Biography from Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean (1879-1968), historian and journalist, was born on 18 November 1879 at Bathurst, New South Wales, eldest of three sons of Edwin Bean and his wife Lucy Madeline, née Butler, of Hobart Town. The Beans were an Imperial family. Edwin was born in Bombay, son of a surgeon-major in the army of the East India Co. and Charles was named after Henry Woodrow, who had worked in India under Macaulay. They were also a family for whom Thomas Arnold’s innovations in schooling were important. Woodrow was the original at Arnold’s Rugby of a character in Tom Brown’s Schooldayswho protects a smaller boy against bullying. Edwin Bean was among the first pupils in 1862 at Clifton College, one of the new boarding-schools founded to diffuse Arnoldian education. When Charles was born his father had been in Australia six years and was headmaster of All Saints’ College, Bathurst. Charles entered its preparatory school in 1886. In 1889 his father was forced by ill health to resign and took the family to England.
For two years the Beans spent summer in Oxford and winter in Brussels, where Charles learned French and drawing. In 1891 his father became headmaster of Brentwood School in Essex, which his own father had attended. Charles was a pupil there in 1891-94 and then entered Clifton.
He was a schoolboy in love with England and Empire. In its thirty years Clifton had become rich in Imperial tradition. Such old boys as Douglas Haig and William Birdwood were serving in the Bengal Lancers and the Egyptian Army; and while Bean was at school another old boy, Henry Newbolt, published the verses in which the cry ‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’, learned on the school cricket field, saves the day on the field of battle. Bean acquired at Clifton, he recalled, ‘a real interest in literature, & in the classics’, and played much cricket. He was known at first as ‘The Rum ‘Un’ for his Australian accent; in his last year he was made head of his house.
In 1898 Bean won a scholarship to Hertford College, Oxford (B.A., 1902; B.C.L., 1904; M.A., 1905), where he read classics (preferring history to philosophy) and simplified his prose style, having ‘determined never, if possible, to write a sentence which could not be understood by, say, a housemaid of average intelligence’. He graduated with second-class honours and, like his father before him, missed a place in the Indian Civil Service; had he got a first or a place in India (he reflected later), he might never have returned to Australia. He studied law, still living on his scholarship, and in 1903 was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple. He taught briefly at Brentwood, travelled to Tenerife as a tutor, and sailed for Sydney in 1904. He was admitted to the New South Wales Bar that year.
While waiting for clients he was an assistant master at Sydney Grammar School, and wrote some articles for the Evening News, edited by Banjo Paterson. As associate to Sir William Owen and two colleagues he saw much of New South Wales on circuit in 1905-07. He wrote a book, illustrated by his own drawings, about Australia as seen by a returned native. ‘The impressions of a new chum’ could not find a publisher, but the Sydney Morning Herald printed eight articles out of it from 1 June to 20 July 1907, under the general title ‘Australia’, by ‘C.W.’. He saw Australians as the best of Britons, and celebrated the bushman rather as Kipling sang of other outriders of Empire.
Bean resolved to live by writing rather than teaching or the law, and on Paterson’s advice went to the Sydney Morning Herald, which took him on as a junior reporter in January 1908 after he had spent eight hours a day for four months learning shorthand. In August he was assigned as special correspondent in H.M.S. Powerful, flagship of the Royal Navy squadron on the Australian Station, to report the visit of sixteen American warships—the Great White Fleet. Bean wrote a book based on his reports, with photographs, drawings and a water-colour frontispiece by the author, and had it published at his own expense. With the Flagship in the South (London, 1909) was among other things a plea for an Australian navy.
