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What we owe them this Remembrance Day

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by Professor Bruce Scates

Come November, the nation is called to remembrance. Flags drop to half-mast and noisy classrooms fall silent, poppies pile high on memorials, old veterans are paraded before television cameras, tears welling in their eyes. The men and women of 1914-1918 are still within living memory. Boys who marched off to war and did not come home, airmen who fell to the earth, sailors whose only grave is the sea. That lost generation remains a part of us. They belonged to families, communities, workplaces. Those lists of names carved on memorials right across the country bear witness to that.

We have cause to remember the tragedy of the Great War. The loss for our country was both enduring and profound. Over 300,000 Australian men and women served overseas, some 60,000 were killed there. Tens of thousands of bodies were never recovered from the carnage. Unlike war casualties today, those who had a grave were buried in places oceans away.

The question is: who will we forget when we are called to remembrance today? No doubt the old stories will be told again, and these have lost little of their eloquence. There are tales of heroism and hardship, compassion in the face of brutality, stoicism and achievement in the midst of overwhelming lost. But with the approach of the centenary of the Great War it is surely time to widen the ambit of remembrance, and find new stories that can speak to us all.

What do we owe the generation of men and women who suffered the Great War? Above all we owe them the truth.

Gunner Frank Wilkinson might well have been a war hero. He enlisted in Victoria, served in France and Belgium, was awarded the Military Medal during the push on Passchendaele. Frank Wilkinson survived the war, but not the peace. He took up marginal land and failed as soldier settler. Ten years after the fighting had ended, he battered his wife to death with a hammer, smashed the skull of his daughter to pieces, and then slit his own throat. The papers called Wilkinson ‘a victim of shattered nerves’. Today we would give it the more dignified title ‘post-traumatic stress’.

Few will remember Harold Candy today. His is another of the countless soldier suicides that came in the wake of war. Harold enlisted in South Australia, was wounded in action in Pozières, wounded again at Hamel and later gassed. Harold’s health was ruined by the war but he also contracted VD. On the eve of his wedding he hanged himself from a tree in the Adelaide parklands. 

The story of Hugo Throssell is perhaps a little more familiar. The VC winner and son of a West Australian premier has at least some claim to fame. But how many know that a shard of bomb fragment was still lodged in his brain 18 years after Gallipoli, or that he shot himself in the head with his service revolver in 1933? Few have read his speech at the Victory Parade in Northam. ‘I have seen enough of the horrors of war and want peace’. ‘War had made me a pacifist and a socialist’.

Throssell believed that of the 18 million men wounded in the Great War, over 6 million were ‘permanent wrecks’. They formed a great legion of gassed, crippled and insane.  Decades after the Armistice, men and women continued to die of war-related injuries.  We wrote ‘The Glorious Dead’ on our memorials, forgetting all those inglorious deaths to follow.

The message of these few cases is very clear and is one we do well to remember this Remembrance Day. The battles don’t end when the guns stop firing. Decades into the peace, veterans and their communities continued to pay the price of war. But there was a great inequality in how we came to remember this conflict.

A single example will suffice. Private Bernard Haines was 14 when he enlisted, 15 when he sailed off to war, 16 when his spine was shattered at Bapaume. Bernie endured 40 operations on his return to Australia and died in a Repat Hospital in 1926. You might expect to find Private Haines’ name emblazoned in gold on the war memorial in Canberra. Surely his suffering merited that. But the War Memorial records only those who died of war wounds before April 1921, when the First AIF disbanded. In a way, Bernard’s is another name we have chosen to forget.

These stories and many others like them emerge from research conducted at Monash University. A hundred cases have been chosen symbolising the 100 years of the Centenary of the Great War. Painstakingly researched and meticulously archived, they have been offered as a gift to the Anzac Advisory Board responsible for commemorating 1914-1918. But there are questions in Canberra. Should we really dredge up those horrific cases of murder suicide? Are we in danger of dwelling on tragedy? Wouldn’t more positive stories serve us better instead?

No, they would not.

As we approach the Centenary of the Great War, it is time we acknowledged what that war really did – not just to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and nurses, but also to those who knew and loved them. All bore an insufferable price. We promised that generation the Great War would be the last we would fight. That was the Great Lie of the Great War.  Let us not lie to them again. The Centenary of Anzac is the time to acknowledge the obscene cost of war to the entire community and the ‘comfortable positive stories’ can never do that.

Did someone say Lest We Forget? Perhaps we already have. 

Professor Bruce Scates is based at Monash University and chairs the Military and Cultural History Group of the Anzac Centenary Program.  His most recent book, On Dangerous Ground, considers the politics of remembrance.

This article also appeared in The Age