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Tuesday, 28 August 2001
Page: 26827

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (7:07 PM) —Last night I had the pleasure and honour of speaking on behalf of the Australian Labor Party at the inauguration of the C.E.W. Bean Foundation, which will not only celebrate our first official war correspondent and official war historian but recognise all those Australian war correspondents who have distinguished themselves in many conflicts. Their contribution constitutes some of the best of Australian journalism over the years.

It is appropriate and welcome that the foundation that bears Bean's name encompasses not just war correspondents but also depicters and recorders of war—artists, camera operators and photographers as well as writers. This foundation will undertake commemorative activities and commission works to assist community understanding of the role of the war correspondent. I understand that in due course we will see books, exhibitions and documentaries produced with the support of the foundation.

As I have indicated, the foundation's objectives are meritorious and the potential scope of the Bean Foundation's activities is broad. Tonight I would like to talk about one example I mentioned briefly in my speech in the House of Representatives chamber in Old Parliament House last evening. I referred to Charles Bean's great friend Will Dyson. Dyson grew up in a Ballarat family of exceptional creative talent that befriended the even more exceptionally talented family of Lindsay artists and writers—Norman, Lionel, Percy, Daryl and Ruby. Ruby became Will Dyson's wife.

Dyson and Ruby ventured to London, where Dyson's powerful cartoons made him a sensational overnight success. By 1916, he was famous and had a contented family life with Ruby and their small daughter. Ruby was not only a talented artist herself but a woman of rare beauty and radiant personality. Theirs was obviously a marriage of mutual devotion. But in 1916 Dyson volunteered to leave all this behind and immerse himself in the horror, the squalor and the danger of the Western Front in order to provide an artistic record of what Australian soldiers were doing.

He took this step at the end of a period when the Australians had sustained 28,000 casualties in seven weeks in and around Fromelles and Pozieres. This was not August 1914, with its delusions of `Get in quick because it'll be all over by Christmas'. Two years later, there were no such illusions. Dyson knew what he was getting into. Yet he felt impelled to volunteer as a result of sincere, high-minded nationalistic feelings. As he put it when writing to offer his services, he wanted `to interpret in a series of drawings, for national preservation, the sentiments and special Australian characteristics of our Army'.

Dyson accomplished this with outstanding success. He spent two years at the Western Front as Australia's first ever official war artist. He perhaps remains Australia's finest ever official war artist. He was wounded twice. The Australian War Memorial ultimately received 270 Dyson drawings, and Bean envisaged a special Dyson gallery at the Australian War Memorial. Moreover, Dyson's published writing about the war was as brilliant as his drawings.

In 1919, Ruby died suddenly of Spanish flu. Dyson was never the same again after the combined impact of her death and those draining years on the Western Front. He died in London in 1938 and was buried with Ruby in a joint grave that embodied the connection between two of Australia's most significant creative families. However, this joint resting place of Will Dyson and Ruby Lindsay in London's Hendon Cemetery is and has long been an unmarked grave. The headstone that used to identify them was dismantled for safety reasons in 1969, when the cemetery authorities ruled that it was deteriorating so dangerously that it had to be removed altogether. It has never been replaced.

Those familiar with Dyson's career, especially what he did for Australia at the Western Front, are surprised and not a little dismayed to learn that he has ended up in an unmarked grave. Recent endeavours to rectify this unsatisfactory state of affairs have been disappointingly unsuccessful. Approaches have been made to the Prime Minister's office, the Australian War Memorial, the Department of Veterans' Affairs, the Office of Australian War Graves, the Australian High Commission in London and the Black and White Artists Association—all to no avail at this stage, as I understand it. Here, surely, is a real opportunity for the Bean Foundation, with its aim of pursuing proper recognition of Australian recorders of war, to fill this lamentable vacuum by ensuring that an appropriate headstone is reinstated and that Bean's friend and talented colleague will no longer lie in an anonymous grave.

C.E.W. Bean brought fair-mindedness to his craft. As I said last night, no politician could ask any more of a journalist. His diaries show that he was aware of his preconceptions and sought to compensate for them. Although he used kinder euphemisms for the cruel truths of Australian retreats and self-inflicted wounds, he nonetheless included them in his The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18.

Perhaps most importantly, like every great journalist and historian, he was a great writer. He was conscious of his audience and he wrote in order to be read. He told neither only the worst nor only the best of what he saw and he demonstrated to generations of Australian war correspondents, indeed to journalists of all kinds, that the responsibilities of the press in a country with a free press can be met with diligence, conscientiousness and constant self-scrutiny.

It is a great thing in this year of the centenary of Australia's Federation that we are establishing a Bean Foundation to simultaneously honour courage under fire, creativity in the most trying circumstances, application to task and, above all, the critical importance of reporting the truth, however uncomfortable that truth might be to people in authority or the nation's preferred image of itself. I hope the foundation can do something to right this terrible wrong in relation to the last resting place of Will Dyson, who was such an outstanding war artist and such a fine Australian.

Senate adjourned at 7.17 p.m.