A speech for “Katharine’s Birthday,” Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre, Sunday 6 December 2015

In London a hundred years ago Katharine Susannah Prichard met Hugo Throssell in the shadow of World War I. The war brought them together and cost them both so dearly. The Great War radicalised them, leading them to reject militarism and the system which had caused such a disaster. Katharine had come to London in 1911 as a freelance journalist. In the early stages of the war in February 1915, she became truly famous when she was announced as the Australasian winner of the Hodder & Stoughton £1000 Novel Competition for The Pioneers. Although awarded for an unpublished manuscript, it had the same level of publicity as the Man Booker Prize today; even split between the four colonial winners the prize money would have been enough to buy a house. At thirty-one years old and after many years of writing, she’d become a literary celebrity.

Despite already flirting with radical ideas for some years, Katharine was certainly not yet an avowed communist, nor a pacifist. She says she shared the “patriotic illusions” about the war, and had no sympathy for pacifists or conscientious objectors.

She was spending time with Australian soldiers in London who were either wounded or on leave from the front. In June 1915, she helped arrange a garden party for thirty soldiers from the Dardanelles. It might have been at this event that she met Colonel Todd of the 10th Light Horse. Todd invited her to an afternoon tea at the Royal Automobile Club, and here he introduced her to one of his men, Hugo Throssell.

Hindsight makes things clearer, and the way Katharine remembers it, there was an “indefinable attraction to each other” at their first meeting. Hugo was interested enough to record in his war-diary, “Met Miss KSP,” a typically brief entry among the Twitter-like accounts of his days. But she wasn’t the only woman he recorded in his diary in those months.

Hugo was a Northam boy. His father, George Throssell, worked his way up from nothing to be a rich merchant, Northam’s member of parliament, and even premier of WA for a few months. Hugo had been living aimlessly before the war. Educated at a prestigious private school in Adelaide, Katharine was to remark that one of his great troubles in life was that he “had not been trained for any definite job.”[1] He “had the best of everything. All the graces and pleasures of a country squire were his. There was always a horse of his own in the stables; his own dog; even… a pet monkey…”[2] He worked in the office of his much older brother; he mucked around; he acted in the local drama club; “he was a popular escort, but as incapable of being serious about a young lady as he was about any of life’s less significant pleasures.”[3] He spent several years farming unsuccessfully in the dry wheatbelt area of Cowcowing with his older brother, Eric. Their crops failing, the brothers signed up together to fight.

Katharine and Hugo were so different. Hugo had never known the genteel-poverty which Katharine struggled with as a child. She was careful with money while he was extravagant. She loved books and ideas; Hugo seemed to love having fun. Katharine would write of their attraction, “It was his tempestuous wooing, physical strength and beauty, I adored at first. Then as we grew to know each other better, his sweet nature, all the fine qualities of his great character held me so fast that no man ever again had any chance with me.”[4]

When Hugo met Katharine, it had only been two weeks since he’d been at Gallipoli in the Battle for Hill 60 that would win him a Victoria Cross, the one costly success of his life. It was 29 August, the same day the first advertisement for Katharine’s novel The Pioneers appeared in a British newspaper. At 1am, a group of soldiers led by Hugo ran, exposed, to a trench held by the Turks and took it. A bloody battle followed through rest of the night and all day as the Turks counter-attacked, and the two sides exchanged three-thousand bombs. The bombs were the size of cricket-balls but far heavier, and when they landed in the trench the soldiers had to try to throw them back just before they exploded. The dead and injured piled up in the trench so that it became hard to move and hard to pick up the bombs. Despite a gunshot wound to his shoulder, Hugo fought on and rallied the other soldiers until reinforcements finally arrived and he was evacuated with the other wounded. Hugo not only lost friends that night but killed at least five men on the other side, something which must have haunted him the rest of his life.

Hugo had been given the all-clear by the hospital, only to return for an unnecessary operation to straighten his nose and remove his adenoids, the doctor thinking it was the cause of his hearing problems. A contemporary medical expert believes the operation went wrong, the surgeon’s knife perforating the lining of Hugo’s brain and it was this which gave him bacterial meningitis. After surviving Gallipoli, the operation left Hugo fighting for his life for weeks. According to Katharine, Hugo was calling out for her in his delirium. Perhaps he was, but he’d only met her once.

