Greeks and Moderns: The Search for Culture in the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918

By Lee, Christopher | Australian Literary Studies, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Greeks and Moderns: The Search for Culture in the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918


Lee, Christopher, Australian Literary Studies


THE Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 provided Australians with an opportunity to assert the significance of their history to an international as well as a domestic audience. C.E.W. Bean, the architect, general editor and principal author of the twelve-volume history, believed that during the war 'the Australian nation, previously almost unknown to most other peoples, won the respect of the world. The task of the Australian war historian is to record that fact and the reason for it ...' (qtd. in Inglis 90). The various audiences imagined for the Official History raised concerns over the level of culture appropriate to the task, and debates over an appropriate literary style characterised its early production (Barker). Bean's response to these concerns selected and combined traditions of culture which were stratifying in Britain, Europe and the United States in ways which bear out Richard Waterhouse's argument that in Australia during this period 'the division between high and low culture remained less clear and defined' (133; see also Heyck, and Levine). The search for an appropriate level of address in the Official History invokes differing perceptions of the public available to Australian cultural production between the wars, and styles which were thought appropriate to them. In this essay I want to use the debate over style in the production of the first two published volumes of the Official History, Bean's Volume I, The Story of Anzac (1921) and H.S. Gullett's Volume VII The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine 1914-1918 (1923) to examine the attempts to balance journalistic colour, military spirit and classical decorum, and imagine a discursive form of vernacular masculinity appropriate to official commemoration, international reputation and the Australian public.

John F. Williams has described Bean 'as a journalist who used truth selectively, lied sometimes and was given to over-exaggeration', while acknowledging that this was the lot of the wartime correspondent (265). Bean's battlefield experiences of the horrors of modern warfare nevertheless inspired a determination to avoid the glorification of war and to tone down the romantic embellishments that were characteristic of the writing of peers such as the legendry Ellis Ashmead Bartlett. According to Bean, Bartlett achieved the true 'spirit' by describing incidents which did not actually occur and his own response 'was to describe battle in plain, simple and "Anglo-Saxon" prose, with a minimum of rhetorical flourish' (qtd. in Thomson 60; 61). The contrast with Bartlett was noted to his detriment in Australia, however, and both the Argus and the Age came close to discontinuing publication of his work because of its lack of an appropriate spirit (Thomson 62-63; Macleod 117).

During the war Bean, as correspondent, was caught up in the contrary demands of representing the soldier's experience of the horrors of modern warfare, the politician's expectations of stirring propaganda, and the press's desire for tales of glory (Thomson 63). According to the Bulletin, his dispatches did not 'serve the Australian who wanted the story of Australian arms to be written so that they could visualise it. The fact is that he's too small for the job. It demanded a man able to make images with the vocabulary of a literary man and the eye of a photographic lens, and it got--a reporter' (qtd. in Macleod 117). The situation must have stirred his thinking as to the best way to pitch an official commemorative history to an Australian public, even before the publisher George Robertson found fault with the initial drafts of his first volume. A statement in the preface to The Story of Anzac, Volume 1 suggests that his decision about the appropriate style was taken early. When writing about 'the men and officers of the Australian Imperial Force', he explained, 'the only memorial which could be worthy of them was the bare and uncoloured story of their part in the war. …

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