Prologue [Fools’ Harvest, by Erle Cox, 1939]

[Editor: This is the prologue from Fools’ Harvest (1939) by Erle Cox.]


In presenting this transcript of the Walter Burton manuscript for publication, the editors desire to remind the reader that its main value lies in its being the longest of the fourteen authentic personal narratives extant descriptive of the Australian debacle of 1939. It should be regarded as supplementary, only, to Major General Marsden’s “Australian Tragedy,” in which the military story of the invasion is dealt with, and to “The Struggle for the Pacific,” by Peel and Everard, who treat the subject from the viewpoint of international historians. It must be remembered that, at the time he wrote, Burton was almost entirely ignorant of the great events that were taking place outside of Australia. His conjectures were governed largely by local conditions, and coloured by an appalling environment. His assumptions were, therefore, at times either partially or totally inaccurate.

Taking into consideration his obvious handicaps, however, it is remarkable how nearly Burton’s conjectures do approach the facts. Moreover, in every instance in which it is possible to check his narrative in detail, his statements are fully supported, though in many places his dates are open to correction. This chronological haziness is due, probably, to the difficulty he experienced in writing up his diary regularly. That he succeeded in keeping a continuous record of his experiences at all, in the circumstances, reflects the determination of his character. We have allowed his dates to stand as written, rather than make corrections that may distract the reader’s interest from his story. For this reason, too, explanatory comment has been inserted in the text in brackets.

Much difficulty has been experienced in tracing the history of Burton’s manuscript. There is no doubt it was begun, if not completed, while he was an inmate of the notorious concentration camp at Carrington, the suburb of Newcastle, in 1948. It came into the possession of Mr. Rex Graham, Burton’s nephew, on the death of his father, Fergus Graham, in 1967. Mr. Graham, however, states that he can barely recollect his uncle, Walter Burton, and has no idea of how his father obtained the manuscript. His only memories of Burton are of a big, dark man who used to tell him stories and make him laugh. He was at the time no more than six years of age. Following the policy of the “Paramount Power,” he was separated from his parents when he was ten years old. By then, however, his uncle’s visits to his parents had ceased for some time. When, after the Pacific War of 1966, he again rejoined his father, his mother had been dead for several years, and Fergus Graham was a broken man. Suffering had made him morose and uncommunicative, and beyond telling him that Walter Burton had been shot, he does not remember him making any other reference to his brother-in-law.

It can only be assumed that, by some underground means, Burton succeeded in having the manuscript passed on to Fergus Graham before his execution, which probably took place in 1952. Such an incriminating document would, no doubt, have been jealously guarded. The habit of secrecy that became second nature with those who lived under the iron rule of the “Paramount Power” may account for Fergus Graham’s reticence with his son in connection with the documents. Mr. Rex Graham relates that he was entirely unaware of the value of the bundle of papers until, when examining them, he came across the few disconnected pages of the diary that were written in longhand. The lines he was able to decipher with great difficulty impressed him with their importance, and prompted him to hand the manuscript to the authorities of the University of Canberra.

Why Burton retained these longhand pages must remain an insoluble mystery. They suggest that Fergus Graham could never have examined the papers carefully, or he would certainly have destroyed them. Although economy of space in using shorthand in writing his story may have influenced Burton, there can be no doubt that his primary motive was secrecy. His training as a journalist enabled him to use a script that would be most likely to baffle any agent of the “Paramount Power” into whose hands the story may have fallen. It is evident from the first chapter of the narrative that, in 1948, Burton was engaged in “subversive activities” — that comprehensive offence that filled so many graves. The ruthless methods adopted by the “Paramount Power” in preventing the truth of conditions in Australia reaching the outside world must have made either the writing or the possession of the record a perilous undertaking.

The condition of the manuscript itself bears grim evidence of the days of its origin. There are more than twenty different kinds and sizes of paper, which was probably filched by Burton from any available source. It varies between common wrapping paper and some fifty leaves that were evidently torn from a ledger. With the exception of some half a dozen pages in ink, the entire story is written in pencil. This is so faint in places that chemical means were necessary to restore it for transcription. Burton used, evidently as an extra precaution, three systems of shorthand. This, and the condition of the papers, greatly increased the difficulty of transcription, and we are deeply indebted to Mr. J. H. Stevens, the Government shorthand expert, for the care he has taken in the long and arduous work.

Unfortunately, the inferior quality of some of the paper used by Burton, combined with time and dampness, have damaged a few passages of the script beyond repair. In these instances we have filled in the blanks as carefully as possible by following the reading of the text. After careful consideration, we have decided to suppress several passages of Burton’s narrative. These, however, with one exception, are short, and at most do not exceed two paragraphs in any one abridgment. In taking this step, we are influenced by our opinion that the appalling character of the disclosures may cause great distress to people now living. This opinion applies particularly to the longest omission, some 2,000 words, in which Burton tells of the conditions in the women’s concentration camps at Carmel and Mundaring, Western Australia. In so doing we follow the example of Peel and Everard, in “The Struggle for the Pacific,” in which they say, in reference to the same subject, that while there are some episodes of the struggle that must never be forgotten, there are others which, for the sake of humanity, must be obliterated from memory.

As in so many other instances, biographical detail regarding Walter Burton, other than that obtainable from his narrative, is almost non-existent. It is a tribute to the thoroughness of the efforts of the “Paramount Power” that, after two decades of occupation of Australia, documentary records are almost as scarce as they are of Rome or Greece after twenty centuries.

As he was married, and had an infant son in 1939, it may be assumed that Burton was then, at least, 25 years of age. His reference to the first Great War, of which he remembers nothing, tends to confirm the belief that he was born about 1914. Of his parentage nothing is known, though there is record of a pastoral family in the Victorian Western District, the head of which was a Walter Burton, that suggests some connection. Even the date of his death is uncertain, but as the events he records do not go beyond 1952, it may be assumed he became a victim of the tragic and ill-advised attempt at rebellion in that year. There can be no doubt that in 1948 he was a member of one of the many underground organisations that were actively plotting against the “Paramount Power.” Evidently he was, so far, not a suspect; otherwise he must then have shared the fate of his friend, Clifford, which is an example of the policy adopted by the authorities that suspicion and guilt were synonymous.

However, it is apparent that Walter Burton became one of the thousands of desperate men who held that death was preferable to life under the “Paramount Power.” The loss of his wife and child had converted him into a fierce and relentless enemy of the oppression. His life in the labour camp at Carrington added to his hatred. Apparently, for several years he had disassociated himself from Fergus Graham, and his dearly loved sister, Lynda Graham, so as to save them from any suspicion of being involved in his patriotic and dangerous plots. He must have been lonely as well as desperate. One cannot but feel that, in the end, he must have welcomed death when it came. At that time, Australia had still to undergo another 14 years of humiliation and abasement, before its relief by the Pacific Protocol of 1966, when a bare 2,000,000 of its former population of 7,000,000 white inhabitants survived to face, undaunted, the task of rebuilding the nation.

JAMES LOGAN, Professor of History.
University of Canberra,
July 15, 1975.

Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 7-11

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