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Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

CHAPTER 6

TALK AND TABOO IN POSTWAR MEMORIES

Percy Bird

Percy Bird arrived back in Melbourne on 30 December 1917. He went to Sydney for a fortnight’s paid leave with his fiancée (‘she had a single room on the ladies’ side and I had a single room on the gents’ side’), and then reported back to the Caulfield Repatriation Hospital in Melbourne for an observation week. At the end of the week he went before a Repatriation Board:

Course, we didn’t know anything about pensions. I said, ‘I feel all right’. ‘Oh, according to your papers so-and-so and so-and-so.’ I think that was a hint they gave me but I didn’t take it. I said, ‘I’ve had sixty days on the boat and I’m all right’.

He wrote on a form that he was in good health, not really knowing why it mattered, and as a result never received a war disability pension. The way in which Percy told this story suggests that he felt that the soldiers were cheated by this procedure, and he repeated the common complaint about the treatment of veterans: ‘But of course, we were told at the time, oh, government was going to do everything for us, but they didn’t do anything’. Yet in practice he seems to have been comparatively unaffected and unconcerned about this situation, and in the interview he projected his own feelings upon other veterans who ‘just took it like I took it’.1

The lack of bitterness in Percy’s remembering is explained by the nature of his transition back to civilian life. In February of 1918 his old boss at the railways asked him if he wanted to return to his job, and by the middle of the month Percy was back at work. The boss treated Percy like a son (he had marital aspirations for Percy and his daughter), and was sympathetic to the needs of an ex-serviceman, allowing Percy to take a walk whenever he needed a break. The clerical work was easy for Percy because ‘I was doing so much of it in the army, you see, it didn’t affect me’; in this respect his experience was very different from that of soldiers who had remained in the line. He stayed with the railways for the rest of his working life, keeping his job through the Depression and the Second World War, and finishing up as an Audit Inspector. As ever, he took a great deal of pride in his work and in his career success, and he was relatively satisfied with his job.2

Figure 14  Percy Bird’s Certificate of Discharge from the AIF, 1917. (Kath Hunter)

Percy also recalled that he had had no problems readjusting to domestic life. He could not remember any tensions caused by his separation from family and fiancée, and it may be that the continuity of the relationship with his fiancée smoothed his transition from soldier to civilian; they married in July of 1919. Though neither his wife nor his children were a significant part of his remembering with me, it seems that he enjoyed a stable family life. For much of his working life Percy was away during the week on the railway audit circuit, and Eva Bird ran the household while also being active in local voluntary organisations.

The relative ease of Percy’s return to civilian and working life meant that he had no grievances that might have made generalisations about the neglect of ex-servicemen more personally resonant. Although in our interview he occasionally mentioned postwar meetings with soldier mates who were having a hard time, the emphasis in these stories was always upon the pleasure of reunion rather than the man’s difficulties. When I asked Percy about other ex-servicemen’s problems he remarked: ‘No, no I can’t place any of that […] I didn’t feel any effects from it or anything’.3

The absence of bitterness or disillusionment in Percy’s postwar experience was also significant for his memory of the war and his identity as a soldier and ex-serviceman. In comparison with other soldiers who had difficulties after the war, Percy was not provoked into rethinking whether it had been worthwhile to enlist and fight. Indeed, his attitude to the war and his identity as an Australian soldier were affirmed through various public practices of remembrance.

The war was still very much on Percy’s mind after he came home. In those first years he dreamt about the war in ways which suggest that anxieties from the trenches were still present in his subconscious; in one dream ‘we had a surprise with the Germans and ourselves’. Like many ex-servicemen he did not like to talk about the war with his family or civilian friends and only talked about it easily with other veterans. He started to attend meetings of ex-servicemen even before the war ended, and in 1919 helped to form a Williamstown branch of the RSSILA. Percy did not have time to be very active in the branch because of his family commitments, and as a result he only attended the social ‘turnouts’. But even this social membership provided a ready-made support network of ex-servicemen, as well as an affirming public acknowledgement that Percy belonged to the prestigious elite of men who had been ‘over there’.4

More important for Percy were contacts with men from the 5th Battalion. As the 5th was a Melbourne battalion, he often met up with his old pals. He relished the opportunity to ‘talk about the old times to the chaps, different things happening’, and clearly remembered such meetings as a highlight of his postwar years. Percy also attended the annual battalion reunion because it brought the battalion together again and was an opportunity to ‘meet my old pals. That’s the most important. We thought the world of each other’. In chance meetings and organised reunions, stories about the war were told and retold:

Thinking of our old pals and what we had to put up with, of the fun we used to have at different times. I will admit every day wasn’t sad but all the same we used to enjoy, have little concerts and things like that.

