Family casualties

IN 1927, MRS Clara Stephens wrote to the Repatriation Department describing life with her son, a returned soldier who had seen active service on the Western Front during the First World War. Herbert Stephens was discharged in 1919, suffering from shell shock. He was a ‘shattered’ man – a term used within the ex-service community during the postwar years. In the mid-1920s, Herbert was treated at Mont Park Hospital for the Insane, Melbourne and after an improvement in his condition he returned to live with his parents in Western Victoria. The Stephens’ new life with their middle-aged son was difficult because – as they put it – he was ‘not normal’, and was unlikely to ever improve. Herbert slept erratically and was of a nervy temperament. He was heavily dependent on his parents and never married. In her letter, Clara sought financial assistance, pointing out that she was sixty-five years old and Herbert’s father was seventy-three. She reflected on her war-damaged son and the burdens of care they carried, writing ‘it has been a long war to us’.

The Stephens were one of over ninety thousand Australian families to experience the physical or mental disablement of a relative during this war of epic proportions. By November 1918, the total number of casualties, both military and civilian, had reached an estimated thirty-seven million: sixteen million deaths and twenty-one million wounded. This was a war without parallel, and the modern technologies of this war – including machine guns and poison gas – had a devastating impact on soldiers’ minds and mutilated their bodies in a manner and on a scale that was hitherto unseen.

The impact of 1914–18, however, was local as well as global. The conflict was attended by millions of smaller, personal crises – in London, Berlin, Istanbul, Paris, Melbourne – for families whose sons had died, or who welcomed home men ‘changed’ in body and mind. The cost of war disability for Australian families was significant. The First AIF (Australian Imperial Force) lost sixty thousand service people and more than 156,000 were injured – wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. Medical advances in antiseptics, blood transfusions and surgical techniques meant that the death rate among the wounded was low in comparison to previous wars, but better survival rates resulted in a proportionately higher number of disabled soldiers. The families who welcomed home these men observed how they had been ‘altered’, and spent years caring for them, sometimes at a great cost to themselves.

During the postwar period, the number of Australian families left to support those disabled by the conflict was markedly greater than those who mourned the ‘fallen’. The return of a physically damaged or shell-shocked soldier could be devastating for families. While bereaved families mourned soldiers killed and buried on overseas battlefields, the families of the war-disabled faced a different kind of grief; although their soldiers returned, they faced the grief associated with a myriad of physical and mental losses. The disabilities were diverse – lost and damaged body parts, painful internal wounds, lung conditions, blindness, facial disfigurement and psychiatric conditions. These had profound consequences for young soldiers, their families and their interdependent futures. And most of these men were young: half of the First AIF were aged between eighteen and twenty-five, and 80 per cent were unmarried.

THE RECENTLY OPENED repatriation medical files at the National Archives of Australia (NAA) powerfully reveal the stories of the families who were left to care for the nation’s ‘broken’ soldiers. During the war, Australia’s newly established repatriation system was charged with repairing and restoring these men to civilian life. But the archives suggest another story. Once the limits of medical treatment and rehabilitation were reached, most soldiers – apart from a tiny minority permanently accommodated in convalescent facilities – were sent home to be looked after by their kin. While doctors, nurses and psychiatrists all had an important role to play, it was within families that the really painful social and emotional legacies of war were managed in the longer term. In the first instance, most returned men – unmarried and in their twenties – were cared for by their mothers and sisters. If they were already married or able to find a wife, this burden then fell to her. Some of these women spent years, even decades picking up the pieces scattered in 1914–18. Yet their service and sacrifice was never publicly acknowledged by the Repatriation Department, nor were they officially supported in their caregiving and emotional labours. These family members, too, became casualties of the Great War.

After their discharge from the First AIF, soldiers preferred to live with their families rather than reside in repatriation homes or hospitals – if there was a choice. Within the home, relatives provided practical and therapeutic care. Wives and mothers typically took a leading role in dispensing medication and maintaining surgical aids. The provision of medication, home remedies and health-giving foods was as important a part of the daily routine as was lifting the morale of invalid men.

The detail of individual families, now captured in the NAA archive, tells the story. In Sydney, Mrs Louisa Hogan commenced a regime of hand-feeding her son, Frederick, who had returned home in 1917 after his lower jaw was shot away and his right arm disabled. Louisa prepared liquid meals for him every day, until he died in May 1918. Families of shell-shocked soldiers had to become accustomed to psychological symptoms such as sleeplessness and memory loss, and the relatives of men whose wounds required constant medical attention found their lives became organised around hospital visits. Disability required returned men and their families to adjust their expectations for the future, and milestones in men’s lives became reminders of their health problems. Walter Frank joined up in splendid health as an eighteen-year-old, but faced his twenty-first birthday gasping for breath as ‘chest troubles’ due to the effects of gas set in.

Family caregivers could substantially improve returned soldiers’ quality of life: a devoted and dependable wife or mother was the key. In the immediate postwar years, popular magazines and newspapers encouraged young women to marry disabled soldiers. In 1918, the Everylady’s Journal columnist ‘Domina’ urged women to reach out and embrace their feminine role as nurturers and healers. Implicit in this was a powerful message that soldiers’ war disabilities should be viewed as honourable scars of sacrifice rather than disfigurements.

In 1921, the Truth even suggested that the helplessness of disabled soldiers awakened a spirit of ‘mothering’ within women that should be acted upon as they chose their marriage partners. Women’s support was crucial to veterans’ success in civilian life. During the 1920s and 1930s, an intricate world of family support, struggle and survival was hidden beneath Australia’s first repatriation bureaucracy. The family, more than the ‘Repat’, became the key site of repatriation for disabled soldiers.

