Aw! What rot!
Hi, my name is Roxi Truesdale and for six weeks I have worked as a curatorial intern at the Australian War Memorial. During this time I have been involved with the Exhibitions team, where I have been researching all of the material that was written and drawn by soldiers for publication in The ANZAC Book.
Sifting through the material originally rejected by the editor Charles Bean, one short story struck me with its stark portrayal of courage and cowardice. While the juxtaposition of these two themes is not unusual in itself, it was the way in which this particular piece – Fate the King Jester by Corporal B. Hartman, New Zealand Field Ambulance, drew on the complicated nature of fear which intrigued me.
'The night was drawing to an end. That long nerve racking night, through the long weary hours of which the men had crouched waiting for the order to charge. That order which meant glory for some, a life of maimed uselessness for others, and the long last journey for those whom Fate had marked with an indelible sign.
In one corner of the trench, two men are holding a spasmodic conversation, shouting to make themselves heard above the rattle of rifle and machine gun fire, and the constant boom of heavy artillery.
“Well, Charlie how do you feel? I wish the order would come, and we could get at 'em, don't you?”
“No, Harry – I reckon I don't. I'm in a blue funk, and I don't mind admitting it. This charging game's no good to me!”
“Aw! What rot! Why man, you want to keep cool. Pull yourself together. What? Don't I feel a bit funky? No. Of course I don't. I'm going to get right into it I am; and if I don't get three or four o' them blighters on this bayonet, my name's not 'Arry Smith.”
“Yes, it's all very w---------”indelible
Charlie stops involuntarily. The din has ceased so suddenly, that his last word shouted as it is, can be heard yards away. The silence grows oppressive, when without warning – or if they had been a warning they had missed it – CHARGE!!! Ah – at last! And scrambling over the parapet they are away, and as if to mock those few whose sun would set forever that morning, King Sol rises majestically above the ridge. The dawn has come.
But who is this who slinks back into the trench, and crawls into a corner out of sight? Surely Charlie Wright, the man who feared and dreaded the charge? No – Charlie has forgotten he was ever afraid, and is doing his bit like a Briton. No – this is the man who was not afraid. The man who has failed to make good his words in deeds, and hours later as the remains of his company straggle by after being relieved – he slips into the file, determined to take his full share of the great work done.
He got it too more's the pity.
In the Casualty list ----- August 7th, 1915.
19/192 Private Charles Wright. Reported missing.
So often we only hear the story of the brave hero, after all, courage is intrinsically linked to the sense of patriotism and masculinity that is commonly employed in the rhetoric of war. We hear tales of fearless sacrifice and of strength during adversity but rarely of cowardice. However, I can't help but ask the question: is it okay to be a coward?
After reading Fate the King Jester I began to think about the mental difficulties experienced by soldiers in the trenches, the pressure to live up to the heroic ideal, the anguish at the tasks they were asked to perform and demoralisation under the constant threat of death. I can only begin to imagine the level of psychological pain and misunderstanding that was faced.
I have chosen artworks from Sidney Nolan's Gallipoli series to reflect the sense of disenchantment that is carried through Corporal Hartman's story, as well as the tragedy and the myth that surrounds the ANZAC soldier.
It is believed that Corporal Hartman used fictional characters for his story as no record for 19/192 Private Charles Wright can be found. B Hartman himself is thought to be 3/255 Basil Hartman. In 1916 Basil Hartman was awarded the Military Medal – an award for bravery.
Let me know your thoughts below, and keep an eye out next year for other previously unpublished material in the redeveloped First World War gallery.