BRUCE SCATES: These are the shelves of the National Archives of Australia. Sterile, controlled conditions here. But for a historian, this is an incredibly exciting place– a place that’s brimming with secrets and with mysteries. Lining shelves like these is one of Australia’s largest archival holdings– the records, the repatriatian records, of the men and women who survived the Great War. It’s estimated that this collection occupies 10 kilometres of shelving space– that’s a veritable forest of files. The collection’s vast, but it’s also incredibly rich. These files are full of medical reports, of pension claims, and they’re full of the reports of what were called repatriation tribunals.
That was a kind of court where men and women argued about what their war entitlement should be.
This is Rachael Pratt’s repatriation file. Files like these aren’t just about physical and psychological injuries. This file’s also about the way medical experts intervened in the life of the ordinary citizen. It’s about how families coped with shocking disabilities. And really, this file is also about a struggle for social justice, because veterans like Rachael Pratt were promised a land fit for heroes. Digitising these records is a mammoth undertaking. It’s going to take many, many years. But it’s made possible a fresh look at history, because these records will be open to a global community. And arguably, they’re going to change the way we remember the Great War. Coinciding with the 100 stories, the first batch of repatriation records have just been released.
They’re the records of the men and women of 1914 who sailed off from Australia on the first contingent. And now Bec and Laura are going to show you how to best use these extraordinary files.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: To coincide with the centenary of Anzac Day, the National Archives have released thousands of digitised repatriation files. These files are incredibly rich, and give us a picture of how returned servicemen and women survived the battles after the war had ended. To start exploring this collection online, we begin at the National Archives of Australia website. If you are searching for a particular person, type their name and service number, if you have it, into the search box. Select Go, and your results will appear.
You will find that other files will result, too. The first AIF service dossiers, all 376,000 of them, were digitised in 2006. Working through the results, you can identify which items are repatriation files by an item series number. There are different series numbers for each state’s repatriation departments. And it’s important to look for each state’s, because remember, these were working files and they were sent all over the place. Each repatriation file is different, and you never know what you’ll find inside. Some contain a handful of papers, others run into hundreds and hundreds of pages. Bruce requested Rachael Pratt’s original file from the National Archives holding at the Victorian Archive Centre, but we can search for her file online now.
This extraordinary record is 448 pages long. And as we scroll through those pages, we find a wealth of information about her injuries, her war service, and her life. Rachael Pratt’s file includes detailed medical notes, and many of the repatriation files do. These can often seem quite difficult to understand. But don’t be put off by medical jargon and the sometimes difficult to read handwriting. We can see how her GSW, gun shot wound, troubled her long after she’d left the battlefield. And sometimes that candid medical language can reveal the cold reality of these injuries. Like here– the description of a piece of shrapnel lodged in her body. That shard of artillery remained with her for the rest of her life.
Rachael’s file follows not just the decline of her physical health, like chronic bronchitis and pneumonia, but also her mental well-being. Detailed doctor’s report on the accompanying neurosis of her war injuries. They note her very depressed condition– how she has no companionship and practical purpose in life. The doctor wrote, “her prospects of ultimate recovery appear to be now less hopeful than appeared previously. I cannot yet declare her case as a hopeless one, although now unfavourable.” These records give us an insight into patient’s treatment over their lifetimes. They tried treating Rachael with Cardiosol, convulsive therapy, and Somnifene a barbiturate with sedative, hypnotic an anti-convulsant properties.
The latter was injected into Rachael’s muscles so frequently as to maintain a condition of narcosis for three to four weeks– this meant around 50 such injections. Things only got worse for Rachael. The doctors wrote, “she is very delusional and she has made no improvement whatever in that respect, and requires careful vigilance as she is suicidal.” If you are interested in browsing the repatriation records that the National Archives of Australia has digitised, then you can search in Advanced Search and select the series you want to explore. As I said before, there are a number of different series for the repatriation records based on the state offices. So you’ll need to do separate searches for the different series.
For example, I have put B-73. This is the Victorian series, and you can see there are a lot of results– more than 20,000. But if you want to narrow it down to just the files you can look through online, scroll to the bottom of the page and you can select Digital Copies Only. This number will keep growing as the archives continue their work in digitising these records. And if the file you are after isn’t digitised but it is open, you can call it up to the Relevant Reading Room and go on-site to look through the item. Or if that isn’t an option, you can always purchase copies through the archives. The digitisation of the repatriation files is a mammoth process.
It will take many years to complete the entire project, so this is still a work in progress. Keep checking in as more and more files come online throughout the centenary years.