CHARLES Bean is one of my heroes.
I didn’t think much of the man when I studied Australian history at Melbourne University – he seemed snooty and aloof when I was wading through his Great War histories doing research for essays and exams – but the post-academic investigations that have come with travel reveal a likable man with a passion for his country.
During the desperate days on the Gallipoli Peninsula and Western Front, Bean had the vision to keep the comprehensive notes necessary to write the official history of Australia’s involvement in World War I and collect the debris of conflict from the distant battlefields he knew so well.
He also had the determination to lobby for a national shrine, the Australian War Memorial, a place I love and visit every time I’m in Canberra.
If it wasn’t for our Mr Bean, the building at the top end of Anzac Parade – part museum, part memorial – wouldn’t be standing, and we certainly wouldn’t have an enviable collection of wartime artefacts gathered from every action involving the Australian military.
So you can imagine my delight to stand above a glass cabinet in the bowels of this stately structure peering down at one of the notebooks written by the father of Australian military history to see, in his own hand, Bean’s description of the original Anzacs at war.
“It was known from very early on (in the Great War) that Bean was going to write the official history and he was encouraged to keep detailed notes on what he was seeing,’’ Australian War Memorial curator Craig Tibbitts says.
“He went on to complete 300 notebooks and diaries and they are all in our collection, along with around 3500 World War I personal collections which range from a single letter written by a soldier to the 25 boxes of documents from Sir John Monash.’’
Some of Bean’s wartime volumes are on display in Anzac Voices, a year-long exhibition at the Australian War Memorial created to fill a gap during the redevelopment of the iconic World War I gallery and open events commemorating the Great War centenary.
I see the satchel he carried while following the front-line action and the pages scrawled while Diggers fought to conquer The Nek at Gallipoli with the war correspondent writing down the manoeuvres while listening to the battle from his position below the ridgeline.
But there’s more to Anzac Voices than a few pages scrawled in Bean’s distinctive hand, with a room near the memorial’s post-1945 gallery occupied by cabinets displaying written records and relics as well as canvases from the institution’s art collection.
Tibbitts, who is not only an Anzac Voices curator but research centre archivist, says the team behind the retrospective wanted to “tell a good story about the Australian experience in World War I’’ using written records from the extensive Australian War Memorial collection.
“We have letters and diaries from soldiers and sailors to the top generals in command of Australian forces, as well as orders that sent our troops into battle and maps carried into the field,’’ Tibbitts explains.
“We document the Australian experience from the outbreak of war in 1914, through Gallipoli and into Europe, to 1917 when soldiers became fatalistic about their chances of surviving, and into 1918 when there were great swings in the fortunes of war.’’
Boards hanging around the walls provide particulars on Australian campaigns, with statistics listing enlistment and casualties putting progress into perspective, and the stories of those with treasures in the cabinets are expanded to make history more intimate.
I see the HMAS Sydney log from the day it attacked the German cruiser SMS Emden in an opening exchange of the war, the first order sending Australian troops ashore at Anzac Cove, a map carried by the unit that covered the most territory on day one of the Gallipoli landings, and a 1918 command from the commander of British forces, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, stating retreat was no longer an option.
There’s also the diary kept by Victoria Cross recipient Frederick Tubb detailing the action in which he won the esteemed decoration, the official log from John Simpson Kirkpatrick’s unit with notes on stretcher bearers using donkeys to retrieve the wounded, and a telegram telling a family their son died in battle.
“Anzac Voices was produced by four curators, three researchers and one from the military heraldry area, and we love the collections we are involved with,’’ Tibbitts notes.
“We wanted to showcase the written records collection, and while we were keen to tell some of the well-known stories we also wanted to include some characters that don’t usually get a guernsey in exhibitions to give a voice to the average soldiers and share their impressions of war.’’
The writer was a guest of Hotel Hotel.
Canberra is a three-hour drive from Sydney and a seven-hour motor from Melbourne, both via the Hume Highway, with Qantas and Virgin Australia flying to the national capital from destinations around mainland Australia.
The Australian War Memorial is open from 10am to 5pm every day, admission is free, and there is a Last Post ceremony in the cloisters every afternoon at about 4.50pm with the story of a soldier told before wreaths are laid. See awm.gov.au
Anzac Voices will be in place until the end of November when the Memorial’s World War I gallery is due to reopen. Curators lead a walking tour of the exhibition every Wednesday at 11.30am and on one Sunday a month.
Those looking to spend a few days in Canberra should consider staying at Hotel Hotel, a brand-new property in the city’s trendy New Acton neighbourhood that’s close to restaurants and has a luxurious bohemian feel with rooms and public spaces featuring bespoke art and handmade furniture. See hotel-hotel.com.au
For more information on visiting Canberra see the national capital’s official tourism website. See visitcanberra.com.au
THIS STORY FIRST APPEARED IN ESCAPE ON SUNDAY, JUNE 8, 2012