Each year the Lane Cove RSL Sub Branch invites a Lane Cove Resident to talk about a relative who has served in the military. This year Susan Just spoke about her grandfather Private Eric Barton.
Earlier this year Prime Minister Turnbull reminded US President Trump that Australia and the United States had a military relationship that was a hundred years old.
My grandfather, 6383 Private Eric Barton, was there when that relationship was forged in July 1918 during the Battle of Hamel.
Private Barton was 18 when he enlisted in Townsville into the 15th Infantry Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force.
After initial training as a rifleman, he was then trained as a Signaller before embarking for England in September 1916. He underwent further training on Salisbury Plains before he finally joined his Battalion on the Western Front in early 1917 but within weeks he had succumbed to the winter weather and was repatriated to England to recover.
It was not until May 1917 that he re-joined the Battalion. In September 1917 he was recommended for a Military Medal for bravery at the Battle of Polygon Wood which is located outside the Belgium town of Zonnebeke.
The United States of America had initially adopted a policy of neutrality so it was not until the summer of 1917 that American soldiers arrived in France but they were poorly equipped and not trained in trench warfare.
In early 1918 the Germans launched their Spring Offensive wherein they gained ground previously lost – this included a “bulge” around the French village of Villers-Bretonneux.
The British High Command then ordered Lieutenant General John Monash, commander of the Australian Corps to “straighten the front line” by attacking and capturing the nearby village of Le Hamel.
Despite reservations by General Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, four American infantry companies were attached to Monash’s force – this included mygrandfather’s battalion.
The commitment of these American soldiers was the first time in history that United States troops would fight under a foreign commander.
It was during the attack at Hamel that my grandfather suffered multiple gunshot wounds and used his left arm to shield himself from the impact of an exploding grenade. He was left for dead until American soldiers noticed signs of life and treated his wounds.
My granddad was evacuated to England to recuperate. Although a side story is that he went Absent Without Leave and fined six days pay for “breaking into Hospital by means other than the proper entrance”.
He returned to Australia in early 1919 and was discharged in July 1919.
My grandfather passed away in 1969 aged 71.
As a young girl, I can recall that Eric Barton was a small but spritely man. He was disabled from his wounds. He had difficulty holding a fork and coughed a lot with emphysema due to the shrapnel in his lungs. He also spent quite a lot of time and was well known at the local watering hole in south Townsville known as the Vic Park Hotel. His tolerance level with the five little grandchildren was a bit limited at this time of his life. When it got too much he would let out a “get down to the chook pens you kids” which has resulted in my lifetime bird phobia.
After the war, he returned to Townsville. I believe his war experiences shaped his view of life and he went on to make a wonderful contribution to society. He married Amy Foster. They had two children, including my mother Lois who was bestowed with a name of French origins. His son Foster who still lives in Townsville today went on to his own military career. Eric had a long career with Queensland Rail and during the Great Depression was a person who supported a number local families during the depression in a time when the welfare safety nets of our society were not at the level they are today. He was a person who was friends with the local Islander priest despite the fact he was a declared atheist. One of my first memories in my life is being with him at Nelly Bay on Magnetic Island where there is a plaque at the Masonic Hall that recognises the contributions he made to its construction.
Just over ten years ago, I was fortunate to accompany my daughter Carmen on a school trip. We visit Hamel and the surrounding area. The solemnity and sense of loss is overwhelming. This demonstrates the importance of Anzac Day everyone. But my Grandfather’s life shows the importance of inspiration and hope and this also what I hold important about Anzac Day. I believe it is the reason that selfless people have fought and continue to fight for society where tolerance, fairness, freedom and kindness prevail and there is not place for prejudice or judgement based on religion colour or race.
I finish with his little poem that was found in his belongings after he passed away: but not feeling I need to….
A Woman’s Part
The Boys in their khakis go out to the Front.
What are women to do?
They say “Men must work, and women must weep”
Is all that is left to you?
Don’t believe it. The hardest part to play
Is the part of the mothers and wives
To give your own life is a little thing
We give our menfolk’s lives.
The baby you’ve born and suckled
And put in his shortened frocks
The boy that you’ve often scolded
When you washed him and darned his socks.
We’ve bred them and reared them and loved them
And now it’s the woman’s part
To send them to die for England
With a smile and a breaking heart.
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