The Diaries of a WWI Soldier

Soldiers Diaries AdvCThere were many advertisements just like the one above, placed in newspapers around Australia after the end of World War I. The soldiers of Australia’s citizen army had finally returned and some of them brought with them intimate historical records of the war – the diaries they had composed on the battlefronts. The principal librarian of the State Library of New South Wales, supported by the Library’s trustees, recognised the value of these records and set about collecting them through these advertisements.

The European War Collecting Project is a significant collection held by the State Library of NSW. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been immersed in these soldier diaries. The volunteers at the State Library have done a tremendous amount of work transcribing them which is enabling me to examine the diaries digitally.

I am still in the midst of working with these diaries but I realised early on that the diaries of Archie Barwick are a significant part of this collection. The day after I had quickly glanced at one of his diaries I received an invitation to a book launch at the State Library of New South Wales. Harper Collins has recognised the significance of his diaries and has now released these diaries in book form.

four people gathered around a table looking at the original diaries.

Looking at Archie Barwick’s diaries at the launch: Elise Edmonds (State Library NSW), David Hassall, Judy Hassall and Alex Byrne (State Librarian, State Library NSW). Photographer: Joy Lai, State Library of NSW.

Everyone is part of a family. Every history is family history.

At the book launch Archie Barwick’s daughter, Judy Hassall, shared a little bit about her father and the diaries. “He didn’t want any fame,” said Judy. She recalled her father saying, “Every man and woman that went to war deserved a medal and accolades.”

In Great Spriits: Archie Barwick's WWI Diary - From Gallipoli to the Western Front and Home Again, by Archie Barwick (Harper Collins, 2013).

In Great Spirits: Archie Barwick’s WWI Diary – From Gallipoli to the Western Front and Home Again, by Archie Barwick (Harper Collins, 2013).

Archie Barwick wrote the diaries to share his wartime experiences with his family. After the War he married and had children. Before Archie Barwick deposited his diaries with the State Library he made another condensed version of extracts from them which he retained for his family. While the children in the family were shielded from the experiences of their father during the war, they were aware of the existence of the diaries because other people were talking about them.

When she was about twelve Judy started to read her father’s diary. “I was traumatised,” she recalls. “I cried and I laughed but I couldn’t get through many pages.”

About fifty years ago Judy asked her father to take her to see the diaries at the State Library. There were still traces of dirt and blood on some of them. “I recall my father reliving the horror…” she said of that day. Judy remembers with gratitude the respect shown by the library staff to her father on that day.

Judy gave us some glimpses of her father’s character. “He had inner peace, he brought a lot of happiness to many people.” I am left wondering what it was that gave him tranquillity after four years of service in such a horrific war.

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The original diaries were on display at the book launch.

There is another story wrapped in the one I have just related. Until this week I had not realised that Archie Barwick’s legacy is a large reason why I write this blog and use social media to share history.

For many years Judy Hassall was my mentor. She introduced me to public information work and guided me for a long time. I started doing public information work for the Baha’is in Victoria with Judy’s guidance. Later I was one of her successors working as a Public Information Officer for the Australian Baha’i Community based in Sydney. Throughout the nineties and into the early years of this century Judy was at the end of the phone sharing her wise counsel as I was working with journalists, non-government organisations and the general public. Through her I learned how to effectively share our organisation’s news with the media and the public, and in turn how to meet their requests for information.

Judy Hassall

Judy Hassall

Character is an essential element in public information work. Honesty, adherence to deadlines, trustworthiness and an attitude of being of service to people outside the organisation as well as within are important traits for public information officers. Audacity, courage and persistence are also required. Success often only comes after many failures.

Judy Hassall exhibited these qualities in bucket loads and expected all she supervised to meet these standards. At the book launch I gained a sense of how this extraordinary woman emerged.

Judy made a revealing remark at the end of her talk. “I believe I’ve been one of the luckiest people to have a father that believed in the equality of men and women… And that gave me great strength.” It was not until Judy went to boarding school over sixty years ago that she realised this attitude was unusual.

Archie Barwick believed that women had something valuable to contribute and encouraged his daughter to flourish.  While she spoke I gained the impression that Judy was listened to by her parents when she was young. Many women her age were taught that they should not impose themselves on others, that they should listen but not expect to be listened to. Not so for Judy. I have never seen her being diffident about speaking in public.  Her body language, the projection of her voice and the careful enunciation of her words commands the room. When she has something to say she quite rightly expects people to listen.This was how her parents raised their daughter. Archie Barwick was a great story-teller and so is his daughter.

Judy believes in making people feel valued and being generous with praise when it is due. At the beginning of her speech she thanked Harper and Collins editor, Catherine Milne for all the work she has done with the diaries. The original diaries were over 400,000 words. There needed to be a considerable reduction in the number of words to create a book the public would enjoy reading. It is evident that Judy Hassall believes that the integrity of the diaries has been maintained through the editing process.  It was good to hear an editor being thanked. They play a vital role in shaping books.

Judy expressed her gratitude to the State Library staff, past and present, for all the work they had done over the years to protect the diaries and enable them to be shared with others. All WWI researchers would echo her gratitude to the volunteers who have put so much work into transcribing the diaries in this collection and the librarians who have facilitated access to the diaries both in person and online.

We often study the lives of soldiers during WWI in isolation from the other aspects of their lives. We study them as soldiers, not as complete people who were fathers, husbands, sons and men who spent most of their lives in quite different forms of work. On Wednesday night I learned a bit about Archie Barwick, the father.  Through this I began to understand how the way he raised his daughter has affected my life.

Addendum

  • 11/11/2013: Listen to Judy Hassall talk about her father, Archie Barwick, through the new section of the State Library of NSW website launched today to commemorate WWI.
  • 20/8/2014: Archie Barwick is one of the soldiers featured on the new ABC TV documentary series, The War That Changed Us. This article gives some background to the series and includes a short video of Judy Hassall talking about her father. This series is co-written by Clare Wright (author of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka) and Don Featherstone. It is broadcast on Tuesday evenings at 8:30pm on ABC1.
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10 thoughts on “The Diaries of a WWI Soldier

  1. 400,000 words of diary!!! I just had a brief look at the State Library catalogue record for the diaries where they’re listed. I didn’t realize that there were so many, and what a wonderful thing that they’ve been transcribed. The couple that I looked at only had fairly brief entries, which makes the 400,000 words even more impressive.

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  2. Thank you so much for your wonderful post! As an historical novelist I know only two well how important diaries and letters are to help us understand the past. I’m so glad that people like Archie not only lived on this earth and passed down a lot of his attributes to his daughter but also that we have his diaries as well!
    Pay my respects to Catherine for me. She believed in Tomaree my WWII novel.

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