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Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]



The stigma of mental illness

Sometimes you can’t write the history that needs to be told. In 1986, in an early draft of the autobiographical introduction to the first edition of Anzac Memories, I wrote that my grandfather Hector Thomson contracted malarial encephalitis while serving with the Light Horse in Palestine and that as a result he was ‘in and out of mental hospital’ after the war. I only knew about Hector’s mental illness fourth-hand, from my mother. My father, David Thomson, had never talked about it with me or my brothers, indeed he had only found out himself from an older relative after his father died. He was appalled by my reference in the draft to the mental hospital and demanded that I remove it.

The stigma of mental illness ran deep. My father insisted that he would never have been accepted into officer training college in 1942 had they known about his father Hector’s illness. In the 1980s, mental illness in the family was still shameful. My father was also furious about ‘the radical ideology’ of my naive early efforts to debunk the Anzac legend in a chapter for a People’s History of Australia published in 1988 and in the very different (and unpublished) first version of this book that focused on ‘forgotten’ radical diggers like Fred Farrall.1 He felt I had betrayed his thirty years in the Australian army and the values that sustained him, and hoped that ‘none of my old soldiers read it’. Perhaps worst of all, my writing ripped off the scab that had formed across his terrible childhood and unleashed angry, painful memories. I changed the line ‘in and out of mental hospital’ to the more socially acceptable half-truth that Hector was ‘in an out of Caulfield Repatriation Hospital’ after the war, which you will still find in the introduction to the first edition.2

Oral historians often make difficult choices between a responsibility to history and a responsibility to narrators who have shared a life story, as well as to their wider family. In 1986 I prioritised my father’s feelings and hoped to repair our fractured relationship. Yet the whole point of the story about Hector Thomson had been to show that within families, as within the nation, some histories can be told while others are hidden or forgotten. In removing the reference to mental illness I was contributing to a selective version of Anzac history. Though no one else could have spotted the omission, I felt that I was compromising the aim of my book.

A quarter of a century later, it’s easier to write about soldiers and mental illness. In recent years the stigma surrounding mental illness has begun to lift across Australian society, and historians and veterans themselves now write more readily about ‘shattered Anzacs’ who return from war both physically and mentally damaged.3 My father and my family now talk more openly about Hector’s troubles.

We can also access sources about war veterans that weren’t available 25 years ago, including the case files for individual ex-servicemen kept by the Repatriation Department (now the Department of Veterans’ Affairs), which are now available on application to the National Archives of Australia. The M (medical) and H (hospital) files for Victorian First War veterans alone comprise almost three kilometres of archive shelf space. These were once working files, initiated by the Department when a veteran claimed support for a war-related medical condition. Each veteran’s file grew over the years, as the Department dealt with claims, accumulated medical reports and other evidence, and corresponded with claimants (see the block of images in this chapter for examples of the documents in Hector Thomson’s file). These case files are an extraordinarily rich record of twentieth-century Australian social and medical history. Letters from returned men — and from their wives and parents — detail medical complaints that demanded treatment and a pension from the ‘Repat’. Doctors, expert witnesses and Repat officials argue each case, sometimes with sympathy, sometimes with callous suspicion of malingering.4

Files M58164 and H58164 detail Hector Thomson’s medical history, from enlistment in 1914 through to his death in 1958. Hector’s repatriation story illuminates the battles of the peace that were fought in Australian homes and hospitals after the war. It shows how damaged and desperate veterans sought support and recompense from the government, and how their desperation became more acute during the Depression of the 1930s. The story also reveals contemporary medical understandings and prejudices about mind and body, how doctors and other officials struggled to balance limited resources against increasing needs, and how medical diagnoses and bureaucratic attitudes towards veterans changed over time. In these records we can read Hector’s own account of the impact of war on his life, albeit an account framed by Repat guidelines and his need for a war pension. Most surprising to me, and most poignant, my grandmother, Hector’s wife Nell, emerges as the tragic heroine of the tale. One man’s war story becomes a family history that stretches across the decades and reverberates through the generations.

For many Australians, family history is one of the ways in which we know about war and its consequences. In part, the resurgence of interest in Australians at war in recent decades has been fuelled by family historians researching the service records and life stories of parents, grandparents and other relatives. Sometimes unexpected discoveries challenge family and national mythologies; sometimes family war history is framed by the lens of an Anzac legend of dutiful sacrifice and stoic comradeship.5 By making awkward, troubling family histories about war and its aftermath we can disrupt simplistic national narratives and transform family remembrance. We can better understand what happened to men like Hector Thomson during and after the war, and how their return impacted upon Australian families and society.

