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Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]



‘In my opinion, ex-soldier does not exhibit anything more than a constitutional incapacity to meet his difficulties, with the accompanying feeling of not having got a fair deal. He is, from the same cause, introspective and somewhat hypochondriacal. […] Rejection of Neurosis recommended.’ (Dr Godfrey, reporting on Fred Farrall for the Repatriation Department, 24 July 1939)1

‘Well, you see, the pensions in the 1920s, unless you had an arm off or a leg off or a hand off or something like that, it was almost as hard to get a pension as it would be to win Tatts. There was no recognition of neurosis and other disabilities [....] they treated the diggers as they interviewed them and examined them as though they were tenth rate citizens.’ (Fred Farrall interview, 14 July 1983)2

The Repat

When soldiers come home their war comes with them, but at home there are new battles and the war can make very different sense. The Repat case files open up ways of understanding the postwar lives and war stories of Percy Bird, Bill Langham and Fred Farrall that were not available when I wrote the first edition of Anzac Memories. Their medical files cover the years from enlistment until each man’s death (Percy in 1990, Fred in 1991, and Bill in 1994 just after our book launch), though the files after 1983 were (in 2013) still closed to researchers because of the 30 year rule. In their pension claims and correspondence these men told their stories of war-caused injury or illness to improve their chances of a pension, and that telling was influenced by what they understood, at the time, about their condition — just as Repat medical examinations and decisions were framed by professional imperatives and attitudes. Before I bring new perspectives from the Repat files to the three men’s memory biographies, it will be helpful to explain aspects of Australia’s postwar repatriation system that shaped the relationship between the Repat and ex-servicemen.

Since Anzac Memories was published in 1994, several histories have examined the impact of the war-caused damage that blighted the postwar lives of so many veterans and their families and required support from the Repat; in the interwar years between a quarter and a third of returned soldiers were receiving war pensions for incapacity. Though the Repat’s primary relationship and concern was with returned servicemen, repatriation was a family issue. Families struggled to live with damaged men and suffered through their loss of income and esteem. Wives like Nell Thomson played a crucial role in the family economy and were forced outside their expected domestic roles; sometimes they became an advocate for their men’s rights. Children like David and Colin Thomson bore the lifelong effects of fathers who never recovered from the war. Though Hector Thomson was not a soldier settler, his story also points to the difficulties for families on the land dealing with drought and falling prices and with men who could not manage the arduous demands of rural labour.3

Historians disagree about the generosity of Australia’s repatriation system. In the interwar years, before the expansion of the welfare state in the 1940s, Australians battling poverty or ill-health were often forced to look to charity for support. War pensioners received state benefits that were not available to other Australians, and the full war pension was significantly higher than the old age and invalid pensions. By 1938 over a quarter of a million Australians were being assisted through war pensions (only slightly less than the number receiving old age and invalid benefits), which comprised just under a fifth of total Commonwealth spending. The ‘Repat’ became the colloquial name for the ‘vast medical and welfare bureaucracy’ of the Commonwealth Repatriation Department, which administered not just war pensions but also war gratuities, vocational training, war service homes, veteran hospitals and hostels for long term care, and which funded soldier settlement schemes managed by the states. As the official historians of Repatriation concluded in 1994, ‘Without the Repat the quantum of human wretchedness, physical pain, mental anguish and poverty in the Australian community over three quarters of a century would have been incomparably greater.’4 The war pension that Hector received throughout the 1930s almost certainly enabled him to keep his farm and support his sons.

Yet the interwar Repat was not beneficent nor its war pensions as generous as Australian politicians liked to claim. In 1930 the official war medical historian A.G. Butler calculated that when one factored in higher Australian costs of living the purchasing power of the Australian war pension was less than that of Britain, France, New Zealand, Canada and the USA. Though a standard Australian war pension was higher than the old age and invalid pensions, it was lower than the Australian basic wage. War pensioners were thus consigned to the ‘working poor’.5

Strictly speaking, the war pension was neither a pension nor an entitlement. All returned servicemen had received the war gratuity based on a payment per days of service. But until a war service pension was introduced in 1936 (for veterans aged over 60 and permanently unemployable), the war pension was only paid to men with a war-caused disability. It was calculated in percentage terms according to the effect of the disability on the man’s earning capacity (thus Hector Thomson’s pension varied over the years between 10 and 100 per cent), with additional sums paid for maintenance of a wife and dependent children. Though the pension compensated for loss of earning capacity, the Repat’s aim, in common with other welfare efforts in the first half of the twentieth century, was to create self-reliant citizens who were not dependent on charity, and breadwinning husbands and fathers who could support a family. Repat officers were vigilant against returned men who were perceived to be abusing the system or becoming dependent on it, and were quick to reduce the percentage granted as a man’s employability seemed to improve. Nearly two-thirds of the 72,760 pensions paid in 1924, for example, were set at less than 50 per cent.6

Assessment of incapacity was fraught with difficulties. For some conditions the assessment was reasonably clear-cut, with the loss of a limb or an eye awarded a standard percentage allocation, though even in these cases the pension might vary as a man’s earning capacity improved. The medical definition of incapacity excluded consideration of social and economic factors such as discrimination against disabled workers. For most men — like Hector Thomson — incapacity was difficult to judge. Repat officials made a subjective determination, which was often contested by veterans, based on medical opinion and references from employers or reputable public figures.

Just as difficult to determine was whether or not an incapacity was due to (or, from 1922, aggravated by) war service. One problem was that many of the AIF’s most important wartime medical records had been mistakenly destroyed in London in 1919. Though soldiers’ bodies and minds had been scrutinised and recorded in great detail from enlistment through to discharge, the surviving paper-work offered a partial and often inadequate account of a soldier’s wartime medical history. The medical records that had survived were treated as gospel, so that a suggestion of a pre-war condition or a hint of wartime malingering might haunt a pension claim across the decades. The regard for medical records matched the immense power of the medical authorities, and especially the Repat doctors, whose judgement about war-relatedness and incapacity was usually decisive. The power of the Repat doctors was one expression of the professionalisation of medical practice in the early decades of the twentieth century and its increasingly close relationship with the governments seeking to record, improve and control public health.7

In the early twentieth century medical understanding of war damage was often indeterminate and, as we saw with the diagnoses of Hector Thomson’s condition, doctors could make very different sense of the same set of symptoms, depending on training and expertise, professional context, and personal attitudes. For example, in the mid-1920s cases of war neurosis were three time more likely to be accepted in Victoria than they were in New South Wales.8 Proving war-relatedness was especially difficult for intangible damage — such as that caused by gassing or ‘shell shock’ — which manifested through internal or psychological symptoms that were difficult to assess, let alone understand, and which had different effects over time. Medical explanations were also influenced by prevailing ideas about the relative impact of environment (both wartime and postwar) on the one hand, and of heredity and character on the other. The Repat files are crowded with moral judgements about family traits and mental weakness that affected pension decisions, particularly in cases of mental ill-health such as Hector Thomson and, as we shall see, Fred Farrall.

In the interwar years most Repat staff, including the doctors, were themselves war veterans, but any sympathy they might have had for fellow returned men was tempered by their bureaucratic role and by their social background and values. Repat doctors were usually former officers from upper-middle-class backgrounds, and as historian Kate Blackmore argues, they mostly shared a set of conservative and ‘militaristic’ social values about hierarchical authority, personal responsibility and moral character. Repat medical decisions were ‘seriously compromised by the values and class interests of senior doctors, by the characteristic indeterminacy of medicine as a body of knowledge and by the social constitution of disease or illness’. The responsibility for the well-being of ex-servicemen was also compromised by a public service commitment to bureaucratic efficiency and financial accountability. In 1943 a Repat doctor wrote to official historian Butler that ‘of course a departmental M.O. [medical officer] cannot be a “nice kind doctor” by giving away public moneys, he has to be like all Public Servants “a careful custodian of the public exchequer” […] Moreover the majority of departmental clients were not “heroes” but plain men and many of them were not as much “wounded” as they wished to be.’ By contrast, as we saw in the case files for Hector Thomson, family doctors who were not employed by the Repat, and specialists who were paid for their opinions but who were not public servants, might be less influenced by bureaucratic and financial imperatives.9

The interwar Repat case files record a protracted battle between the Repat and veterans and their supporters. The stress caused by the adversarial process of pension claims took its toll, as we saw in the increasingly desperate tone of Nell Thomson’s letters. Over time the terms of engagement would change, as effective lobbying by ex-service organisations in the 1930s and 1940s gradually shifted the burden of proof in pension claims so that rather than the veteran having to prove that a condition was war-caused the Repat had to prove ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that it was not. With the return of World War II servicemen and women, and with a financial context and social attitudes that enabled more generous spending on veterans, the period from the 1950s to the 1970s saw the sustained enhancement of repatriation entitlements.10

In the 1980s and early 1990s when I wrote the memory biographies of Percy Bird, Bill Langham and Fred Farrall that appear unchanged in this book in chapters 3, 6 and 9, I was mostly reliant upon the men’s memories to explain their earlier lives and to suggest how their war stories developed over time. I used their interview accounts about the significant influences and changes in their lives, and about their story-telling in the past — in the trenches or behind the lines, at unit reunions or war commemorations, as they read new war books or went to films like Gallipoli — to explore the development of their war and repatriation stories, and to gauge the impact of different factors. Memory biography was, necessarily, a speculative process.

