Robert Barnet was born at his McGregor grandparents’ home at Cambewarra in February 1895. His childhood was spent at Narrandera in the Riverina district of NSW and at Wollongong, where his father was Presbyterian minister from 1903 until 1921. He went to Wollongong District School and Sydney Grammar School before entering St Andrew’s College at the University of Sydney in 1913, enrolled in the School of Engineering. He left university to become an articled pupil to licensed surveyor and civil engineer Alexander Donald Craig.
Barnet was a keen amateur photographer, developing and printing his own photographs and carefully storing and listing the negatives in a special Kodak negative album.1 The pictures he took in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War I and in the period before he embarked for war service overseas provide a poignant record of a young man at the beginning of his adult life.
Barnet was one month shy of his twenty-first birthday and had been serving in the militia for some time when he enlisted in the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 4 January 1916. He was sent to Holsworthy training camp near Liverpool and was briefly attached as a gunner to the 5th Reinforcements of the 5th Field Artillery Brigade before transferring to the Mining Corps as a driver. On 4 April 1916 he embarked from Melbourne with the 3rd Reinforcements of the No 1 Mining Corps on the troopship Euripides. The ship carried more than 2000 men, including reinforcements for the 1st and 3rd Light Horse, 21st Army Service Corps, Army Medical Corps, and 12 infantry battalions as well as the Mining Corps.
Barnet arrived in France a month after leaving Australia, disembarking at Marseilles on 17 May 1916 then moving north with his unit by rail to Etaples on the north-west coast. It was from Etaples on 4 June 1916 that Barnet sent a postcard to his grandfather Roderick McGregor, who had recently moved to Nowra from Cambewarra with his wife and their youngest daughter, Elgin, and was building a new house next door to Meroogal.
My Dear Grandfather
Away out here I often think of you and wonder how you are getting on with the new house, in which I dare say you and Grandma are by this time spending the winter; but I fully expect to hear that you will take a cottage by the surf beach in Wollongong for the summer. Since this is June summer is here but today the wind and rain off the shallow sea would do credit to our coldest winter southerly.
The first sunny day we arrived here I made my first acquaintance with the skylarks who nest in the heathy flat country behind the sand dunes. There are hundreds of new flowers and owing to the continental trees one feels that the whole place is a park or preserve. I long for the smell of the Australian bush as you have it across the Suspension bridge.
Well I am going ‘up the line’ soon (i.e.) to the trenches; but if I ever get a chance to visit the Old Country I’ll take a free pass to John O’Groats and pay my way back and I shall not forget to let you know what it looks like.
Barnet never got his free pass to Scotland to pay homage to grandfather’s birthplace. At the beginning of July 1916 he was transferred in the field to the 1st Australian Ammunition Sub-Park, a mechanical transport unit of the Australian Army Service Corps, and ten days later he was disciplined for negligently damaging the radiator and fan of his lorry and fined a week’s pay. Six weeks later he was dead, ‘accidentally killed’ at Poperinge in Belgium.
For two months his unit had been moving from camp to camp across northern France and into Belgium, and they arrived at Poperinge on the morning of 27 August. The day was spent establishing camp. At just before 8pm, witnesses ‘heard a shot’ at the back of a lorry. The officer in charge recorded in his unit diary that ‘No.2662 Dvr Barnet while cleaning a rifle at the back of lorry 11704 exploded a cartridge wounding himself in the head’. Barnet was immediately taken to the Number 10 Casualty Clearing Station but ‘died at 10.10pm without regaining consciousness’.2
A brief funeral service was held the next day, presided over by a Presbyterian padre. The service was followed immediately by a court of inquiry convened to establish the circumstances of the death. The court concluded that Driver Barnet had met his death ‘either through accident or by intent, from a bullet fired from his own rifle’. There is no indication in Barnet’s service dossier that his family were ever informed of the possibility of suicide in the court’s finding. The Reverend Donald McKay Barnet was simply advised in a letter written in February 1917 that his son had died of a gunshot wound to the head, accidentally received. At the same time an inquiry made to the Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Bureau received contradictory testimony. Driver Charles Andrew Horne made a statement from a military hospital in England in March 1917 that Barnet ‘had taken his own life. No one saw him do it, but we heard a shot and on going out found him dead. He had been punished for some mistake or neglect of duty and this preyed on his mind’.3
Robert Barnet was buried in the Lijssenthoek military cemetery not far from Poperinge. Sometime in 1917, one of his cousins, a ‘Miss Barnet’, made inquiries about the grave and in October 1917 received a letter in response from someone working at the Number 10 Casualty Clearing Station. The original letter was copied out and circulated within the Barnet family and in the process the writer’s name has been lost. This unknown correspondent told Miss Barnet that he had ‘shortly returned from seeing your young friend’s grave’. He added:
If it be consolation to his home folk you might tell them that the grave has been well tended, the plot is in beautiful repair and that the memorial erected over him might have been just placed there yesterday from the few signs of exposure to weather conditions. The cross is substantially built of a refined artistic design – the Australian badge, a half setting sun is placed at the intersection of its arms.4
In January 1920 the Reverend Barnet received a photograph of the grave, followed in December 1921 by a British War medal, a Memorial Scroll in January 1922, a Memorial Plaque in September 1922 and a Victory Medal in March 1923. He also received, in January 1922, a brochure titled Where the Australians rest, published by the Australian Government ‘to bring comfort to relatives and friends of fallen soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force’.5 Reverend Barnet had himself already published in October 1917 a booklet entitled How to get near our dead: a word of consolation to those who have lost loved ones at the front. The booklet was dedicated to the memory of his ‘soldier son’.
At Meroogal there are two tangible memorials to a loved great-nephew. One is a framed photograph of Robert Barnet in uniform hanging on a wall near the fireplace in the dining room. It has been on display in this room for at least 80 years, and probably for 100. The second lies in a camphorwood chest in the hallway and is a guestbook with an entry from the day on which Robert Barnet photographed himself with his great-aunts: ‘I am proud of my Great-Aunts! May they ever have reason to return the compliment. Their loyal nephew, Robert J. M. Barnet. 17: III: 1916’. His inscription is flanked by notices of his death clipped from Sydney newspapers.