Enlistment: ‘one of the strongest young men in this district’

Prior to enlistment Hector Thomson ‘was held to be one of the strongest young men in this district — as was his father before him’. Ex-servicemen seeking pensions needed to show that their medical condition was war-caused, and Hector’s Repatriation files are thus crowded with accounts — this one by the local bank manager — of his ‘splendid health’ before the war. Hector had grown up on one of several Thomson family farms around Clydebank near Sale in the south-east Victorian region of Gippsland. Six foot tall and solidly built, he was an attractive young man. When Hector went to war in 1914 an anonymous poem had seven Gippsland girls lamenting his departure, with its opening lines:

The world is looking cold and grey

Just ’cos Hector’s sailed away

All the girls they sob and sigh

And hang their hankeys out to dry.6

Twenty-three year old Hector enlisted from Queensland, where he had been working as a station hand. Serving in Palestine as a driver with the 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance Unit, he was awarded the Military Medal in August 1916 for helping to rescue wounded men while under ‘heavy rifle and shell fire’. Two months later he was mentioned in despatches for bravery. Hector’s service record also notes several charges for the less commendable behaviour that was not uncommon in Australia’s volunteer army, including disobedience, ‘familiarity with natives’ (an ambiguous charge which may refer to prostitutes), ill-treatment of a mule, being ‘improperly dressed’ and bringing intoxicating liquor into a hospital. At face value, Hector Thomson’s war record of bravery and larrikinism exemplifies the two sides of the Anzac legend.7

In March 1917 Hector was hospitalised for a month with his first attack of malaria. Over the next year he spent another 87 days in hospitals recovering from the ‘severe ague and fever and vomiting’ brought on by four more bouts of malaria, and from a respiratory infection (‘coryza’) and severe diarrhoea which left him ‘very weak’. Doctors suggested that a cooler climate might improve his health and he applied to be transferred to his brother’s unit in France (his mother wrote asking the military authorities to grant Hector leave in England), but was refused because his unit was short of men. He returned to the ranks in Palestine until November 1918, when he was granted ‘1914 leave’ to Australia with other men who had enlisted in the first year of the war.8

Return: a ‘most serious and pitiful case’

On arrival back in Australia on Christmas Eve 1918, the army medical officer recorded that Hector had had a malaria attack in October but ‘No attacks since. Never otherwise in Hospital. Feels quite well. All organs normal’ — and signed him off in ‘A’ grade health. Perhaps Hector was, like many others, keen to get home and did not bother to report the full extent of his illness. But Hector was not well. Discharged from the army in February 1919 he returned to his parents’ home in Gippsland where he suffered further malaria attacks and was ‘unable to do constant work & just pottered about my father’s farm’. By April he was renting a local grazing property and applying for a soldier settler’s block but the attacks continued, usually accompanied by violent headaches, and at one point he was found lying unconscious beside the plough.9

In November the Thomson family doctor, Dr Campbell of Sale, reported that Hector had lost a stone in weight (over six kilograms) over the course of six malarial attacks in the previous six months. Hector now applied to the Repat for support. The Department agreed that his ‘general weakness’ was due to an infection suffered while on service and was ‘not due to his default’, and granted a 50 per cent pension back-dated to the point of discharge. In the summer of 1919–1920 Dr Campbell treated Hector’s malarial attacks with injections of Sodium Cacodylate which, Campbell reported ten years later, ‘cleared them up, except for occasional slight reoccurrences’ which did not affect his work. Over the next three years, as the attacks became less frequent and less severe, the Repat progressively reduced Hector’s war pension, to 25 per cent, then 16.6 per cent, then 10 per cent, until it was suspended in August 1922 when Hector failed to attend his annual Repat medical examination.10

Hector had decided that he was now well enough and the small pension was not worth the effort of time-consuming and intrusive medical examinations. There were other more significant changes in his life. Upon the death of an unmarried aunt he had inherited a 405 acre mixed-farming property near to the other Thomson farms around Clydebank. In February 1922 he took up residence with his new bride Nell in a four-room cottage they renovated and called ‘Bungeleen’, the name of an Aboriginal leader who had lived in the area. Nell was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman who had served in Sale when she and Hector were both in their teens. The loss of Hector’s pension just a few months after their marriage would become a source of great regret for Nell. In 1929 she recalled that a medical officer in the early 1920s had commented to Hector ‘Well bad fever has played up with you’, yet ‘the next report we received was that the small pension my husband had been receiving had been stopped. I wanted my husband to appeal then but he would not do so & the necessity was not great then as it is now.’ In 1922 Hector probably did not want his bride to think that he was damaged by the war.11

Within a few years Hector’s illness recurred, but in an unexpected and debilitating form. The evidence collected for a second pension claim in 1929 tracks his decline. Hector recalled that he had ‘the first definite attack of lapse of memory’ in 1926 when his wife was given power of attorney to manage his affairs, and ‘it was only then that I realised I had been ill for a long time past because I found I had neglected many things I should have attended to many months before’. Dr Campbell reported several episodes of memory loss and violent vomiting attacks which culminated in total collapse in November 1927:

Preparatory to harvest, he brought in [to Sale] some horses to be shod. He was in his working clothes. He did not arrive home that night, and next day realised he was in Melbourne Botanical Gardens. He immediately caught a train back. His memory of going to Melbourne or what he did there was a blank, except that he thought he stayed at a Coffee Palace. His condition after this was one of complete nervous exhaustion. He would sleep for the greater part of the 24 hours but when awake would talk quite lucidly and cheerfully. He took no interest whatever in the harvest or his affairs.