The Repat files provide a contemporary source which reveals change in these men’s lives and attitudes as it happened, albeit mediated by the aims and processes of the Repatriation Department. The following additions to my memory biographies tap this new source. The files expand our understanding of Percy, Bill and Fred’s postwar lives and of the repatriation process. The Repat records test and stretch my understanding and use of veterans’ memories and show how their relationship with the Repat was one context in which these men created war stories and drafted the memories which they later shared with me.

Percy Bird

Percy Bird’s Repat medical file is very thin. It’s important not to overlook such thin files.11 Browsing amongst the Repat medical records the historian is readily drawn to the fat files generated about veterans with serious ongoing health concerns like Fred Farrall. The thin files of men like Percy Bird represent veterans who were not so badly affected by war and its aftermath. Compared with many World War I veterans Percy had an easy and healthy return to civilian life, and had little need for state support. There was no recurrence of the tubercular neck gland that caused his discharge in 1917. He had a successful postwar career and was an active sportsman for much of his life. A Repat medical examination in 1967, when Percy was 78, concluded that he was a ‘very fit active intelligent man’ for his age.12

The most intriguing aspect of Percy’s Repat file is the record of the neck condition that ended his war service. In 1983 Percy explained to me that in April 1917, while working behind the lines at Lagnicourt in northern France, he got a ‘touch of gas’ and his ‘TB glands started to swell’. Wartime medical records confirm that Percy first noticed the swelling on the left side of his neck about May 1917, and that ‘tubercular glands’ were removed by operation on 24 August. Percy had a condition known as ‘scrofula’, a bacterial infection of the lymph nodes in the neck which in adults is often caused by the tuberculosis bacteria and is usually observed in patients with a weakened immune system. TB infection was rife in the crowded and insanitary conditions of the trenches, and was a major cause of casualties. Both the doctor who operated on Percy in 1917 and the Medical Board that decided he was ‘permanently unfit for General Service’, agreed that Percy had been predisposed to TB by the ‘climate in which he was serving’, in other words by conditions on the Western Front. They noted that although the operation was successful, Percy looked ‘white & is not as well as he should be’. This was not unexpected. Scrofula caused by TB is often accompanied by symptoms such as fever and weight loss. Those symptoms were not in themselves sufficient reason for medical discharge from the army, and it is most likely (though not recorded in the surviving records) that Percy was returned home and discharged because of the fear that he might be infectious.13

There is nothing in the wartime medical records to suggest that Percy’s ‘tubercular neck glands’ might have been caused by gassing. Indeed, the army doctors stressed that his condition was ‘not directly due to active service’ but was contracted whilst Percy was on service and could be attributed ‘more or less to climate’. Like most soldiers serving in the appalling conditions of the Western Front, Percy was probably immuno-suppressed and thus vulnerable to TB infection, but gassing would not have caused a bacterial infection and the relationship between the gas attack and the subsequent swelling of Percy’s lymph nodes was probably no more than coincidental. But during and immediately after the war there was a widespread popular belief that gas poisoning could trigger a latent TB infection. Percy probably assumed that the tubercular swelling that followed so soon after his gassing was caused by the gas, and it may be that medical staff or even fellow soldiers suggested that connection, though it was never recorded in the files.14

It is not surprising that after the war Percy explained his premature return and discharge as due to the effects of a gas attack. The doctors on the homecoming ship and during a subsequent week of observation at Caulfield Repatriation Hospital established that he was fully healed and that the TB had not infected his lungs and he was not infectious. But Percy would have known of the social stigma of the dreaded ‘white plague’, and as a young man returning to work and marriage he may not have wanted to talk about his TB diagnosis. Gassing, on the other hand, was a respectable war wound. During the war Percy had felt guilty about leaving his 5th Battalion mates to take on clerical duties on the ship in 1916 and behind the lines in 1917, and though he was ‘glad to get away’ when he was repatriated to Australia he was almost certainly uneasy about leaving his battalion. By explaining his medical return as the result of a gas attack Percy had a story that made a legitimate and reassuring sense of his premature discharge. It was a story that stuck.15

Percy made very few claims on the Repat. In February 1918, when he fronted a Medical Board in Melbourne, Percy explained that he was about to return to his pre-war clerical job with the Railways and that after the long sea voyage he felt ‘all right’. The Board concluded that he was not eligible for a war pension because he was ‘not now incapacitated as result of war-like operations’.16 Almost 50 years later, 13 years into retirement, Percy reappears in the Repat file in 1967. He had been experiencing dizziness and stomach pains, and an old school friend who was a Repat Board member ‘repeatedly requested me to be examined by your department but this is the first time I have made application’. In a hand-written statement Percy described his gassing at Lagnicourt, the swelling it caused in his neck, and the operation that he believed saved his life, using almost exactly the same words as our interview in 1983. Of his recent stomach trouble he wrote, ‘I cannot say whether or not this is due to the war but the 1916/1917 winter in France was the worst winter for 30 years and the conditions the soldiers had to put up with must have some affect [sic] on them now.’ Like many aging veterans Percy was wondering whether the ailments of later life might have had an origin in the war. The Repat accepted that the ‘Healed Cervical Adenitis’ (from his neck operation) was war-caused but decided there was no incapacity to warrant a pension. Percy’s other claims for anaemia and dyspepsia were rejected because there was no documented connection to war service. Percy probably agreed with that decision. He was not in poor health and had only been persuaded to apply by a mate who thought Percy deserved recompense for war service. A few years later he wrote that ‘I have never had any serious illness at any time in my life so I wasn’t surprised when I was notified after a thorough examination that I was not eligible for a pension’.17

Percy Bird was not a man who sought undue benefit from the Repat system. He had no great need until he moved into an RSL nursing home in the mid-1980s. Unlike many other veterans, he had come through the war without lasting physical or mental damage, and had enjoyed a healthy and successful postwar life. In 1980 Percy’s son-in-law asked the Repat to provide Percy with a medical alarm system, now that he was widowed and living alone and might suffer a fall. Percy was a sprightly 91 year old — just as I remember him from our first meeting in 1983. The Repat inspector who visited Percy in Williamstown wrote a thoughtful and moving report about Percy and the quality of support that he enjoyed from family members and neighbours. Percy told him that he did not need the alarm.

Bill Langham

Bill Langham’s Repat file confirms that the detail of his remembering in our interviews was often impressively accurate. Many of the incidents which Bill related in 1983 and 1987 are recorded in the files, though as we will see, the Repat did not always represent Bill’s emotions and understandings in his terms. Bill’s stories about taking absence without leave in the months after the war ended are corroborated by punishments recorded in his AIF service record. The details of his head wound are confirmed by medical reports, as are the decisions and consequences of his Melbourne discharge in 1919, his failed attempts to win a pension in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and his eventual success in 1976.

