It’s a hundred years ago on Friday since King George V decorated Katharine Susannah Prichard’s future husband, Hugo Throssell, with a Victoria Cross, Western Australia’s first. To mark the occasion, I’ve been asked to give a speech at Katharine’s Birthday, the annual end-of-year celebration at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre, alongside Chris Horvath, a specialist on the 10th Light Horse. It’s an interesting assignment for a pacifist like me.
World War One is in the scope of my research, but it was going to be another year or more until I got to it. Being asked to prepare this speech has meant I’ve skipped forward to the war, and stayed there, in the hope I can produce a couple more essays or speeches during the centenary period. (So far, I’m not sure it’s going to work, but I have time yet.)
One of the things I’ve been reminded of in this research is the complexity of history, which is too often reduced to a simple story. So, for instance, the infamous communist Katharine actually voted in favour of conscription the first time around, before becoming an ardent opponent in the second referendum. And she voted in favour despite the fact she was in an intense romance with the radical Guido Baracchi at the time. And another complexity: her notebooks from this period (and no other!) have survived, giving a rare glimpse into some of her private world. They largely reveal her much more preoccupied with describing nature and her tumult of feelings than anything to do with the war. It shouldn’t be a surprise: even in the midst of war, people on the homefront are thinking of other things. But to write about Katharine with a focus on the war is to simplify this period of her life to one particular strand.
In recent years, helped along by the 2012 biography of Hugo by John Hamilton and the World War I centenary, Hugo the socialist pariah has been reclaimed as a war hero, which presents a paradox. I conclude my speech with this note:
…we risk losing the power of the radical reaction he and Katharine had against war and the political system which produced it. If they were alive today they would be making speeches most Australians wouldn’t want to hear, perhaps criticising some of the mythology around the Anzacs as well as our disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They would be as suspect and unpopular among many today as they were in their day. As it turned out, the communism that Katharine embraced as the solution to the problem of the Great War was not a solution. But to do justice to Hugo and Katharine we have to remember the extremity of the problem which led to that extreme answer.
The ANZAC Centenary tribute to Hugo Throssell, including my 20 minute speech, runs from 12:25pm to 1:40pm, Sunday 6 December, 11 Old York Rd Greenmount.