As Hector’s bank manager Mr Witts reported to the Repat, this was ‘a serious and most pitiful case’. Thomson had been a ‘very sick man’ since 1927 and ‘will never work again in all probability. The slightest exertion prostrates him.’12

Dr Campbell sent Hector to Dr Sidney Sewell, a prominent Melbourne neurologist who was renowned for treating veterans with shell shock. Sewell arranged for brain X-rays and conducted other tests (including the Wasserman anti-body test which came up negative for syphilis) but could find no alteration from the normal in the cerebro-spinal fluid and reported that ‘the history of the onset of his condition was indefinite & the diagnosis lay between an exhaustion Psychosis & a Post Encephalitis Lethargica’. Encephalitis lethargica had been first described in 1917, and between 1915 and 1926 an epidemic spread throughout the world, with symptoms including high fever and headaches, lethargy and sleepiness, with extreme cases suffering from a coma-like state. The cause was not certain, though recent research suggests that it may have been a consequence of the Spanish influenza epidemic, with an immune reaction to infection causing neurological damage.13

Hector later claimed that Sewell had told him he had ‘a definite inflammation of the brain’. Sewell never reported any such inflammation to the Repat, but in 1929 Dr Campbell wrote to the Repat that he agreed with Sewell’s diagnosis of encephalitis and suggested that it might have been caused by an infection resulting from malaria. As the Thomson family doctor, Campbell probably wanted to ensure that Hector received a pension for this new condition. He would have known that the Repat was more likely to pension a man with observable, war-caused physical damage, and he did not mention the alternative diagnosis of a psychotic condition due to ‘exhaustion’. Hector trusted Campbell, who was also an ex-serviceman (we will see this trust was ill-deserved), and from this point almost certainly believed that his ill-health was due to some form of brain inflammation (encephalitis) caused by wartime malaria. This was how Nell came to understand her husband’s illness, and ‘malarial encephalitis’ became the explanation whispered in family oral tradition and passed on to my generation.14

Hector improved after a long holiday, but when he returned to the farm his condition recurred and he suffered several more breakdowns after undertaking the strenuous activity that was inevitable on a small family farm. By now, Nell was running the farm and the finances, and with two small boys underfoot and a sick husband to care for, she was desperate. In May 1929 she submitted the new pension claim for Hector, and then took the lead role in proceedings. Several letters from Nell to the Repat detailed Hector’s condition and its effect on the family. She wrote in May that ‘Owing to his constant ill health we have to employ constant labour and this year I am finding it very difficult to carry on. […] It is a great strain not knowing when this loss of memory might occur again.’ In September she explained that Hector had ‘collapsed just at the most busy time of ploughing and putting in the crops. I had to send him into Hospital & depend on the kindness of my neighbours & had the very great expense of having to employ three extra men as well as the help of my brother in law & my husband’s cousin in the endeavour to get the crops in on time.’ Whilst Hector attended medical examinations in Melbourne Nell visited the Repat to press his claim and then chased up expert witnesses. By late September her husband’s illness and ‘all the worry I have had in connection’ caused Nell to become ill so that she ‘simply had to close’ her home and take the children to stay with a sister across the New South Wales border in Holbrook while Hector stayed ‘with his people’ in Gippsland. Nell continued to write to the Repat, while stressing that they should address all correspondence ‘to me personally’:

My reason for asking for a pension for my husband is that my husband is unable to work for any length of time without a complete breakdown & I cannot afford to keep a permanent man. Owing to my husband’s severe illness which occasions loss of memory his business affairs have become very tangled. For three years I have been unable to keep any domestic help & I have had to manage all the business part & the running of the farm as well as the constant nursing of my husband & the care of my two very small sons aged 3 years & 4 ½ years. I feel that if my husband could receive a pension it would enable me to carry on. […] If only we could have seen ahead the far-reaching effects of this dreadful malaria I would have begged my husband to appeal for a bigger pension & most certainly for a renewal of it.15

The clergyman’s daughter had mastered many unexpected responsibilities in the first years of married life. From Repat medical and soldier settlement records we know that Nell Thomson was just one of many wives of damaged veterans who were forced to manage family life and livelihood in the inter-war years.16

