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.
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