Reunions provided an important social forum for the continuation of the wartime process in which some aspects and meanings of the war experience were actively highlighted while others were silenced. As both storyteller and audience, Percy gradually refined his set of war stories.5

In some ways the relationships between the men, and the stories they told, were different in the postwar reunions. Wartime stories had been immediate articulations of everyday incidents and issues; after the war the stories became more generalised and nostalgic. For example, Percy’s reminiscences came to include stories about the successes of the AIF in 1918 (when he was already back in Melbourne), which he heard from 5th Battalion veterans and which reaffirmed his impression of the Australian soldier. Crucially for Percy, distinctions that had been troubling for his own identity during the war — between men who served in or out of the line and between larrikin diggers and conscientious NCOs and officers — were now eclipsed by the pleasures of reunion and the common, remembered experiences and identities of the battalion and the AIF. Above all, the shared Anzac identity was reinforced by the much greater distinction between Australians who did or did not go to war.

The pleasure of reunion, and reassertion of the special status of the Anzacs (to ‘let all the people see all the old fellows marching’), were also the main reasons for Percy’s participation in Anzac Day. Anzac Day confirmed the general theme of Percy’s stories about the distinctive qualities of the Australian soldiers. It also reinforced the underlying assumption of Percy’s remembering: that his personal experience of the war, and that of the Australian soldiers in general, had been worthwhile. Anzac Day was a pleasant event for Percy that consolidated the ways in which he had already begun to compose his memory of the war. This was because the themes of the day closely matched Percy’s own attitude to the war; because his postwar experiences did not force him to question the gap between the legend of the Anzacs and their treatment as ex-servicemen; and because collective participation in the ritual played down distinctions within the AIF.6

Percy also shaped and affirmed his memory of the war through reading. He never read Bean’s history but he bought and ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ the 5th Battalion history, A. W. Keown’s Forward With the Fifth, which ‘brought back memories to me about what we did at lots of times’. The purpose of Keown’s history was to strengthen the ties binding old comrades and to record and perpetuate the memory of ‘deeds nobly done, of gallant men; of their bravery, their endurance, their cheerfulness; of Death bravely met and sufferings bravely endured’. Percy valued the book because it recounted the stories of his unit in great detail and validated his experience as a soldier.7

Although Percy claimed that reading the history did not affect his memory because he already knew the story (he even corrected a couple of minor errors), the history was influential because it highlighted certain events and reinforced particular ways of remembering them. The focus on the battalion confirmed Percy’s own tendency to remember the war in terms of the battalion experience. The book provided a clear chronological outline of the period in which Percy was in D Company, and helped him to recall and fix in his mind the exact dates of his movements with the company. It was a compendium of stories, meanings and even words that Percy adapted and used as his own; some stories in the history are almost exactly repeated in Percy’s remembering.

Although the history is more descriptive than Percy about conditions in the line, the themes and tone of the book — celebration of the 5th Battalion and of the independent Australian soldier; exclusion of tensions within the battalion; and emphasis upon the humorous ways in which the men endured life in the line — were used by Percy to articulate his war experience in terms of the Anzac legend, and were powerfully affirming for Percy’s positive identity as a veteran of the 5th Battalion and the AIF.8

By the time Percy Bird lost the battalion history when he lent it to a mate in the 1950s, he had, through reunions, commemoration and reading, composed a way of remembering his overseas service which enabled him to handle the personal issues that had troubled him during the war.

Percy Bird and his fiancée Eva Linklater, photographed in the backyard of his family home in Williamstown soon after Percy’s return from the war. (Kath Hunter)

Percy Bird and his fiancée Eva (at right), photographed with friends in a Melbourne park soon after Percy’s return from the war. (Kath Hunter)

Bill Langham after the war, wearing his RSSILA badge. (Bill Langham)

Bill Langham (seated) with his cousin George Macumber (wearing an RSSILA badge), photographed in Bendigo, 1919. (Bill Langham)

Fred Farrall pictured outside DaSilva’s upholstery factory in Marrackville, Sydney, in 1926, showing signs of his physical and nervous collapse. (Fred Farrall)

Fred Farrall, the confident trade unionist, pictured outside Trades’ Hall, Melbourne, May Day 1940. (Fred Farrall)

Percy Bird in his Williamstown home after out interview in 1983. (Alistair Thomson)

Bill Langham at his home in Yarraville after our interview in 1983. (Alistair Thomson)

Fred Farrall at his home in Prahran after our interview in 1983. Fred and Dot are shown in the pictures above Fred’s head, with Fred wearing the robes of the Mayor of Prahran. (Alistair Thomson)

Bill Langham

The ways in which Bill Langham remembered the war were also fundamentally shaped by his postwar experiences. Although during the course of the war Bill had made sense of his experience in ways that matched Anzac and digger images, when he came home the theme of disillusionment might easily have become predominant.