Though there are errors and contradictions in Bill’s Repat file, the only significant discrepancy between the official records and what I took from our interviews leaps out of a 1933 pension application, which records Bill as a ‘Widower — one child’. I met Bill’s wife at our second interview in 1987 and made the mistake of assuming she was the same woman he married in the 1920s. Bill did not talk much about his family in the interviews, and said nothing about the death of his first wife or about being a single father. I’ve since discovered that Bill’s first wife Vena died in the late 1920s after the birth of their second child (who also died) when their surviving son John was two. Bill’s widowed mother moved into the family home in Yarraville to keep house and help raise the child, until Bill remarried in 1937. Perhaps for Bill the death of his first wife was a difficult topic that he preferred not to mention; perhaps he felt it was not relevant in interviews about the war and its impact on his life. I was focused on the war and its effects and did not clarify Bill’s family history, which was an important part of the story. The lapse is a sharp reminder for interviewers to record vital personal details, to follow up on the clues and to explore significant silences.18

A careful analysis of the Repat files also confirms that Bill Langham was — as he claimed in our interview — badly treated by the Repat in the interwar years. When Bill and his horse were shot down on 1 October 1918, the shrapnel wound on the right side of Bill’s scalp damaged the muscles that controlled the movement of his right eye. Though his eye was not affected, the doctors at Colchester Eye Hospital in England reported that Bill was suffering ‘diplopia’ (double vision) because he could not look to the left with the right eye. In 1918 the damage to the eye muscle would have been untreatable, though by 11 October the medical notes reported the diplopia was ‘improving’, and by the 28th the doctors concluded that Bill was fit to leave because there was ‘No fracture. No disability. Feels well.’19

Back in Melbourne, in March 1919 a Medical Board recorded that Langham said he felt ‘quite well’. On examination they concluded there was ‘Nil abnormal’ and discharged Bill in ‘A’ grade health, a decision that would prove significant for Bill’s pension claims. The doctors’ transcription of ‘feels quite well’ misrepresented what Bill said and thought at the time, in an incident he recalled with vivid detail in our interview. Taken straight from the ship to Melbourne’s Sturt Street barracks, he had seen his mother and little brother waiting for him outside the gates. Desperate to join them, after a two hour wait for his medical inspection he told the doctors that he ‘didn’t give a continental’ what they graded him as long as he could get out to his family. Told that he had 14 days to appeal the decision, Bill missed the deadline while he was enjoying his homecoming, and then assumed that he had missed his chance and let it slip. After several years at war the eye problem was a minor inconvenience and he was just keen to get on with his life.20

By 1927 Bill decided that his eye was causing enough trouble to warrant a pension. He wrote to the Repat explaining why he had not appealed the Medical Board decision in 1919, and that he had been ‘suffering from the effects of the wounds in my head ever since I returned home’. He told Dr Craig that the wound caused headaches and ‘frontal attacks of giddiness’ which made him stagger and fall over at work. Craig noted that Bill’s right eye could not rotate properly to the left. A second doctor, O’Brien, confused the issue by ignoring the double vision and giddiness (a likely consequence of diplopia) and instead diagnosing defective eyesight. O’Brien concluded that this disability was ‘aggravated by war service’ and required glasses. Bill did have impaired eyesight due to astigmatism (a defect in the shape of the lens) but this would not have been caused by his war wound. Ignoring Craig’s report, and dismissing O’Brien’s erroneous finding that astigmatism was aggravated by the war, the Repat decided that Bill’s head wound was war-caused but rejected the claim for defective vision (and associated complaints of ‘pain above right eye’, nasal catarrh and right frontal sinusitis) as not due to war service. It didn’t help Bill’s cause that he failed to attend two medical examinations and was not able to press the case for recognition of the effects of diplopia. As a soldier and a veteran Bill was a serial absence-without-leave offender (in this case perhaps he did not fully comprehend the seriousness of the examinations or the consequences of his absence). But even without Bill present the Repat should have seen the records from both 1918 and 1927 that linked war-caused diplopia to dizziness and headaches.21

In 1933, now a widower in Yarraville supporting a young son, Bill tried again. Probably influenced by Dr O’Brien’s suggestion that his poor eyesight was aggravated by war service, this time Bill made the mistake of claiming for defective vision caused by astigmatism rather than for the double vision. The Repat rightly ruled that astigmatism was unrelated to Bill’s diplopia and was not war-caused, and that in any case the incapacity was negligible because astigmatism could be corrected with glasses. Bill was refused a pension on the grounds that there were ‘no after effects’ of the head wound and no pensionable incapacities. In our interview Bill angrily recalled that he was required to return glasses that he had previously received from the Repat. Though there is no record of that request in the file, Bill’s conviction that the Repat made mistakes about the position and nature of his war wound is corroborated by the written records, including his aggrieved correspondence of the time. Without realising that he had claimed for the wrong complaint, and without any advice to that effect from the Repat, Bill gave up on a pension for the next 40 years. The whole sorry episode generated a bitter memory of the postwar Repat and confirmed Bill’s belief that ‘When we want you to go away and fight we’ll give you the world, but when you come back we’ll take it off you again’.22

In 1975 the President of Bill’s local RSL club in Yarraville decided that his case ‘surely’ warranted a medical review and wrote to the Repat that ‘Like most soldiers at the end of their war service’ Bill was ‘in a hurry to finalise his Military Service and did not receive the repatriation service he was entitled to. He tried and had two or three rebuffs and did not carry on. I would like to add he received a head wound and the scar still shows, his sight has been impaired and a health deterioration [sic].’ The RSL helped Bill complete a new claim in which he explained that as a result of the head wound he had ‘suffered with headaches for many years’, had been ‘embarrassed by being cross-eyed’, and yet had received no compensation from the Department. At first the Repat rejected the claim, arguing that the headaches were probably caused by an age-related degeneration of the spine and not by his old wound. But on appeal a new doctor examined Bill’s Repat records more carefully and realised that Bill had been treated for diplopia in 1918, that the eye muscle damage which caused double vision was sustained on active service, and that Bill could not see properly to his left side. The incapacity was judged at 10 per cent and Bill finally got his pension, though as he ruefully remarked to me, it came 56 years too late.23

By comparison with some veterans, the medical consequences of Bill’s war wound were inconvenient and distressing but did not have a serious impact on his health (he was, the Repat noted in 1980, a ‘remarkably fit octogenarian’).24 Yet Bill’s battle for a pension, revealed by Repat records used in tandem with our interviews, illustrates several features of the relationship between veterans and the Repat. It demonstrates the mistake that many veterans made at discharge in not fully reporting medical conditions for fear of delaying their release from service. The records show how the interwar Repat was suspicious about ‘false’ claims and might not give a veteran the benefit of the doubt when medical evidence was incomplete or inconclusive, and that its staff were quick to deduce that a condition was not war-caused and slow to help a veteran develop a more convincing claim. The episode highlights the power of the Repat bureaucracy and the use of medical jargon that bewildered and disempowered veterans. Making a pension claim was confusing and stressful for veterans, and Bill was right to be upset about his treatment and to bear a lifelong grudge against the Repat.

Fred Farrall

Of all the veterans featured in Anzac Memories, Fred Farrall has had the greatest impact on readers and reviewers. People seem to be drawn to the shell-shocked soldier who became an anti-war activist, to a story that cuts across Anzac expectations. My writings about Fred have been republished in anthologies and reprinted in student readers. Most recently, in 2010 the Socialist Alternative magazine and website featured Fred as a centrepiece of an article attacking the ‘celebration of war’ on Anzac Day. Fred’s story, argued Kyla Cassells, proved ‘the absolute lie’ of the defence that ‘Anzac Day doesn’t promote militarism, but recognises those who fought and died in past wars’.25 Fred had wanted me to promote an anti-war moral through his interview. As a novice historian and occasional peace activist in the 1980s, was I too quick to accept Fred’s story and mythologise his radical life? New sources enable me to confront that question and add fresh layers to my account of Fred’s life and memory.

Fred Farrall’s Repat medical files are 10.75 centimetres thick. Five fat files cover eight health conditions that were accepted as war-caused, the first in 1920 and the last in 1981. None of the conditions were medically straightforward and all were the subject of endless claims, appeals and arguments. The files present rich evidence of the on-going physical and mental impact of the war, and of the postwar battles between the Repat and a damaged veteran. They illustrate contradictions and changes in Repat medical understandings, and how the Repat characterised ‘vexatious’ applicants like Fred and used moral judgements to inform pension decisions.

Apart from the Repat files, Fred’s own papers are now available at the University of Melbourne Archives. There are 69 archive boxes of files related to Fred’s role in the Federated Clerks’ Union and the Communist Party, as a Prahran City Councillor and Mayor, and as an enthusiastic member of the Henry Lawson Society, St Kilda Football Club and other organisations. Scattered throughout the collection are several unlisted boxes with files about the war, including press cuttings, notes about books on the war and material from our interview. There are also several files of Fred’s correspondence with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs from the late 1970s, which include copies of some of the Department’s documents about Fred in the 1980s that are still closed in the National Archives.

Stashed within Fred’s papers is a sheaf of five letters Fred wrote to his mother and siblings from English military hospitals after he was wounded at Polygon Wood in 1917. Fred’s letters, which he did not show me in the 1980s, are suggestive about his wartime attitudes and about his postwar storytelling. In the letters, Fred explained to his family that this correspondence, unlike letters from active service, was not censored, though it is clear that he did not want to upset his mother or represent his own actions in too negative a light. To his mother he wrote that before the attack ‘every man was anxious to get a crack at the Boche’ [Germans] and explained that ‘I got my crack’ [wound] during heavy shelling as they charged the German line. To his sister Laura he wrote that he would never ‘forget the 26th of September 1917 in a hurry […] We enlisted to fight didn’t we & now we are getting it & Ypres is the worst ever the Anzacs were in. I don’t care though Laura. I won’t lose any sleep about going back to the firing line.’ Bravado does not entirely conceal anxiety about the immediate and long-term future. ‘There is a very big chance of me getting trench feet again this winter. But I’ll have to chance it, & what a useless lot of cripples we’ll be in a few years with rheumatics, etc. We’ll be always patching up & messing about with doctors and hospitals, that’s just what it will be Laura.’

