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A different part of the story
Professor Alistair Thomson discusses the divisiveness of the Great War and the story of Fred Farrell.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: In this inter-war period, there’s so much happening in Australian society, but also during the war Australia was extremely divided and very unsettled by the entire conflict. And there’s actually historians who have said that the Great War was the most divisive war in Australia’s history. Do you think that’s a fair description?
ALISTAIR THOMSON: I don’t know about most divisive because you’ve got Vietnam as well, but I’d certainly want to say that if there’s a mythology that discreates a nation, it’s just not true. I mean, whether you call it the broken years or the broken nation, which a book titles it– wonderful historians, Bill Gammage and Jon Belmont have used– yeah, the First World War divides Australia. It divides servicemen and shirkers. It divides opponents of conscription and supporters. The Labour movement and Protestant establishment, Catholics and Protestants. It’s just all of that hope and enthusiasm that leads up to the First World War, after Federation. The sort of new social contract, wages and arbitration, votes for women, you name it.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Really progressive society.
ALISTAIR THOMSON: It’s a progressive, exciting time, and that gets torn apart in 1916, 1917 around conscription and around all of the ways in which the war divides the nation. And then when the veterans come home, 1919 I think is the most violent year in white Australian history just in terms of strikes, in terms of riots. The Victorian Premier gets attacked in his office by irate ex-servicemen.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Very extreme.
ALISTAIR THOMSON: There are riots in Kalgoorlie, in Brisbane. It’s incredibly divisive, and there’s a real concern among the establishment that these returning soldiers who are armed and angry, worried about jobs all of that sort, that it’s going to explode. And so there’s a real effort, if you like, to conscript them into– well, to get them on side. And so the Returned Services League– at that point it’s the Returned Soldiers And Sailors Imperial League Of Australia– they broker a deal with the government that they’ll manage ex-servicemen in return for special privileges and rights, which is what they do. So Australia ends up with a repatriation scheme which is the envy of many other countries. The scheme’s good.
How it then operates in terms of whether or not veterans get what they need is another question. But you’ve got veterans coming home who have been away from home for four years. You’ve got young men who come home who have grown up at war. They don’t know how to live in a house. You’ve got domestic violence. You’ve got guys out on the streets. It’s just a shocking, shocking year. And in oral history interviews or in– well, the thing about the diaries and letters is that they stop.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Yes.
ALISTAIR THOMSON: We’ve got this wonderful record of working class and middle class Australian men writing letters and writing diaries all through the war. They stop. You have so many diaries. They stop either at the Armistice or usually when the ship docks in Melbourne. And the letters stop as well. You’ve got this moment for four years where you have this wonderful two-way correspondence, letters from the soldiers more likely to survive than the letters written to them because of the conditions, but you’ve got this extraordinary archive. But actually really hard to know anything about 1919 and all the years after. But really, World War I in Australian history isn’t just about 1914, 1918.
It’s everything that happens after that and the ways in which that war reverberates through the lives of veterans and their families and communities over the next century.
LAURA JAMES: What struck us about these divisions is how they cut across communities and even families. The case of Arthur Rae, for example, is quite striking. Here we have a man who opposed conscription and actually questioned the very purpose of the war itself, yet he had three sons who enlisted. These divisions must have marred communities and families for generations after the war actually ended.
ALISTAIR THOMSON: Yeah, absolutely. And people changed across time as well. There are men who served who subsequently decided actually this was a terrible mistake, not just because what it did to me but because why were we doing this, and was it worth it, and so on? So individuals began to have very mixed feelings and sometimes fell out with family members over those mixed feelings and those disagreements.
LAURA JAMES: Did you find that in your research for “Anzac Memories?”
ALISTAIR THOMSON: Yeah. The story that resonates most for me is actually a man with a fat repat file, a guy called Fred Farrell. I’ve got a picture of Fred. I’ve got to pictures, actually. There’s Fred. This is Fred in about 1916. It’s a postcard he sent back from France. It says “Love from Fred,” and on the back he’d written in hand, “Dear Auntie, this is a dinkum war service photo, and pretty rough, of course, but still a little like Fred.” So he wants to represent himself as a dinkum Australian soldier. Now Fred Farrell grew up on a farm in rural New South Wales. He wanted to be jockey. Hated the farm.