Bill vividly recalled the day in January 1919 when he was driven from the home-coming ship to Melbourne’s Sturt Street barracks and saw his mother and two brothers waiting for him at the gate:

That was one of my lovely memories. After being away and through that. There she was standing at the gate, and my little brother standing alongside her. Always that scene, I always remember that. Yeah.

After a two-hour wait for a medical inspection, Bill told the army doctor that he ‘didn’t give a continental’ whether or not he was marked in Al health, just as long as he could get out to meet his family. It was a lapse he would regret.9

The chronology of Bill’s life in the following years is not clear from the interview, because of the confusion of the times, and because his remembering highlighted steady progress rather than the uncertainties and frustrations which in fact characterised his postwar years and those of many other ex-servicemen. It seems that in the first couple of years after his return Bill lived off the deferred pay of four shillings and sixpence per day of service which his mother had saved for him, and that he moved between Melbourne and the Victorian bush playing football and doing casual labouring work. He made his base in Yarraville, where his mother and siblings had moved after a wartime separation from his father who makes no more appearances in Bill’s story.

Bill was offered his pre-war job at the Caulfield stables, but declined because he had put on weight during the war. Determined to find independent self-employment after years of obeying orders — ‘I thought what a lovely thing it would be to be your own boss’ — he applied to the Repatriation Department for a grant so that he could start a taxi business. They would only give him enough to buy one taxi, but he decided that a one-car business would be too risky, and ‘scrubbed it’. Next he enrolled in a Repatriation upholstery course, ‘but the fellows that were instructors and things there, they didn’t give a continental, so I scrubbed that’. His money was running low and after a period of unemployment he was forced to cash his gratuity. Eventually he got a job in a barber’s shop, learnt the trade and then set up on his own. Heavy smoking and indoor work contributed to ill-health, and on a doctor’s advice he left the trade to work outside, where he recalled that he made a success as a quarry worker and eventually earnt seven pounds a week as a powder monkey and foreman.10

In our interview Bill was ambiguous about the end of that career. At one point in the interview he explained that he hurt his back and had to leave the job, but he also recalled the day ‘the Depression came on’ and all the workers at the quarry were put off. By this time he had married and had a young son, and for three tough years during which he was unemployed they lived off a small government sustenance payment, which was supplemented by occasional quarry work and mushroom picking, and by the local Unemployed Self Help Association. Bill repaid help from the latter by giving free haircuts to the unemployed. Though, like many who were unemployed, Bill remembered the vital role of initiative and community support during this time, the story of the Depression was relegated to a minor position in a life history that emphasised progress and success; in one telling, he shifted from the quarry job to council work after the 1939–45 war, neatly ignoring the difficult intervening years.

The next main signpost in Bill’s memory of work was the Second World War: ‘we all came under control again then. You lost your freedom’. He was assigned by ‘the Manpower’ to a sugar works in Yarraville where he lumped sugar bags on night shifts for the duration. After the war he got a job with the Melbourne City Council, starting off as a cleaner and retiring twenty-three years later from a job ‘on my backside in the Town Clerk’s private office […] that’s what I wanted and I got it, see’. The fact that work provided the main signposts for Bill’s postwar life shows how career success was vital to his identity and pride, at the time and in memory.11

These postwar experiences affected Bill’s understanding of the war, and his identity as an ex-serviceman, in a number of ways. Firstly, the desire for work independence both grew out of and confirmed his dislike of military regulation (‘I’d had the khaki’). Yet the postwar frustration of that desire made him bitter about repatriation. Apart from the disappointments of the taxi business and the upholstery course, Bill was also angered by the Repatriation Department when it reclaimed a pair of special glasses on the grounds that his eye problems were not due to a war injury. Worst of all, in Bill’s view, was the rejection of his war disability pension claim. When Bill applied for the pension after the war he was knocked back on the basis of an X-ray, which he claims was faulty, and because he had marked himself ‘Al’ at discharge. These grievances made Bill receptive to the prevailing postwar criticisms of the treatment of ex-servicemen, which in turn encouraged him to articulate his own experiences as ‘the same old story’:

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.12

Bill’s bitterness about the plight of ex-servicemen provoked different ways of reinterpreting the war and identifying himself as a soldier and ex-serviceman. Characteristically, he did not consider that his postwar misfortunes may have been in any way his own responsibility. He blamed the ex-servicemen’s lot on the politicians, businessmen and other ‘big nobs’, who had sent the soldiers to fight their war but neglected the veterans when they came home; in this light he contrasted his own small gratuity with the massive profits of arms manufacturers. Yet he also perceived ex-servicemen’s problems to be the fault of an ignorant and uncaring civilian society, and asserted that ex-servicemen were special and deserved privileged treatment because of their wartime sacrifices. Each of these contrasting attitudes — one confronting the Anzac legend and the other reinforcing it — was present in Bill’s ex-service identity, and either one might have become predominant. The ultimate pre-eminence of the latter attitude can be explained in terms of the postwar public contexts in which Bill made sense of his war and postwar experiences.13

During the interview Bill recalled that when he was alone in the years after the war, memories of his time in Europe— both pleasurable and unpleasant — were often jostling beneath the surface of his consciousness. At the time he wanted to talk about these memories but found that few civilians were able to listen or understand. Some were jealous, while others thought he had just gone ‘for a good trip’, and Bill equated their lack of understanding and respect with that of the government and Repat. Like Percy Bird, mates from the war provided Bill with essential relationships for social support and collective remembering. He lost contact with some of the men from his unit because they returned to different States, but sustained significant relationships with others through occasional interstate visits and regular Melbourne smoke-nights and Anzac Day reunions. Bill recalled that he never missed the Melbourne Anzac Day reunion and march: ‘Well, you met your mates. It was lovely to meet them, and have a drink and things with them afterwards, have a yarn, over the good times, I’ll say, not the bad ones’.

For Bill, the reunions provided an intense and pleasurable affirmation of the camaraderie of the war experience and of his identity as a soldier and ex-serviceman. This affirmation was also selective:

[…] people used to say to me, ‘What do you talk about when you go to [reunions] … Do you talk about this battle you was in and that battle you was in?’ I said, ‘Oh, don’t be funny mate, we talk about all the funny incidents that happened. You’re taboo if you start talking about war if you go to a smoke night. You pick out all your funny incidents’. It’s like, you want to forget it, see. You want to forget the bad parts, which we all do.

This social remembering provided collective validation of the pasts that were easiest to live with. Bill’s difficult and dissenting memories — of driving over the dead Germans, or wartime disillusionment — were not erased, but nor did they become favoured public stories. In contrast, positive anecdotes about humorous experiences, or about the nature of the diggers and the AIF, were favoured, and the war experience became characterised in those terms.14

Bill valued participation in Anzac Day because, besides the pleasures of reunion, it provided public recognition of his special Anzac status. The reception that the marchers received from ‘terrific crowds’ showed that ‘somebody remembers anyway’. Bill also joined the RSSILA soon after his return, and attended its Footscray club because it seemed to be a good way to keep in touch with other ex-servicemen, and because of the practical benefits of membership. The League’s ‘great big badge’ often came in handy as evidence of veteran status; Bill related with pleasure the story of an ex-service railway ticket collector who let Bill and another unemployed old digger travel for free because he recognised the badge. He was also grateful for help from the Footscray branch of the League, which eventually secured his war disability pension. The League kept the Anzacs’ special status in the public eye and ensured that status brought material benefits. However, Bill’s loyalties were not confined to the League. During the Depression he was active in the local Unemployed Self Help Association, and not in the RSSILA sub-branch’s Unemployed Section, which refused to help non-League members. This suggests that community, working-class loyalties sometimes conflicted with ex-servicemen loyalties, and that Bill used the identity that was most useful at a particular time.15

During the war, the diggers’ anti-authoritarian ethos had acted, to some extent, as a counter to official and media Anzac identities, and had sustained Bill’s ambivalence about the war. It may be that Bill’s involvement in the local unemployed organisation sustained something of his anti-authority and anti-war tendencies. Yet the ex-serviceman identity that Bill generally adopted was, on the whole, closely linked to the official legend and identity. In reunions, Anzac Day marches and League clubs, the proud and deserving status of veterans was stressed and wartime dissidence was played down. There was some space for deviance. Bill liked to get on the grog with digger mates on their ‘one day of the year’. He was also concerned that rather than glorifying the ‘whole flaming business’ of war, Anzac Day should tell people that they didn’t want war, and he believed that it did just that. But because he wanted Anzac Day to ensure that the soldiers’ sacrifices were not forgotten, he also argued, using the rhetoric of Anzac Day speeches, that those sacrifices had been necessary in order to prevent aggression and maintain democracy. It is significant that in our interview Bill’s criticisms of the war were never made during discussions of Anzac Day and unit reunions; in his memory those occasions were linked with entirely positive accounts of the war.16

