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The burnt out digger

Professor Alistair Thomson discusses the arbitrary nature of the Repatriation Department.
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LAURA JAMES: We drew on the medical files of soldiers for the writing of many of the 100 Stories, and we were often puzzled by the judgement some of the doctors made. I mean, how could they make the decision if a man’s respiratory were due to his war service where he was gassed, or if it was for the fact that he was a smoker. In the case of Hugo Throssell, whose suicide was deemed 25% war related, and some even suggested that his wife’s widow’s pension should be adjusted accordingly, to what extent do you think that these judgments were problematic, subjective, or even arbitrary? How do you think that these doctors made their decisions?
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ALISTAIR THOMSON: I mean, these veterans were in utterly at the mercy of doctors who, very often, really didn’t know what was going on. Their understandings of some of these conditions, compared to what we know now, were limited. To be honest, what we know now about mental health is still only part of the answer. And so it was very much depended upon, well, the ideas, the medical ideas and understandings of the doctors, but also the time of when it was. I mean, you’re much less likely to get a pension in the 1930s, because the government was basically saying, we can’t afford it. And so the doctors were under instructions to be much tougher.
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And you it varied across states, so you were more likely to get a pension for neurosis in Victoria than in New South Wales in the 1930s, just because of the state of medical opinion. So you’re really at the mercy of shifting ideas about different conditions, like shell-shock or neurosis. And Fred, he gets something for his strange fate– it’s only a 10% pension, which is almost nothing. But then he really begins to break down in the 1930s. And up until that point, like a lot of veterans, he didn’t want to claim for neurosis or mental health or shell-shock because of the stigma. By 1939 he does, he’s a very sick man.
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And he goes along, and very different from Hector Thomson because there’s no evidence. One of the problems of the repat files is a lot of the Australian First World War medical records get destroyed in a fire in London in 1919, and if you don’t have the record of evidence– like he says, in 1917 and ‘18, I’m in hospital in London, first signs of neurosis. But the records aren’t there, nothing to confirm it. So he goes to the repat and puts in a claim for mental health and neurosis. And basically, there’s a Dr. Dane, and there’s an extraordinary record that I can show you later, where basically these doctors say, this guy’s– he’s having us on.
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There’s no physical evidence from the war of neurosis or damage. And really, look at the guy. He’s vociferous, he’s compiling a lot. They begin to talk about his character– he’s got big ears, he’s got a bit of a stutter, and it’s really about his, it’s a sort of family disposition. And it’s about postwar life, it’s about unemployment, and the difficulties of his postwar life, and it’s not about the war. And they refuse it. So he gets refused a pension for neurosis.
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REBECCA WHEATLEY: That kind of attempt to make do in that decade after the war, works against a lot of the soldiers, who by that stage– they do need help.
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ALISTAIR THOMSON: They do need help. There’s this idea of the burned out digger, which was popularised by Smith’s Weekly in the 1920s and ’30s. And we worked with some medical people with the repat files, and they say that there’s a lot of evidence if you look at veterans today, that at a certain point after the war, a whole lot of things come together– a range of mental and physical health problems– really erupt, or get beyond a point where guys fall over the edge. And that’s what happened to Fred and a whole lot of other veterans in the 1930s, exacerbated by unemployment, the difficulties of their own lives. His marriage breaks up.
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So Fred Farrell who, in 1939 in New South Wales, gets ruled out of court for neurosis, because there’s no link that can be made between the war and his postwar breakdown. He moves to Melbourne in 1949. He actually goes to the repat for an ulcer. And there’s a doctor who says, well, we know that ulcers are connected to stress. And clearly, there’s enough evidence from any war service to suggest that he had stress during the war. We can put these two together, and he gets his pension. And suddenly he’s got a pension for neurosis. And that’s partly because of a new regime, a different state, and it’s partly new understandings and changing understandings.
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In fact, the terrible irony is that that doctor’s probably wrong. There’s no connection between ulcers and neurosis. Ulcers are bacterial. It’s a common mythology. But Fred hit it lucky, because he actually almost certainly did have war-caused neurosis, although all of his postwar travails probably impact upon it, as well. So he does get a pension. And he’s in and out of mental hospital for the rest of his life. I interview him for the last time in 1997, and I only realised when I read the repat files that just a month before, he’d been in Heidelberg repat hospital after a breakdown.
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REBECCA WHEATLEY: And he never mentioned that?
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ALISTAIR THOMSON: He said he’d been sick. And I said to him, Fred, are you OK to talk? And he said, all I can do now is talk. And he did, and he was a man who could talk. If you get to play a bit of his interview– and in fact you can listen. Anyone can listen. You just Google Fred Farrell, and you’ll find his interview on The War Memorial. You can listen to the eight hours of Fred telling his war story. And I don’t get a word in.

Watch Professor Alistair Thomson discuss the arbitrary nature of the Repatriation Department.

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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

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