In 1909 Bean was sent to the far west of the State to do a series of articles on the wool industry. He was unenthusiastic, he admitted later. ‘And then it flashed upon him that the most important product of the wool industry was men; it was responsible for creating some of the outstanding national types’. He savoured the difference between Englishmen and Australians, and between rural and urban types in Australia. He liked the tough, resourceful boys of the outback. The articles were published as On the Wool Track (London, 1910). The assignment produced another series of articles, based on a journey down the Darling in a small steamer, for the Sydney Mail. These too became a book, whose title referred jocularly to a great Imperial preoccupation of the day: The Dreadnought of the Darling (London, 1911). Bean was to cherish a passage which began with an account of comradeship in the back country and ended with a prophecy that if ever England were in trouble, she would discover ‘in the younger land, existing in quite unsuspected quarters, a thousand times deeper and more effective than the more showy protestations which sometimes appropriate the title of “imperialism”, the quality of sticking … to an old mate’. Bean had started at the Sydney Morning Herald on £4 a week. By 1909 he was earning £9; two other papers made him offers, which he declined. He took to writing leading articles, and paragraphs for the Mail, as well as carrying a heavy load of reporting, and nearly collapsed from over-work.
In 1910-12 Bean represented the Herald in London, living with his parents. He reported the building of the battle-cruise Australia and the light cruisers Melbourne and Sydney. His bookFlagships Three (London, 1913) incorporated these reports and much of his first book, With the Flagship. Early in 1913 he returned to Sydney as a leader-writer. He disliked the job, and managed to get several assignments out in the country. From late June 1914 he was writing a daily commentary on the European crisis.
In September the Imperial government invited each dominion to attach an official correspondent to its forces. (Sir) George Pearce, minister for defence, invited the Australian Journalists’ Association to nominate a man, and in a ballot of members Bean won narrowly from(Sir) Keith Murdoch of the Melbourne Herald. Pearce expressed to Bean the hope that he would later write the history of Australia’s part in the war. He travelled to Egypt with the first contingent of the Australian Imperial Force, as a civilian who was regarded as a captain for such purposes as precedence in the mess. He wrote a booklet, What to Know in Egypt … A Guide for Australasian Soldiers (Cairo, 1915). An early dispatch, explaining why ‘a handful of rowdies’ were being sent home, aroused resentment. A savage set of verses accused him of ‘wowseristic whining’ and declared that he could not be an Australian. Early in April he left Egypt with the main body of the A.I.F. which joined the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force.
Bean went ashore at Anzac Cove on Gallipoli about 10 a.m. on 25 April 1915, some five and a half hours after the first landing. Two weeks later he accompanied two Australian brigades in a costly and unsuccessful attack at Cape Helles. For the help he gave to wounded men under fire on the night of 8 May he was recommended for the Military Cross; as a civilian he was not eligible, but was mentioned in dispatches. His bravery became a legend, and erased whatever hostility remained from his dispatch about the first of the returned soldiers. Australians at home read a detailed account of the landing in the papers of 8 May. It was not by Bean, whose first dispatch was held up by the British authorities in Alexandria until 13 May, but by the English correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett. Both accounts were much reprinted. Bean’s was the more precise, for he had seen more. The English reporter betrayed surprise that untrained colonials had done so well; Bean was seeing what he hoped confidently to see: the Australian soldiers, as he described them, were displaying qualities he had observed out in the country.
He was the only correspondent to stay on Gallipoli from April to December. On 6 August he was hit by a bullet in the right leg. Determined not to be taken off to a hospital ship, he hobbled to his dugout and lay there until 24 August, having the wound dressed each day, until he was well enough to get out and watch the fighting. At the evacuation he carried off writing and drawing by soldiers which he edited as The Anzac Book (London, 1916). Bean contributed photographs, drawings, and two pieces of verse: ‘Abdul’, in which the Turkish enemy is honoured for having ‘played the gentleman’, and ‘Non nobis’, an affirmation that although we cannot understand why the dead have died and we live, there must be some beneficent purpose which all the destruction of war is serving. In 1946 these verses, set to music by Dr A. E. Floyd, were included in the Australian supplement of the Church of England’s The Book of Common Praise.
In 1916-18 Bean was in France to observe every engagement of the A.I.F. Some dispatches were published as Letters from France (London, 1917). The historian’s task grew larger in his mind. At first he thought of one volume, but in France he conceived a grander work which would be literally a monument to the men of the A.I.F.—’the only memorial which could be worthy of them’, he decided, ‘was the bare and uncoloured story of their part in the war’.