In contrast, Bill’s dissenting war memories were not articulated into a coherent political critique of the cause or conduct of the war. Bill was never active in the Labor movement — he was too much the individualist — and his enthusiastic reading of war stories did not include pacifist or socialist literature. He did not forget his wartime disillusionment, and his memory still contained sparks of criticism that could be lit by a particular prompt or question. Yet the postwar interface between his own emotional and practical needs, and public remembering among ex-servicemen and in Anzac commemoration, ensured that he highlighted positive memories of his wartime role as a mate, a digger and an Australian soldier.

Fred Farrall

Fred Farrall was in poor shape when he was finally discharged from hospital and the army in January 1920. He could not go back to work on the family farm because of the trench foot condition, and as he had always been attracted by city life he stayed in Sydney. He had little relevant work experience, however, and had never learnt to fend for himself as an independent adult. On the farm and in the army his life had been organised and provided for, but now he felt like a pet that had been thrown away by its owners:

And then when I got into civilian life, well this was something new, and to some extent it was, it was terrifying. You’re out in the cold hard world. Nobody to look after you now. You’ve got to get your own accommodation, your own meals. In short, you’ve got to fend for yourself.17

Fred’s predicament was worsened by his poor emotional state; he was not ‘the full quid’. He recalled that he very nearly shared the fate of several diggers he knew whose ‘lives had been changed so much, shattered so much […] they seemed to have lost all control over themselves’ and drank themselves to death or committed suicide. Fred was lucky. After a chance meeting, his cousin and her digger husband gave him a room in their house and helped him to get back on his feet. He lived with them until the end of 1921, when he moved out to board with another digger mate. In 1923 he married and used his deferred wartime pay and veteran’s gratuity to buy a War Services Commission house at Brighton-Le-Sands.18

Employment was more of a problem. Fred’s legs barred him from labouring jobs, and because he had not been discharged until 1920 he missed out on the best retraining courses. Eventually he found a place on an upholstery training course run by the Repat, but the course was a ‘farce’ because the training school was badly managed and could find few employers willing to hire the men; those that did were not keen to continue the veterans’ employment when the government stopped subsidising wages. Fred and his digger mate Roy O’Donnell searched for work for almost two years: ‘We walked God knows how far, how many times and of course got sick and tired of it in the end, and, well, what’s the use’. In March 1922, Fred finally got a job as a motor car upholsterer at the Meadowbank Manufacturing Company, and then, after another period of unemployment in 1924, he got into the furniture trade.19

Although the Repatriation Department had attempted to retrain Fred for civilian employment and had helped him to buy a low-cost house, in those first few years of intermittent employment Fred became very bitter about the government’s treatment of ex-servicemen: 

Well, it’d be hard to explain other than that first of all we, of course, had been disillusioned. What we’d been told that the war was all about, didn’t work out that way. What we’d been told that the government would do when the war was over, for what we’d done, didn’t work out either.

In what ways?

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. Something like we look upon the Aboriginals. There was great hostility between the diggers on one hand and the Repatriation officials on the other […]20

Fred’s recollection may well have been articulated in these terms through his subsequent political critique of State patriotism. Yet his personal experience of mistreatment was itself a catalyst for reflection about the worth of the war and of his contribution as a soldier, and fuelled the radical politics that he adopted later in the decade. Fred could not get a war pension for his physical or nervous complaints, and shared the anger that many diggers directed at Repatriation officials, even though they were often also ex-servicemen:

They’d be referred to by the diggers outside as a pack of bastards. That’s how they viewed them. So the AIF that was all for one and one for all during the war, no matter whether they were right or wrong, didn’t exist any more when they got into civilian life. It was survival of the fittest, and those that had got into jobs were the fittest.

