War has made me a pacifist

The funeral of Captain Hugo Throssell VC took place not long after Remembrance Day in 1933. He was buried in Perth’s Karrakatta cemetery with full military honours. Throssells’s medals and sword were placed on the coffin, as was a union flag. Politicians and returned soldiers mourned ‘a Fallen Hero’. ‘He died for his country’, said the chaplain, ‘just as surely as if he had perished in the trenches.’ But a man who survived the Dardanelles and a savage campaign in the Middle East had died by his own hand.

Hugo Throssell had been badly mauled at Gallipoli. One of the few officers to survive the charge at the Nek, he was thrown into equally costly fighting at Hill 60 near Suvla. For several days, Ottoman and Allied battled over a hill so tiny it resembled, in Bean’s words, a ‘swelling on the plain’; ‘murderous bomb, rifle and machine gun fire’ left the trenches ‘chocked with dead’. In the action that earned him his VC, Throssell fought continuously for forty-eight hours, refusing to retire until ordered (twice) to do so. By then wounds covered most of his body and a bomb blast had driven fragments of uniform—including the metal shoulder badge that read ‘Australia’—deep into his arm. 

A light horseman, Throssell went on to fight in Egypt and Palestine. He was part of the advance towards Beersheba and wounded a second time at the Battle of Gaza. That last engagement also claimed the life of his brother. Throssell crawled across the battlefield at night, searching for Ric among the dead and dying and whistling with the same signals they had used as boys. Ric was buried in the sands of the Sinai. Hugo was never the same again.

Suffering from illness and nerves, Throssell was repatriated home to Australia shortly before the war ended. In July 1919, he was chosen to lead the victory parade through his hometown of Northam. Throssell rode a big bay gelding, an officer’s sword swinging at this side, and the dull bronze of the Victoria Cross glinting on his chest. Hundreds cheered as he passed them. This was their boy, their ‘Jim’, a lad from Northam who had won the Empire’s highest award for gallantry.

But what Hugo Throssell said that day astounded everyone:

Nearly five years ago I rode through the streets of Northam in charge of eighteen men, who were among the first to enlist… Of that eighteen, seven were lying either in Gallipoli, Palestine, or France. … The war has made me a socialist. I have seen enough of the horrors of war, and want peace.  After four years of [fighting], after the loss of nearly 8,000,000 lives, with a total of 18,000,000 wounded, of whom 6,000,000 are permanent wrecks ... [how was it] still possible for individuals to make colossal fortunes by the manufacture of armaments…?  If the people do not want war, we must scrap the rotten old system of production for profit…

‘You could have heard a pin drop’, Hugo’s wife, Katherine Susannah Pritchard wrote to a fellow communist Nettie Palmer. ‘Jim himself was ghastly, his face all torn with emotion. It was terrible—but it was magnificent’. Those who believed in the cause of the Empire would never forget what was said that day—and few would forgive.

Throssell’s own war wounds would plague him for the rest of his life. But earning a VC didn’t win any particular favours with the Repatriation authorities. Successive Medical Boards classified him ‘partially incapacitated’, noted he was ‘Depressed’ and ‘sleeping badly’, and that his defective vision was progressively becoming worse. ‘Metal splinters entered eye at Gallipoli’, Dr C W Courtney scribbled in his notebook, even so he was not considered eligible to receive glasses ‘at Departmental expense’. Consorting with known communists aroused the authorities’ suspicion. Intelligence officers were detailed to monitor the war hero’s ‘leaning towards socialism’ and he was forced to resign a government post. 

Throssell’s financial position went from bad to worse. The depression of the 1930s rendered much of his property worthless, his farm was failing and so too was his health. Throssell had contracted meningitis in hospital. He suffered what he called ‘brain storms’, searing pains that pounded in his head. 

Early one Sunday morning in 1933, Hugo Throssell walked from his bedroom to a latticed veranda looking out on the bush. He sat in his favourite wicker chair, rested his feet on the balcony, and shot himself in the head. The bullet that killed him was fired with a Webley service revolver. The same weapon he had wielded in war.

The authorities found a note with his will and personal papers: ‘I have never recovered from my 1914-18 experiences. And, with this in view, I appeal to the State that my wife and child get the usual war pension. No man could have a truer mate’. 

Katherine Susannah Prichard reluctantly accepted her pension: ‘I consider that his “grateful country” made it impossible for my husband to live. He thought he had to die for his wife and child. … I could not accept anything that cost him his life: but … I have no right to interfere with what he sought to do for his son’.

Katherine Susannah Pritchard would devote the rest of her life to the same ideals Hugo spoke of in Northam, fighting for the twin causes of world peace and international socialism. Ric Throssell, Hugo’s son, sold his father’s VC, and donated the proceeds to the campaign for nuclear disarmament. 

Throssell’s story reminds us that many veterans became pacifists as a result of their war service. Some, like Throssell himself, concluded only an end to capitalism and empire could pave the way to peace. The Light Horse Association, Throssell’s old school and the Northam RSL restored Throssell’s monument in 2014. ‘Courageous in war’ it reads, and ‘steadfast in peace’. No overt mention is made of the circumstances of Throssell’s death or of his radical beliefs.

For full attribution of sources, suggestions for further reading and an extended version of the story itself see ‘What should never happen again: Hugo Throssell’ in Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James, World War One: A History in 100 stories (Melbourne, Penguin/Viking, 2015) pp. 228-231; 360.