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A memory they could live with

Professor Alistair Thomson on composing a life narrative that returned servicemen and women could live with.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: You were just mentioning how Fred could talk for eight hours. And in your work you talk about how the soldiers composed or recomposed their cohesive life narrative. Could you talk a bit about how they went about that, how different soldiers went about that and how they created or constructed a memory that they could live with about their war experience?
ALISTAIR THOMSON: I think it’s something we all do. We try and credit a past that we can live by. And if we’ve been at a war and terrible things have happened to us or we’ve done terrible things, trying to create a story that makes sense for yourself and makes sense when you’re talking to others, it’s one of the reasons so many veterans can only really talk amongst other veterans. Because they shared a language. And they could talk terrible stuff, which didn’t feel appropriate in families. And so it varies. So for Fred Farrell really he’s rendered speechless.
He has a terrible speech impediment to do with neurosis right through the 1920s and ’30s, doesn’t get cured until he sees a psychiatrist in the 1940s. And he doesn’t go to Anzac Day, doesn’t join the RSL doesn’t want to talk about the war. And he doesn’t have a narrative. The Anzac legend doesn’t work for him because he’s been emasculated by war, and this proud story doesn’t work. And he has this beautiful discharge certificate he’s been given by the government, which he takes off and he puts in a cupboard, hides it away because he doesn’t want to speak to that. And it’s interesting.
It’s not until sometime after the Vietnam War and the new social history, which is recognising soldiers as victims and not just as heroes, that Fred begins to see his story out in the public. And he remembers, he tells me, there was a moment where I thought, I’ll get that certificate out. And he takes it out. And he puts it up on his wall. So when I go to interview Fred in his house in Prahran there’s the certificate pride of place on the living room wall but wonderfully– and I wished I’d taken a photo– a photograph of Lenin and a picture of Karl Marx on either side.
So he found a way of telling his war story through, if you like, a socialist narrative of soldiers as victims. That wasn’t common. There were some soldiers for whom that sort of story worked. For others, the Anzac legend provides solace. It provided an affirming story to make sense of a difficult time. We were heroes. We did the right thing. We do our duty. And it’s worth remembering, in amongst the repat files, we’re obviously drawn to the big fat files of men like Hector Thomson or Fred Farrell who were profoundly damaged by war. But that wasn’t true for all the veterans. There are men, like my grandfather, John Rogers, who had a good war.
Actually, I haven’t looked at his repat file. But I suspect it’s very thin. There are other thin files like Percy Bird who’s one of the other guys that I interviewed, who has also a good war. He’s a clerk with the railways before the war. He gets taken out of the line because of his clerical skills. So he spends most of his war behind the line. He actually gets gassed in 1917 because the gas comes to where they are behind the lines, and gets repatriated. And this is a lovely example about the repat files and about the stories that we tell when we’re soldiers. So the story that Percy told me in 1993 was that he’d been gassed and repatriated.
And the gassing had caused lesions in his lymph glands to inflame and that he was sent home. And I’m pretty sure the story that he would have told his fiancee, who he’d left behind in 1916 and came back to marry, was that I was gassed. He felt guilty about leaving his mates. Gassing was a legitimate war wound that he could tell his soldier mates, this is why I had to go back to Australia, and he could tell his family back in Australia. In fact, it was a tubercular lesion in the lymph glands. Now, the white plague tuberculosis isn’t something that you can talk. It’s stigmatised a bit like mental health.
So it’s unlikely that Percy would’ve told the story about having tubercular lymph glands when he came home to his fiancee or anyone else. So to say that you were gassed is an easier way to explain it. When you go the repat files and look at the medical records, it’s quite clear all the way through. All the doctors are saying he’s got this inflammation. It’s nothing to do with the gassing.
There was a common belief that the gas caused infections and whatever, whether Percy believed that or whether it was a story that was an easier one to tell. The really interesting thing, and these stories get so complicated when you begin to find new files and new records or new medical understanding. So I talk about this story to a physician a few months ago. And he says, well, actually, Percy was probably right. We now know that mustard gas is an immunosuppressant, almost certainly suppressed his immune system, made him more likely to get tuberculosis. The gas did, if you like–