They were both celebrities now. It was while Hugo was recovering that he learned he was one of eight ANZACs to receive the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour awarded “for valour in the face of the enemy.” It was the first time it had been awarded to a Western Australian, and newspapers in Western Australia lionised Hugo. In all, there were 410,000 Allied troops in the Gallipoli campaign. Half were wounded or killed. Thirty-nine received a Victoria Cross.[5]

Katharine did finally visit him in hospital. She wanted to know what he thought of The Pioneers, but his only comment was to correct her use of the term “waggon” on the first page.[6] Did he not understand or care what the book meant to her? He came to visit her one more time before she returned to Australia in October 1915, and they parted by shaking hands.[7]

On 4 December 1915, a hundred years ago last Friday, Hugo writes, “Was decorated at Buckingham Palace by George Rex.” It actually seems to me to be a later entry, composed long after the fact. It’s squeezed between the entries for 10 November 1915 and 5 January 1916. Perhaps he realised only later that he’d missed recording his meeting with the king.

A newspaper reported it was a “cheerless, drizzling” winter morning, “the VC heroes passed to the Palace without a welcome by the public.” [8] It was an intimate ceremony, with only ten soldiers decorated, four of them Australian. The report quoted one of them, Lieutenant Tubb, “The King makes you feel his interest in you—something like that of a father who is proud of his son. He asked me a lot of questions, as to where I came from, how old I was, what my business was. I told him, and he said he was very proud of me. I felt he meant it.”

The Rest of the War

On the ship on the way home, Katharine met a Melbourne radical named Guido Baracchi who she began an affair with soon after and who eventually influenced her conversion to communism. Months later, in June 1916, Hugo arrived in Melbourne, sent back to Australia for a few months as ‘his illness has left his nerves in a bad state’.[9] For a few days between appearances celebrating his medal and promoting the war effort, he wooed Katharine and impressed her mother and brother. She remembers herself ‘more deeply stirred than I had ever been’.[10] It seems she now found herself torn between her married lover she called the Preux Chevalier back in London, Guido in Melbourne, and Hugo at the front.

In September and October, the first conscription debate was at fever pitch. Katharine remembers, ‘I was bewildered as to what was the right way to vote… If recruits were needed, I thought, they would help to bring the war to an end, so with considerable misgivings I voted for them to be sent.’ The conscription referendum was narrowly defeated.

Between that first referendum in October 1916 and the second one announced in November 1917, Katharine turned completely against conscription and became the committed radical we now remember her as. It was a tumultuous year as she veered into communism, giddy with a painful love-affair with Guido and the heightened atmosphere of the city. Her increasing opposition to the war had been fed by letters sent by Hugo and her brother Alan describing the horrors of the front. The evening after prime minister Hughes announced the second referendum, Katharine was walking into the city when she saw posters announcing the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. She remembers ‘everything was suffused in a golden light. In a daze of excitement and rejoicing, it seemed this was an omen for the future… My mind was illuminated by the discovery. It was the answer to what I had been seeking.’[11] Katharine now believed that communism was going to sweep around the world and lead to the elimination of war—as well as poverty, disease, and superstition—and she would do all she could to fight for it.

She writes, ‘The indignation and resistance of the people grew as censorship regulations became more oppressive. The campaign against conscription, before the second referendum, gathered strength, although halls and press publicity were denied to the antis, and they were subjected to ruthless prosecutions.’[12] In December, this second referendum was also defeated despite the suppression of the no campaign by the government. The next day, a telegram reached Katharine saying her brother Alan had died of his wounds fighting in France. She wrote years later, ‘Grief for him made me resolve to work for peace, and to oppose political and economic intrigues which foster the barbarous insanity of war.’[13]

Katharine’s complex love life resolved itself. She had decided not to return to London, breaking free of the Preux Chevalier’s manipulative love. Then Guido suddenly married another woman in January 1918. Hugo, the only man left standing, kept up his letters. Suffering malaria, he was sent back to Australia, arriving in Melbourne in October 1918. He came to her mother’s house. ‘I still felt afraid to commit myself where Hugo was concerned. But when… he stood at the foot of the stairs, a tall, masterful figure in uniform—returned from the maelstrom of war—my irresolution vanished. He held out his arms, and I walked down the stairs into them.’ (Hurricane 251) They’d spent just a few weeks together over the three years they’d known each other, but she’d decided she wanted to marry him. ‘I told Hugo my political beliefs and he accepted them with me.’ To true believers in 1918, it seemed that a reasonable person only had to hear the arguments for Marxism to be convinced.