After receiving a report from Dr Sewell in August 1929, the Repat doctors, who could find no physical causes for Hector’s condition, requested that Hector return to Melbourne in November for examination by another ‘Nerve Specialist’, Dr Clarence Godfrey, to test whether there was ‘any connection between malaria and loss of memory & neurasthenia’. Godfrey, a lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Melbourne and one of the first in Australia to recognise the significance of Freudian psychology, delivered a detailed report based upon Repat records and examination of the patient. He explained that since 1927 Thomson had ‘manifested symptoms suggestive of some pathological condition of the central nervous system. Prominent among these were disorientation, amnesia, and apathy, diminished power of attention and lessening of initiation (Bradyphrenia)’. He noted that Dr Sewell had ‘reduced the diagnosis of the cerebral condition to post-encephalitis, lethargic signs, or to exhaustive psychosis’, and then concluded that the evidence weighed ‘more in favour of the former disorder’:

[….] in examining him I found him extremely candid and apparently truthful. The nervous sequelae of malaria even the malignant type, after ameliorated — as in this case — are certainly uncommon. One is forced to consider whether the ‘coryza’ was a mild or abortive case of encephalitis lethargica, with apparent recovery, and it is well known that after apparently complete recovery in such cases relapses may occur after long intervals, even several years. […] as there is no history of encephalitic infection during the period intervening between his discharge in 1919 and the exhibition of the nervous symptoms in 1926 I am disposed to grant claimant the benefit of the doubt and recommend acceptance as due to War Service with an assessment of 75% incapacity.

In short, while Godfrey doubted the connection between malaria and brain damage, he speculated that Hector’s coryza (respiratory) infection in 1918 might have caused encephalitis lethargica, and that he was a deserving case. The Repatriation Commission accepted Godfrey’s diagnosis, agreed that three linked conditions — ‘Post Encephalitis Lethargica, Cerebral Exhaustion and Loss of Memory’ — were all war-caused, and approved a 75 per cent pension, back-dated six months from January 1930. Hector was informed that future treatment would be at the Commission’s expense (this was a significant saving), and that he should use the Repat’s medical officer in Sale, Dr McDonald.17

Within a year, Hector collapsed again. In the winter of 1930 he managed ‘ordinary jobs’ on the farm, but by summer harvest Dr Campbell noted that ‘he had got much thinner and looked duller than before. I tried to persuade him to employ a stack builder, but he did not on account of the expense, with the result that he got completely knocked up, and the failing of memory and semi-comatose condition supervened.’ In February 1931 Hector went back to Dr Godfrey in Melbourne, who noted that Thomson had deteriorated since their earlier meeting and was ‘unable to activate his mentality and appears as if in a dream’. He concluded that the patient was ‘permanently incapacitated’ and ‘now quite incapable of work’, and recommended observation at Caulfield Repatriation General Hospital.18

From Caulfield, the first doubts about the original diagnosis appear in the Repat correspondence. Fourteen years after discharge from the army, Hector’s condition was now being explained according to new medical paradigms. Dr Paul Dane had been an army doctor at Gallipoli and served with the 1st Australian General Hospital in Egypt, and after the war he became interested in neurology and the treatment of shell-shocked veterans. An early convert to Freudian psychology, by 1925 he had published on ‘The psycho-neuroses of soldiers and their treatment’ and was recommending treatment by analysis. Perhaps not surprisingly, Dane was looking for psychological causes for Hector’s symptoms:

I can find no evidence in this man’s history which would suggest to me an attack of Encephalitis; there is nothing in this [sic] symptoms to suggest a diagnosis of post encephalitic disorder. There are no signs of organic disease of C.N.S. [central nervous system] but he is quite definitely an athyroidic type [affected by a malfunctioning thyroid gland] — he is also the typical manic depressive character type and has been all his life. There are occurrences in his military history which point towards slight psychotic trends or character defects. This inherent familial type of mental make up plus malarial infection and athyroidism is sufficient in my opinion to account for his present condition.

There is nothing in Hector’s military records that suggests either psychotic trends or significant character defects (perhaps Dane was referring to Hector’s wartime disobedience and ‘familiarity with natives’?). But Dane was not unusual at this time in explaining mental illness in terms of a flawed character and family history. In the absence of definitive physiological or psychological evidence, Dane was speculating about Hector’s condition, and his speculations say as much about Dane and the limits of medical understanding as they do about Hector.19

Dane prescribed thyroid treatment and daily douche baths, and at first the treatment (or perhaps the hospital rest) seemed to work. Within a month Dane reported that Thomson was ‘Much better since taking thyroid’, and in April Hector was discharged to the care of the Repat medical officer in Sale, five and a half pounds heavier (three and a half kilograms) but still on thyroid and other drug treatments. But by July Nell reported to the Repat that Hector had collapsed ‘in the usual way’ and after nursing him at home for two weeks he was now in the Gippsland Hospital. In an articulate yet despairing plea, Nell detailed her efforts over many years to manage her children, the farm, and her sick husband:

This state of affairs has been going on for so many years now that I am in great financial difficulties and am heavily indebted […], I have absolutely nothing to live on except my pension out of which I have to pay a man 30/- a week and his keep. It is indeed a very serious position, not only for my husband, but for myself and my two children, the youngest of whom is not yet five and the elder is 6 ½ years of age. I am struggling, and have been for several years now to carry on the property with the advice of my husband’s brother who lives 20 miles from me — I had to borrow on my husband’s Life Insurance this year to enable me to put in a little crop, I therefore hope that my request for a full pension will be granted. Would you let me know if it would be possible for anyone else to collect our pension. I live 10 miles from Sale, and very often it is over a month before I can get in to draw my pension.20

On 13 November Dr Campbell phoned Caulfield Repatriation General Hospital to say that he was sending Thomson from Gippsland by car for readmission with ‘Cerebral Exhaustion & loss of memory’. Admitted just after midnight on the 14th, the next morning Hector had a ‘violent maniacal attack […] of all around’ and was discharged to Royal Park Receiving House, the short term admissions section of Royal Park Hospital for the Insane. There is no further detail in the files about this attack, which seems to have been out of character. Within a few days the Repat agreed to pay for the costs of admission to the civilian mental hospital, and increased the pension for Hector’s family to 100%, based upon Dr Godfrey’s recommendation that the new mental condition of ‘Acute Mania’ was due to war service. The Medical Superintendent at Royal Park advised that the outlook for the present attack ‘should be fairly good’, and indeed within six weeks Hector was transferred back to Caulfield, ‘as he is now quite normal mentally, but requires a couple of weeks treatment for neurasthenia’ (nervous exhaustion).21

Royal Park recommended further treatment for neurasthenia but Caulfield’s admission record for Hector on Christmas Eve 1931 missed this recommendation and instead cited the previous conditions of ‘Malaria and Loss of Memory’. When no indications of either of those complaints could be found, Hector was discharged from Caulfield and sent back home to Gippsland with a 75 per cent war pension.22

Times were hard on the farm. My father was then aged seven, and in an interview I conducted with him in 1985, he recalled ‘this was right at the end of the Depression, when things were very tough, there’d been a drought’. Nell could not afford any help in the house, which ‘was fairly primitive and there was a lot of work doing it’. Assertive at every stage, she successfully appealed to the Repat for reinstatement to a 100 per cent pension, back-dated to July 1931 and subject to review every six months, though in June 1932 the pension was again reduced to 75 per cent because Hector had recommenced some farm work.23

Single father

Nine months later, Nell was dead and Hector was a single father of two small boys aged seven and five. Nell had needed an operation on her gall bladder and Hector insisted on using Dr Campbell because he was an ex-serviceman. My father believes that Nell died on the operating table in September 1932 because his father was determined to use ‘the worst local doctor, because he had been in the War’. The bond of ex-servicemen had a devastating effect. My father remembers sitting outside in the back garden after a horse-rider brought news of their mother’s death, and saying to his younger brother Colin, ‘I wonder what we’re going to do now.’24

The boys stayed with their grandparents on the neighbouring farm for several months. Then, astonishingly, Hector brought them back to live with him at Bungeleen, with the support of a paid housekeeper who lived in a small cottage next door. The contrast with their earlier life was stark. Nell was remembered by my father as a bright and witty woman, ‘full of laughter’, who ‘was quite modern’ in her ways of upbringing, ‘very particular about the way we dressed’, a voracious reader who read classics while she was pregnant in the hope that it would rub off and was reading Dickens’ David Copper-field to her boys in the week before she died. For the first couple of years after Nell died the housekeeper was a ‘marvellous small English woman’, but she left — quite likely because Hector was not easy to live with — and was replaced by a succession of ‘dreadful females’. By this stage they were getting ‘very poor indeed, there was no money, and the house was getting shabbier and the garden was neglected’.25

Sometime after Nell died, Hector began to drink ‘and we always dreaded his return from town from stock sales’. One night he did not return, and the next day David discovered him in hospital recovering from a car crash. ‘We never had a car after that which restricted our lives even more.’ When the boys reached the school leaving age of 13 Hector wanted them to work on the farm, but David was keen for further education, and a new rural school bus service was the ‘miracle’ that made high school in Sale possible. They now lived ‘very enclosed lives’:

My father by this stage was getting very withdrawn and silent and didn’t socialize at all, didn’t go out and quite often we’d be asked to birthday parties at other families 15, 20 miles away and he wouldn’t take us, he just couldn’t go. Oh as we got older we could ride, but he wouldn’t take us, just withdrew … so it was a fairly tough life. By the time I was 15 things got worse, ’cause I was 15 my brother was 13, and we were informed that no longer could we afford a housekeeper, and I said, “What are we going to do?” and he said, “You’ll have to look after yourselves.” And he really had no alternative, I couldn’t understand it at the time, I can now understand he was desperately … I imagine he had a huge overdraft and no income, or very little.