And there’s one of those kangaroo recruiting marches comes past, and he sees it as his chance to escape. And I guess that’s one of the important things. It’s very easy to mythologise why men went to war in terms of patriotism, duty, adventure, but sometimes it was actually about escape or about a job. You know, get away. He didn’t like his father. He didn’t like the farm. Great opportunity to get away. But right from the start it doesn’t go well for Fred. He’s young. He’s only 18. You can see in some of the photographs, there’s a photograph of him at Goulburn Camp in 1916, and he’s tall, and skinny, and scrawny.
And the way he remembers it in 1983 was that he just didn’t fit in. These were these big, strong country guys, and he wasn’t. But he makes some mates, he makes some friends, and he remembers them all in great detail in the interview. And they go off to war, and he’s in the reinforcements for, I think, the 55th Battalion, and they end up on Somme. And those mates begin to get killed very quickly or wounded, and pretty soon he’s in a mess. He gets trench feet, and he’s in and out of the line for periods of months back in hospitals in England. Respiratory infections, trench feet. Says that he’s beginning to collapse.
He says that he remembers the beginnings of a nervous condition that would subsequently affect him. This is a long way of getting back to your point about the political change because actually that comes to later, but really you’ve got to understand what happens to Fred during the war and immediately after the war in that here’s a man who– and he survives. He gets wounded at Polygon Wood, and there’s a wonderful account actually we discovered after he died in 1991. He sent some letters back from the YMCA hospital in London in 1917 to his sister and his mother back on the farm in New South Wales, this extraordinary description of the battle a Polygon Wood, just five pages.
And it’s really telling, you know, I was OK, we were strong, we were brave sort of thing. You don’t want to upset your mother. But when he remembers that same battle 60 years later, he remembers it very differently. And actually the telling moment is he describes he gets wounded, and he’s crawling back to safety, and he takes refuge in a pill box. And in that pill box there are a number of Australian and Allied troops and some German prisoners. And in the letter at the time, he writes to his sister and his mother, these rotten Germans, they’re just pretending to look after us so we don’t shoot them basically.
But 60 years later when he remembers the pill box, he remembers it as this the moment when I began to think what are we doing here? A mile down the track we’re trying to kill each other, and here we are trying to help each other. This was crazy. And he says that is the moment that sowed the seeds for my post-war pacifism, and so he then becomes one of these vociferous veterans who begins to– and his file, it’s 10 centimetres fat, his repat file, full of correspondence that go from– well, from right after the war right up until his death in 1991, he’s still writing. Right up to the very end.
What happens to Fred that’s really important is that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with Anzac Day and marches or the RSL. He’s in a bit of a mess. He says these a bit like a stray dog or cat that’s been thrown out when he gets back from the war. And eventually he finds a new lease of life in a way of making sense of the world through Labor movement. He gets involved in the trade union.
He’s unemployed in the 1930s, joins the unemployed workers’ movement, and begins to work up a different story of the war which is a story of working class men who were the pawns of imperial rivalry, of bishops and Prime Ministers, and so on. And remember his enlistment in those terms. You know, I did what I was told to do by that Archbishop, the Premier, and the Prime Minister, and I went off and enlisted. And by 1931, he’s handing out an anti-war, peace movement leaflets at Anzac Day in Sydney in Hyde Park and gets arrested for it.
And so he’s gone down a very different road, and it’s a road that we forget because actually a lot of soldiers didn’t join the RSL, a lot of veterans, and a lot of them were radicalised. Hugo Throssell.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Exactly.
ALISTAIR THOMSON: A whole lot of veterans who are radicalised by their experience.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: War made me a pacifist. Absolutely articulate.
ALISTAIR THOMSON: Now whether it was the war or actually after the war, unemployment, the extraordinary bitterness of the 1920s and 1930s. There’s a whole range of things that might well have politicised these men after the war as well as during the war.
LAURA JAMES: Like Allan Whittaker with the wharves.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: And that idea that you were saying before about men coming home and almost having that sense of you promised us you’d look after us. You promised there’d be jobs and opportunity, and it wasn’t really coming to fruition for a lot them.
ALISTAIR THOMSON: Absolutely, and it comes through in all the repat files, this sense of if not entitlement, a sense that we did a lot of terrible stuff, and terrible things were done to us. We deserve at least a percentage of a pension, or a block of land, or a home, or whatever.
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Watch Professor Alistair Thomson discuss the divisiveness of the Great War and the story of Fred Farrell.
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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories
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