Fred wrote the most detailed account of the battle to his older brother Sam, who was back on the farm at Ganmain. This eight-page letter from 1917 is very close in factual detail to the interview account from 1983: waiting in shell holes for the order to attack while suffering a terrible bombardment, with wounded and dead men ‘everywhere’; losing his rifle and then advancing behind a British barrage; copping a ‘Blighty’ wound in the leg (‘I was as happy as could be Sam, when I got knocked’); hobbling back five miles to safety ‘under shell fire all the time’ past the wounded and dead (‘that’s what hurts most Sam, to see our dead & wounded lying everywhere & can’t help them’). Fred was ‘done in’ when he finally reached the Field Ambulance in Ypres; his ‘leg was cold’ and he ‘couldn’t move a yard’. There is, however, one significant difference between the battle stories told in the letter and in the interview. In the interview Fred described sheltering in a concrete pillbox where German prisoners were helping Australian and British wounded while a couple of miles further up ‘they were carrying on with the job of killing one another as fast as they could’. It was this scene, Fred recalled in the interview, which planted the seeds of his questioning about the war and ‘how silly can we be’. The pillbox shelter is not mentioned in the letter to Sam, though Fred does tell his brother it was ‘a pleasure to see the German dead & to see the prisoners coming in & how cunning they are too the rotters. They fight till the last & then throw up their hands & expect mercy.’ The prisoners, wrote Fred, made themselves ‘very useful as stretcher bearers & helping our wounded out. They know that our chaps won’t hurt them if they are doing that.’26

The letters from 1917 suggest that Fred had little if any pacifist or inter-nationalist feelings at that time, and confirm that Fred’s experience with German prisoners took on a different meaning later in his life. Perhaps the seeds were ‘planted’ in 1917, as Fred suggests, but the pacifist story took root and flourished with Fred’s political conversion in the late 1920s. This incident, with its political lesson, would become one of Fred’s defining life stories. At his 90th birthday celebration in 1987, Fred told the pillbox story to an audience which included the Consul from the German Democratic Republic, and concluded, once again, that this was the moment when his loyalty for warfare was shaken because he realised ‘how stupid it all was’.27

Fred Farrall’s Repat files, including the set within the Farrall Papers, show that he was not a passive victim of the war or the Repat, but that he became, in time, a determined and articulate activist for his own cause and for other veterans. Fred Farrall learnt how to work the Repat system to best advantage. He probably believed that his growing list of ailments were all war-caused, and he certainly believed that he deserved compensation for the effects of the war, even where cause and effect were difficult to determine. Over the years he listened carefully but selectively to doctors who examined and treated him, and where a diagnosis made useful sense he incorporated it into his war and Repat story. As I explained in earlier chapters, Fred’s story of the war and its aftermath was shaped by his distinctive experiences of service and injury, by his bitterness about postwar mistreatment, by the socialist politics he developed in the 1930s, and by new ways of understanding war and its soldier victims that became available by the 1970s. The Repat files reveal details that Fred did not relate in our interviews but they also show how parts of Fred’s interview story had already been articulated through his adversarial relationship with the Repat.

Like most veterans applying to the Repat, Fred insisted that he was ‘always in good health’ prior to enlistment, and there is no reason to doubt that claim. The record of Fred’s enlistment age (18 years and three months), height (five foot eight inches, about 1.73 metres) and weight (126 pounds, about 57 kilograms) support his memory that in December 1915 he was a callow and skinny recruit by comparison with his perception of the tough bushmen on the ‘Kangaroo’ recruiting march. Wartime medical records corroborate his memory of the dates and details of each of the injuries and ailments he suffered on the Western Front, and show that during three years of military service he spent about six months in three separate periods on active service, with the balance of time in military hospitals and then recuperating in army bases in England.28

Fred had joined the 55th Battalion in France in late September 1916. In November he had four days treatment out of the line for rheumatism, and then on 17 December he was reported with trench foot and invalided to hospital in England. Trench foot was caused by the damp, cold and insanitary conditions of the front. Constricting footwear and wet socks affected the blood supply to the feet and caused swelling, blisters and open sores which could lead to infection and gangrene if not treated. Most of the hospital records that would have detailed Fred’s condition and treatment were lost, probably in 1919. Fred later claimed that the injury was exacerbated by an incompetent officer who ignored the first symptoms and sent him to an outpost in no man’s land for another four days until his feet were so bad that three mates had to carry him behind the lines for treatment. A surviving hospital report from January 1917 recorded the ‘anaesthesia’ of Fred’s toes which were ‘very cold’ and ‘discoloured’. Another report from July 1917 reported that when Fred left the line ‘the skin was broken’ on his feet, and though the sores had now healed, his feet were ‘still stiff & rather painful’ and required further treatment by massage. Six months later he wrote to his sister Laura that the cold December weather was ‘playing havoc with my old feet’, which suffered him ‘a few hours torture every morning’. Fred would later argue to the Repat that a stay of more than six months in English hospitals for trench foot was evidence of the seriousness of a condition that he blamed for much of his postwar ill-health.29

In August 1917 Fred rejoined his Battalion in Flanders and within a month suffered the wound to his left knee and went back to hospital in England. The flesh wound caused no bone injury and was ‘practically healed’ by the end of October when Fred left hospital, yet for reasons that are not recorded Fred was listed as unfit for active service and remained in English army camps until he was finally declared fit to return to the Battalion in France in October 1918. In our interview Fred recalled that it was during this second period of hospitalisation in England that he showed the first signs of a nervous condition. There is no record of ‘nerves’ in any of the surviving wartime medical documents or in his wartime letters, but the length of time that Fred was kept in English hospitals and camps suggests there may have been tacit official recognition that he was suffering from more than the physical wound.30

When Fred arrived back in Sydney in July 1919 he reported that his feet were still painful on walking and was admitted to a military hospital in Randwick for a further six months of treatment, for which no records survive. Upon discharge from both hospital and army in January 1920 he was still complaining of pain in his feet as well as back pain and was granted a war pension at 25 per cent. Told that his foot and knee conditions would not interfere with ‘any of the callings for which he desires training’, Fred was classified fit for moderate work and commenced Repat vocational training in motor body trimming. In October he had a minor throat operation (possibly for infected tonsils which were not accepted as war-caused) and a Repat doctor concluded there was ‘no objective sign of trouble’ with his feet and there ‘should not be any disability now’. In November Fred’s war pension was cancelled.

Over the next few years Fred continued to complain about his feet and knee to his local ‘lodge’ doctor, Dr Graham (like many Australians, Fred paid for medical care through membership of a Friendly Society or ‘lodge’). In 1926 Graham reported to the Repat that in 1921 Fred’s condition ‘did not appear to be serious yet he was emphatic regarding the discomfort of his feet and knee joint’. Fred later recalled that in 1921 Dr Graham encouraged him to appeal to the Repat for his ailments, but the Repat advised that a claim was unlikely to be accepted. In 1953 Fred wrote that after that rebuff in the early 1920s he ‘was annoyed and did not bother further’ with the Repat, and in 1983 he told me the same story.31

Most intriguing, and most frustrating, is Fred’s statement to the Repat in 1939 that in 1920 and 1921 he was treated for ‘nerves’ by Dr Arthur of Macquarie Street, Sydney. There was nothing in the 1920s Repat records to support Fred’s statement, and a Repat investigation in 1939 revealed that Arthur’s practice had closed after his death in 1932 and his case files could not be located. Fred did not recall this treatment in his interview with me, but it seems unlikely to have been an invention. Richard Arthur was a prominent doctor and public figure who treated nervous disorders including shell shock at his Macquarie Street practice in the 1920s. Arthur’s missing files might have proved that Fred was suffering from some form of nervous condition when he returned from the war, and would have prevented the Repat from concluding, as they would in 1939, that any such condition was caused by Fred’s inability to deal with postwar circumstances.32

Fred’s employers did provide the Repat with evidence that his health was not good in the early 1920s. In 1939 his ‘old Foreman’ at the Meadowbank Manufacturing Company told the Repat that when Fred was a motor trimmer from 1922 to 1924 he did ‘not appear to enjoy best of health but always worked well’ and was a ‘very good man’. Mr Da Silva, the owner of an upholstery company which employed Fred from 1924, reported in 1926 that Fred’s health had been ‘very indifferent’, and that he suffered from ‘dysentery’, copious nose bleeds, and pain in his legs and feet. Fred had lost a few days off work with his gastric complaints, and because upholsterers had to do ‘almost all their work in a standing position’ there were, explained Da Silva, other days when he should have been ‘at home instead of at work’. In spite of these ailments, after 1921 Fred did, as he later recalled, stay away from the Repat until his health collapsed in 1926.33