The boys did the shopping during the school lunch break, cooked the meals and did all the housework except the laundry, which was sent out. They also helped their father on the farm, because he could afford no paid help. ‘Things were really pretty grim [….] I remember, I suppose it must have been Christmas of 1939 or ’40, we spent Christmas Day making a haystack. And we had cold mutton or something for Christmas dinner. No one else to do it. We hadn’t been invited for Christmas dinner by anyone else, so the three of us had it ourselves.’26 It’s not clear why there was so little family support. David and Colin enjoyed occasional holidays with Scott family relatives, and Nell’s elder sister Kathleen helped out when she could, but she lived in Melbourne. The Thomson families who farmed around Sale were less forthcoming.

At that time my father did not know Hector was a very sick man. That Hector managed at all was exceptional. Most men in his situation in the 1930s found a new wife to raise the children and keep the house, or either gave up their children to a female relative or placed them in a home (single fathers often had their children taken away on the assumption that childcare needed a woman’s touch).27 Hector saved a note that Nell had written in pencil from her hospital bed the night before she died, in which she said, ‘if anything happens to me, don’t let the boys be separated’. My father testifies that Hector ‘stuck to that, we weren’t separated, we were kept together for our childhood, difficult though it was’.28

The Repat files record that after his wife died Hector just about managed to keep his health together while he raised his sons. In 1933 he told the Repat doctor he still suffered occasional malaria attacks and had lost two to three months’ work in the past year, that his memory was better ‘but still very bad’, and that he slept badly and suffered headaches. The doctor agreed that reduction in the pension from 75 per cent was ‘not yet advisable’. Dr McDonald, who was the Repat medical officer in Sale and thus answered to the Repat rather than the patient, was more wary of Hector’s claims. In 1934 and again in 1936 he reported that the symptoms were ‘all subjective’. Another doctor noted that none of the examinations since 1932 had found any indication of either malaria or mania, though ‘some slight mental impairment’ was still attributable to the effects of Encephalitis Lethargica. The Repat deleted ‘Post Malaria’ from Hector’s list of conditions accepted as due to war service, and in 1936 reduced the pension to 50 per cent, which added up to slightly less than half the basic wage.29

Hector appealed against the deletion of ‘Post Malaria’ and argued that he had had four severe attacks in 1936. Two new Repat doctors now concluded that ‘It is doubtful if he ever had Malaria’, pointing to the evidence of wartime medical records, though it is hard to see how they came to that conclusion as those records very clearly state that Hector was admitted with malaria on five separate occasions during the war. The appeal was disallowed and Hector was advised to report to Dr McDonald during the next ‘alleged attack’. McDonald believed that Thomson ‘wanted a diagnosis of malaria established on account of his pension’. When Hector complained in 1939 that he was often unable to work because of the same recurring symptoms, McDonald dismissed the complaint and recorded once again that the patient was ‘mentally not very bright’.30

We can’t know for sure whether or not Hector was still suffering from malaria. Recurrent malaria attacks tend to burn themselves out, and Hector may not have had as many attacks as he claimed. When his blood was tested a decade later in 1948 there was no sign of the malaria parasite and the attending doctor concluded that malaria seemed ‘very unlikely’. It is possible Hector focused his complaints on malaria because it did not carry the stigma of mental illness. By the mid to late 1930s Hector was probably trying to work the Repatriation system to improve his war pension, playing one doctor off against another, citing symptoms that he hoped would match his accepted conditions, and seeking to have other conditions accepted. In response, Repatriation doctors and officials were increasingly suspicious and unsympathetic. The evidence of his son’s memory suggests that Hector was probably mentally unwell, though it is not clear whether this was due to a physiological condition with its origin in the war, or was simply due to some form of mental illness or depression. He certainly had good cause to be depressed.31

I like to think that although Hector barely managed as a parent, the fact that he kept his boys with him on the farm, in dire circumstances, was an impressive achievement. While Nell was alive, Hector came to rely on her and succumbed to ill-health. Unwell, unable to provide for his family, unable to manage the finances or even conduct his pension claim, Hector almost certainly felt a failure as a husband and father, and as a man. Nell’s death must have been a terrible blow, yet it also led Hector to take back control of his life, and of his farm and family, and to work through the worst of his illness for the sake of his sons.32

