There was something about James Barker; perhaps it was his calm demeanour. Or perhaps it was the permanent scar that curved along his left cheek, the legacy of a work accident at a local Heathcote cordial factory when a glass bottle exploded, sending glass fragments in to Barker’s lower jaw. Either way, he proved to be a tough soldier, who dealt with his own tragedies and injuries with a stoic acceptance of his lot.
He enlisted with his cousin, Francis John Ryan, in October 1914 following the lead of his other cousin, Robert Mathew Ryan, who had already signed up. They set off from Melbourne together on December 22.
Barker hid a pencil in an empty .303 rifle shell to ensure he could maintain a diary to accurately document his time at war. He wrote of how they celebrated Australia Day (or Foundation Day as it was known at the time) by holding sport competitions aboard the ship.
His battalion arrived at Lemnos on April 15 and he observed about 40 other boats ashore when they set anchor. The transports and battleships began leaving the island on April 22 and Barker worked in the kitchen in the lead up to landing at the Dardanelles.
His appointment with Gallipoli was April 26, and his brigade had only three casualties before it advanced to the firing line the following day.
“Today we were in the trenches on the 1st of May and we had a very severe day of it,” Barker wrote.
“Four of our officers got wounded and about 30 men killed, but I think the Turks suffered pretty heavy. We have been fighting for a week now and we have only had about eight hours sleep.”
In his war diary, Barker often commented on the terrible conditions at the peninsula. The rain made the trenches muddy and the hills so slippery that he struggled to climb the slopes.
“It was raining on the 12th and 13th May and made things pretty dirty in the trenches. On the 19th May, the Turks started to throw eight inch shells at us. Then next morning they made an attack on us but we gave them a lively time of it. We killed over 500 of them, without what we wounded. We only lost about 20 killed so we did not do too bad.
“On the 24 May we gave the Turks from 7am until 4pm to bury their dead. It was quite a delight to get a few hours spell without a shot being fired.”
Barker was wounded in the back of the hand just after sunrise on August 8 during the attack on Hill 971 and was initially reported as missing. His cousin, Robert, was not so fortunate. He died in action at Gallipoli that same day at age 22.
After surviving the failed attack on Hill 971, a dose of poison gas and being weakened by dysentery, Barker was moved back and forth from English hospitals to recover from wounds. Barker rejoined his battalion as it prepared for France in July 1916. While marching to the front Barker bumped into his other cousin, Francis. Little did they know this would be their last encounter – Francis died on the battlefield two weeks later.
But Barker wasn’t one to feel sorry for himself, gallantly rising to the challenge when his platoon sergeant was killed by a bursting shell in France shortly after the “hop off” on July 4, 1918. He had charged toward a fortified shell hole, wasting no time in capturing six prisoners and killing the remaining imminent threats.
Barker also reorganised the rear party and led them to rejoin the battalion. Given his courage and prompt grasp of the situation were vital in establishing the essential strong points, Barker was awarded a Military Medal for his conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Vaire Wood, Corbie.
By early 1918, Barker had been appointed a corporal ranking. He received a commendation for his confidence and the optimistic attitude he displayed while in charge of a party carrying rations to the forward posts. This involved crossing dangerous terrain twice a night across a mass of shell holes and mud, all the while continuously being swept with machine gun fire.
He returned to Australia in September 1918 and was discharged from service some months later. His grandson, Greg Barker, said James led a peaceful life after the war. He loved tending to his garden, always making sure the lawns were clipped, and kept some chickens in the backyard.
Mud reminded him of the trenches and he could never stand dirtying his clothes or boots, always cleaning his shoes after spending time in the garden.
Barker worked for Coburg City Council as a member of the council road gang until retirement and enjoyed rabbiting. He would take the train to the Whittlesea or Broadford rifle clubs where he entered shooting competitions and won many prizes. The war veteran was known to be a very good shot and made every bullet count.
Barker had three kids who bore him seven grandchildren. He lived until 1968 and there is a poppy plaque on his gravestone at Coburg Cemetery.
Originally written for the Herald Sun.