By the mid-1920s Fred was living in a war service home in Rockdale, was married (in 1923) to Sylvia with a daughter, Valerie, born in February 1925. He was also getting involved in union and Labor Party politics. In our interview Fred recalled that in 1926 he suffered a ‘general breakdown’ which in retrospect he explained as a result of a war-caused nervous condition such that ‘You don’t appear to have any energy or any, you know, desire to stir yourself’. The escalating paperwork in Fred’s Repat file confirms his deteriorating health, though the records — including Fred’s own written testimony — focus on Fred’s physical rather than mental health. In October 1926 Fred began to frequent the Outpatient Clinic at Randwick Repatriation Hospital and submitted a formal appeal against the cancellation of his pension in 1920. He argued that his feet and legs had ‘never been quite right since I contracted trench feet on the Somme’, and that during the past 18 months he had ‘suffered more pain and inconvenience than previously’. He could no longer play sport and his legs ached after much walking or standing, and it was increasingly difficult to carry on at a job which required him to stand. He also claimed that in the previous four years he had suffered stomach problems which were worst at the start of summer and caused him to lose days off work. Upon request from the Repat his employers now provided evidence about Fred’s ill-health, and the lodge doctor Graham confirmed that Fred had lost weight over the past two years, that he suffered from diarrhoea, and that the pain in the feet had become ‘more pronounced’.34

The Repat doctors who examined Fred noted the wartime documentation about trench foot, rheumatism and naso-pharyngeal infection (a nose and throat condition with cold-like symptoms), accepted that all three conditions were war-caused, and agreed to reinstate Fred’s pension, back-dated to April 1926. But the decision that incapacity due to those conditions was only 15 per cent suggests that although the Repat felt obliged to restore Fred’s war pension the doctors were not convinced there was very much wrong with him.35

Fred was furious about the decision, and wrote from his parents’ property in Ganmain that the pension of six shillings and three pence per week was ‘quite inadequate’. It was ‘absolutely impossible’ to continue at work because of his legs and feet and he had now come to the country to ‘live with my people, & seek better health’ (it is not clear if he was accompanied by his wife and child, whom he almost never mentioned in claims or correspondence). He complained that he had wasted many days and much income attending Repatriation examinations, but that ‘except for the paltry pension’ he had received ‘no treatment & no satisfaction’ from the Department, whose doctors ‘evidently do not value time’. He concluded, ‘I do not wish to draw a pension, would rather be fit & well. But when my health is not what it should be, & I am refused treatment for a war disability, I consider I am at least entitled to a decent pension.’36

Over the next decade, at regular examinations and in response to repeated appeals, the Repat acknowledged that Fred had ‘a long list of complaints’ but they could find no ‘objective’ evidence of significant war-caused incapacity. Foot X-rays showed that Fred had ‘marked’ flat feet but ‘no other bony changes’, and that the flat feet ‘satisfactorily’ explained pain in the feet on standing which was thus not due to war service. There was no comment on whether Fred’s feet had nerve damage or poor blood circulation, which were more likely consequences of trench foot than bone damage and might still be causing pain. In fact, a confidential report written by a private doctor in 1927 in support of an application by Fred for life insurance, which was obtained by a Repat investigator in 1939, had noted that the pain in Fred’s feet probably was due to the disturbance of circulation caused by the wartime damage. The Repat doctors did not make that connection.37

In the late 1920s and early 1930s there was widespread Australian publicity about a phenomenon that became known as the ‘burnt out digger’. Increasing numbers of veterans were reporting to the Repat and to the press with multiple health complaints which they claimed had their origins in the war and which were now recurring as their bodies aged and they suffered the economic hardship of the interwar years. Many veterans were certainly suffering the physical and mental effects of war. Some may have exaggerated their ailments or invented the war connection to get a better pension in hard times. Repat doctors were suspicious of fraud and malingering, and with the Department seeking to reduce public spending its doctors were unlikely to accept doubtful claims. Between 1930 and 1934 the case load of Repat enquiries and claims increased but the number of accepted claims fell dramatically.38

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s — as Fred made frequent complaints and appeals — it is quite clear that the Repat doctors thought he was exaggerating or inventing his symptoms to get a better deal. One remarked in 1927, ‘I doubt if he will confess improvement until pension decided’. The doctors’ medical conclusions were profoundly influenced by their judgement of Fred’s physical and mental character. He was ‘a thin, rather slow type of man’; he was a ‘small poorly nourished and anaemic man with nasal voice — slow and dull witted — has a long list of complaints etc’; he was a ‘spare nervous man’ with ‘wide set ears’; he looked ‘gloomy’ and did not ‘seem to have enough sense to bend his knees when asked’. These characterisations — with their hint of eugenics (the social movement that sought to correct undesirable human hereditary traits) — implied that Fred was unwell because he was a feeble specimen in both mind and body. Nor were the doctors impressed by what they perceived to be Fred’s verbose and argumentative manner. Fred was ‘loquacious’ and ‘querulous’; he had ‘a knack of hindering exam, and questioning’; he gave a ‘most unhelpful history’. As a unionist and Labor Party member from 1926, a Labor-nominated Justice of the Peace in 1929, a committed Communist from 1930 and Communist Party candidate for the New South Wales elections in 1932, Fred had learnt how to make a case and deal with authorities, and the doctors did not like his challenge to their authority.39

Repat doctors were quick to dismiss Fred as a hypochondriac and attribute his complaints to moral and bodily weakness, but they did not countenance that his ill-health might have psychological causes with their origin in the war. Fred himself did not make that connection or even mention his ‘nerves’ in his correspondence with the Repat before 1938. If it is true that Fred had seen Dr Arthur for nerves in 1920 it is likely that he suspected it was war-caused, but perhaps he believed he had a better chance of success with the Repat if he emphasised physical symptoms that could be directly linked to conditions listed in his wartime medical records. Yet within the Repat records of the 1920s and 30s there is ample evidence of Fred’s mental ill-health. Fred was described as ‘lethargic’ and ‘neurasthenic’ (a listlessness and fatigue due to nerves); he looked ‘gloomy’; he was a ‘nervous man’; he had a ‘slight impediment in speech’; he ‘wrinkled’ his forehead and displayed ‘almost tic-like movement’. Farrall was, concluded one Repat doctor in 1927, ‘neuropathic’ (a person of abnormal nervous sensibility or affected by nervous disease). Yet none of the Repat doctors considered whether or not these symptoms might have been war-caused. Indeed, one asked in 1927 if there was ‘any record of his mental condition before’ but concluded that Fred’s ‘mental dullness might be constitutional or due to ill-health’ caused by his ‘record of work since the war’. If the nervous condition was not war-caused then the Repat was not responsible for its treatment, and none was offered.40

Fred badly needed a war pension in the 1930s. Early in 1930 the Don Brothers furniture factory closed down and Fred lost his job. State Labour Exchange and Relief Bureau records, obtained by the Repat in 1939, show that after a short-lived and unsuccessful attempt to start his own upholstery business, Fred was unemployed until the end of the decade and survived off the 15 per cent pension, food relief and occasional relief work (he was classified as physically unfit for relief work in 1934 and again in 1938). Shortly after joining the Communist Party in 1930, Fred separated from his wife and child. There was certainly a political disagreement between Fred and his wife’s more conservative family, but perhaps Fred’s mental and physical state also contributed to the break up. As explained in the earlier chapter, Fred now teamed up with fellow-Communist Dot Parker, who would be his life partner until her death in 1979. Repat records suggest that Fred paid some or all of his pension to Sylvia and Valerie until at least the 1940s. Fred must have been struggling financially and needed a better pension from the Repat. In 1935 he enlisted the help of the RSSILA and in 1937 he asked for support from government Minister Billy Hughes: ‘We all know that you have always been a very good friend to the Diggers when they have a genuine grievance, and I consider that I am being unfairly treated in the matter of pension. I am unemployed and through my war disabilities, I am unable to do manual work.’ There is no record of a response from Hughes, but the Repat steadfastly refused to raise Fred’s pension above 15 per cent.41

At the end of 1938 Fred was still unemployed and drawing food relief, and in December he moved to Melbourne with Dot to look for work. He had lost his war discharge certificate and now wrote to army records requesting a copy because his ‘prospects of suitable employment’ required that he ‘possess this document’. The radical Melbourne lawyer and politician Bill Slater, another veteran of the Western Front, was trying to get Fred a job as a lift driver in a hotel, and they needed evidence of his service to make the case for soldier preference. Though Fred recalled to me that by this time he was politically alienated from the army, the RSSILA and the patriotic celebration of Anzac, the letter to army records, along with his use of the League and indeed of Billy Hughes in his pension claims, shows that he had no qualms about asserting his ex-service status when it suited him.42 To Fred’s dismay the hotel opted to employ young women, who were cheaper. As a new arrival in Melbourne he was ineligible for dole relief and relied on Dot’s wages and casual work helping relatives who ran a café, until he finally got a job as a cleaner in a bank, followed by wartime clerical work with the public service.