Another war

In 1941 Hector went back to war. By then seventeen-year-old David had decided that there was ‘absolutely no hope of getting anywhere’ on the farm, and reached an agreement with his brother Colin that Colin alone would inherit the farm. For David, education was ‘the only way’, and in 1941 he used a £100 inheritance from his grandmother to pay for a year at Scotch College in Melbourne, following his father and grandfather at the school. The money ran out before the year was up but the headmaster generously let him finish his Leaving year so that he could qualify for officer training college. While David was away at boarding school, Hector sent Colin to live with relatives on a nearby farm and travelled to Melbourne to enlist in the Second AIF. In Melbourne he could get away with lying about his age (39 instead of 50), birthplace (Glasgow instead of Sale) and surname (he added a ‘p’ to Thomson) so that his over-age status and Repatriation record would not be discovered. On the medical history form Hector admitted an appendix operation but wrote ‘no’ to each of a long list of ailments which included ‘fits of any kind’. The medical officer was suspicious about Hector’s stated age — the photo taken at enlistment shows a ravaged face which looks older than 50 years — but let him in. Though the First War may have caused the ruination of Hector’s health, he had no grudge with war service itself, which offered a welcome escape from the hardships of his farm and family life. By early 1942 he had returned to the Middle East, this time as a private with the 2nd/6th Cavalry Regiment, and at least one photo shows him looking content back among soldier mates and within the security of the army. Later that year Hector suffered serious petrol burns to his arms and legs, and it is likely that his real age was discovered. He was returned to Australia and discharged, in October 1943, ostensibly because he was required for work in the reserved occupation of farming.33

Driver Hector Thomson, 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance, Cairo, 7 May 1915. Hector sent a postcard of this studio photograph to his mother in Gippsland. (David Thomson)

Hector Thomson and his wife Nell, outside their Gippsland farm house ‘Bungeleen’ shortly after their marriage in 1922. (David Thomson)

Hector and Nell with their young sons David and Colin in 1927, photographed on the driveway of their farm house ‘Bungeleen’. (David Thomson)

Hector with David and Colin at ‘Bungeleen’ in about 1930, shortly before Nell died. (David Thomson)

The Medical Case Sheet that identified Hector Thomson’s first malaria attack in 1917. Together with other surviving wartime medical records, this was included within Hector’s Repatriation Medical File. (National Archives of Australia, B73, M587164)

One of many letters Nell Thomson sent to the Repat on her husband’s behalf. This one in 1929 was typed by her sister because Nell had a broken arm. Repat officials often wrote comments to each other, and for the record, around the edges of claimant letters. (National Archives of Australia, B73, M587164)

A Record of Evidence form completed by Hector Thomson in 1929 as part of his Repat pension claim for loss of memory. Margin notes such as ‘omit’, and red pencil strokes before and after the first paragraph, indicate sections to be typed up in Repat evidence documents for subsequent claims. (National Archives of Australia, B73, M587164)

A 1937 letter to the Repat from Hector Thomson initiating an appeal against the removal of malaria as a pensionable condition. Note the marginal comments by Repat staff, one of which states that ‘it is doubtful if he ever had malaria’. (National Archives of Australia, B73, M587164)

An extract of the Evidence file compiled by the Repat in response to Hector Thomson’s 1937 appeal against the removal of malaria as a pensionable condition. Evidence files like this comprised typed extracts from the claimant’s Repat medical file. This page includes the extract from 1931 in which Dr Dane doubted that Hector had ever had an encephalitis attack and suggested he was a ‘manic depressive character type’. (National Archives of Australia, B73, M587164)

In 1946, with both of his sons now serving in the army of occupation in Japan, Hector sold Bungeleen without telling them (after he died they discovered he had spent the proceeds which were intended to get Colin another farm). Both David and Colin were furious about the sale, and in the following years they had only limited contact with their father, who was now living in boarding houses in Melbourne. Through a family friend he found a job at the Goldsborough Mort wool store; to the Repat he said he was a wool classer but he was probably a clerk. In 1947 he made his first visit to a Melbourne Repatriation clinic since 1931, and a doctor reported that he looked ‘more than his age’. After he tested negative for malaria in 1948 he makes no further appearances in the Repat files until a stroke in 1955 sent him to the Repatriation Hospital at Heidelberg. He was now totally incapacitated and his pension was increased to 100 per cent because the stroke was regarded as a sequel to his ‘accepted cerebral conditions’. When my father and Nell’s sister Kathleen sought in 1956 to place Hector on a waiting list for an Anzac Hostel, a Medical Social Worker reported that ‘Mr Thomson has some difficulty with his speech, but he is able to make himself understood and is a pleasant, cooperative type of patient’. Hector never left Heidelberg. By 1957 he was in a ‘poor mental state’ and broke his hip, and in January 1958 his Repat file ends with death by broncho-pneumonia, aged 67, two years before I was born.34

