australian soldiers had mixed feelings about Bean’s writing. Late in 1918 the Australian war artist Will Dyson, one of Bean’s closest friends, overheard a group of diggers discussing Bean’s despatches:

[…] some said ‘I reckon he does the right thing in sending them the dinkum story’; others said, ‘That might be all very well for the historian, but they reckoned the war correspondent ought to put a little more glory into it’.

Although some soldiers wanted ‘a little more glory’ in Bean’s journalism, many of them were critical of the usual journalistic cant which so grossly misrepresented their experiences to Australians back home; one poem penned at Gallipoli scorned the language of ‘“deathless heroes — lasting glory”, and the other foolish fuss’. After Gallipoli many of the soldiers appreciated Bean’s writing precisely because he wrote from first-hand knowledge of their experience. Lieutenant Noel Loutit of the 10th Battalion wrote to his father from Gallipoli that ‘Captain Bean gave a better account [of the landing] than Bartlett did. Bean was up with us’.38

Although some of the diggers wanted more public criticism of the mismanagement at Gallipoli and in subsequent campaigns, Bean’s simple but affirming image of ordinary men who were just doing their job was very appealing to those who wanted to find a positive meaning for their own experiences, and to believe that their mates had not died in vain. The secret of Bean’s success as a war correspondent was that he was able to construct a version of the soldiers’ war that, while constrained by censorship and informed by his reverent Anzac ideal, overlapped with the Anzacs’ own articulation of their experiences and fulfilled deep emotional needs. Bean’s writing was thus more influential among the Australian soldiers than that of most other correspondents, in that it provided interpretative categories with which they could make sense of the war and of their Anzac experience.

Bean’s Anzac Book

The Anzac annuals that Bean edited were even more successful than his correspondence in their articulation of the Australian soldiers’ experiences. The first and most popular of these was The Anzac Book. In November of 1915 Bean was invited to join a committee to create an Anzac Annual. He soon became the energetic editor, changed the title, and sent a circular to all Anzac units asking for contributions ‘to make it worthy of Anzac and a souvenir which time will make increasingly valued’. Although the proposed annual was publicised as a New Year’s entertainment for the troops on Gallipoli, it seems likely that its initiators on ANZAC staff, perhaps including Bean, knew of the plans for evacuation. It would thus appear that the book was intended to serve as a commemorative souvenir for the soldiers, and for a wider Australian audience; its aim being to construct a positive account of military defeat.39

According to Bean, the response to his request for contributions was ‘enormous’. The front cover of the final product stated that it was ‘Written and Illustrated In Gallipoli by the Men of Anzac’, and enthusiastic Australian reviewers believed that it was the authentic voice of the troops; a Sydney Bulletin writer commented that ‘there must have been almost as many poets as fighters at Gallipoli’. But Bean had exaggerated the extent and representativeness of the contributors. From over 36 000 men in the Anzac zone, only about 150 contributed to the book, and that included Bean and several other correspondents.

These contributors may have been a cross-section of Anzac troops — though the requirement of artistic or literary skill probably narrowed the sample — but the material that was published did not represent a cross-section of Anzac experiences and opinions. In the archives of the Australian War Memorial, historian David Kent recently discovered a file of soldiers’ manuscripts that Bean excluded from The Anzac Book, together with a set of original manuscripts which differed markedly from the edited versions that were published. They show that Bean was a very selective editor, partly to maintain a consistent literary standard, but also to project a particular image of the Anzacs. There were both overlaps and tensions between Bean’s Anzac ideal and the more varied and complex ways in which the soldiers represented themselves in writing and drawings. The following, illustrated study of Bean’s editing of The Anzac Book shows how he worked to define the Australian soldiers in a particular way, and to exclude characteristics that did not match his ideal or the requirements of the censors.40

Figure 3  Front cover of The Anzac Book.

Some contributions to the book, such as David Barker’s front cover illustration (Figure 3), affirmed the conventional, heroic stereotype of the battered but unyielding warrior, and thus implied that Gallipoli was a triumph rather than a failure. But Bean also allowed contributors to express the disdain for romantic journalism and official lies — the ‘tosh’ of ‘press pudding’ — which he shared (see, for example, the letters ‘R’ and ‘V’ of ‘An Anzac Alphabet’ in Figure 9). Poems and cartoons, like those in Figure 4, explicitly contrasted ‘The Ideal and the Real’ of the soldiers’ experience, and debunked newspaper images of ‘heroic colonials’ as a ‘race of athletes’. Bean himself contributed to this debunking in an ironic drawing of an Australian soldier ‘returning from the field of glory at Helles’, although another of his own illustrations, portraying semi-naked Anzacs, shows that he admired the sun-bronzed, athletic Australians and was equally willing to represent that image in the book (see Figures 4 and 5).

Many contributions showed more vividly than any newspaper report the physical discomforts endured by the soldiers on Gallipoli — the dirt, flies and lice, intense heat and bitter cold — and the ways in which the men made the most of their difficult situation. In this regard, The Anzac Book was typical of the trench publications of Australian soldiers, in that it constructed an image of the quintessential digger: a tough man who shrugs off discomfort or pain with ironic grumbles and grins; a reluctant soldier but casual under fire and scornful of its consequences, fun-loving and cheeky, a man who disdains military swagger (see Figures 6–10).

Although the irreverence and sarcasm that is apparent in these illustrations sometimes rubbed against more respectable official images, the less reputable aspects of Anzac behaviour were kept within acceptable limits by Bean’s editing. For example, Bean limited the representation of Anzac larrikinism by rejecting several manuscripts that portrayed the boozing, brawling, swearing and racist Anzacs in Cairo.