Repat records confirm that at the time of his move to Melbourne Fred was suffering a breakdown in his health comparable to that in 1926. In 1938 he submitted two separate appeals against his pension level on the grounds of ‘increasing disability due to trench feet, bad nerves and general health’ evidenced by rheumatism in his shoulder, nasal catarrh, knee pain, giddiness, nausea and headaches. This was the first time he had mentioned nerves in an appeal, and on examination he explained that he was ‘upset by excitement and noise’, had ‘frequent dreams’ and was easily fatigued. Both the 1938 appeals were rejected because, according to the Repat doctors, there was ‘no evident disability’ in his feet. Though the doctors had noted Fred’s ‘nervous manner’, the Repat decision did not mention the complaint about nerves.43

In May 1939 Fred tried again, in his first correspondence with the Repatriation Department in Victoria. This time, rather than appealing the level of pension paid for his three accepted conditions, he made a new claim for acceptance of a ‘nervous condition as due to war service’. He explained that he experienced ‘irritability’ for things which did not ‘worry the average man’, ‘sleeplessness and shakiness with any excitement’, and that he had had ‘these nervous symptoms, more or less, since war service’ (Fred did not mention the stammer he also suffered at this time). He told the Repat’s Dr Klug that he had received no medical treatment for nerves (it is not clear why he did not mention Dr Arthur from 1920–21) but that a doctor at the Randwick Repat Out Patients’ Clinic had told him in 1927 that he was ‘neurasthenic’. This was true, and is confirmed by a Repat medical record from 1927 in which Dr Minty described Fred as ‘lethargic and neurasthenic’. But Minty had not accepted that Fred’s symptoms were war-caused, and his confidential written report implied that Fred’s character was the problem. In the 1939 examination Dr Klug added that Fred’s problems might be due to his current personal circumstances, though he noted that Fred claimed not to have financial worries despite his unemployment and said he was not worried ‘to any great extent’ by the separation from his wife. Klug found Fred to be a ‘man of introspective appearance’ and ‘small physique’, and recommended further examination by the psychologist Dr Godfrey to ascertain ‘?any nervous condition’.44

Repat officials took this claim seriously, and it was at this point that references and records were sought from the doctors who had treated Fred outside the Repat system since 1920, from his employers and the State Labour Exchange, and from companies to which Fred had applied for life insurance. The insurance records — a medical examination in 1927, and a form he completed in 1938 — would be a problem for Fred. On both occasions he had understated his ill-health to ensure acceptance for insurance, never expecting that the Repat would find and use the records. The 1927 examination by a Dr Arthur (it’s not clear if this was the same Macquarie Street specialist) had concluded that there was no evidence of brain or nervous affections, that Fred’s constitution was ‘sound’, and that he should be accepted as a ‘1st class’ life at ordinary rates. On the 1938 form Fred lied that he had received ‘no medical advice or attention’ during the previous seven years, and claimed that he did not suffer from any of a long list of disabilities.45

Dr Godfrey — the psychologist who had examined Hector Thomson in 1929 — was presented with a 36-page typed evidence file comprising these reports and relevant extracts from Fred’s medical records from 1915 to 1938. From the file he noted Fred’s six interrupted months of field service, the various ailments listed in the wartime records and the many postwar pension claims. He highlighted Dr Minty’s conclusion that Fred was ‘querulous’ and ‘neurasthenic’, that the 1927 insurance examination showed no evidence of brain or nervous affection, and that in his letter to Billy Hughes Fred had not mentioned a nervous disorder. This selective reading of the paper trail gave Fred little chance. On examination, Godfrey found Fred to be a ‘rather depressed, neurotic looking man’ but was not convinced that Fred was suffering from headaches, poor concentration, giddiness or fainting as claimed. Godfrey concluded that this ex-soldier did not ‘exhibit anything more than a constitutional incapacity to meet his difficulties, with the accompanying feeling of not having got a fair deal’. He was, ‘from the same cause, introspective and somewhat hypochondriacal’. He recommended rejection of neurosis, and even suggested that Fred’s pensionable incapacity be reduced to 10 per cent. A second doctor concurred that the ‘very definite evidence’ of the files did not support Fred’s claim, hinted that Fred’s ‘rather brief’ service in the trenches would not have caused significant damage, and concluded that ‘the neurosis present is obviously due to post-war causes only’. The Repatriation Board accepted these recommendations and wrote to Fred that although the doctors agreed he was suffering from neurosis it was not attributable to war service and was thus ineligible for benefits.46

Recent histories of Australian postwar responses to ‘shell shock’ help to explain Fred’s diagnosis by the Repat doctors. The term was used early in the war when it was first thought that shelling had a physical effect on the brain which caused symptoms such as shaking and stammering, inability to communicate or move limbs or, at worst, a catatonic state. That explanation was mostly displaced when it became clear that not all sufferers had been exposed to shelling. The phrase ‘shell shock’ stuck in popular usage, though in the 1920s ‘war neurosis’ became the more usual official term. During the war, soldiers claiming shell shock were often regarded as cowards and malingerers, but the numbers of men affected and the significant proportion of officers forced the authorities to take the problem seriously, both during and after the war. The Australian official medical historian of the war estimated that 80 per cent of the medical aftermath of the war was caused by veterans’ mental troubles. Between 1924 and 1940 the number of successful pension claims for neurosis increased by 27 per cent by comparison with a five per cent rise in all accepted pensions. 47

In interwar Australia there was widespread popular recognition of the mental damage caused by the war, and both the RSSILA and the ‘Diggers’ paper’ Smith’s Weekly supported ex-service pension claims for neurosis. Yet medical opinion was divided. Some doctors, probably the minority between the wars, believed that mental damage was caused by the extreme conditions of war. Among these doctors there were further disagreements about whether the damage resulted from the physical consequences of mental exhaustion, or was a consequence of repression caused by the mental conflict between the pressure to fight and the desire to flee (the new Freudian psychoanalysis was beginning its influence and the treatment of shell shock victims would have a major impact on the development of psychology and psychoanalysis in Australia as in other combatant nations). Yet the majority of medical practitioners between the wars still believed that postwar neurosis was caused by a ‘neurasthenic personality’ that was predisposed to breakdown in wartime conditions or, more likely, under the stresses of postwar life. Diagnosis of war neurosis was plagued by disagreement about causes, the lack of effective diagnostic tests and by the vague and shifting categories of mental health (for example, some doctors used ‘neurasthenia’ to refer to a legitimate psychological condition while others used it as catchphrase for character failings). Where there was no wartime medical record of mental damage or plausible physiological explanation of neurosis, the Repat doctors were reluctant to accept that ‘nerves’ were war-caused. Thus while Godfrey could accept that Hector Thomson’s mental condition was likely due to wartime illness and thus pensionable, the documentary evidence about Fred Farrall’s condition convinced Godfrey that Fred’s character predisposed him to a neurosis that had been brought on by his inability to manage the travails of postwar life rather than by the effects of war.

