Correspondents wrote the truth
The old saying ‘to the victor goes the spoils’ might as well expand to include ‘and history is always written by the victors’.
What this suggests is that what we can believe for a lifetime as truth about conflict might only be one version of historical reality.
For example, the sophisticated and allconquering Romans documented much of what we know about the ancient world.
Yet, in many cases, we’ve literally had to dig deeply to find out more about their enemies and the issues surrounding their conflict with the invaders.
In times of conquest, the phenomenon of massaging the truth, to either put the winning side at ease in response to the cost of victory, or to place it on the side of righteousness, has no use-by date.
It applies as much today as it did in the past.
There are always people who identify a need for historical accuracy during conflict and work hard to tell the truth or make sure people know the real story.
Australia Post has honoured one such person as part of its 2017 Centenary of World War One commemorative stamp issue, which focuses on the war during 1917.
The name Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean probably means little to the average Australian but as we approach Anzac Day, armed with a profound understanding of Australian First and Second World War sacrifice, Bean and others like him are part of the reason we know what happened.
We could have easily been caught up in a lie that Australia, as part of Allied victory, had won glory and fortune – instead of losing a generation of young men.
Bean was Australia’s official First World War correspondent and although having human failings and prejudices like anyone else, was meticulous in his documentation of what Australians experienced at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.
Such was his dedication to the task there was a suggestion that he ‘even counted the bullets’.
One of Bean’s biggest problems, apart from dodging shrapnel alongside servicemen in the trenches, was getting honest reports back to Australians – people in faraway places such as the Wimmera who were desperate for accurate news from the front.
Strict censorship was in place but Bean also needed to protect his sources. It is hard to imagine how he worked through the ‘minefield’ that included everything from his own conscience to diplomacy and issues of national security.
Bean, apart from his direct accounts of action on the front and writing volumes on the history of the conflict, was also insistent that the soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice had official recognition through the creation of the Australian War Memorial.
While he was a standout war correspondent of the time, he wasn’t on his own in demanding the right to provide a truthful account of the tragedy and barbarity of war.
Others such as the celebrated Keith Murdoch, whose letter to Prime Minister Andrew Fisher brought an end to the Gallipoli disaster, and photojournalist Phillip Schuler, killed on the Western Front, were among others determined to accurately record history.
Their efforts in providing a truthful account of battlefield circumstance saved many lives and ensured that some military leaders were ultimately brought to account.
Fortunately, it is all on public record, much of it free of manipulation and without taint.
• Anzac Day preview, see pages 10 and 11.