The domestic sacrifices made to support disabled ex-servicemen were great. Often, the true extent of soldiers’ need for assistance only became apparent after marriage, and some wives realised they faced years of caring for an invalid. Wives who supported their disabled husbands at home often found that their own physical and emotional health was taxed, particularly on soldier settlement farms where they had to assist with labouring work. The attention and care that wives gave to their disabled husbands could be extremely trying; in 1932, one member of the Blinded Soldiers’ Association concluded that women’s health ‘must suffer, in consequence, under such a strain’. In the 1920s, as the economy recovered, many Australian women looked to take advantage of increased leisure and employment choices, and valued the greater independence that became possible. But these new freedoms were beyond the reach of women whose lives had been forever changed by war disability.

Despite the significant labours of ex-servicemen’s family members, the Repatriation Department did not formally recognise their responsibilities, nor the stress these families endured. Instead, official commentary presented a more individualistic account of disabled soldiers, which optimistically focused on their heroic journey towards becoming ‘independent men’ and ‘self-supporting citizens’. The Repatriation Department assumed the family to be a natural site of care and never adequately acknowledged the innumerable hours of unpaid family labour that complemented its own programs, and greatly reduced the national repatriation bill. Family caregiving propped up the formal repatriation system; the domestic labour of kin was rendered invisible within official repatriation rhetoric, which insisted that the role of families was to ‘stand behind’ the disabled soldier and stimulate self-dependence in the home environment. Repatriation literature insisted that families must encourage veterans on their journey towards manly independence, and not undermine their ambition by smothering them with pity. In 1919, the Repatriation Department declared that families ‘must be sensible and urge the man to get back on the job’. Some rehabilitation experts even argued that sympathising relatives and friends actually lessened men’s success in civilian life. In reality, however, those closest to disabled soldiers knew all too well that it was often the compassion and care of family members that assured a decent quality of life for veterans. Indeed, without it the repatriation system surely would have collapsed.

THE OFFICIAL SILENCE surrounding disabled soldiers’ dependence on their family members, and the cost of caregiving, is perhaps not surprising. In the early twentieth century, failure of a man to support himself and his family was shameful and a sign that he had not attained the ideal of ‘manly independence’. Yet the ideal of independence – most clearly symbolised in the form of breadwinning through paid employment – was not easily attained by many disabled soldiers. Their dependence on wives and mothers also sat uncomfortably beside the burgeoning Anzac legend. Within this powerful cultural narrative, there was little room to valorise physically or psychologically damaged men, much less pay tribute to the sacrifices of their familial caregivers.

Some forty-five years after the war, George Johnston vividly brought this challenging domestic world to light in his 1964 autobiographical novel, My Brother Jack (Collins, 1964). It made public ex-servicemen’s private stories of pain by revealing the ‘mess’ war had created for them and their families. Despite the cultural impact of this book, mainstream Great War narratives have been reluctant to shine a light on the impact of war trauma on families. Even today, in the national memory of war, the iconic Anzac soldier – a young, independent bushman of perfect and unblemished physique (think of the blond, sun-kissed Archy in Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli) – stands alone in the absence of family relationships, eternally enacting a story of individualism, independence and mateship. Stories at odds with this narrative – the struggles of disabled soldiers, their dependence upon their families and the domestic heroism of predominantly female caregivers – have been marginalised or forgotten.

After the First World War, Australia’s official repatriation system was underpinned by an invisible tier of support provided to damaged ex-servicemen by their family members. Today, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA, renamed from Repatriation Department in 1976) gives greater public recognition to the therapeutic role of family members in ex-servicemen’s lives, and acknowledges the personal cost. This reflects a broader acknowledgement of ‘carers’ in the health and welfare sector since the 1980s: ex-servicemen are encouraged to consider their own health, and that of their family members, in holistic terms; family members can access government-funded support services such as the Veterans’ and Veterans’ Family Counselling Service (VVCS), which was unheard of in the 1920s and 1930s; medical and allied health researchers are promoting the need to provide support to veterans and their carers across the life course. More than ever before, the repatriation authorities are recognising the ripple effect of war disability within families as well as the importance of recognising and harnessing kin support.

Yet the DVA appears to be struggling with the cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in recently returned veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts. This is hard to understand, given that the latest generation of war-damaged service personnel represents a much smaller burden on the state compared with the First World War generation. In 1918, the Repatriation Department was faced with the return of over ninety thousand soldiers with disabilities. We know that the psychological and psychiatric treatment of veterans is clinically challenging – some scars of war cannot be readily healed. We have had nearly a century, however, to put effective systems into place and develop the expertise to skilfully manage the repatriation of our service personnel. During these decades, and in the shadow of subsequent conflicts such as the Vietnam War, it has become clear that when the state does not provide adequate services it is families who suffer, as they are left to cope with their ‘broken’ loved one. Given this knowledge, and the resources at our disposal, we can only hope that in the coming years our repatriation authorities become better at listening to and working with returning service personnel to provide the responsive and dependable support services that are so badly needed – both for veterans and the family members who care for them.




Notes on sources:


Herbert Stephens is a pseudonym: see Public Record Office Victoria (PROV), VPRS 7527/P0001, Unit 1; National Archives of Australia (NAA), B73/56, Box 17, M56846. The Hogan family story can be found at National Library of Australia, MS 2864, Box 14, File 3, NAA, B2455, HOGAN F 1959. Walter Frank’s story can be found at NAA, B73/82, Box 63, M39997. The blinded soldier’s commentary can be found at NAA, A461, 0394/1/1. On official attitudes to family members of disabled soldiers see Douglas McMurtrie, The Disabled Soldier (1919), Repatriation (Department of Repatriation, 1919), Arnold Lawson, War Blindness at St Dunstan’s (c.1923).


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