Memoirs of an Anzac: a first-hand account by an AIF officer in the First World War

Memoirs of an Anzac: a first-hand account by an AIF officer in the First World War

by John Charles Barrie, Ross McMullin

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781925113686
Publisher: Scribe Publications Pty Ltd
Publication date: 03/25/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 460 KB

About the Author

Born in 1883, John Charles Barrie grew up in Victoria. He joined Australia’s militia in 1909, and remained an army man his entire life, retiring with the rank of colonel. An officer in the AIF from the start of World War I, Barrie was involved in the landing at Gallipoli, and later served at the Western Front. He was wounded twice during the war. Barrie died in 1957, survived by his wife and daughter. His memoirs have been made available by his granddaughter, Judy Osborne.
Ross McMullin is a historian and biographer who has written extensively about the impact on Australia of its involvement in World War I. Dr McMullin’s books include his biographies, the award-winning Pompey Elliott and Will Dyson: Australia’s radical genius. His book Farewell, Dear People: biographies of Australia’s lost generation was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History and the National Cultural Award. His latest work is Pompey Elliott at War: In His Own Words.

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Memoirs of an Anzac

A First-Hand Account by an AIF Officer in the First World War

By John Charles Barrie

Scribe Publications Pty Ltd

Copyright © 2015 Judy Osborne
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-925113-68-6


In the year 1832, just 100 years ago, my grandfather, then living in Perth, Scotland, decided to emigrate and seek his fortune in a new land. The reason which prompted him to make this decision was the sorry state of his wife's health, she being stricken with grief at the loss of four children which had been born to them and all of whom had died in infancy.

They decided to come to Australia, and landed in Tasmania at the latter end of that year. There they lived for four years, and in February 1836 my father was born. A few months later, while he was still a baby, the family came to Victoria, then known as the Port Phillip Bay District, where Batman and Fawkner, having crossed from Tasmania a few months previously, had founded a settlement on the banks of the River Yarra, which has since grown into the City of Melbourne. In the course of time, two more sons and three daughters were born and lived.

At the first land sales in Melbourne, my grandfather purchased a block of land in Collins Street, running from Swanston Street, half way up the hill to Russell Street, and back to Little Collins Street. On this site, where the Melbourne Town Hall now stands, he erected a building and for several years carried on business there.

We could wish today that he had been possessed of greater foresight and retained his original purchase, for that block of land today is worth many times more per foot than he paid for the whole area. However, he sold it, and purchased another piece nearer the centre of the township, in Queen Street, and there his building still stands behind the Titles Office.

My father and my aunts have often told me stories of their childhood days when they lived in Queen Street and there was no building to the east of them, and how they used to run home terrified when they saw blacks coming up the hill from where the G.P.O. now stands in Elizabeth Street.

My people were originally of the Du Barri family of France, who, like so many French Protestant families, left their native land after the massacre of the Huguenots and sought sanctuary in Scotland. They later dropped the 'Du' and added an 'e' to their name to distinguish them from the Barrys. I remember asking my father why they changed their name, and he assured me quite solemnly that they had to drop the 'Du' as a 'Jew' could not live in Scotland. I could not quite see the point at first, but, when it finally dawned upon me, I realised it was the origin of the famous joke.

My father and his brother, as young men, like all others of the time, developed 'gold fever', and spent a good part of their early days seeking gold at Bendigo, Ballarat, and Castlemaine, and afterwards for a time in New Zealand. They were fairly successful, and when their father died in 1870 were well-established and successful businessmen in Melbourne.

The new country had been good to the family and they had become firmly established in it. But in 1892 came the crisis of the land boom, the closing of the banks, and the general financial crash which brought about the ruin of so many people and more or less hurt everybody.

My father was fortunately not involved in land transactions, and therefore escaped lightly by comparison. He was not ruined, but his investments suffered severely. The banks repaid only a fraction of deposits, companies and business firms failed, values of securities dropped to almost nothing, and a considerable part of his fortune was swept away. I remember one company in which he had invested 2,500 pounds — shares which were considered gilt-edged security at the time he purchased them — repaid only 150 pounds.