He also kept criticism of officers and authority within acceptable boundaries. For example, the first cartoon in Figure 10 expresses the Australian soldiers’ contempt for upper class officers, and shows that it was possible to criticise authority in The Anzac Book. The second cartoon shows how such criticisms were bounded by the further implication that in the army — or at least in the egalitarian Australian army — even upper class twits could discover their true qualities as leaders, and win the respect of their men. Along the same lines, Bean excluded manuscripts that contrasted the unequal comforts or sacrifices of officers and men, and included material which implied that the AIF had done away with class differences. Despite the odd cartoon which ribbed staff officers, frequently British staff (see the letters ‘I’ and ‘P’ in ‘An Anzac Alphabet’, Figure 9), extensive contributions from Generals Hamilton and Birdwood promoted the respectable military viewpoint of unity and loyalty; Birdwood was even photographed swimming in the sea just like one of the men.

Figure 4  Cartoons from The Anzac Book.

Figure 5  Illustrations by Bean from The Anzac Book.

Though he was more than willing to include images and text which showed the difficulties faced by the men of Gallipoli, Bean rejected poems that depicted Australian losses in bitter or negative terms. In one soldier’s poem he deleted the line ‘We ain’t got no Daddy now our Daddy’s killed and dead’, and inserted ‘Simple words that bring her memories o’er the boundaries of the dead’. By editing out the plain language of death and converting it into elegy, Bean ensured that death and anguish were justified as dutiful sacrifices for the greater good. Similarly, Bean excluded manuscripts that showed the savagery or monotony of battle, and the anger, despair or terror of Australian soldiers. In the published Anzac Book such feelings are transcended by noble action: in a story with one of the few references to fear, the coward redeems himself in heroic death. As David Kent concludes: ‘When fear was mythologised in this way there was no room for contributions which accepted it as a fact of life at Gallipoli’.41

Bean’s selective editing of The Anzac Book must be partly attributed to his keen awareness of what was acceptable in wartime, and to his desire to show the Australian soldiers in the best possible light. It may also have been influenced by an unconscious projection of his own Anzac ideal. Although there were still minor tensions in the text between Bean’s ideal and the self-image of some contributors — for example, writers and illustrators were less respectful of authority than Bean might have liked — that self-image was carefully edited to sustain and promote the legend of ordinary Australians who had displayed characteristic qualities of bravery, humour and endurance in the most trying circumstances.

In Australia The Anzac Book was a monumental best-seller, with sales of 100 000 copies by September 1916, and it became one of the most influential early versions of the Anzac legend. Civilians seemed to like its depiction of the stalwart Anzacs, and reviewers were convinced that The Anzac Book was ‘one of the most complete studies in the psychology of our Australian brothers’. The evidence of the rejected manuscripts, and of oral testimony, shows that the book was not such a complete study of digger psychology, and that some of ‘our Australia brothers’ had a very different understanding of their experience at war. Yet by all accounts The Anzac Book was very favourably received by the Australian troops; by November of 1916 AIF members had ordered 53 000 copies.

Figures 6, 7 and 8 Cartoons from The Anzac Book.

These massive sales were partly due to Bean’s energetic and efficient distribution work. Australian soldiers were able to buy a copy by direct debit of two shillings and sixpence from their pay, and for an additional sixpence they could consign a copy to an address in Australia. Bean set up bookselling committees in each unit, and sold thousands of copies by his own efforts. He also organised for each Australian division to have 3000 copies to sell to new recruits so that they could learn what sort of soldiers they should be.42

The success of the book can also be attributed to the fact that the men liked the image it portrayed. Australian soldiers believed The Anzac Book to be their own collective attitudes and identity expressed in their own words and pictures. The image it conveyed was certainly preferable to the lies of official communiqués or the exaggerations of the press. The Anzac Book admitted the discomforts of their life, and highlighted the ironic humour that was one of their main ways of coping with danger and discomfort. It also showed the Australian to be a distinctive kind of soldier, and this was a notion that the diggers were beginning to enjoy, even though they sometimes gave their nationality more unofficial and even oppositional meanings.

The Anzac Book was Bean’s most effective wartime rendering of the Anzac legend. While Bean’s portrayal of Anzac manhood was more wholesome and virtuous than the actual behaviour of many Anzacs, his positive account of Australian military manhood was affirming for soldiers who wanted to feel that their manhood had been sustained, that their actions had been valued, and that their efforts were worthwhile. Although Bean’s articulation of Anzac identity was more homogeneous and nationalistic than the varieties of Anzac experience, the Anzacs did not reject his definition of Australian military manhood because they shared a substantial common understanding of what it meant to be an Australian soldier.

Some men may have recognised the selectivity of the supposed self-portrait of The Anzac Book, but the influence of the book among the troops and back in Australia would help to ensure that contradictory experiences were defined and felt as abnormal and marginal. Indeed, Bean’s wartime writings, as both journalist and editor, helped Australian soldiers to articulate and generalise their experience of war in terms of an Anzac legend, and at the same time worked to silence or filter out contradictory understandings. The following chapter explores this relationship between experience, personal understanding and collective identity through the wartime memory biographies of Percy Bird, Bill Langham and Fred Farrall.

Figure 9  ‘An Anzac Alphabet’ from The Anzac Book.

Figure 10  Cartoons from The Anzac Book.

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

   by Alistair Thomson