BOOK REVIEW: Charles Bean by Ross Coulthart (Review by Justin Cahill)

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.

Author: Ross Coulthart

Author: Ross Coulthart

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.

Order your Signed Copy of Charles Bean here!


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.

BOOK REVIEW: Where Song Began by Tim Low (Review by Justin Cahill)

Way back in 1987, while flicking through New Scientist, an article on birds caught my eye. It was about research that indicated the ancestors of Lyrebirds were among the world’s earliest songbirds. Back then, Australia was thought to be a refuge for species left over after it spit from the supercontinent, Gondwana. Songbirds were generally associated with Europe. The idea they had first evolved here seemed so unlikely that I kept the article, assuming the whole thing would go the way of cold fusion.

In Where Song Began, Tim Low tells how what was once theory became accepted fact. This is an exceptionally important book. High quality, up-to-date works on our natural history written for a general audience for are rare. Low generously stuffs his account of with fresh insights. It turns out the Treecreepers that live in the Blue Gums at the bottom of my street evolved from another ancient song bird. The Magpies that pick their way through the lawn only recently diverged from the local Butcherbirds. Once-mighty theories come crashing down. I was taught New Zealand’s endemic flightless birds, including the Kiwi, only survived as it had split from Gondwana just before mammals big enough to eat them evolved. It turns out that their able-to-fly ancestors probably came from Australia after New Zealand drifted away and were large enough to suppress the development of mammals there.

Author Tim Low

There is much we still don’t know. The eminent archaeologist Colin Renfrew once observed that human DNA, archaeological and literary evidence remain difficult to reconcile. It’s the same with our birds. While it has long been known that Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea had a distinct birdlife, is only now becoming clear just how unique many local species are.

And how have we treated them? As Low recounts, we have destroyed large parts of their habitat, shot them en masseto decorate hats with their tail feathers, killed their young and collected or smashed their eggs. For decades, thousands of muttonbirds were bludgeoned to make a tanning oil, ‘Vita Tan’, sold to unsuspecting bathers at Bondi Beach. In Sydney, habitat destruction has caused the populations of many once-common species to decline sharply. Some face local extinction.

Low also provides fascinating insights into Australia’s economic history. Before the advent of plastics, we had a thriving trade in‘exudes’, the saps and gums that oozed from our native trees. They were used to make an extraordinary range of products, including gramophone records, cosmetics, chewing gum, paint and tooth paste.

Low’s accessible style makes this a very appealing book for those looking for an insight into Australia’s unique flora and fauna. It is a book you can dip into and be assured of learning something new.

Grab a copy of Where Song Began here


Justin Cahill is a historian and solicitor, his university thesis being on the negotiations between the British and Chinese governments over the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

His current projects include completing the first history of European settlement in Australia and New Zealand told from the perspective of ordinary people and a study of the extinction of Sydney’s native birds.

He is a regular contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Heckler’ column.

REVIEW: Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 by Max Hastings (Review by Justin Cahill)

28 June 2014 marks the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife, Sophie, at Sarejevo. The conflict it spawned destroyed four empires, brought two of my great-grandfathers to the trenches strung out along the Western front and one of my great-granduncles to Gallipoli.

A library of books already exists documenting every facet of the conflict. The coming anniversary has inspired many more. Can there be anything left to say? Max Hastings shows us there is still much to learn about the outbreak of World War I; that “war to end war.”

Hastings offers three important lessons. The first is on causation. For far too long, the standard accounts of the War’s origins have been dominated by the assumption that Europe’s great powers blundered into conflict. Hastings shows that each made a series of calculated decisions that they knew would lead to war. Nor did they underestimate its extent.

The second is on sources. Most accounts of the War are dominated by the views of monarchs, presidents, prime ministers, generals and diplomats. The voices of ordinary people are rarely heard. Hastings redresses this imbalance, including an impressive range of quotes for their letters and journals in his account.

Sir Max Hastings

Max Hastings

Hasting’s third lesson is about guilt. He makes it abundantly clear that Germany and Austria-Hungry were to blame for the escalation of international tensions after the Archduke was killed and the eventual outbreak of hostilities. And therein lies Hasting’s unspoken fourth lesson.

After the War, Germany was forced to accept guilt for the losses its aggression caused the Allies. It agreed to pay them reparations of US$63 billion (about US$768 billion in 2010, the year the last instalment was paid).

Germany was promptly torn apart by civil war. By the 1920s its economy was crippled by hyperinflation; the Depression wiped out what remained. Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs, savings and homes. Who could lead Germany out of the darkness? Cue the rise of Adolf Hitler, already undergoing his metamorphosis from Viennese derelict to genocidal psychopath.

The rest is not quite history. We still live with the War’s ultimate results; all arguably caused by two gunshots one sunny day in Sarajevo. Hasting’s book is a timely reminder the past is never that far away. And it always has something more to tell.

Grab a copy of Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 here


Justin Cahill is an historian and solicitor, his university thesis being on the negotiations between the British and Chinese governments over the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

His current projects include completing the first history of European settlement in Australia and New Zealand told from the perspective of ordinary people.

He is a regular contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Heckler’ column.

The Vatican Diaries: A Review from Guest Blogger Justin Cahill

Guest Blogger Justin Cahill shares his thoughts on John Thavis’ much talked about book The Vatican Diaries.

What is it about large, hierarchical institutions that attracts so much interest? Is it their enormous wealth and power? The eccentricities of their leaders? When that leader is, in name at least, Jesus Christ, and its power are said to include universal salvation, such questions assume vital interest. In his Vatican Diaries, John Thavis sets out to answer them. A ‘vaticanista’ (Vatican journalist) for 30 years, Thavis eagerly follows in the footsteps of Bill Shirer and Tim Crouse to give us some insight into how this two thousand year old behemoth works.

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