Family history and remembrance

In 1992 my father wrote to me that at war Hector was ‘a hero and a successful soldier’:

It was his civilian life which was painful and not discussed. We make his war illness an excuse for his failings, but he may have failed in any case. Perhaps if Nell had lived he would have been different, but in some ways I feel that had she lived she would have had a very unhappy life. I know that Aunt Kar [Kathleen] believed that she should never have married Hector — apparently another man she loved was killed in WW1. Perhaps we were all victims of the war.35

That was an astute judgement by a son who felt failed by his father and who idolised the memory of his mother. But as a boy my father never knew the nature or extent of his father’s health problems. Nobody explained that their father was ill. When he wrote that letter to me in 1992 my father was still not privy to the history which unfolds in the Repat files, and he was struggling with his memory of a broken father and traumatic childhood.

In recent years my father has declined with Alzheimer’s. He can’t remember yesterday and speaks very little, but he still recalls that his father was ‘damaged’. Over the Christmas of 2012 I explained about the Repat files and gave him a draft of this chapter. He spent hours slowly reading each page, with an intensity of concentration that he rarely manages nowadays. His eyes narrowed and creased with pain as he recalled his childhood and said that Hector’s physical and mental condition was worse than I described. For a lucid, fragile moment I think that he, too, came to a new understanding about the cause and extent of his father’s illness and about his mother’s tenacity. He agreed that Hector probably did the best he could in the circumstances and consented to the publication of this chapter.

When, as a young man, I researched and wrote the first edition of Anzac Memories, and sought out old war veterans and their stories, I may have been searching for Hector Thomson all along. The topics of historical research often have personal roots, even when we are not aware of them. It’s been good to find Hector in the files and explain the story behind a painful family secret. What I hadn’t been expecting was to my find my grandmother Nell. The Repat files helped me understand the impact of the war on soldiers’ families and the critical postwar role of wives like Nell, both themes that were understated in my interviews with ex-servicemen and in the first edition of Anzac Memories.

One of the ways in which Australians connect to twentieth-century wars is through their own family history.36 When my undergraduate students at Monash University conduct original research in Australian history, many of them turn to relatives who served in the armed forces. It’s easy to investigate family war history because it’s easy to access extensive war records, because war stories are often preserved in oral tradition, and because there is a vast historical literature about Australians at war. Students, like other family members, are drawn to compelling and poignant war histories; they hope to understand an elderly grandparent or a long-lost relative. They often start by framing their family history through the comforting lens of the Anzac legend, though they sometimes make jarring discoveries, such as a grandfather who contracted venereal disease at war, or a relative who exaggerated his military service or success.

How families deal with complicated and even challenging war stories says something about the processes of family remembrance, and about how the Anzac legend works, and sometimes does not work, at the intimate level of the family. For example, my father and his brother Colin knew that Hector had won a Military Medal for bravery and they wore his medals to school on Anzac Day (this was one of the few stories about Hector which they later shared with their own children). Hector did not talk to the boys about his war, and we don’t know exactly when they were told that he had contracted malarial encephalitis at war, though we do know this became the accepted (and faulty) family explanation of his illness. Within the family that diagnosis probably concealed more disturbing concerns about psychosis or depression, and it carried the legitimation of a war-caused illness. We know that my father only learnt after Hector’s death about the time in a mental hospital. Aunt Kathleen carried much of the family oral history and she guarded its secrets carefully. My mother did not meet her future father-in-law until just before her marriage in 1955, and did not learn about his illness till many years later (perhaps my father feared she would baulk at marriage had she known about the family history of mental illness). As a child I grew up with a mixture of heroic stories, half-truths and silences about my family war history. At that time, the bitterness and pain of my father’s memory of Hector was such that he could hardly talk about him at all. The story of Hector’s cousin, the soldier poet Boyd Thomson who died on the Somme and was commemorated in a memorial book of verse, was easier to tell, and to hear.

We need to take care and risks with family history. Broaching secrets and breaching confidences can hurt people we love and disturb the equilibrium of family life and relations. But secrets and lies can be more damaging than confession, and family historians who delve hard and deep can not only make better histories, they can also generate better family understanding. In an Australian context, where the Anzac legend can underpin superficial, limiting stories of Australians at war, family history has an especially important role. Taken seriously, using all the evidence that is now available and questioning family mythology, we can create family histories that illuminate complex, multi-faceted military experience, of bravery and fear, of loss and achievement. More than that, we can show that it is not just military men (and military women) who are affected by war. We can explore the family context and consequences of war, the postwar impacts of war service, and war’s reverberations across the generations. In short, through family history, researched carefully and written with searing honesty and a critical eye, Australians can help create a different type of war history.

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

   by Alistair Thomson