'He told her about his struggle in Melbourne to turn himself into a British-style officer for the Australian Army . . . the nights in tents by the Pyramids, the terror of the landing under sniper fire and the scramble up the heights of Gallipoli, the filth and danger of the trenches at Lone Pine. He showed her the scar above his right eye . . . There was a lot he didn't tell her.'
Raised Japanese in a European skin at the turn of the 20th century, fate and circumstance would ensure that Charles Bavier spent his life caught between two cultures, yet claimed by neither. The illegitimate son of a Swiss businessman, Charles was brought up by his father's Japanese mistress, before setting off on an odyssey that took him into China's republican revolution against the Manchus, the ANZAC assault on Gallipoli and British counter-intelligence in pre-war Malaya. Bavier's journey finally led him into a little-known Allied psych-war against Japan as part of the vicious Pacific War, where his unique knowledge of Japanese culture and language made him man of the hour.
This is the story of a man regarded at times as a spy by both the Allies and the Japanese, but who remained true to the essential humanity of both sides of a dehumanised racial conflict. Though far from the glory he craved, Bavier saved thousands of lives in the South-West Pacific: the Japanese soldiers who surrendered and the Americans and Australians they would have taken with them.
A War of Words traces the extraordinary life of Charles Bavier and is based on his own diaries and three decades of research by journalist and author Hamish McDonald.
Read the review by Justin Cahill
But for an accident of history, we would know very little about Charles Bavier. The chance delivery of his papers to the journalist Hamish McDonald saved him from oblivion. Even then, it was only after 20 years research that McDonald was able to shed more light on this extraordinary figure.
Born in Japan to a Swiss merchant and his lover in about 1888, Bavier was promptly deserted by his father, who left him with his Japanese mistress. Caught between two cultures at a time of increasing paranoia against the West, Bavier left Japan. He ended up in Australia where, anxious for military glory, he joined the Army and served at Gallipoli. There, his background and interest in military strategy did not endear himself to his commanding officers.
As the War’s irresolution played itself out twenty-five years later, Bavier was caught up in the shadowy propaganda battle against Japan. His task ? To persuade Japanese troops determined to die, by their own hand if necessary, to surrender. By chance, Bavier’s son, John, was also assigned this work. He enlisted in the Australian Army and carted recordings of his father’s exhortations to cease hostilities to the front at Bougainville and played them to Japanese troops.
As a result of these efforts, about 4000 Japanese surrendered. Ranged against the Pacific War’s heavy casualties, it was a drop in the bucket. Yet it was an important demonstration of the Allies’ commitment to political and personal freedom.
This unique book has stayed with me, throwing up questions long after being read. Of particular interest is McDonald’s account of the rise of fascism in Japan. All too often, we get the usual, shop-worn versions of the rise of Nazi Germany. Accounts of Japan’s struggle to find its place in the World, with its archaic Samurai code leading it to disaster, are rare. The sheer impunity with which its Imperialist faction assassinated its way to power makes Hitler’s Brown Shirts look distinctly amateur.
More poignantly, McDonald gives us a portrait of a ‘man alone’. How does such a man, cast off between Asia and Europe, make his way in life ? How does he survive when his worlds come brutally into conflict ? How does he build and sustain relationships ? This is not simply the story of a man caught up in unusual circumstances. It is a lesson in survival which offers a fresh, intriguing view of part of our national history.
About the Author
Hamish McDonald is the author of several books, including Mahabharata in Polyester and (with Desmond Ball) Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra.
Number Of Pages: 344
Published: 23rd April 2014
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Dimensions (cm): 22.7 x 15.4 x 2.6
Weight (kg): 0.48
Edition Number: 1