Charles Bean reported on the Great War not from some General’s chateau but from the frontline. He witnessed the horror and the heroism up close and he made it his life work to record the Australian perspective. He desperately wanted it to be the war to end all wars and the lessons learnt applied to making the world a better place.
Born in 1879 in the colony of New South Wales, he began his journey as a priggish public schoolboy, and who then attended Oxford University. He believed in the British Empire and the superiority of the British Race but he seriously questioned the idea of inherited privilege. He returned to work with the Sydney Morning Herald as a leading feature writer before being selected by his peers – at the Australian Journalists’ Association – as official war correspondent in 1914.
Charles Bean was there, alongside the troops, for the entire war. He never carried a weapon but earned a reputation for bravery under fire, putting himself in danger to ensure the story was told.
Initially considered to be a boring writer, Bean soon became renowned for his obsessive attention to detail and absolute adherence to the facts. Alongside his articles, he accumulated vast amounts of information in his diaries, notebooks and journals.
He was so inspired by the dignity and performance of Australian troops, he made it his life’s work to tell their story to the Australian public. The result was a monumental twelve volume history that is still recognised as one of the best histories of the Great War ever written.
Immediately after the war Bean wrote a publication called In Your Hands Australians. He called on all Australians to honour the sacrifice of our soldiers by applying the lessons learnt in the war to the peace. He passionately believed that planning, education and community participation could make Australia great.
Bean’s commitment led to him being instrumental in the establishment of the Australian War Memorial and leaving us perhaps the greatest legacy that any country could have – a sense of what it is to be Australian.