Unwilling to be treated as an undeserving malingerer, Fred decided not to have anything more to do with the Repat. He maintained this resolve until, in 1926, the emotional after-effects of the war and the difficulties of his repatriation caused a nervous breakdown: ‘you just get that way where you don’t want to do anything. You don’t appear to have any energy or any, you know, desire to stir yourself’. Forced to give up his job, Fred ‘had no option, at any rate, but to eat humble pie and go back to the Repat’.21

In the years between his discharge in 1920 and the nervous breakdown in 1926, Fred Farrall’s identity as a soldier and veteran was confused and traumatic, and characterised by a striking contrast between disturbing private memories and public silence and alienation. On the one hand the war retained a haunting and debilitating emotional presence. The feelings of vulnerability and terror that had been induced by repeated shelling in the trenches were relived in harrowing dreams:

Oh well, the dreams I had were dreams of being shelled, you know, lying in a trench, being in a trench or lying in a shell hole, and being shot at with shells. And being frightened, scared stiff […] you don’t know when the next shell that is coming is going to blow you to pieces or leave you crippled in such a way that it’d be better if you had been blown to pieces […] You’d be going through this experience and you’d be scared stiff, you’d be frightened. You’d be frightened, and wakened up, probably, by the experience.22

The nature and power of these dreams suggest that unresolved memories and feelings from the war were a contributing factor to Fred’s debilitating nervous condition and eventual breakdown. In the interview he explained how and why his condition worsened in the 1920s:

I didn’t realise it at the time, but I long since realised it. But I had neurosis, that was not recognised in those days, so we just had it. You put up with it. And that developed an inferiority complex, plus, really, and I mean extremely bad […] Well, I had reached a stage with it where, when I wanted to speak I’d get that way that I couldn’t talk. I would stammer and stutter and it seemed that inside me everything had got into a knot, and that went on for years and years and years.23

Although Fred was not able to untangle these emotional knots for many years, he did develop ways to cope with other aspects of his war memory. He chose to marry on the anniversary of a war wound, he named his house after the places where his two best mates were buried, and he remembered in exact detail the places and dates of his friends’ deaths. These private forms of commemoration, which transformed grotesque experience into relatively safe lists and rituals, were Fred’s way of coping with the past. He explained to me that everyone had different ways of coping, and that his was to remember dates: ‘Anything like that is planted indelibly on my mind’.24

Yet in those first years, Fred’s personal remembrance never gained the public affirmation that might have helped him to develop a more positive identity as an ex-serviceman, and to resolve the causes of his nervous condition. Digger mates were a vital source of postwar friendship and support, and Fred shared lodgings, his social life and the search for work with men he had known at the war. However, in contrast with Percy Bird and Bill Langham, the war was a taboo subject amongst Fred and his friends: ‘we’d talk about racehorses and all sorts of things, but I can’t remember us ever sitting down and having a talk about the bloody war’.25 In old age Fred explained this silence as a result of the soldiers’ bitterness and the inability or unwillingness of the civilian population to comprehend or even listen to their experience.

Although Fred remembered his own silence as representative of ex-servicemen, the contrast with Percy Bird and Bill Langham suggests that Fred’s response was specific to veterans with particularly negative experiences of the war and return. They were men who wanted to block out their wartime life because recollection too easily revived painful memories and feelings. They were also men who felt that they had been badly treated upon their return, and whose postwar disillusionment made them feel even more negative about the war. Perhaps most importantly, and as a consequence of these factors, they were men who could not or would not participate in the various forms of public affirmation that were available to the Anzacs in the 1920s. Fred refused to wear his war medals because he didn’t value them (he cited the common story of ex-servicemen who threw their medals into the sea in disgust). He shut away his beautifully embossed discharge certificate in a dusty drawer, and declined to attend battalion reunions or Anzac Day parades.26

The reasons for Fred’s disengagement from Anzac commemoration show how some diggers came to be alienated from cultural practices that other men, like Percy Bird and Bill Langham, found so useful and affirming. One contributing factor to Fred’s lack of participation was the fact that he was in no fit state for social events. He joined the RSSILA on his first day back in Australia, but was never an active member because he was so ‘tonguetied’ and insecure. For the same reason battalion reunions and Anzac Day parades were embarrassing occasions that Fred found easier to avoid. He also stayed away from Anzac Day because he considered it a drunken binge. The difference between his own sobriety and the more larrikin behaviour of some of the diggers, which had troubled him during the war, now contributed to his exclusion from one of the most effective Anzac affirmation rituals. Fred and more radical digger mates also refused to march on Anzac Day because the patriotic rhetoric did not square with their doubts about the worth of Australian involvement in the war, or with the bitterness they felt about the mistreatment of ex-servicemen. But the main reason for Fred’s non-participation was the extreme confusion and distress that he still felt about the war. The public celebration of Anzac heroes was a painful reminder of his own feelings of inadequacy as a soldier and as a man. In turn, that self-imposed exclusion from the rituals of collective affirmation reinforced his sense of masculine inadequacy.27

