Cover of book: Bearing Witness

Peter Rees
Bearing Witness

Right from the start, there was no stopping Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean. He came out of the dust and heat of Bathurst, “a son of rural Australia”, but did most of his growing up in England, studying classics at Oxford. Returning as a 25-year-old, he taught at Sydney Grammar, took up and abandoned law, and signed with The Sydney Morning Herald as a police roundsman on £4 a week. By 1910 he was back in the United Kingdom as the Herald’s London correspondent.

The Great War loomed and broke, and Europe was torn apart.

As Peter Rees’s finely observed biography shows, Bean’s early steps seemed destined to produce one outcome, being appointed official war correspondent to the Australian Imperial Force, a role without precedent. “Since he answered to no senior commander, Bean knew that the execution of his duties would depend entirely on his judgment.” And, predictably, on censorship – the bane of all war reporters – by the British and, later, Australian commands.

In Cairo, he cast a negative eye over the Diggers’ antics in brothels and bars, noting between 200 and 300 were absent without leave. But all that changed on the morning of April 25, 1915, “a day that would fuse Charles Bean and Australian history”. From a troopship, Bean watched the soldiers landing at Gallipoli under Turkish fire, and, five hours later, waded ashore with his camera.

“I took a photo of two of the fellows landing and then turned around to see the beach.” What he saw were half-a-dozen dead Australians, wrapped in overcoats, and further away, another two-dozen bodies. The slaughter had begun; so too had Bean’s love affair with the troops. “The wild, pastoral independent life of Australia,” he wrote, “if it makes rather wild men, makes superb soldiers.”

Less thrilling were the delays and expenses in getting his front-line reports to Sydney. The first dispatches cost £75 to send from Alexandria and did not appear until May 15, under the headline “HOW THE AUSTRALIANS FOUGHT: IMPERISHABLE FAME”. Bean settled into the daily hellhole of Gallipoli, facing snipers and shelling: “It was as if the universe was a tin-lined packing case, and squads of giants with sledgehammers were banging both ends of it, and we tiny beings were somewhere in between…” Bean would be hit soon enough. He spent three weeks recovering, a bullet in his thigh but still reporting.

A year later, he was facing German barrages in Flanders Fields – “Dead men’s legs, a shoulder, now a half buried body stick out of the tumbled red soil – bodies in all sorts of decay, some eaten away to the skull” – filing his reports but increasingly filling his diary with uncensored entries for the role he had deemed to himself: Australia’s official war historian.

The rise of technology, the cornerstone of modern war reporting, began on Bean’s watch. With a pencil he scribbles his reports by moonlight at Gallipoli, and by France he needs a new typewriter to replace “the smashed Corona” destroyed by a German mine. As the war advances, so does the use of photography. Frank Hurley, acclaimed photographer of Antarctic expeditions, lugs his clumsy gear through the muddy trenches of Ypres alongside Bean, trying hopelessly in single images to capture the scale and Dantean terror of industrialised warfare.

“It might be a rehearsal in a paddock!” Hurley despairs of his shots, and argues for “judicious manipulation” of multiple images to create more dramatic and telling composites. Bean was appalled, launching a tirade against any tampering with reality, an argument still resonating in newsrooms today. Hurley, says Rees, was a self-promoter who wanted to represent “realism”; Bean was a seeker of “truth”. The two, both masters of their crafts, clashed badly and fell out.

War reporting and writing war history are quite separate roles and, as Rees shows, somewhere in the middle of the conflict Bean began to conflate the two.

By 1917, the war had generated media competition, which troubled Bean the emerging historian. “Scoops, competition, magnification and exaggeration,” he declared, “are out of harmony with what is best for the country.”

Bean’s clashes, too, with both British and Australian higher authorities are well known, and well documented here as elsewhere. The man was hardly a rebel yet rubbed against what Rees calls “the hornet’s nest of petty jealousies, rivalries, clashing egos, intrigue and competing alliances” at the top. Bean’s hatred of the English class order (“the distorted relic of the early middle ages which passes for a system”) became his mantra, fuelling his nationalism. It was only the fighting men who commanded his absolute respect. Yet, even here, there is little sense of camaraderie, or relaxation; not a trace of larrikinism.

Was C. E. W. Bean as dry as his biographies suggest? Rees brilliantly portrays him in the battlefield, with all his concerns and contradictions, yet the inner man seems largely absent. Or, more likely, had the bluntness of the war itself – the shellings, the destroyed bodies, deprivations – buried his real emotions?

After a long day in Paris, Bean considers having a glass of wine. “But one is not taking it during the war.” Rees attributes this “strict personal discipline” to Bean’s higher mission, to know the truth. As the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, he chose still not to join the celebrations but drove to Fromelles to take photos, to pick up the bones of Australian dead. Even back in London, dining with fellow war correspondent Keith Murdoch, “Bean could not bring himself to join in”.

Returning to Canberra, Bean married Effie Young, a local nurse, and set about re-creating the war on paper. By early 1929 he had completed writing the third volume of his allotted six; there would be 12 volumes in all. In 1942 the job of Hercules was done: four million words and 10,000 pages of official history, to explain and emphasise Australia’s often controversial role in the Great War. As Rees notes, Bean in 1918 could not have imagined “he would be releasing his final volume when Australia went to war again”, that the very horrors he had seen and described so vividly would be recycled for a new generation.  NK

Allen & Unwin, 568pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 28, 2015 as "Peter Rees, Bearing Witness".

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