Mephisto, the world’s only remaining German First World War tank is without doubt a unique and fascinating object. Visitors come from across the world to see it, and many words have been written about it. It is also a treasured object to many Queenslanders who remember it out the front of the old Museum on Gregory Terrace, or lurking menacingly in the Dinosaur Garden of Queensland Museum at Southbank. But it is also close to the hearts of Museum staff and volunteers – one more than most.
My name is Lance Barrett, and I am a Front of House volunteer, meeting and greeting the public when they visit the museum. My paternal Grandfather William Joseph “Bill” Barrett played a part in the history of the Mephisto tank. As my grandfather passed away some years ago, I am only now coming to realise the significance of his experiences. During the 1980s my grandfather was interviewed by Queensland Museum and attended a function here but I would have been busy working at my job at Telstra then and missed it. Years later, when I joined the Sciencentre and the Museum, I began to understand that he was actually present around the time of the capture of the Mephisto and was interviewed when he was 90 about his experiences.
My grandfather enlisted in 1916, a boy from Glamorganvale, just 18 years old and fresh of the farm when he signed up. Before leaving he planted a number of Moreton Bag Fig seeds in the plot on his family farm, in case the worst should happen. By March 1917 he was on the Western Front, was wounded in battle at Broodseinde (Belgium) and returned to his unit in France in July 1918. In October he was transferred to the 26th Battalion who retrieved the tank and sent it on its way to Brisbane. At the interview with then Queensland Museum Curator, Mark Whitmore, my grandfather spoke about how he saw Mephisto when he was relieving troops holding an outpost beyond the tank.
In my role as a Front of House volunteer I regularly visited the display Courage of Ordinary Men. It made me think about my grandfather’s war experience, and really personalised the First World War for me. In 2012 my Dad visited the European battlefields, including Villers-Bretonneux, to see where his father had fought. When he brought home photos, it made me feel so connected with my grandfather and his experiences. Added to this, other relatives have served in the military over the years, including both World Wars and Vietnam. One distant cousin received a DCM in World War 2, and my Dad served in peace time. With all these family connections, and talking to visitors to the Courage of Ordinary Men exhibition, I felt everything fall into place because so many of my relatives have served our country – a family history of service. I have wondered whether I could do that – it seems to me the ultimate bravery.
Now, when I talk to visitors about war time, I challenge them to think about what it really meant for the men and women who served. And today as I look at Mephisto, newly installed in the Anzac Legacy Gallery, I find myself thinking again of my grandfather, standing at an outpost on the Western Front, looking across at this tank, just after it had been captured. And once again feel that wonderful connection to my grandfather, William Joseph “Bill” Barrett. I think about our family, my Aunts and Uncles, most of who are still with us, who are so proud of Grandad, their Dad, and his role in the First World War.