Alienation from Anzac commemoration did, however, make Fred more open to alternative ways of comprehending the war and his military experiences. In his remembering he related his entry into labor politics as the second and most significant stage of his life story of conversion. He recalled that although he felt disillusioned after the war he was still politically confused:

I didn’t know where I was. I was disillusioned with Hughes and his party and I wasn’t, in the beginning, attracted to the Labor Party either because they’d been painted as red-raggers, that at that time I wasn’t very sympathetic to.

Despite his doubts, when Fred started work at the Meadowbank Manufacturing Company in 1922, he was persuaded to join the Coach Makers’ Union by an old worker who explained that decent wages were due to the union. He discovered that the so-called ‘red-raggers’ were ‘the most honest and reliable’ men in the trade union movement: ‘That sowed the seeds for my socialism that I developed a few years after and have had all my life’.28

Fred became active in the union and in 1926 joined the Labor Party and was prominent in his local branch. Through this activism Fred found supportive comrades and a sense of purpose. He gradually regained his social skills and self-confidence, though he did not overcome his stammer until 1940 when a Melbourne psychologist, who shared Fred’s interest in the Soviet Union, treated him for free and taught him relaxation techniques to reduce physical and emotional tension. Despite the stammer, Fred became a Justice of the Peace and was nominated by his Party branch for a position on the New South Wales Legislative Council. He declined the nomination because he couldn’t afford to take up the position, and because he was beginning to have doubts about the Labor Party. In March of 1930 he became unemployed again and, disillusioned by the Federal Labor government’s imposition of wage cuts and its band-aid treatment for unemployment, joined the Communist Party in the same year. As an organiser for the Communist Party led Unemployed Workers’ Movement, he addressed street meetings and produced broadsheets to promote the message that the capitalist system, and subservience to the Bank of England, were the causes of unemployment in Australia.

At about this time Fred’s marriage broke up. He had married into a conservative family and the political differences were now too great for a successful marriage (that was Fred’s version — it may be that his nervous condition and increasing political workload also undermined the marriage). In 1932 Fred ‘teamed up’ with Dot Palmer, who was active in the Clothing Trades Union in New South Wales, and also a member of the Communist Party. According to Fred he was politically ignorant in comparison with Dot, who had grown up in a radical socialist tradition. Although they never married because they couldn’t afford or be bothered with the ceremonies, they lived together and shared their political struggles until Dot’s death in 1979.

The new and empathetic peer group of the Labor movement, which included radical ex-servicemen, helped Fred to articulate his wartime and postwar disillusionment. Fred was lent his first political books by the union representative at Meadowbank. They included War and Armageddon, Harry Holland’s account of the ill-treatment of New Zealand conscientious objectors, and John Bull’s Other Island, George Bernard Shaw’s critique of British imperialism in Ireland. Shaw’s book prompted Fred to reconsider the cruel treatment meted out to the Egyptians during the war by the British forces: ‘Well I suppose that was the first concrete thoughts, politically speaking, that occurred to me’. He also read and approved the anti-war books that came out of Europe in the late 1920s, including Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. During the inter-war years Fred had no desire to read mainstream Anzac literature. When a man from the War Memorial tried to sell sets of Bean’s official history at Fred’s workplace in the 1940s, he was ‘so disinterested in it that I didn’t, I hardly gave him a hearing’.29

Through reading and talking, Fred adopted the left’s version of the war as a folly in which working-class soldiers were the victims of imperialist economic and political rivalries. His political views encouraged Fred to highlight certain war stories and led to particular understandings of his own experience as a soldier. Thus it seems likely that at this point Fred came to emphasise the story of Bill Fraser’s warning against fighting the rich man’s war, represented himself as an unwitting victim of an imperialist war, and began to place the war as a key event in the political development of himself and other ex-servicemen. A new, Marxist analysis of class prompted him to compare the relationship between officers and men in the AIF with that between employers and workers in peacetime Australia, to emphasise the role of trade unionists in the AIF, and to stress that the diggers were often rebellious towards authority.

