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Think Piece: History: a window on the truth

Thursday 27 October, 2016

elizabeth-ho-1408_196_ho_hr-3I have photographs of my British grandfather in civvies and a few war medals awarded to Private Charles Walter Barrett. There used to be a dog-eared copy of William Shakespeare’s works, given to surviving Great War soldiers. These tiny pieces of his life found their way from Liverpool in Britain to Australia after my parents came here, having themselves endured the ravages of World War II.

Charles enlisted to fight in World War I, and left for France at the same time as his first child, my mother, was born. It was September 1914. There were two more children, but only the third was fussed over at birth by Charles. The first two were never quite as favoured although they loved him dearly.


By 1917 he was a broken man. The story goes that he was dragged from no man’s land by a German soldier and left near a Red Cross truck. His leg wounds were so serious that he never walked unaided again. In fact, it was regarded as a miracle that he did not lose both legs. He also suffered terribly from shell shock. The older children were banished every weekend with the instruction to stay away from the house as he could not stand noise. There was little income and my gifted mother was ordered to leave school and find work at 14. Fortunately, countless solitary weekends spent in the Liverpool City Library meant that she was the runner-up in the general knowledge test (able to be taken by any person, of any age) in Liverpool c.1928. The timing could not have been better. Her father relented and she was instead sent to secretarial college for three years. I cannot imagine the scrimping my grandmother must have done to support her bright daughter. All their lives would have been so different but for his injuries.


Charles Walter Barrett in 1946.

Charles was a tall and handsome man and when I look at his photos I imagine him carefully putting his crutches out of sight before the camera appeared. I also see the deep pain etched on his face. The long suffering of the wounded is a never-ending dirge. It whistles down the wind into the distant present.   I was three when I met my grandfather and apparently it was a case of mutual delight. I am there with him in the fading photos, in his beloved tiny garden, and later with the snowman he made for me. Sometimes the crutches are there too. I like to think that his grandfatherly joy made him forget to take them away. I hope so.

What can I extrapolate from this cameo of one modest man in his times?

In essence, his suffering makes me reflect quite often on the experience of war for everyone, the one I never had, or at least directly. It makes me question.

War shapes us individually and nationally. Yet it is sound historical evidence that gives us true insight into the causes and reasons for particular wars. For me, the importance of such evidence is writ large as a result of Charles Barrett’s experience. The jaunty jingoism of 1914 has long been cancelled out by the truth that poor military decisions led to millions of deaths and permanent disability on a huge scale. The sheer insanity of trench warfare, and the extent of suffering also speak of an age where people on both sides were less likely to question and more likely to accept their lot.


Charles Walter Barrett with his eldest child Marjorie at Stratford-on-Avon in 1941.

Historical understanding is shaped by time and evidence. I empathise with a purported and beautifully simple response by mid -twentieth century Chinese leader Chou En Lai to the question posed – it is too early to judge the impact of the 1789 French Revolution.

The waves of the tempest that was Gallipoli are still crashing onto our distant shores over a hundred years later. Our young now participate in the permanent expedition to understand the truth and honour the lost. The fading memoirs and cherished letters carrying personal truths still surface from attic trunks. Collecting institutions such as the Australian War Memorial continue to receive the evidence and to interpret it all in new ways. We have come to understand the tactics and outcomes of World War I quite differently from the way previous generations were asked to see them. We are more critical and are right to be so. We now understand Gallipoli as a dreadful and poorly devised military strategy that led to a great loss of young life. We know of other tragic decisions from this period and in World War II. Historical research that reveals human truth gives us the answers that help to shape our reaction to the new. It causes us to question, and in the end a strong democracy is about being able to question and to receive truthful answers. This may be but one positive legacy of this tragedy.

The Anzac Centenary will have done its best work if it reasserts the place of Australian history in the national curriculum and an enduring transparent look at war. The silent sufferers of long ago deserve our vigilance, including the vigilance to be sure that we do not sacrifice our own without very good cause, the vigilance to prosecute unavoidable wars as honourably and as effectively as possible, and the vigilance to tend those who return to us wounded in heart, mind and body.

My dear grandfather paid a terrible price along with his family. As did so many. Like those who died in battle, they should never be forgotten.

Elizabeth Ho OAM BA (Hons) is a Fellow of the University of South Australia and was the inaugural director of The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre there from 1999-2014. As Deputy Director of the State Library of South Australia she served on the Australia Remembers World War II State Committee in 1995. Elizabeth is a voluntary Board member of the Australian Migrant Resource Centre, Palliative Care SA and the Adelaide Festival of Ideas. She will be Chair of the History Trust of SA (History SA) from November 2016. She is a mother and a grandmother. Her first child, whose name means freedom, was born on Anzac Day in 1981.

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