However, he survived the disaster, and carried on his business until his death in 1900, at the age of sixty-four.

At the time, I was just over sixteen years of age, and my elder brother just a few years older, and as neither of us were old enough or sufficiently experienced to undertake the responsibilities of business, the business was sold and my mother was left with a modest income, which, though not as big as she had been used to, or had expected to have, was still sufficient to keep her and the family in comparative comfort. Then came the problem of 'what to do with us'. I had my own ideas — first I wanted to be a soldier, and, failing that, to go on the land. Like so many mothers who live in the city, she did not like the country, and no amount of pleading would persuade her to consider the land idea, and she was equally adamant on the idea of soldiering.

I have often thought since how foolish it is of mothers to endeavour to shape the destinies of their children, and how many men's lives are spoilt by being pushed by their parents into a channel to which they are utterly and entirely unsuited. My mother was a very fine woman, and we owe a tremendous lot to her. I know she thought she was doing the very best for me, and did not realise that my nature was entirely unsuited to the path she chose for me.

It so happened, fortunately or unfortunately for me, that at this time an uncle was general manager of one of the biggest banking institutions in Australia, and my mother wrote to him, asking if he could find a place for me in the bank. He replied requesting her to send me in to see him. I went. He asked me a lot of questions, and then handed me over to a clerk who was instructed to give me an examination paper, and I sat down to another school examination. This was no trouble. I was told I had passed, and was duly appointed to the service. My adventures as a banker are of no particular interest, except perhaps as a study in psychology and the methods by which some of those who are in high places today have crawled to their respective positions, not by any display of outstanding ability, but by methods which disgusted most decent youngsters, and prompted many of them, including myself, to get out as soon as possible.

I made an effort soon after joining to follow my natural bent and become a soldier, by endeavouring to enlist for the South African War, but I was under age and could not quite reach the physical standard, which was a very high one, so for the present I resigned myself to my job.

After serving for some time in a branch office, I was transferred to the head office of the bank in Melbourne, and it was there that the full extent of the hypocrisy and wire-pulling tactics of those who were determined to get on was brought home to me, and I no longer wondered why men of proved ability were kept on unimportant jobs and small salaries, and why so many of them left and accepted posts in commercial houses outside. As soon as it became apparent that a young man was possessed of outstanding ability, he became a menace to those senior to him, and at all costs he must be prevented from obtaining too quick promotion. If the name of such a man should be mentioned for promotion, it would be — 'Yes! Quite good at his work, sir, but I am afraid he drinks a little,' or 'A bit too fond of racing, sir. I am afraid he is not quite trustworthy.' And so his character would be slowly but surely undermined, so that his ability availed him nothing, and the promotion went to one who would not be a worry to his seniors.

In one post which I held while at head office, my duties took me into the general manager's room frequently to refer certain documents for his authority or signature. He had the reputation of being a bully (my uncle had by this time retired), and I used to be first astonished and then amused at the antics of very senior officers preparing for their daily interview with him. Each morning at about 9.30 a.m. the manager would approach the door of the sanctum with nervous steps and affix his eye to the crack, and there he would remain, almost motionless, often as long as twenty minutes, until such time as the 'old man' laid down his pen (I believe he often kept on writing on purpose). Then the manager would knock gently and cough, advance on tip-toe across the linoleum to the edge of the carpet, and say 'Good morning, sir,' getting a grunt in reply. He would then advance to the table, and the interview would proceed. On completion, the manager bowed again and retired backwards, mopping his brow as soon as he was clear of the door.

It appeared to me to be so absurd that one in his position, which carried with it a certain dignity, should be so overcome with moral funk at the prospect of a mere business discussion. I had been warned what to expect when I took over this job, but was far too busy to stand for twenty minutes on the doorstep, so adopted the normal practice of knocking and entering, and that, coupled with the fact that I failed to tip-toe across the linoleum, threw the secretary, who was in the room, into a state of nervous prostration. He put his finger on his lips and emitted a very subdued 'Sh'. But it did not appear to upset the old man. I placed the documents before him, he attended to them immediately, and I retired in the normal fashion.