Late in 1918 Bean took leave in the south of France and wrote In Your Hands, Australians(London, 1918), an Australian version of the world-wide hope that the survivors of war would perform peaceful deeds which justified the years of death. The last and longest chapter was about education. Early in 1919 he went back to Turkey on a journey described in a book eventually published as Gallipoli Mission (Canberra, 1948). He studied the field of battle as the Turks had seen it and reported to the Commonwealth government on how the Australian graves should be disposed and maintained. In May he returned to Australia, writing on the way home his recommendations for the official history and for a national war memorial which ‘for all time’ would ‘hold the sacred memories of the A.I.F.’ The government accepted his proposals. Late in 1919 the historian, his staff and their crates of records moved into the homestead of Tuggeranong near Canberra, to create The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918.
On 24 January 1921 at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, he married Ethel Clara Young, a nursing sister at the Queanbeyan hospital whom he first met when she visited Tuggeranong to play tennis. The ceremony was conducted by the dean, A. E. Talbot, who had been a chaplain on Gallipoli.
The first two volumes of the history, The Story of Anzac, appeared in 1921 and 1924. Bean had been suffering pain for several years from a kidney ailment, and in 1924 he went with his wife (Effie) to England for treatment; a kidney was removed. Doctors advised a warmer climate; so the Beans left Tuggeranong for Sydney, where they lived at Lindfield in a house named Clifton, and the staff and records moved to Victoria Barracks.
Bean himself wrote six volumes about the infantry divisions: the two on Gallipoli, and four on France. He edited eight more, and he and a colleague annotated the volume of photographs. The last volume appeared in 1943. The series contained nearly four million words. In Australian historical writing nothing had ever been done on such a scale; and there had been no military history anywhere quite like Bean’s.
‘Its theme’, he wrote, ‘may be stated as the answer to a question: How did this nation, bred in complete peace, largely undisciplined except for a strongly British tradition and the self-discipline necessary for men who grapple with nature … react to what still has to be recognized as the supreme test for fitness to exist?’ His answer, in plain prose dense with personal detail, had been foreshadowed in a passage of In Your Hands, Australians: ‘the big thing in the war for Australia was the discovery of the character of Australian men. It was character which rushed the hills at Gallipoli and held on there’.
Bean brought a democratic and colonial scepticism to bear on the assumption that the dispatches of high commanders were the best source of information about what actually happened when men went into battle. His own diaries (226 note-books) were full of the evidence about ‘what actual experiences, at the point where men lay out behind hedges or on the fringe of woods, caused those on one side to creep, walk, or run forward, and the others to go back’.
Bean’s approach differed from that of the British war historians, whose work was official not only in sponsorship but in texture: history written by generals, not by an honorary captain. The British volumes had no biographical footnotes of the sort that were essential to Bean’s method because he wanted to show that the participants were ‘a fair cross-section of our people … that the company commander was a young lawyer and his second in command and most trusted mate a young engine driver and so on’.
The Official History was published by Angus & Robertson, Sydney, and paid for by the Defence Department. The government accepted Bean’s request that it be uncensored, though he had to yield when the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board insisted on removing critical passages from A. W. Jose‘s The Royal Australian Navy. Each volume had to go to the minister for defence before printing, but only once (outside the naval volume) was a passage questioned, and ‘the matter was easily settled’. By 1942, 150,000 copies had been sold—an average of some 10,000 a volume. Bean’s one-volume abridgement of the series followed, as Anzac to Amiens (Canberra, 1946).
The Story of Anzac ended with a declaration that ‘it was on the 25th of April, 1915, that the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born’. That view of the nation was embodied not only in Bean’s writings but in the Australian War Memorial, which rose in Canberra as a storehouse for the records of war, a popular museum for its relics, and a temple to honour its victims. Bean saw it opened in 1941, was made chairman of its board in 1952, and lived to see it become the most popular tourist resort in the national capital, visited by more people than ever opened a page of the war histories on sale in the foyer.
