Stephen Loosley, reviewing Bearing Witness: The Remarkable Life of Charles Bean, Australia’s Greatest War Correspondent, by Peter Rees, Allen & Unwin, 584pp, courtesy of The Australian, 25 April 2015
The Gallipoli campaign was a strategic fiasco, despite the courage and sacrifice of the Anzacs committed to the landing and subsequent battles. In the face of equally heroic and determined Turkish defenders, however, there was one element to the campaign from which every Australian school student is able to draw comfort and take pride: the skilful evacuation of the Allied forces without loss in December 1915.
The story is true but the Turkish view of the evacuation sometimes may be taken into account, for Turkish commentators argue that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, seeing the ships offshore, concluded early that an evacuation would take place. His resolve was simply to permit Turkey’s enemies to leave without impediment. The evacuation forms an important part of the Anzac legend of bravery and stoicism, passed down through generations of Australian men and women in battle and into the fabric of our national identity.
One man, more than any other individual, contributed mightily to the creation of the Anzac legend: Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean, Australia’s first war correspondent; the outstanding historian who bequeathed us the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18 in 12 volumes and the inspirational champion of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Peter Rees, a former Canberra press gallery correspondent and prolific author, from biographer of former Nationals leader Tim Fischer to chronicler of Australians at war in the desert or in the air, has now produced Bearing Witness, a compelling biography of Bean.
This book is well-researched and well-written. It is a convincing account of Bean as a person of integrity and honour; thoroughly professional in his work while personally identifying with the troops in the trenches, to whom he owed the respect best demonstrated by telling Australians at home the truth about the Diggers’ accomplishments in battles too horrific for British military censors to acknowledge. As a biography, it stops well short of hagiography. Where Bean was wrong, Rees does not spare his subject, as on the divisive issue of conscription where the correspondent misjudged the attitude of the troops dramatically. This is an assessment that appears accurate and balanced, absent a tendency to embellish Bean’s role or enshrine his character beyond an extraordinary life and seminal contributions to Australian history.
Bean was an unlikely military historian, although his brother Jack early identified him as having the war correspondent’s powers of observation. He was born in Bathurst, NSW, in 1879, educated in England and admitted to the Bar on his return to Australia; his writing about the bush attracted the attention of The Sydney Morning Herald. In a ballot among journalists he was selected for Gallipoli, where he shared a dugout with a visiting Keith Murdoch, whose letter to prime minister Andrew Fisher caused the Australian government to question the continuing Anzac sacrifices on the peninsula.
Bean was brave, sharing the hardships and dangers. But his first attempt to be truthful for the folks at home nearly brought his end. Cairo in 1914-15 was too tempting for some Australian soldiers who were training outside in the desert. Some troops disgraced themselves — drinking, brawling and whoring, and were arrested and sent home. At the suggestion of Australian Imperial Force commander William Bridges, Bean wrote to condemn this indiscipline. Uproar ensued and some of the troops threatened violence. Bean was undeterred, writing: “My job is to see that at any rate the blame is put on the right people and that the innocent don’t get a bad name for what they didn’t do. When things go right I have to try and see that the Australian people know the right people to get the credit. If they want someone to feed them on soft pap, only to tell them good and pleasant things whatever happens, then I am not the man for the job.”
This sentiment was to characterise Bean’s approach as a correspondent for the entire period of the Great War.
Bearing Witness is written with clarity and brevity. The narrative moves steadily and Rees’s focus on Bean does not blur or lose its close sense of personal engagement. Moreover, Rees places Bean in context: the pressures and prejudices of the war and the times. This is of critical significance in examining Bean’s attitude to Australia’s greatest general of the Great War, John Monash. Bean admired Monash’s colleague, Cyril Brudenell White, while dismissing Monash with a conspicuous anti-Semitism.
His ambition makes him an underground engineer — he has the Jewish capacity for worming silently into favour without seeming to take any steps towards it, although many are beginning to suspect that he does take steps.
Thankfully Bean changed his view later in life. He was wrong about Monash and he admitted it openly, something William Morris Hughes failed utterly to do.
Many books are being published about Australia in the Great War in this centenary year. Rees’s biography of Bean will endure. It is absorbing and enlightening. Bean deserves this renewed attention, for he was a passionate advocate of Australians at war being recognised as such and serving as one Army Corps; an assertive defender of truth in reporting and a man always prepared to confront the hierarchy of British military stupidity:”These stupid overfed fat red-tabs, enjoying their cigars in front of the fire until they drowse and their heads drop over their newspapers — they have no use for the system which enables the poor wretch groaning in a shell hole 100 yards out in No Man’s Land.”
The Australian War Memorial is testament to Bean’s creativity and judgment. He recognised the national significance of Gallipoli earlier than most, returning to the peninsula in 1919 to map the battlefield and collect relics. But in a real sense Bean’s enduring legacy is to be found in every Australian. We are all Anzacs in spirit.
Stephen Loosley is chairman of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.
COMPARE : Michael Roberts, “Truth Journalism? Marie Colvin hoist on her own Petard,” 5 November 2014, http://thuppahis.com/2014/11/05/triuth-journalism-marie-colvin-hoist-on-her-own-petard/…….
Pic from “Marie Colvin’s Encounter with the Sri Lankan Army, 16th April 2001” 4 November 2014, … http://thuppahis.com/2014/11/04/marie-colvins-encounter-with-the-sri-lankan-army-16th-april-2001/#more-14399