Pan Macmillan, 2012, 393 pages , $34.99 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
Stunning his home-town audience of patriotic Australians in 1919 with his statement that ‘the war has made me a Socialist’, Captain Hugo Throssell, one of nine Australian soldiers to win a Victoria Cross for supreme bravery at Gallipoli in 1915, made headlines, and enemies, on the anniversary of the signing of the Allies’ World War 1 peace treaty with Germany, says John Hamilton in his biography of Throssell.
The civic authorities of the town of Northam in Western Australia listened with increasing disbelief as Northam’s own war hero went on to denounce war for enriching armaments makers, war profiteers and rival national capitalist classes in their competition for territory, markets, resources and profits.
Throssell, the privileged son of a conservative State Premier, had married Katherine Susannah Prichard, the journalist and feminist who went on to fame as a novelist and founder of the Communist Party of Australia.
Throssell, the dashing cavalry officer, who, in the first flush of battle, wrote how it was ‘most glorious’ to see a bayonet charge and what a ‘wonderful thing’ it was to see men running through an artillery bombardment, had become war-weary and disillusioned after seeing his mates killed and after suffering severe mental injury himself.
With what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, Throssell’s days were filled with nervousness and headaches (he had taken a head wound) and his nights were tortured into sleeplessness by what he had seen at Gallipoli and by the death of his brother who had signed up with Hugo in the belief that war was a thrilling adventure.
Prichard’s communism, and her profound love for a handsome, vital, selfless man, helped Throssell make sense of his ghastly war experiences. Reading Engels may not have been easy – ‘Hell, girl, what the blazes does this mean?’, he would holler – but ‘usually our political discussions ended in love-making’, wrote Prichard. Throssell, without becoming a party member, accepted Prichard’s political views as his own.
Australia’s political police put Throssell’s radicalisation down to ‘his wife’s influence’, or ‘his mind perhaps having been affected’ by the cerebro-spinal meningitis he contracted during the war. Throssell’s biographer hedges his bets, saying it is possible that the brain injury Throssell received from a botched, war-time sinus operation made him “more vulnerable and easily influenced”. Socialism, apparently, can only be understood as a psychological disorder, the product of a weakened mind.
Throssell, however, knew his own mind – on the back of his will he wrote ‘I have never recovered from my 1914-18 experiences’, shortly before committing suicide by his army pistol in 1933. He also added an appeal that ‘my wife and child get the usual war pension’. Owing £10,000 with just £10 in the bank, Throssell’s financial disasters during the economic Depression had been exacerbated, writes Hamilton, by his “enemies at work within the government” who helped ensure his economic projects were costly failures, and by conservatives in the Northam Returned Soldiers and Sailors League who got the government to remove Throssell from his job as soldiers’ representative on the government’s Discharged Soldiers’ Settlement Board.
The Repatriation Department added insult to tragedy by disputing the Coroner’s finding that Throssell’s war wounds were the cause of his suicide. Prichard angrily defended her husband who ‘believed he would be ensuring a pension to me and my son by his last act. I consider that his “grateful country” made it impossible for my husband to live. He thought he had to die to provide for his wife and child’.
It was not until 1999 that a “modest memorial the size of a backyard barbecue” was erected to Throssell in Northam by his ‘grateful country’ whilst during the Depression, Throssell had been forced to try to pawn his Victoria Cross but was offered only 10 shillings for it – the ‘price of valour’ for a war hero who had, as his son, Ric, said later when donating Throssell’s medal to People for Nuclear Disarmament, ‘declared his commitment to peace’.
Throssell has not been well served by official history, nor by his biographer, Hamilton, whose conventional war narrative focuses on Throssell the warrior not the socialist and which includes a disapproval of Throssell’s decision to choose a patriotic occasion of military celebration to denounce war – “not the time nor place”, says Hamilton – but what better time or place could there be. It took political courage and Throssell had just as much of that as he had bravery on the battlefield.