Stories of Remembrance

Army, First World War (1914-18)The Barker Brothers,Cyril, Rollo and Tasman

The Barker family story will not be found in any of the history books. It is a story of such great loss it is hard to believe that it was not shouted across our nation.
Georgia Lee (a student trying to rediscover, remember and share the stories of the past)

“In my sorrow and anguish at the death of my brave sons in the defence of their country during the last three months, I pray you will draw my other dear son from the danger line and send him to me”

Above is an excerpt from a heartfelt letter of hope and desperation, written by a mother who lost everything when the war came to town. Family is a key part of the Australian service history. Sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins, sisters, mothers, the tales of the service history will mention them again and again. This mother’s story related to her three sons, known collectively as the Barker brothers. Three brothers serving separately in the First World War: Cyril, Rollo and Tasman. The young men didn’t enlist together but their story when combined would soften even the hardest of hearts.

The first brother to enlist was Rollo W. Barker, the middle brother. Rollo enlisted on the 6th of June 1915. He was eager to do his part for his country listing his calling as “soldier” on his enlistment form and also by enlisting as soon as he could when the call rang out. His commitment didn’t falter; as time went on he rose quickly through the ranks from Gunner to Lieutenant within the 1st Siege Brigade. After surviving some of the harshest of battles, he died tragically in a motorcycle accident, February 1918. He was only 26 years of age.

The tragedy in this family did not end there, two months after his brother’s death Mrs Barker’s youngest son, Tasman lost his life. Tasman F. Barker was the last of the siblings to enlist, joining in January 1917. He served as a Signaller with the 40th Infantry Battalion. He suffered a death that most people would rather not think about but was sadly common. A slow and painful death, after being hit in multiple places by shell fragments. Not something a grieving mother needs to hear after the loss of already one son. Thank God she was spared the grim details.

Sadly for Mrs Barker yet another telegram arrived soon after, informing her that her only surviving son, Francis A. Cyril Barker, known to his mother as Cyril, had been wounded by German mustard gas. Cyril had been serving in France with the 3rd Australian Pioneer Battalion when a gas shell burned his skin and also damaged the inside of his lungs. His injuries almost took his life. One can only imagine her distress of learning not only that Cyril had been injured, but that soon after his recovery he had been returned to service. It was this that led her to write a letter pleading for her son’s life. In addition to the excerpt above Mrs Barker wrote “…I cannot bear the thought that my son will die too. It is the fear of him being killed that compels me to write and ask your help to save him if you can. If he cannot be sent back to Australia perhaps he can be withdrawn to a safe position.” Her letter was received by General Sir William Birdwood and immediately acted upon. Cyril is recorded in his papers on the Australian Service Records to have left England the following day via Hospital Transport for returning to Australia. Two months later he was in Melbourne and on the 9th of November 1918 he was discharged from the A.I.F. This should have been a joyful ending to his mother’s request, but it was not to be. Cyril suffered terribly with war-related mental health problems. Today, it would diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. He spent the majority of his final days in and out of hospital care. Sadly Cyril was found to have taken his own life, in his own bedroom, in his mother’s home. He had been released once again from hospital into her care. Not surprisingly, as we certainly understand better now, it was obviously a task impossible for her to manage alone. One cannot truly imagine the heartbreak of Mrs Alice Barker upon the discovery of the death of her only remaining child.

Family is a key part of the Australian service history as they are always mentioned somewhere in the stories. The tragic tale of the Barker brothers and their mother’s attempt to hold onto her remaining child is a sad example. The Barker family story will not be found in any of the history books. It is a story of such great loss it is hard to believe that it was not shouted across our nation. The truth is simply that their story should not be forgotten. Like all stories it needs to be voiced and always remembered. Lest We Forget.

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