REBECCA WHEATLEY: One step removed.
ALISTAIR THOMSON: Caused it. So gives you a sense of how difficult it was, both for veterans and for doctors, to have any understanding what was really going on, to be able to make that connection between war time affliction and post-war conditions.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: When you mentioned thin files, it make me think of Cecil Tarrant the soldier settler who gets sold up on Anzac Day because he can’t pay his rent. And one of the aspects of that was he’s clearly got ongoing medical issues. But he perhaps didn’t have someone to advocate, or he wasn’t a letter writer like Fred. He wasn’t pushing for that entitlement from the Repatriation Department either. So that opens a whole another problem in terms of accessing that story for us.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Nell was so helpful.
ALISTAIR THOMSON: History is the story we make of the stories we find. And we can only find the stories that are created in the first place and then get kept in archive. And we’re incredibly lucky we’ve got these rich repat archive. But whose stories don’t we have in there? Whose files are very thin? Or who don’t have files because they never went to the repat?
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Exactly. They didn’t push for that pension. But even on that, the repatriation records are so good at telling not just the veteran’s story put the wives and the families and now the war impacted financially and socially and health for the rest of the family. I mean, we’ve got so many insights for Brown’s wife, how she dealt with domestic violence. I mean, there’s so many cases. And we get an insight about what children were living with under their roofs. We have violence, alcoholism, very dramatic things as well, just the physical kind of witnessing of injuries and sickness as well.
ALISTAIR THOMSON: Absolutely. And a war story becomes a post-war story.
ALISTAIR THOMSON: And a veteran’s story becomes a family history. And then we realise that this is all of our histories. And it’s not just about war and combat. It’s about the consequences of war in individual and family lives.
LAURA JAMES: Talking about your position as a historian and also looking at families history, do you think that there are stories that still should remain hidden even after 100 years has gone by?
ALISTAIR THOMSON: Well, that’s interesting because I started here because of a story that was hidden in my family for over two generations. Look, it’s a tough call. And as an oral historian you always know you’ve got a responsibility to your narrator or to other people who are mentioned not to cause damage. But you’ve also got a responsibility to history to tell a story as best you can. I think it’s 100 years ago. I just think we know. It’s stories of syphilis, stories of neurosis, stories of brutality and violence as well as courage and compassion. If we’re really going to understand this war, we have to understand it in all its complexity at the time and over time.
And we’re not doing these men or their families, we’re not doing them justice if we tell a sanatised story. So it’s tough. It’s tough to discover neurosis in the family file. It’s tough, Hector’s familiarity with natives. He was probably visiting the brothels in Cairo. We need to know that because then we get a much more richer, complicated, if you like, war story. And it makes it harder to mythologise.
LAURA JAMES: The thing with these repatriation files is too they are in the public now. They’re on public record. So they’re not so much hidden as just not spoken about. So I think we agree with you here.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: And it’s been that generation of your father. And one of the other stories, that doesn’t appear this way, but of Frank Wilkinson. And his niece who didn’t know that her uncle had killed his wife, his child, and himself. She just didn’t know that at all. She knew he’d died and knew no other detail and didn’t even know to ask. And it was only discovered as part of family history. So it skipped that generation. And perhaps we’ve kind of come back to where it’s at a distance that we can look into these and ask really uncomfortable questions that we’ve avoided in the past.
ALISTAIR THOMSON: I think as families begin to ask for access to these files, we’re going to be disturbed. We’re going to be challenged.
ALISTAIR THOMSON: But so we should be. We should be disturbed and challenged by history.
LAURA JAMES: Especially if a more accurate picture of the true face of the Great War generation can be reached.

Watch Professor Alistair Thomson talk about composing a life narrative that returned servicemen and women could live with.

A list of supplementary readings from the interview with Professor Alistair Thomson is available from the Downloads section of this step. We hope you find it useful.

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