Remembering our shattered anzacs

Remembering our shattered anzacs

27 Apr 2009

Marina LarssonDr Marina Larsson
Email: m.larsson@latrobe.edu.au

Originally appeared on The Age online on 26th April, 2009

This Saturday, as on every Anzac Day, we will publicly remember the heroic side of Australia’s experiences of war – our diggers’ eagerness to enlist, their courage in battle, their mateship and their tragic but noble deaths. Such remembrance naturally holds great meaning for many Australians. But there is another side to the story.

War always disabled more than it kills: from Gallipoli to Kokoda to Vietnam and beyond. Today we are only just beginning to see, in relation to our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, how war ‘changes’ those who return.

During and after the First World War, this was painfully obvious to Australians as shell-shocked and physically broken soldiers arrived home and became a visible presence in everyday life. Yet on Anzac Day we seldom publicly honour these men. Instead, our commemorations have traditionally focused on the ‘fallen’. Given the devastating scale of death during the First World War – every second family was bereaved – this is understandable.

But what about those who were physically or mentally damaged during 1914–18? Australia's 60,000 war dead were vastly outnumbered by the 90,000 war-disabled. Frank Healy was paralysed by a bullet to the spine at Gallipoli and spent the next 13 years lying on an aircushion in the ‘Repat’ before his death in 1928. Where do ‘shattered Anzacs’ like Frank Healy fit in our Anzac Day commemorations?

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, Anzac Day was day of mourning for families of the war dead. Given that the bodies of those killed were never returned to Australia, grieving kin looked to Anzac Day to help them cope with the absence of loved ones’ bodies and the comforting rituals associated with a decent burial.

In those early years, official speakers occasionally spoke of the war-disabled. However, this was overshadowed by calls to remember the dead. As one commentator noted, the disabled ‘had been more fortunate and come back’.

Since then, disabled soldiers have received little public acknowledgement on Anzac Day. While veterans’ experiences have typically become part of their own family histories, they have not yet been fully integrated into our national commemorative traditions.

At dawn on each Anzac Day, we gather around war memorials honouring the ‘fallen’ not the maimed. The words ‘Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn’ speak to families of the war dead. But such sentiments hardly reflect the lives of veterans broken by war, many of whom died from their wounds years after returning home. Age did weary these men, and the years did condemn them.

Disabled soldiers have an uncertain place in our public remembrance. These men did not make the ‘supreme sacrifice’ on the battlefield. Instead they sustained painful wounds and endured slow deaths in repatriation hospitals – theirs was a ‘lingering sacrifice’. Their suffering is an uncomfortable reminder to us of the dreadful human cost of war, and the burdens carried by families for decades afterwards.

Today, Anzac Day is about remembering the sacrifice and heroism of those who served. But disabled soldiers represent aspects of war that people would rather forget. In the trenches of Gallipoli and the Western Front, men lost body parts: arms, legs, eyes and faces. Some sustained horrific internal wounds and suffered gassed lungs. Others were mentally and emotionally scarred by their experiences. Tragically, most of these men were young – half the AIF was aged between 18 and 24.

These soldiers brought the horrors of war back home with them. Frederick Hogan returned to Australia in mid-1917 missing his lower jaw and unable to use his right arm. His mother prepared liquid meals for him each day until he died in May 1918. Herbert Stephens (not his real name) lived with his parents and was unable to marry, because according to his mother, he was ‘not normal’ after the war.

Such experiences prompt us to think twice about the Anzac legend. The iconic Anzac is a youthful, able-bodied man with a magnificent physique – not a disabled ‘wreck’. In the Anzac legend, there is little room for the realities of war, of being blown to pieces, machine-gunned or bayoneted. Even today, official speakers seldom speak at length about soldiers who were ‘unsuccessfully killed’ and lived with the scars to prove it.

Perhaps this is because the Anzac legend facilitates our remembrance of war at the same time as it celebrates our coming to nationhood. On Anzac Day, we remember how the 60,000 ‘glorious dead’ gave birth to the nation. Why then do we not similarly honour the 90,000 young men who were disabled giving birth to the nation? Both groups risked life and limb equally. It seems that nations are born through death, not disablement.

This Anzac Day, let us remember our ‘shattered Anzacs’ who, with their families, lived with the profound and lasting consequences of war disability, and still do today.

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