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Barker, Lewis Ernest Stephen (1895–1981)

by S. N. Gower

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Lewis Ernest Stephen Barker (1895-1981), army officer, was born on 5 May 1895 at Mulgrave, Melbourne, fourth child of Victorian-born parents Richard Barker, market gardener and later dairyman, and his wife Edith Sibella Frances, née Irving. John Barker was his grandfather. Educated at Brighton Grammar School (1909-13), Lewis entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, in March 1914. Graduating sixth out of thirty-five, he was appointed as a lieutenant, Australian Imperial Force, on 4 April 1916. He was then 5 ft 10½ ins (179 cm) tall, with a fair complexion, blue eyes and fair hair.

Posted to the 8th Field Artillery Brigade, Barker sailed for England in May 1916. He served on the Western Front with this unit from December and with the 39th Battalion from June 1917. Twice wounded, he was promoted to captain in October and transferred to the 12th FAB in May 1918. In September, as a liaison officer with the infantry near Bellicourt, he bombed his way with grenades along a trench under heavy machine-gun fire and re-established an important post. He was awarded the Military Cross (1919).

In August 1919 Barker returned to Australia and the dispiriting life of a regular officer with its poor pay and limited prospects. On 28 April 1921 he married Alice Hope McEachern at the Presbyterian Church, Kew, Melbourne. It was to be a happy union and together they undertook the roundabout of postings to artillery brigades. He was recommended to attend the Army Staff College, Camberley, England, but the Scullin government slashed defence expenditure, and he was denied the opportunity of training for senior operational planning appointments. While in Melbourne, he served under Lieutenant Colonel (Sir) Edmund Herring, with whom the austere, abstemious Barker got on very well. Promoted to major in 1936, he commanded the fortresses at Newcastle, New South Wales, for a time in 1939. On 26 April 1940 he was seconded to the AIF and given command of the new 2/4th Field Regiment. He stayed with the regiment for only four months, but had an enduring impact on standards.

Arriving in the Middle East in August 1940, Barker shortly afterwards took over the 2/1st Field Regiment, 6th Division. His role was to retrain his unit with new 25-pounder (11 kg) guns. Again his forceful personality made an immediate impression. Quickly his men’s attitude changed from apprehension to admiration and respect. In action he was known as `Doag’, his code name. He led from the front and ensured his guns were always well forward to give fire support. With rapid and sometimes daring advances, `Barker’s Bedouins’ distinguished themselves in the capture of Bardia, Tobruk and Benghazi, Libya. For his bold leadership and technical proficiency, in 1941 Barker was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and mentioned in despatches.

Flown home to Australia in April 1941, Barker was promoted to colonel and made director of artillery. He oversaw organisational change in Militia units and the acceptance into service of a range of Australian-built equipment. In April 1942 he was appointed to command I Corps’ artillery as a brigadier. With the Japanese threat growing, he was sent to Port Moresby in August, where he had a `three-hatted’ command of the artillery of the 7th Division, New Guinea Force and I Corps. Responsible for all artillery operations in New Guinea, he was the ideal man for the job.

Until February 1943, and again from August 1943 to May 1944, Barker was in New Guinea. In between he was the senior artillery brigadier of the First Army in Australia. Initially he had few guns, and these were of different calibre and capability. He moved them to the battlefields by barge, air or man-handling. As his resources increased, artillery proved decisive. Japanese prisoners said that artillery was one of the most potent factors in their defeat. Displaying `coolness and courage’ together with `outstanding energy and efficiency’, Barker was appointed CBE (1943).

There was one discordant note. To provide more effective artillery support, a lightweight Australian `short’ 25-pounder gun was developed. Barker strongly opposed its introduction, believing it offered no advantage. However, he accepted the contrary decision. It is doubtful that his attitude was the reason he gained no further promotion: his supporter, Herring, had ceased active service and, although Barker had served with distinction in his corps, top appointments required broader experience. Again mentioned in despatches (1947), he finished the war in senior artillery appointments in Australia. In April 1946 he became commandant, 4th Military District (South Australia). He retired from the army on 12 March 1949.

Lewis and Alice lived at Bililla, a small mixed farm near Woodend, Victoria. They later moved to a peach orchard at Ourimbah, New South Wales, and finally settled at Corryong, Victoria. Barker died there on 13 December 1981 and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife survived him, as did their two sons, one of whom, Trevor, graduated from Duntroon in 1946 with the King’s medal. Lewis Barker was the model for one of the figures in May Butler-George’s plaster relief `Bringing Up the Guns’, a bronze casting of which is in the sculpture garden of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France 1916 (1929)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France 1917 (1933)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France 1918, 2 vols (1937, 1942)
  • G. Long, To Benghazi (1952)
  • E. V. Haywood, Six Years in Support (1959)
  • D. McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area—First Year (1959)
  • D. Dexter, The New Guinea Offensives (1961)
  • D. Horner, The Gunners (1995)
  • series B883, item VX12777 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Barker papers, PR84/323 and PR01773 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

S. N. Gower, 'Barker, Lewis Ernest Stephen (1895–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 19 April 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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