But Repat policies and medical opinion were gradually changing, and by the end of the 1940s Fred was vindicated. After the 1939 decision, Fred was sick of his humiliation by the Repat and decided to seek treatment outside the system (he later complained that looking across the table at a pension hearing was just as bad as looking across no man’s land on the Western Front). In our interview Fred recalled that in 1940 the Melbourne psychologist Reg Ellery taught him breathing techniques which reduced the tension in his mind and body and cured the stammer he had suffered since the war. Ellery, a prominent progressive psychologist with a shared interest in the Soviet Union, had met Fred through radical networks and provided the treatment for free. A 1944 note in Fred’s Repat file confirms that Ellery was still treating Fred outside the system ‘for nerves’. It is not clear whether Ellery told Fred his symptoms were linked to the war.48

In 1949 the Repat finally made that link after Fred claimed a war pension for a duodenal ulcer. At a Repat medical examination Fred told Dr Freedman that he still suffered ‘occasional nightmares’ about the war. Freedman recommended reopening the case for neurosis because it was, he suggested, a ‘potent factor’ in the formation of duodenal ulcers. Freedman saw ‘no reason to doubt’ Fred’s statement about treatment by Dr Arthur in 1920 and 1921, which Godfrey had ignored in 1939. Moreover, because of the ‘broader view’ of the recently amended Repatriation Act, which now gave a veteran the benefit of any reasonable doubt, he argued that Farrall had had ‘considerable nervous stress on Service’ and that ‘surely’ trench foot and a leg wound would have aggravated any ‘tendency to Neurosis’. There is no record in the file of disagreement with this new diagnosis, and the Repat now accepted both the ulcer and neurosis as war-caused and increased Fred’s pension entitlement to 40 per cent.49

Though he overcame his stammer in the 1940s, Repat records show Fred continued to suffer from attacks of ‘nerves’ throughout his life. With the condition now accepted by the Repat, he was admitted to the Repat Hospital in Heidelberg for three weeks after a breakdown in 1950, and then again for six weeks in 1961. After the 1961 episode he took early retirement on medical grounds from his public service job, and in 1962 he was granted the general service pension for unemployable war veterans. In 1983, just a few months before our first interview, Fred reported to the Repat that his nerves were in ‘a shocking state’. He was startled by the phone, upset by memory lapses and worried about appointments, had blacked out in the street and did not feel confident outside his home. When I wrote this chapter in 2013, Fred’s post-1983 Repat records in the National Archives were still closed, but Fred’s own set of Repat files confirm that he was hospitalised for five weeks after another breakdown, with similar symptoms, in 1987. We conducted our final interview a month after he came out of hospital. Fred told me that his health had been bad lately though did not specify the cause. During the interview when I expressed concern that he might be tired and need a break, he responded that ‘all I can do now is talk’ and pressed on with the interview. Fred was determined to tell his war story and showed no obvious signs of distress while doing so.50

Though Fred and the Repat agreed after 1949 on the diagnosis of war-caused neurosis, Fred did not stop campaigning for a better pension that would cover all the physical and mental ailments he believed were caused by war. In 1953 he won acceptance for anal irritation that he said had been set off by gastric problems in Egypt in 1916. During the 1950s he applied unsuccessfully three times for an increase in his pension, citing all the usual complaints, until finally, after his hospitalisation in 1961, it was increased to 50 per cent, with another increase to 70 per cent in 1971 (30 per cent for the neurosis, 20 for the ulcer and 20 for rheumatism). In 1977 a hernia was accepted as war-caused, though arthritis and cervical spondylosis (a degenerative condition of spine) were rejected as due to old age. In 1981, citing ‘a general worsening of all conditions’, including a throbbing in his knee, the gunshot wound was added to the list of accepted disabilities and the pension increased to 80 per cent. Eighty per cent was not good enough for Fred, who now appealed to the Repatriation Review Tribunal. With the help of a sympathetic Repat doctor who argued that ‘the strain of trench warfare’ had left its mark on Fred’s psyche, and using his own careful critique of the Repat medical records, Fred won over the Tribunal who concluded that the previous assessment for an 80 per cent pension was ‘illogical’, ‘contradictory’ and ‘frankly and bluntly ludicrous’. The Tribunal adjudged Fred ‘totally and permanently incapacitated’ (TPI) and lifted his disability pension to 100 per cent. Fred lost significant battles along the way, but in 1983 he finally won a comprehensive victory in his long war of attrition against the Repat.51

Fred used his skills as a political activist to assert his own rights, but in his later years he increasingly linked his own concerns to those of other war veterans. In 1955 he enlisted federal Labor politician Frank Crean in a campaign to win an extra pair of surgical shoes for veterans like him with damaged feet. In 1961, after his stay at the Heidelberg Repat Hospital, he wrote a letter to the Age newspaper (copied to the Repat) praising the care staff and singling out one of the doctors (the ‘department would be richer with more medical officers of this calibre’) and, in a typically egalitarian gesture, the pantry-maid Beryl (‘the most overworked person, I think, in the hospital, surely this can be remedied’). The Repat had ‘a policy of doing things on the cheap’ and the Minister should ensure that facilities were improved and a better bus service instituted for the hard-working staff. In 1968 (the year he was elected as a Pensioner Candidate for Prahran Council) he wrote directly to the Minister with a list of complaints. The means test on the general service pension was ‘an insult to the third class of citizens (Pensioners)’. The Minister should reinstate the chocolate drink Akta-Vite on the list of subsidised treatments (in 1965 Milo had been approved as an appropriate treatment for Fred’s ulcer and for nutrition problems caused by his false teeth) as it ‘ill becomes the department, or the government, to still further reduce the old soldiers’ standard of living’. A Department decision not to subsidise sandals had left Fred ‘with a feeling that trench feet is a minor disability’ and should, he argued, be overturned. Fifteen years later, in 1983, Fred finally got his Repat sandals.52

Though Fred won most of his later exchanges with the Repat, Repat doctors continued to have mixed feelings about Fred and his conditions. Some of them felt that their hands were tied by changes in the onus of proof that required them to prove that a disability was not war-caused. Responding to Fred’s complaint about anal irritation in 1953, one doctor remarked that he did ‘not think it could be disproved (there is of course no documentary proof)’. Others were suspicious — just as they had been in the 1930s — of Fred’s ‘multiple grouses’ and suggested that he was exaggerating his symptoms and working the system because he was ‘pension motivated’. In the 1950s and 1960s Fred was variously described as ‘very hypochondriacle’ and ‘pernickety in speaking of symptoms’. In 1961 his Local Medical Officer reported to the Repat that Fred was ‘playing ducks & drakes with his dept & is a loquacious old gentleman that takes a day & a half to listen to’.53 By the late 1960s Repat doctors would have been well aware of public controversy about veterans’ rorting the system and winning pensions for conditions not caused by war. In 1963 a group of Repat doctors in South Australia resigned after their complaints (which highlighted ‘pampering’ in Repat psychiatric wards) were ignored, and in 1969 one of them published a fictionalised account of the Repat. Be In It, Mate was a scathing attack on corruption, inefficiency and false claims. The press picked up on the criticisms which sparked a series of reviews of the Repat system and a gradual shift in emphasis from compensation to rehabilitation.54

It is difficult to reconcile the Repat doctors’ changing and contradictory diagnoses with Fred’s version of his conditions and their cause, and impossible to judge the extent to which Fred was exaggerating his symptoms and working the system. Clearly he suffered significant physical injury and illness during the war, though the extent to which his trench foot or wounded knee caused on-going problems is unclear. Though there was plenty in the war that Fred — and in due course some of the Repat doctors — could blame for his nervous condition, there was also much in his civilian life that might have caused anxiety. He struggled to find work in the early 1920s and was unemployed for most of the 1930s. He separated from his wife and child during the Depression. As an active member of the Communist Party he was under constant suspicion and surveillance (government intelligence agencies started a file on Fred in 1933 that likely continued throughout his activist life). He was a central figure in the bruising battle in the 1950s and 1960s between Victorian left-wing unionists and the right-wing Industrial Groupers, and was famously taken to court for burning what he believed to be tainted union ballot papers (it is not surprising that during the court case in 1950 Fred told a Repat doctor that he had ‘had a good deal of worry lately’ which aggravated his neurosis). Elected to Prahran Council on a Pensioners’ ticket, in 1973 he became the Communist Mayor of a Council which included the silvertail suburb of Toorak. He had stuck with the Communist Party through the fallout after the uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 and held onto his Marxist-Leninist faith through the collapse of the Soviet Union and its European satellite states (at his 90th birthday celebration in 1987 the German Democratic Republic Consul presented Fred with a large bouquet of flowers). Given such a troublesome and troubling life, there’s every chance that Fred’s peace was as damaging to his mental health as his war.55

Yet Fred came to understand and explain all his physical and mental health problems as caused by the war. That was a story with practical pension benefits and an instructive political moral. Socialist politics and histories of shell-shocked Australian soldiers helped Fred to see himself as a damaged victim of war. But it was through his exchanges with the Repat that Fred developed a medical language of explanation and put the jigsaw pieces of his war and postwar life together in a way that made satisfying and useful sense. Perhaps Dr Arthur in 1920 had planted the seed of a link between trench war and nerves, which was then nourished by postwar representations of shell-shocked veterans. In 1940 the politically-sympathetic Dr Ellery probably suggested a connection between the war and Fred’s anxiety. In 1949 Dr Freedman made it official and pensionable when he recorded that Fred’s war neurosis had contributed to an ulcer, and by 1950 Fred had taken on that official explanation and was reporting to other doctors that his neurosis set up the ‘distressing irritation in the stomach and bowel’. In his 1977 claim for a war-caused hernia, Fred wrote a three-page life history of his war and its aftermath, and concluded that the hernia ‘could be related to the duodenal ulcer, which in turn was related to the neurosis condition which I would like to elaborate on when interviewed’. When I interviewed Fred in 1983 he told the same story: that his war-caused nerves developed into an inferiority complex such that after the war he could not speak without stammering because ‘inside me everything had got into a knot, and that went on for years and years and years’.56

