Katharine and Hugo in the shadow of the Great War: speech on Sunday

Anzac Crusader to marry Australian novelist

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.

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About Nathan Hobby

At work on a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard for a PhD at the University of Western Australia. Also a novelist and librarian. View all posts by Nathan Hobby

5 responses to “Katharine and Hugo in the shadow of the Great War: speech on Sunday

  • Neil Mactaggart

    Wonders will never cease! You presenting a speech on WW1! Is my invitation in the mail? I think that support for our being in more battles in the Middle East is waning here and so maybe Throssell’s speech would go down well now. We didn’t seem to learn much from that disaster in 1915. The WW1 mythology is more a post WW2 thing, especially in recent years. Katharine’s lack of interest in WW1 pre-dated her association with Throssell.

    I’m looking forward to hearing your next speech, maybe on the Western Front after you have dealt with Gallipoli but I won’t hold my breath.

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  • wadholloway

    Bravo! Hold onto that power. The Australian people voted against conscription twice during the Great War. The Australian women’s movement (unlike the Pankhursts in England) was anti-war. The soldiers of the first AIF voted against conscription. Today, there is so little support for war that the politicians are not game to debate it.

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    • Nathan Hobby

      Thanks Bill! With the women’s movement, I recall there being rival organisations – one pro-conscription and one anti-conscription. The failure of our huge protests to stop Howard committing us to the Iraq War filled me with an anger I’ll always carry for militarism, the neo-cons, and the mainstream media.

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      • wadholloway

        I’m with you on the tremendous harm that continues to follow from the Bush/Blair/Howard axis.
        As for women in WWI I was thinking particularly of the suffragists but yes, I’m sure there was a league of loyal empire women or some such.

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