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Great-Uncle Harry: 

A Tale of War and Empire


Michael Palin

North Sydney, NSW: Penguin Random House, 2023

Paperback   326pp    RRP: $24.99


Reviewer: Rob Ellis, April 2024


Harry Palin was born in Linton, Cambridgeshire in September 1884, and was killed in action at Moval, France, in September 1916, while serving with the 12th Nelson Company, of the Canterbury Battalion, New Zealand Army'. He was then a Lanced-Corporal. His name is recorded on a war memorial of the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery near the River Somme, as having no known grave, and being "Known only to God" . . . Until 1971, this was about all that was known of Harry Palin.

Michael Palin, best known as a writer for the Monty Python television series, acquired his Uncle Harry's diary and some other documentation, and from these and some other sources, he has produced a narrative of the short life of a most ordinary man. Fortunately, now, through Harry's nephew's skills in research and writing, we too know this simple and humble man, whose life was ended a few days after his 32nd birthday.

It is a simple story of man who was a third son, one of a country vicar's six children. His upbringing was like that of any younger son of a middle-class English family, and he grew up without any clear idea of where the future may take him. After leaving school, he had no pians that indicated a possible career path, so, despite being educated at Shrewsbury School, Harry did not find it easy to settle to any career. But then, second-level smaller English Public Schools were not "career-oriented". So, he left school early, into a world that expected him to take up an appropriate role in a male-dominant society, but with no thought having been given to what that career might be,

With the help of his family's connections, he was apprenticed as a Traffic Probationer to the Great Indian Railway Corporation, but did not fit in, and he resigned after a year. Another family member secured a post for him with a tea planter, again in India, but he  was unable to settle down in this alien environment. Managerial assessments of his work were largely unfavourable, and he resigned - or perhaps was dismissed from the company.

Harry returned to England, still unable to find his niche in life. He then decided to migrate - this time making a decision entirely in character - he chose New Zealand, so like his home in Hertfordshire in many way, but so unalike in its newness. Here he obtained work as a farmhand, a position for which his past experience and interests were appropriate.

Harry stayed in this position, apparently quite happily, until 1914 when he enlisted in the New Zealand Amy, and followed a pattern familiar to so many Diggers and Kiwis- training in Egypt, service on Gallipoli and further training, briefly, in Britain. Then off to France,. where his experience was so like that of millions of other soldiers - mud, gas, shelling, poor food and little sleep, and patrolling, frontal assaults on entrenched opponents, and the continual loss of friends and comrades

Harry had one short leave in England, and renewed contact with some of his family, and then, back to France, to trench fever, heat and dust (it was summer) dysentery and a routine little different from his first period of service on Gallipoli. In France, he died, lightly wounded, during an attack, sheltering in a shell hole near an abandoned farmhouse. His body was never found, and on the memorial in at the Caterpillar Cemetery near the village of Longueval, he is listed as ‘Known only to God’.

Thanks to his nephew Michael, he is now known to those of us who have read this memorial to his life, so well reconstructed, as an act of love, by his nephew. It is a sad story, but well worth reading.


The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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