It was not long before the secretary interviewed me, and scolded me severely for my intrepidity in daring to enter the general manager's room in that manner. He was horribly scandalised when I told him that I did not have time to humbug, waiting on the doormat, and anyway if the old man had anything to say, from what I had heard of him he probably would not hesitate to say it. After a few days of this sort of thing, and being further admonished by the secretary, I entered one morning in my usual way, met by a frown from the secretary and his finger to his lips, and in a spirit of devilment I crossed the room on the linoleum instead of the carpet. I thought the poor chap would have a fit when I stood alongside the old man and smiled across at him, and I verily believe the old man smiled, too. I think he held their 'Uriah Heep' methods in secret contempt, for he was always courteous to me and never passed me outside without a smile and a nod and sometimes a cheery word.

I was afterwards transferred to a country branch and remained in the country, though not in the same branch, until the war broke out.

While at school, I had joined the School Cadet Corps, and after leaving had joined a volunteer corps, in which I served for some years.

In 1909, I applied for and received a provisional appointment to commissioned rank in a militia unit, the 5th Australian Infantry Regiment. In those days, the process was somewhat different to the present method of appointment. One had to be personally recommended by an officer of the forces as of good character and education, and in possession of the necessary qualifications to fit one to become an officer. The brigade major was my sponsor. An interview was arranged with the adjutant, I was duly introduced, and he sized me up. I apparently met with his approval, for he then arranged for an interview with the commanding officer. Again I was successful, and finally had to face the state commandant. During all these interviews it was impressed on me that there were no vacancies in the Regiment at present. Nevertheless, one occurred shortly after my interview with the state commandant, and I was duly gazetted to a provisional appointment with the rank of 2nd lieutenant (prov.). I qualified at the first examination, and my appointment was confirmed six months later, and dated the 9th August 1909.

In those days, our training was a good deal more thorough than it is today, and our officers and N.C.O.s were very efficient. Each company paraded every Tuesday night, and the battalion allotted one Saturday afternoon per month for field work, and throughout the summer and autumn months spent about three Saturdays a month on the rifle range. Any exhibition of slackness on the part of officers resulted in an interview with the commanding officer and a warning. The warning was not repeated. If the offence was, the individual was quietly told that an application for transfer to The Reserve would be favourably considered.

In addition to our weekly parade, classes of instruction were held, which all junior officers were expected to attend as follows: Monday night — drill; Tuesday night — company parade; Thursday night (once a month) — lecture; Friday night — musketry; and very often on Sunday, junior officers would go out into the country under a staff officer for instruction in map reading, tactics, or engineering.

Most of my spare time was thus taken up in the study of military affairs, but it was interesting. I met a very fine lot of fellows, and became proficient at the job.

Our staff officers told us then that with very little doubt we would be at war within five years. They were very efficient and very keen, and did not mind giving up their Sundays or any other time that suited us for instruction. They did a lot to inspire us with the same enthusiasm, and their work was amply demonstrated when the 1st Australian Division was formed in 1914, and was almost entirely composed of those militia officers. They made that division the very efficient organisation that it was, and laid the foundations of the wonderful traditions achieved by the Australian Imperial Force in the Great War.


As I have said, I was in the country, in a little town in the north of Victoria, when the news of the European crisis reached us in July 1914. I was still on the active list of the Defence Force and had just passed my examination for captain's rank, but had not yet been promoted. How eagerly everybody watched the news in those days, until the fatal 4th of August, and how little they knew that war was a foregone conclusion, that all the efforts of our diplomats were so much waste of time, no matter how sincere they were. The Kiel Canal had been completed in June, and Germany was at last ready. The assassination of an archduke in Sarajevo had no bearing on the question, but was simply used as a ready excuse to break off diplomatic relations. Germany was ready to enforce her policy on the nations of Europe, and the declaration of war was the culmination of forty years' effort.