By then, Fred was very good at elaborating on his conditions and their causes. The Repat doctors had complained for many years that Fred took for ever to tell a life history of complaints. The man who once stammered every time he tried to speak in public was, by the 1970s, a confident public speaker and story-teller (Reg Ellery had done his job well; indeed, Fred’s slow and measured speech in our interview was probably due to Ellery’s teaching). In 1971 Fred published an article about ‘Trade Unionism in the First AIF’ that included many of the well-worn anecdotes that he repeated in his interviews with me in 1983 and 1987. Also in 1971, a Repat Local Medical Officer reported that Fred went ‘on and on about his complaints’ but did ‘not appear unduly distressed or affected by them’. Indeed, the doctor noted that Fred ‘enjoys the narration’ and that ‘his florid narration of his illness’ suggested ‘some features of hysteria’. The following year a Repat psychiatrist concluded that although Fred seemed fit for his age he had a ‘personality disorder’ and his ‘perseveration of thought and speech’ (persistent repetition) indicated ‘early senile cerebral impairment’.

I doubt the diagnosis of senile cerebral impairment. Twelve years later, when we met for our interview in 1983, Fred was living by himself very successfully and his mind was still razor sharp. And though Fred suffered anxiety attacks throughout his life, I am not convinced that Fred’s determined and precise narration was a sign of psychiatric disorder. Fred’s extraordinarily detailed and deliberate story-telling about the war and its consequences — evident in the interviews where my questions were usually interruptions — might equally be understood as a way of making positive and useful sense of life’s difficulties in both war and peace. In old age, after a lifetime of trying to understand his war and its impact, Fred’s life history had incorporated and combined socialist politics, social history and medical explanation into a compelling explanatory narrative with a strong political purpose.57

Before I saw the Repat files, I concluded in the first edition that for Fred in his later years this ‘composure’ of his war story also provided psychological reassurance, a past that he could live with. I now know from the Repat records that despite that reassuring story, Fred never fully overcame his nervous condition. In his review of the first edition of Anzac Memories, historian Michael Roper rightly pointed out that there is a risk of overstating ‘the healing power of narration’. Jerome Bruner argues that narratives can console, but not necessarily by solving problems. They offer ‘not the comfort of a happy ending but the comprehension of a plight that, by being made interpretable, becomes bearable’.58 Composure may never be fully achieved and though an explanatory life narrative can be useful and comforting it may not, by itself, cure life’s ills.

As I was reading Fred Farrall’s Repat file, and saw how he was working the system and shaping his medical history to best advantage, I also wondered if perhaps Fred had worked me in the same way in our interviews. Was I a naïve and ingenuous young oral historian, too ready to accept Fred’s words at face value? On reflection, I think not, well not much. I’m convinced Fred believed the story he told me, and indeed much of it is borne out by the extensive documentary record of his life, in the Repat records but also personal papers, trade union archives and even a government intelligence file. In our interview, Fred recalled many significant events from his war and its aftermath in remarkable and impressive detail: the Kangaroo recruiting march in 1915; his wounding at Polygon Wood in 1917; unemployment and illness in the 1920s and 1930s, and so on. Yet the Repat files and other contemporary records such as his wartime letters, when used alongside the interviews, show how some of the meanings of Fred’s war story were re-fashioned over time, affected by changes in his own life and attitudes, and by a lifetime of living with and sometimes against the shifting public narratives of Anzac, of being excluded and silenced by those narratives but also sometimes finding recognition and affirmation. Our interviews were just the latest incarnation of a lifetime of remembering the war and its meanings.

Written records and oral history

Historians who use oral histories alongside other sources are often alert to the strengths and weaknesses of each.59 The Repat records have the great value of showing the chronological development of a veteran’s postwar health and providing very precise detail from particular points in time that is often lost to memory. But just as the contemporary written record might point to a lapse or embellishment in memory, the interview can point to errors in the contemporary record. Examples include Bill Langham’s oral testimony exposing the egregious inaccuracy of his medical assessment as ‘A1’ despite the damaged eye muscle which would be a life-long problem; or the Repat doctor taking Fred Farrall’s life insurance application as decisive evidence about good health. A compelling example of memory testing old documents comes from 1982, when Fred received from the Repatriation Department a 48-page set of Repat medical reports dating back to the 1920s, which were to help him prepare a pension appeal. Fred stapled yellow paper notes (using the back of pages of The Socialist magazine) onto key extracts and then wrote a 24-page critique of the ‘insulting manner’ of Repat officials (a reference to an exchange in 1937) and of the errors and assumptions in the reports (in response to Dr Gilani, who reported in 1971 that Fred was ‘garrulous and aggressive’, Fred noted that the doctor had ‘no idea whatsoever of what effect trench warfare might have on a man’).60 In our interview the following year Fred did not go into as much forensic detail, but he made the same criticisms of the interwar Repat and its faulty diagnoses.

The Repat paper trail is also flawed by significant gaps. For example, crucial wartime medical records that might have evidenced Fred Farrall’s wartime nervous condition were destroyed after the war, and Dr Arthur’s case notes from 1920 could not be found. Further, the doctors’ conclusions were shaped by, and are revealing about, the policies and processes of the Repatriation system, the medical understandings of the time and the social attitudes and prejudices of the profession (of course ex-service claimants were also influenced by institutional practices and expectations and they made claims that maximised their chances in the system). The records also highlight differences between medical practitioners, and reveal changes in policy and understanding over time. We can see this most clearly in responses to mental health. In short, the Repat records, like any official records, need to be read with a wary eye.

For all their faults, the Repat records (and Fred Farrall’s private papers) confirm one of the central arguments in Anzac Memories, that how individuals represent and remember their past life develops over time: as an effort in the first instance to make a story and to make sense of significant war or postwar experience; drawing upon (and sometimes silenced by) available and changing cultural meanings and expressive forms; affected by the intimate relationships within which stories are shared and affirmed (or not); attempting to comprehend the jagged edges of experience and compose a bearable past; responding to new life circumstances that suggest different ways to think about that past. As Italian oral historian Alessandro Portelli famously explained, remembering may be less about events than their meaning. Memory is not a passive depository of facts but is rather ‘an active process of creation of meanings’.61 That process operates in the letter written a month or so after a battle; in the medical history of symptoms and causes delivered to a Repat doctor in the 1930s; and in an oral history interview recorded in the 1980s. The interview is rarely the first or the last word in remembering.

The Repat records illuminate one set of circumstances and relationships in which meaningful war stories were fashioned over time. We can see, for example, how Percy Bird created a story about being wounded by a gas attack which to his mind was a legitimate war-caused explanation for discharge and homecoming; or how Bill Langham’s disillusionment with the Repat was generated through a series of negligent mis-diagnoses; or how Fred Farrall’s conviction that trench warfare damaged his ‘nerves’ evolved through his battles with the Repat across many decades. These examples confirm the importance of what the Popular Memory Group defined in the 1980s as the ‘particular publics’ of remembering, and which more recent theorists have labelled ‘communicative memory’.62 Life stories are articulated in storytelling relationships, such as the family gathering, the veterans’ reunion or a medical examination, and of course the oral history interview.63 In these relationships people share, rehearse and hone their stories, often responding to and sometimes resisting others’ versions and questions. One person’s story may gain expressive power and coherence in response to interest and affirmation; or another’s might be cast into silence because their story does not fit.

Historians using recorded memories work with the paradox of oral history. On the one hand, remembering involves an active creation of meanings in a social context. On the other hand, memory research suggests that long-term memory is remarkably robust.64 While the short-term memories of the mundane minutiae of everyday life are transient and mostly lost within a few hours or days, we create long-term memories about events which are particularly significant: because they have an emotional charge, are novel, dramatic or consequential, or because they are signposted. It is not surprising that Bill Langham had such detailed memories of the moment his horse was shot from under him, or of the day of his return to Melbourne. Story-telling, too, is central to the creation of long-term memories. The creation and repetition of the story about an event converts that event into a meaningful experience and consolidates it in memory. The story is never fixed — every time we return and remember the event for a different audience it might change in subtle or even significant ways and take on new meanings — but much of the fundamental detail will be retained. The challenge for the oral historian is to live with this paradox and make the most of the memories with which we have the privilege to work. Our opportunity in oral history is to study both the past and the uses and meanings of the past in the present.

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

   by Alistair Thomson