Soldier, politician, barrister
Sir Henry Seymour Baker was born in Liverpool, England in 1890, the son of clergyman Sidney James Baker and Lydia Charlotte nee Lee. After emigrating firstly to New Zealand, the family then moved to Launceston Tasmania in 1907. The following year Henry Baker joined the fledgling Daily Post as a journalist and proceeded to be the foundation treasurer of the Australian Journalists’ Association, Tasmanian branch in 1911. He then went on to study law at the University of Tasmania and was articled with local Hobart law firm Simmons, Wolfhagen, Simmons and Walch.
At the age of 24 Baker enlisted in the AIF on the 26th of February 1915 joining the 13th Battalion. Upon arrival in England he was attached to the Australian General Hospital Convalescent Depot before joining the 4th Field Ambulance stationed in Egypt and the Western Front. In 1917 he was selected to attend an officer course in Cambridge and in August of that year was made Lieutenant and stationed in Belgium and France.
In 1918 Baker was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for the following act of bravery:
“During the advance on the 18th of September 1918 near Le Verguier, north of St Quenton, he acted as a right guide to his battalion, and despite the great difficulties caused by fog and uncut wire and heavy machine-gun and artillery fire, carried out his duties in a most gallant and skilful manner. On reaching the first objective he was sent ahead to reconnoitre, and located a large party of the enemy. He threw bombs at them and twenty surrendered. These he bought back with him, and then got together a party of men and again attacked the enemy taking further prisoners. At the first objective he had received a painful wound in the leg, but he carried on right to the final objective. He behaved splendidly.”
After a stay in a London hospital suffering from influenza Baker finally embarked for Australia per the Lancashire in February of 1919.
After the war
In 1920 he was admitted to the Tasmanian Bar and became a partner in two Hobart law firms before entering politics. In 1928 Baker was elected to the House of Assembly for Franklin as a member of the conservative Nationalist Party holding the position of attorney–general and minister for education. From 1936 to 1945 he was leader of the opposition before retiring in 1946. Two years later Baker won the seat of Queenborough in the Legislative Council becoming president of this house from 1959 until 1968. He died in office on July the 20th 1968.
Aside from his political career Baker was heavily involved in numerous organisations and institutions reflecting his working life as both a journalist (Honorary Life Member of Australian Journalists Association) and a lawyer (President Southern Law Society and Tasmanian Bar Association). He was also Chancellor of the University of Tasmania between 1956-1963 and chaired the council investigating sexual misconduct against Professor Sydney Sparkes Orr. Orr was dismissed and countered with legal action against the university. Baker and five other colleagues of the council resigned in 1963 when the university offered Orr a financial settlement.
Baker was also involved in various military related associations including the Returned Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmans’ Imperial League of Australia and Hobart Legacy, Naval and Military clubs.
The records of Sir Henry Seymour Baker (NG2176) deposited in the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office in 2003 cover a wide gamut of his private and public life including family history, certificates, medals, ephemera, poetry, photographs, correspondence and diaries.
A large percentage of these records cover Baker’s time in the AIF with diaries, correspondence to his family and future wife Effie Sharp and photographs and postcards depicting life in service during World War 1. When combined together this collection is an astoundingly organic and vivid portrayal of life in wartime. Diaries link to correspondence, and photographs add to these writings. As such the diaries would be a jewel in any collection abetted by the fact that Baker with his background in journalism could not only write very well but write honestly and still be aware of the enormity of what he is witnessing. At times he chastises himself for not keeping up his diary writing and offers a précis of the day and then backtracks in great journal like detail to the events he considers important. There are five diaries/journals in all covering the period 1915 – 1919.
The diaries start with Baker at the Claremont camp.
“…filled with newcomers like myself … the roughest lot of chaps I had been so near to in my life before – mostly miners from the West Coast. One or two were fairly decent but nearly all swore terribly and without ceasing. They never opened their mouths without using the most abominable language.” Baker also hated camp life in general: “ It was the absolute loss of individuality which grated on me at first. I was bellowed at and ordered about by every Tom Dick and Harry with a stripe or two on his arm…A man seemed no longer his own, no longer capable of individual initiative and action.”
By August 1915 Baker had left Claremont camp saying goodbye to his fiancé Effie and readied for embarking via Melbourne and Fremantle across the sea. He talks of Australian soldiers “playing up terribly at Cairo and had burned a large number of buildings…” At Port Said 300 wounded and sick soldiers from Gallipoli came aboard. They presented a terrible scene…all looked haggard and utterly weary and there was a strange far-away look in their eyes…they have been thru hell and the experiences has left its stamp upon their faces and also upon their poor deformed limbs.” These observations made Baker decide he wanted to join the Field Ambulance upon arrival in England.
Baker arrived in Plymouth and was soon on his way to London, “-and so began our first knowledge of the first city of the world. London! The very name had been burdened with romance to me. I had spelt it forward and backwards…” While on leave he visited relatives and toured around England taking in the sights. The war, however, was never far from thought or reality even on leave: “Looking up I saw the most beautiful sight I have ever beheld. There was a Zeppelin away high up in the sky looking bright and radiant at the end of a beam of one of our great searchlights. It looked quite small like a silver fish swimming in a blue lake for the night was clear lit only by stars.”
Later he noted: “Another Zeppelin raid in London!”
“I reached the parlour, I found women weeping and wringing their hands, and little children blubbering… The city was all agog. The streets were full of people. No great excitement prevailed. The vast majority were as calm as possible… I gazed wonderingly at the Zeppelin – It was a remarkable sight that will always live in my memory. A great many search lights from all quarters of the city were trained upon it and the shells were bursting high in the air like monster crackers.”
Attached to the field ambulance Baker was stationed in Egypt followed by France and Belgium and continued his diary/journal entries contemplating landscape, culture, people and war itself. He also describes life on the frontline watching shells drop:
“It was death to anything near there.”
“…the earth seemed shaken and in chaos. It is a strange sensation with the visible world about you gone stark raving mad, staggering like a drunken man or clutching wildly in the air, one feels like some weird figure in the underworld aghast at the mad delirium of the Gods. Or again one feels like a tiny insect might feel with a great steam hammer above him and about to fall.”
He also describes life and death in the trenches when calamity struck:
“Everything was a confused jumble of torn shattered men, groaning…some were completely buried others partially so grasping for breath like a wounded bird. To dig out the buried ones and attend to the wounded was the job in hand. In the bad light and the barrage still raging on top, it was a difficult task.”
As Baker contemplated:
“War is a damn rotten thing…”
H. A. Finlay,’Baker, Sir Henry Seymour (1890-1968)’, Australian National Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed online 23/04/1015.
NG2176 Records of Sir Henry Seymour and family