The Commonwealth government immediately offered to raise and equip a division for service overseas, and the offer was accepted by the British government, and for the next fortnight I was consumed with anxiety in case I should be left out of it. How eagerly I scanned the papers each day for the announcement of the appointment of brigade and unit commanders. I had already sent an application for appointment to district headquarters. Then followed letters and telegrams to everyone I knew who was likely in any way to have any influence in the appointment of officers to the force.

My first reply was something of a disappointment from General (then Lieut. Col.) H.E. Elliott, telling me that units were to be raised territorially, and he regretted that I was not in his area. He had, however, sent my application, with a recommendation, to the officer appointed to command the battalion to be raised in my area.

Dear old 'Pompey'. He had been adjutant of the old 5th in the days when I was a brand-new subaltern. How those of us who knew him loved him. Hard as nails on duty, ruthless on an officer who railed, but always just, always ready to fight the troubles of anyone under his command, and always ready to go anywhere he ordered his troops to go. Brave as a lion, and more concerned about his men than himself. And he kept a job up his sleeve for me until he definitely knew that I was appointed to the 8th Battalion. So after all I was lucky, for I was chosen in two places, though I did not know at the time. He told me when I met him in camp, and after congratulating me he said, 'I reserved a job for you with me in case you did not get into the 8th, but now you are alright I can fill it.'

I thanked him and told him that I almost regretted having been appointed to the 8th as I would like to have served with him, and moreover I knew his officers almost to a man, while I knew very few in the 8th.

About 10.00 a.m. on Monday the 17th of August, I received a telegram informing me that I was appointed to the 8th Battalion and instructing me to take charge of the quota from that area and report by first available train to Drill Hall, Surrey Hills, Melbourne. There was no train until ten minutes to six the next morning, so I packed up, handed over my job, and assisted the doctor in examining recruits until 10.00 p.m. The news did not take long to spread, a send-off was arranged at the leading hotel, and about ten o'clock I duly presented myself. What a night! Nobody went to bed, the send-off lasted until the train went, and I was driven to the station in good style. A lorry was drawn up in front of the hotel, minus horses, my bags were put on it, and I was then shouldered and carried out to the 'carriage' and ordered to stay there. I had no hope of getting off. My friends surrounded the lorry, some took the pole, while others pushed on the sides and rear, and away we went to the cheers of the populace, with the local constable heading the procession with his bagpipes.

It was late in the evening when we reached Surrey Hills, and I reported myself at the Drill Hall and spent the remainder of the night, until about 4.00 a.m., swearing in recruits and making out attestation papers. Next morning, there was a general muster at Victoria Barracks, and we marched through the city and out to Broadmeadows, twelve miles away, to camp. The work of organising and training the company fell on me, as my company commander did not arrive in camp until some weeks later, and when he did I found that though he had served in the South African War he had not done any service since, so that I practically had to train him as well as the company. But he was a very fine chap, and it did not take him long to pick up drill and infantry tactics. He left me to complete the organisation, and we turned out a very smart and very happy company.

We had an extremely fine lot of men, many of them with militia service, and enlisted mainly from Stawell, Horsham, Ararat, and surrounding districts. After being in camp a few weeks, the brigade was asked to send a representative company from each battalion to a military tattoo at the Exhibition Oval. Each of the other battalions sent a composite company made up of chosen men from each company, under chosen officers, but our commanding officer announced that he would send a complete company, and it would be the one that he considered the smartest and best trained in the battalion. He chose my company, and I could not help feeling very proud. I had worked very hard with them, but that was sufficient reward. We were fully clothed and equipped by this time, and I will never forget the way those fellows marched through the streets that night. No regulars could have done better.


Excerpted from Memoirs of an Anzac by John Charles Barrie. Copyright © 2015 Judy Osborne. Excerpted by permission of Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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