Transcript

Shattered Anzacs with Marina Larrson

Matt Smith:

You're listening to the La Trobe University podcast. I'll be your host, Matt Smith, and I'm joined today by Dr. Marina Larsson from History. Thank you for joining me, Marina.

Marina Larsson:

You're welcome.

Matt Smith:

You've just released a new book. It's called Shattered Anzacs.

Marina Larsson:

Yes.

Matt Smith:

Your book is about Anzacs who were injured during the wars and the lives they lived once they come back and their family's stories with coping with them, with their injuries.

Marina Larsson:

That's right.

Matt Smith:

What prompted you to write such a book?

Marina Larsson:

Basically, the thing that got me interested in this topic was this history hadn't been written before and it's such an important history. There's any number of books about what happened to soldiers during the war in the Gallipoli campaign on the western front and so on and so forth. But there's very few books about ex-servicemen's experiences after the war and the experiences of their family.

So I'm very interested in the impact of war in Australian society and I've also got an interest in medical history and disability history, and so I brought those two things together.

And I pretty soon realized that disability, war disability, wasn't just an experience with veterans. It affected their entire families.

Matt Smith:

How many people came back from the wars injured?

Marina Larsson:

We know that in the First World War, 324,000 soldiers served; 60,000 of them died and 90,000 ended up with pensionable war disabilities. So to put that in some kind of perspective, for every 10 Australian soldiers who fought in the first world war, two died and addition to that, three came back disabled.

So war always disables more soldiers than it kills, and I suppose that's why I think this topic is so important because these men were highly visible on the Australian landscape in the 1920s and 30s.
Matt Smith:

It's not really the celebrated part of Anzac, really. We celebrate the victory side of it but not what people had to deal with.

Marina Larsson:

That's right. The Anzac legend is very much a heroic positive story about the birth of the nation during the First World War. I suppose the disabled soldiers sit awkwardly at the edges of that legend because they represent aspects of war that many people would rather forget. The broken Anzac soldier, the shell shock soldier doesn't really fit in to the Anzac legend.

The iconic Anzac is tall, bronze, able-bodied and some of these men physically and mentally don't really live up to that image. So there's not really much place for them in our, sort of, national histories of war although these stories of war disability of how families coped with bedridden, limbless, shell shock soldiers, these stories have always been passed down within families, they're part of family histories. It's just that they're not necessarily a big part of our national histories of war.

Matt Smith:

So what sort of stories did you come across in researching your book?

Marina Larsson:

The family stories of war disability are incredibly diverse. There are some really heart-breaking stories. For example, there was a man who came back, Frederick Hogan. He returned to his family in Sydney. And his mother had to feed him liquid meals after his return because his jaw was shot away and he couldn't use his right hand.

So I came across stories of family caregiving where wives and mothers had to basically become nurses in the home. For my book, I interviewed a number of children of disabled soldiers and some stories are a little bit more positive. There was a woman, Margaret, who I interviewed. Her father came back having lost the lower part of his right leg. And he was employed before the war. He managed to get a job after the war. It was a sedentary job in an insurance company so that that family didn't suffer economically.

And also, he always wore a prosthetic leg and not many people knew that he'd lost the lower part of his leg, and she had a really happy family life. There wasn't much need for home-based caregiving. She even tells a wonderful story that when she and her sister were little, in the morning they'd go into their mum and dad's bed and her father would form a little circle with his stump and the other good leg and the kids would jump in and bounce around and they'd call that the pool.

So there were some really lovely stories of family resourcefulness and resilience that are in my book but there are also some stories of families that were torn apart by disability and where disability carried considerable burdens for family members, particularly wives and mothers.

Matt Smith:

With such a high injury rate, the concept of injured Anzacs would have hit quite a lot of families back then.

Marina Larsson:

Yeah.

Matt Smith:

In some way or another.

Marina Larsson:

Yeah, I think there are thousands of Australian families who have a shattered Anzac in their family history. You know, you only need to look through the medical files of returned soldiers to start to realize the scale of disability and how it affected family members.

One of the first impacts was often financial. There was a carpenter, a skilled carpenter in Melbourne, who lost his thumb. And the lost of his thumb is a significant injury but it's not like losing both your arms. But because he was a carpenter, that really interfered with that kind of skilled manual work he was doing.

So he had to retrain and the case file doesn't follow through his stories. But one of the biggest challenges for families was often economic. If a family lost their breadwinner, if a son or husband returned bedridden or paralysed or seriously shell shocked, the full pension was only 70% of the basic wage. And most soldiers weren't eligible for the full pension. Most got a 20% pension or a 50% pension, they then couldn't supplement that with work. It meant that the financial well-being of their entire family suffered and so, too, did the quality of their lives.

And we have to be aware that pensions, yes, they are awarded to men for the loss of certain body parts and functions but this money constitutes the livelihood of entire families. And that's a problem within the pension system then and, I suspect, now.

Matt Smith:

What happened to soldiers whose families couldn't cope with them by themselves.

Marina Larsson:

Okay. That's a really good question. There were some men who came back with severe physical injuries and severe mental injuries. Let's look at those with severe physical injuries. Some men came back with severe physical injuries and they were called cot cases. They were permanently confined to bed, and some families just simply couldn't provide that kind of high level support 24 hours that they needed. So in every capital city, the repatriation department established what was called Anzac Hostels.