His attitude to warfare changed. Before 1914 he had regarded war as an evil but awesome thing, not to be welcomed, but not to be flinched from. Looking back later, he saw that when politicians and the press asked a young man whether he was prepared to die for his country, that ‘splendid question’ helped to blind civilized nations to the folly of warfare. Bean became an active member of the League of Nations Union, believing in the league as guardian of peace. Horror of war led him to support Chamberlain’s conciliation of Hitler. He went on hoping that Hitler would keep his pledges — would play the game — until the German invasion of Czechoslovakia; and on 21 March 1939 a letter from Bean appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald under the heading ‘Recantation’.
In Sydney he founded the Parks and Playgrounds Movement of New South Wales, which tried to make the city a little more like the country, and was involved in the Town Planning Association. These activities gave him his first experience of local politics, and led him to dismay at corruption. The Depression shook him: his own salary, fixed by contract, was unaffected by the reduction imposed on public servants, including his associates on the History; but he insisted that his pay be cut too. Until he saw the mass unemployment of the 1930s he was a virtual stranger to the socialist tradition. Now he became interested in planning to reduce inequalities, and grew curious about the Soviet Union.
In the new war Bean did several jobs. He wrote a pamphlet, The Old A.I.F and the New (Sydney, 1940), and was employed in 1940 by the Department of Information to provide liaison between the chiefs of staff and the press. He became chairman in 1942 of the new Commonwealth Archives Committee, and did more than anyone else to create the Commonwealth Archives. In 1943 he published War Aims of a Plain Australian, deploring the failure of his people to enact the ideals for which World War I had been fought. As in his tract of 1918 his answer was ‘Educate, and educate!’.
In 1947-58 Bean was chairman of the promotion appeals board of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. He and his wife visited England in 1951. They returned on a migrant ship on which he was employed as a migration officer. He wrote a commissioned history of the ‘independent and corporate’ schools of Australia, using as title words from a poem by Newbolt about Clifton chapel: Here, My Son (Sydney, 1950). Earlier works found new readers when On the Wool Track(1945, 1963, 1967) and The Dreadnought of the Darling (1956) were republished.
In his last book, Two Men I Knew. William Bridges and Brudenell White, Founders of the A.I.F.(Sydney, 1957), Bean told the story, related also in volume VI of the Official History, of his own ‘high-intentioned but ill-judged intervention’ on behalf of White and against Sir John Monashwhen a successor to Birdwood as commander of the Australian Corps was being chosen in 1918.
The sense of values established in boyhood remained steady; the opinions derived from it went on changing. Before 1914 Bean had employed serenely the notion of an English race, and briskly defended White Australia. By 1949 he was arguing for admission of immigrants from Asia rather than perpetuation of ‘a quite senseless colour line’.
More than once Bean declined a knighthood. He accepted a D.Litt. in 1931 from theUniversity of Melbourne and an honorary LL.D. in 1959 from the Australian National University, an institution which he had been one of the first to foresee. In 1930 he was given the Chesney Gold Medal of the Royal United Service Institution.
In 1956 he and his wife Effie moved from Lindfield to Collaroy, to another house named Clifton. Early in 1964, aged 84, Bean was admitted to the Concord Repatriation General Hospital, and died there on 30 August 1968. He was cremated after a memorial service in St Andrew’s Cathedral. He had not been a regular churchgoer, believing (he said in 1948) that ‘the question whether God existed or not could make no difference to conduct’. The congregation sang his verses of 1915, ‘Non nobis’, and heard Angus McLachlan speak of the ‘devotion, amounting almost to worship’ that he won from friends.
An author at Gallipoli described him as ‘Captain Carrot’ because of his hair colour, a man ‘with the face of a student … He was rather tall and rather thin, with a peaky face and glasses’. He had a light voice, and an accent close to standard English but retaining the Australian ‘a’.
The Australian War Memorial has his portrait by George Lambert and a bust by John Dowie.
Inglis, K. S., ‘Bean, Charles Edwin Woodrow (1879–1968)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bean-charles-edwin-woodrow-5166/text8677, accessed 14 July 2011.
Bean has been honoured in his original home town of Bathurst, as recently as 2019. The Bathurst Library created a special technological display to honour 14 of the district’s World War One service personnel. This was located alongside a special pictorial display of Charles Bean.
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