Katharine married Hugo on 28 January 1919 at the Melbourne registry office and soon after they travelled to his home state of Western Australia where they were to settle. “Anzac Crusader to marry Australian novelist,” read one newspaper report; the celebrity wedding seemed a happily ever after to the long and exhausting war.

After the War

Katharine and Hugo had survived the war, but both were deeply scarred.

Her novels of the 1920s and 1930s avoid the Great War. It seems she was too close to it to write about it. It would take her thirty years, only after she had lived through World War Two as well. In the second book of her goldfields trilogy, Golden Miles, Sally’s sons Lal and then Dick head off to fight in the Great War. Here at last, is a depiction of what it meant to live through the war, albeit in Kalgoorlie rather than London and Melbourne where Katharine herself was living. The conscription debate divides the family as it had divided the nation. Lal is killed, echoing the death of Katharine’s beloved brother, Alan. Dick survives, but returns a broken, changed man.

Dick draws on Hugo and every other broken man Katharine observed of their generation. The war never left Hugo.

On Saturday 19 July 1919, he was the guest of honour at the Northam peace celebrations. He made a speech the town never forgot. It was reported in one newspaper like this:

Captain Throssell, V.C… said it was good to be back in old Northam again… They had known him as a sort of irresponsible lad, but he claimed now to be a man. Nearly five years ago he had ridden through the streets of Northam in charge of eighteen men, who were amongst the first to enlist… Of that eighteen, seven were lying either in Gallipoli, Palestine or France…. War had made him a Socialist… He had seen enough of the horrors of war and wanted peace… While it is possible for unscrupulous men – profiteers – and manufacturers of war material to profit by war, we will always have wars. If the people do not want war, he believed they must scrap this rotten old system of production for profit and organise in its place a system of production for use and the well-being of the community as a whole. He knew that the views he had expressed were not popular but, in conclusion, he did want to say that the only real way to celebrate Peace was to do the things which make for Peace.[14]

Hugo was not a very good socialist. Despite his ideals, he loved dealing in land, buying up property around this Greenmount house and unsuccessfully subdividing it to sell off and make a profit. Katharine was to tell her son, “Daddy’s weakness, & the cause of so much suffering & sorrow to me, was a tendency to spend more than he had or could afford. And so all our troubles began, & mounted until the end.”[15] It was partly his upbringing and his personality; partly the effects of the war, the meningitis and what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. With huge debts and feeling there was no way out, he killed himself on the verandah here on 19 November 1933. The terrible war had claimed yet another victim fifteen years after armistice.

The fate of Hugo’s Victoria Cross

The fate of Hugo’s Victoria Cross awarded a century ago offers a note of hope and resolution at the end of the story of Hugo and Katharine and the Great War.

In 1984, Hugo and Katharine’s son, Ric Throssell, donated his VC to the People for Nuclear Disarmament so that they could sell it and make an anti-war film, honouring Hugo’s own intention to do all he could for peace. The RSL raised $42,000 to purchase the medal. The medal was then presented on Remembrance Day to the Australian War Memorial to be placed in the Hall of Valour. The anti-war film funded by the money, The Pursuit of Happiness, was released in 1988, with Karen Throssell, Hugo and Katharine’s granddaughter, writing the accompanying book.

Concluding Thoughts

In reclaiming Hugo as a war hero in recent years, we risk losing the power of the radical reaction he and Katharine had against war and the political system which produced it. 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 war which led to that extreme answer. We honour them best if we’re spurred on by the horrors of their war to work for peace in our time.

[1] KSP to RT, 25 Oct 1944.

[2] Ric Throssell, My Father’s Son (Melbourne: William Heinemann, 1989), 17–18.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] KSP to RT 30 July 1950

[5] Stephen Snelling, VCs of the First World War: Gallipoli (New York: The History Press, 2012), 13.

[6] Katharine Susannah Prichard, Child of the Hurricane: An Autobiography (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1963), 203.

[7] Ibid., 207.

[8] “British News,” The West Australian (Perth) 6 Dec 1915, 7.

[9] Sydney Morning Herald 12 July 1916, 10

[10] Prichard, Hurricane, 217.

[11] Ibid., 239.

[12] Ibid., 235–236.

[13] Katharine Susannah Prichard, Why I Am a Communist (Sydney: Current Books, 1957), 7.

[14] “A Convert,” Goomalling-Dowerin Mail (WA) 25 July 1919, 1.

[15] KSP to RT, 9 Dec 1945 NLA MS8071.