In Melbourne, they took over a large mansion in North Road Brighton and the cot cases were put there. So, for many families, life became a matter of visiting their soldier, and that shaped children's early life visiting dad in the hostel. One women I interviewed, Betsy, her father was institutionalized in 1928 after he had a complete nervous breakdown which was attributed to the war.

He ended up in the Bundoora Convalescent Home for men, which is just up the road from the La Trobe Bundoora Campus. It's now a community art centre. Anyway, Betsy spent her entire childhood visiting her father every weekend. His shell shock meant that the family lost its breadwinner, it had to move in with another branch of the family to survive, so Betsy grew up in the house of her uncle and only saw her father on weekends and I find that story particularly heartbreaking.

But Betsy and her mother had a terrific outlook. They kept going. They remained positive. Betsy remains today very fund of her father and has very good memories of him. Tough going.

Matt Smith:

Did you see much first hand? Did you go to those old places like the hospitals and were they much less for you to get a feel of?

Marina Larsson:

That's a good question. These days it's very popular for history buffs to go and visit the battlefields of France or the cemeteries on the western front or Gallipoli or so forth. I think there are other sites of memory related to Australia's experience of the First World War right here in Melbourne; the Bundoora Convalescent Home, the Mont Park Military Mental Block, the Caulfield Repatriation site in Kooyong Road, Caulfield.

During my PhD I went and visited all those sites just to get a sense of how long did it take on the train to get and visit some poignant Mont Park. How long did it take on the train to get from Colbert where I live to the Caulfield Repatriation Hospital.

I think some people are very focused on Australia's sites of military significance being overseas but there are sites of enormous significance in relation to the aftermath of war that are right here in Melbourne.

Matt Smith:

Your book is about war disabilities but the final section of your book talks about war-related death and can you talk a bit about that.

Marina Larsson:

Sure. When the First World War ended in 1918, we know that 60,000 Australian soldiers died. But war-related deaths didn't end when the guns fell silent. Many disabled soldiers who returned to Australia died from their injuries in the years after the war. And this something that isn't necessarily part of our national histories.

On Anzac day, we focused on the fallen; those who fell on the battlefield, those who made the so-called supreme sacrifice. But what my book does is it highlights those who died after the war, who didn't fall on the battlefield but died slowly in repatriation hospitals after the war.

Now, the statistics on these men are not very good. The repatriation department didn't collect them rigorously. But we know that between 1925 and 1940, about 14,000 soldiers died of their injuries and if we include the seven years prior to that, the number is possibly even greater or certainly even greater.

Now, some of these men died very quickly when they came home. There was a man called Alexander Cameron who was crushed by an ammunition wagon on the western front. He returned in 1917. He was nursed by his sisters in this Surryhill Homes and he died two years later in 1919.

There was another man called Wally Guy who returned to Melbourne. He was hospitalized because of his wounds in 1922. He spent the next 10 years in bed and then he died in 1932.

So a lot of these men are coming back. They're dying drawn-out deaths, lingering deaths on Australian soil, and they're buried in cemeteries in Australia in the military sections of suburban cemeteries. And I think it would be nice on Anzac Day to have if we didn't just focus on the fallen but those who had a much more lingering death, whose deaths was more drawn out because I think we've tended to forget them.

Matt Smith:

So just generally, what are the consequences of war disability on families?

Marina Larsson:

Okay. Well, the consequences for families really depended on three things. The type of disability the soldier returned with, the family's financial resources, and also the composition of their family; how many family members could help out and how good their emotional resources were as well.

Of course there was a financial impact if the soldier was on a pension and much more partial pensions, whether the soldier could supplement that with work. Some families fell into poverty because of the soldier's disability. Other families were stuck with caregiving for the soldier for decades.

The care of disabled soldiers usually fell to wives and mothers. And in the late 20s, we have one mother of a soldier in Bendigo, a shell shock man, who had to live at home for the rest of his life. He couldn't marry because of his mental state and the mother wrote a quite poignant letter saying “It has been a long war to us. Herbert's been living with us for the last 10 years. He's never going to move. He's not normal. But this is something we need to deal with”.

One thing my book shows is that the repatriation system in Australia would have collapsed without the caregiving support. The unpaid work of wives and mothers really ensured the success of the repatriation system. These families propped up the repatriation system and saved the government millions of pounds, and that's something we don't usually recognise, we think of returned soldiers being looked after in repatriation hospitals, being given pensions, but hidden underneath that official tier of welfare is a hidden tier of family support. And also, there's another tier as well, there's a charitable sphere, The Red Cross, Tubercular Soldier Aid Society, the RSL who also supported families. It's often the families who are left to pick up the pieces, and the wives and mothers who are left somewhat isolated if they don't get the support that they and their soldiers need.

Matt Smith:

Dr Marina Larsson, your book is in the book shops at the moment, ‘Shattered Anzacs: Living with the Scars of War', it's published by the University of New South Wales Press and should be in all good book stores. Thank you for your time today.

Marina Larsson:

Thanks, Matt.

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