Australia’s Greatest War Correspondent, CEW Bean, On Our Anzac Legacy

CEW Bean working in his Victoria Barracks office in 1935. Photo: Australian War Memorial A05389.

Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean (1879-1968), known as CEW Bean, was a lawyer, journalist and war correspondent who covered the Great War, landing with the troops at Gallipoli on April 25.

Later on, he was instrumental in establishing the Australian War Memorial, and his writings on Australian soldiers shaped the Anzac legend, especially as editor of the 12-volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918.

In this extract from his book, Anzac to Amiens, written in 1946 and spanning both world wars, Bean discusses how war shaped Australia and in the process, he forges the Anzac legend.

Australian photographer Frank Hurley’s 1917 image shows 1st Australian Division troops near Ypres heading to the front line. Photo Frank Hurley/Hulton Archive/Getty

It is true that great damage was afterwards done to the Anzac tradition by caricatures, that became popular in Australia, of the indiscipline of her troops in the First World War, portraying the life of the “dinkum Aussie” as one of drunkenness, thieving and hooliganism – a cari­cature based on old soldiers’ tales, which notoriously avoid the serious.

Actually it was discipline – firmly based on the national habit of facing facts and going straight for the objective – that was responsible for the astonishing success which first gave to other nations confidence in Aus­tralia, and to the Australian nation confidence in itself.

Whether that confidence can be justified by achieve­ment in peace as well as in war, only the future can show.

The Second World War ended with the use by man of elemental forces of a kind that could dissolve him and, conceivably, all life on this planet, and even-as Shakes­peare dreamed – “the great Globe itself”.

It may be hoped that human reason will bring these forces under unified control and overcome the monstrous danger of their use in war by surrendering those elements of national sovereignty on which war and its preparations are based. Such a consummation-which, in the not distant future, may be the only alternative to man’s self-destruction­ may be freely established by the nations; or it may be forced on the reluctant survivors by a victor after a third world war.

By what adjustments freedom, as known to the liberal world today, will be maintained under that new basis of human relationships, it is too early yet to foresee.

But whatever the means still available to men for forcing their will upon others, these lessons of history will still be fundamental – that only in conditions ensuring free­dom of thought and communication can mankind pro­gress; and that such freedom can be maintained only by the qualities by which from Grecian times it has been won-by such qualities as our own people managed to preserve through the first 126 peaceful years of their existence-the readiness at any time to die for freedom, if necessary, and the virility to struggle for it.

In facing that necessity we now share with the New Zealanders one condition that was lacking to our young nations in 1915: we have passed through the test which until now, unfortunately, has necessarily been judged by mankind as the supreme one for men fit to be free; and we have emerged from that test with the Anzac tradition.

In a Second World War that tradition has nobly served humanity.

May the day be near when it will be safely and gloriously fused in the tradition of a free mankind.

* Extract from the book Anzac to Amiens, by CEW Bean, published by Penguin, rrp $9.95.