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Introduction and exploration of historical artefacts

Professor Alistair Thomson explores historical artefacts related to the topic of The Old Lie: papers from Repatriation Files.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Welcome back to the 100 Stories. Today, we’ll be speaking with Alistair Thomson, a Professor of History here at Monash University. Professor Thomson has pioneered the study of oral history since the 1980s. Al captured the testimony of some of the last surviving veterans of the First World War, and you can still hear those men’s gravelly voices, as part of ABC broadcasts that Al prepared. Those interviews also laid the basis for Anzac Memories, a landmark book that looked at the personal and subjective experiences of war, and the makings of national mythologies.
The subheading of that book is “Living with the Legend,” and Al looks at the way veterans composed and recomposed their memories so that they could deal with their experiences and shape a story that they could live with.
LAURA JAMES: Anzac Memories was first published in 1994, but Al’s returned to the book in recent years, and it’s just being republished in a new addition. Revisiting the book gave Al the chance to view repatriation files only just released to historians, and these new resources offer new insights into the men that he interviewed in the 1980s. We’ll be working through some of those repatriation files at the end of this week’s modules, and demonstrating the way that they challenge and enlarge our understanding of the Great War generation. But for now, we invite Al to reflect on one particular story– that of his grandfather, Hector Thomson.
Trooper Hector Thomson served in the Middle East, and became seriously ill in Palestine, returning to Australia a much altered man. Can you tell us about how the war changed Hector, Al? And how it affected those around him?
ALISTAIR THOMSON: Well, it’s a story that starts in 1914, but it’s still a powerful story in the family right through the 1980s. And when I was writing the first edition of Anzac Memories, I wrote– the opening chapter is a chapter about family history, and it’s about– I wanted to get across the idea that within families, some stories get told about war, and some stories don’t get told. And so I contrasted both the war, and also the family memory of my two grandfathers. One, John Rogers, on my mother’s side, starts as a private at Gallipoli, ends up as a Captain and Intelligence Officer on Monash’s staff in France in 1918.
He has a good war, comes back and has a good life. The other, Hector Thomson, my father’s father, joins the Light Horse. He’s in the Field Ambulance Unit. Well, his war is good, but then it all goes wrong. And the point that I tried to make in the first draft of that piece of writing, I just wrote that when between the wars, Hector was in and out of mental hospital. That’s what I wrote in the first draft of the book. And I showed the draft of that chapter to my father– Hector was long since dead– and Dad was appalled. He just hated the idea that there would be any mention of his father being in and out of mental hospital.
Partly because of the terrible stigma of mental health– much worse in the 1980s than it is now– partly because Dad had been in the army himself, professional soldier, and he thought that if anyone had ever known that his father had been in a mental hospital, his career would have been ruined, and he never would have got into Duntroon and never would have become an army officer himself. And I think partly because for your son to say something that touched on such a sharp scar in his own upbringing was just touching– it was really powerful. And so he was appalled and furious, and I’ve still got the letters that he wrote, and I can remember the conversations.
And so in the end, I decided I’d change it. So I just changed that sentence from in and out of mental hospital to in and out of Caulfield Repatriation Hospital. Which is a half truth, he was there. But I took out the mental health aspect of it. And I’d always felt that that was a bit of a compromise, and sort of went against the point of the story which was that there are some stories you can tell, and some that become difficult, both in a family or community, or a nation.
And that’s really what we’re talking about with the representation of the First World War across the last century, that there are stories that have been easily told, and proudly told, and others that have been silenced and stigmatised and forgotten. In a way I was colluding in that process by taking out any reference to mental ill health as a consequence of the First World War. So I thought, well, I’ll revisit Anzac Memories, I’ll use the repat records– which weren’t available in the 1980s, you couldn’t have got access to them, these guys were still alive, some of them. And so they were closed.
The records were just beginning to come open, took a long time– took me best part of a year to get hold of the repat records for Hector and some of the other veterans that I’d interviewed. And I remember going to North Melbourne to the National Archives, and I called up these records, and they came out with Hector’s files– these two big fat files. And it’s one of those– sends a shiver now, and certainly did at the time– and you just start turning these pages. And here is– for Hector, they run through from 1914 at enlistment, because they bring in everything that survived from the war records, and then everything after the war. So they run from 1914 to 1958.
And they’re extraordinary. And I mean, you can see– actually, here’s a photo, this Hector in 1915, it’s an official photo taken of him. He’s a big, strong, healthy man. And he comes back, and then he begins to have recurring bouts of malaria. And he appeals the repat, and he gets a pension, he gets, I think it’s 20% pension just because of the malaria. He says he can’t really work, and doctor treats him. And over the next couple of years, he gets a bit better, the pension decreases and he’s fine. And then, I think it’s the mid– about 1922, the pension stops because he doesn’t turn up for his medical examination.
Which is often happening– these guys get sick of constantly having to go to the repat. You have to prove yourself that you’re still not well to keep getting the pension. And he was sick of it. But actually, we also know at this point he gets engaged to be married, and he probably doesn’t want his wife to know he’s been sick, his fiancee, to know that’s he’s been sick. And so he says, it’s not worth the 10% pension, which is all he’s getting by that stage. So he gives up on that. Seems to be OK.
Nell, who he marries– who’s a clergyman’s daughter– years later remarked that was just the worst mistake to get out of the pension system, to give up the pension, because he really wasn’t well. And the only way we know about any of this story from here on– because my father doesn’t remember back, and both Hector and Nell are no longer alive; there’s no one around– is in the repat files, because you begin to get a sense. And basically, 1929, he’s collapsed. And at that point he goes back to the repat, and then he has to write– so the first document I’ve got here is his medical case sheet.
Actually this is his medical case sheet from during the war, which tells about the malaria attacks and everything else. So that’s in the file, so I have that as a record so they can refer back. And then you get– he puts in his first claim in 1929, he has to write a record of evidence. He’s not a well man, he can manage a handwritten page. And it’s very clear from the correspondence that from this point on, Nell really runs his pension claims. She’s a– by all accounts– how’s the best way to describe it? She’s an articulate, forceful, intelligent woman. He’s a sick man. And so she takes charge, and basically she’s the one who corresponds.
And for me, probably seeing the archive, the most powerful moment was where I saw her handwriting for the first time, in these long, handwritten letters about the state of her husband. Because basically, by the mid 1920s, he began to collapse, he would sleep for days, he was found unconscious by the plough. And then one day he just disappeared completely, and then he turned up in Melbourne the next day, had no idea, no memory, of what had happened or where he’d been.

Watch Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James introduce Professor Alistair Thomson and ask him to explore historical artefacts related to the topic of The Old Lie: papers from Repatriation Files.

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