Charles Bean, Australia’s official correspondent during the Great War, is one of Australia’s most influential historians. He was, almost single-handedly, responsible for creating one of the most treasured aspects of our national psyche – the Anzac legend.
To Bean, the men Australia sent to the Great War were a heroic ‘race apart’, whose self-sacrifice, courage and valour gave a new birth to our national identity. He later commemorated their achievements in his Official History of Australia in the War and his role in establishing the Australian War Memorial.
A century on, many thousands of descendants still gather at memorials each Anzac Day to remember those lost at war. With about 25 members of my extended family having served in the War, the Anzac legend is a significant part of my own history.
The legend has not remained unchallenged. Some have labelled it an embarrassing glorification of war. It was the target of Alan Seymour’s 1958 play, The One Day of the Year, and as the Great War generation slowly passed on, successive layers of the myth were peeled away. The efforts of Simpson and his donkey were, we are told, exaggerated. Anzacs, it appears, attacked Egyptian civilians, destroying their business premises and homes.
For decades, Bean’s name was a byword for nationalist propaganda. My generation certainly viewed his work with, at best, suspicion and, at worst, disdain. Was this fair? Coulthart’s sympathetic, yet scrupulously balanced account shows we may have rushed to judgement. Bean was a hands-on historian. He got as close to the front as possible, often exposing himself to considerable danger to find out what was happening, and showed great courage in rescuing wounded men under fire. He was meticulous in collecting accounts of battles and sifting fact from fiction. He walked the tightrope between his self-imposed duty to report on the War accurately and the restrictions of official censorship with some success.
Bean, like us all, was no paragon of virtue. He tended to forget his place and intrude into political decisions, especially those involving assignments to command positions. He shared his generation’s passive anti-Semitism, causing him to undervalue the work of the Australian commander, Sir John Monash. To his credit, Bean had a degree of insight into his shortcomings. He later acknowledged and regretted his errors – a further act of courage some current historians could learn from.
Ultimately, Coulthart asks us to confront the issue of whether historians can provide accurate accounts of what actually happened. This biography is a strong affirmation that they can achieve this. Coulthart has a lucid, engaging style which brings readers up close to this subject – so close I occasionally felt I was hovering over Bean’s shoulder as he worked.
This is among the best biographies of an Australian historian available, fittingly released during the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the events Bean meticulously recorded.
Justin Cahill is a Sydney-based naturalist and historian. His publications include a biography of the ornithologist Alfred North and A New Life in our History, a history of the European settlement of Australia and New Zealand told from the perspective of ordinary people. He has also written on Chinese history, including the negotiations surrounding Britain’s acquisition of Hong Kong and its decolonisation in 1997. Justin’s most recent publication is the first part of Epitome for Eleanor: A Short History of the Known Universe, written for children. His current projects include a natural history of Sydney’s Wolli Creek Valley.
He regularly contributes reviews to Booktopia.