As a proponent of this radical Anzac tradition Fred also articulated his disillusionment about repatriation, and deduced that Anzac Day was ‘a clever manoevre’ intended to stifle veterans’ anger about their mistreatment:

Well I would say that if it wasn’t for Anzac Day, the First World War would have probably been — met the same fate as the Eureka Stockade [the armed rebellion of gold miners in 1854]. That is, it wouldn’t be recognised. It wouldn’t be recognised. And whoever thought up celebrating Anzac Day, which was a — had nothing to recommend it in a way, first of all we were invading another country, Turkey … Secondly, it finished in a defeat. So what was there to celebrate, looking at it from that angle? So they celebrated it for another reason. That was to cultivate a spirit of war in the community. Of admiration or respect, or honour or something for war. And that’s all Anzac Day really does. But they had to do it in a certain way, and it was done in a way whereby they could get them together on a social basis. First of all they marched and paraded and showed themselves to the public. And then when that was over they got into their clubs or their pubs or whatever, and did what they wanted to do.30

According to Fred, this ‘clever manoeuvre’ brought many diggers into official commemoration. Yet he no longer felt excluded by Anzac Day. Instead he contested the politics of the day and, with other unemployed activists, opposed the building of grand civic memorials and supported alternative, utilitarian memorials like veteran’s hospitals.

Fred also became critical of the RSSILA. In the early 1920s his physical and emotional handicaps had kept him away from League meetings. Now he had no time for an organisation that was not acting ‘in the best interests of the ordinary digger […] it was a political organisation of the extreme right wing’. By the end of the 1920s Fred Farrall had aligned himself against the RSSILA and was fighting with members of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement in street battles against RSSILA club men and the proto-fascist New Guard movement. He became a confident opponent of the official Anzac tradition and its RSSILA organisers, and in 1937 was arrested at an Anzac Day parade for distributing the pacifist leaflets of the Communist Party-organised Movement Against War and Fascism.31

Fred and other socialists and pacifists hoped to subvert the nationalist and militarist aspects of Anzac Day, and sometimes tried to assert an oppositional Anzac tradition. Fred wore his service badge on special occasions — it is in his lapel in a May Day 1940 photo (see the second section of photographs in this book) — because he wanted to show that his criticisms of war and jingoism were based on experience. Yet it was difficult for him to integrate his identities as a radical and as an ex-serviceman, because by this stage the Anzac tradition had been intertwined with loyalist ideology. Socialist ex-servicemen were targets for venomous intimidation from RSSILA members in street fights because they were regarded as traitors. Unable to forge a positive identity as a ‘radical digger’, Fred, for the most part, shed his ex-service identity and adopted the more affirming identity of a ‘soldier of the labor movement’.32

Within the Labor movement Fred was able to develop a critical analysis of the war and to compose his own war experiences into the story of a victim of imperialist rivalry. Though he sometimes used this story in his public life, it did not help him to resolve memories of terror, guilt or inadequacy, and it did not provide a positive affirmation of his wartime manhood. At the height of his power in the Labor movement Fred was still deeply troubled by the fact that he had been so frightened during the war. In the interview he explained that he was able to talk a little about his war experiences and feelings with Dot, but that on the whole he still didn’t discuss that part of his life, even among socialist colleagues. The most positive public affirmations of Anzac manhood were available in the institutions and rituals of official commemoration, but they were off limits to Fred. Alienated from mainstream recognition, and still unable to resolve the most intimate emotional traumas of his war, for many years Fred would not talk about his military past and was haunted by painful memories that he could not resolve.33

The postwar memory biographies of Percy Bird, Bill Langham and Fred Farrall demonstrate that the various experiences soldiers had of repatriation shaped quite different attitudes to the war, and different relationships with the inter-war institutions of Anzac. The memory biographies also show that the ways in which veterans articulated the war experience, and their identities as ex-servicemen and Anzacs, depended on the availability and appropriateness of public narratives about Australians at war.

For Percy Bird, the Anzac legend of mateship, good times and national achievement, which was retold at Anzac reunions, ceremonies and in histories, made less of his wartime feelings of inadequacy and difference, and instead provided positive ways to articulate his war story and an affirmng Anzac identity. Bill Langham had at least two, contradictory ways of comprehending his war. Although collective remembering among digger mates, and the rituals and rhetoric of Anzac commemoration, highlighted positive memories of digger culture and Anzac achievements, they provided no narrative to make general sense of experiences of horror and disillusionment. In contrast, Fred Farrall was unable to relate to war commemoration or to the digger culture of the RSSILA, because the ways in which they constituted the war experience were so different from his own memories. Instead, in the narratives of the Labor movement Fred found more appropriate ways to articulate his years in the AIF, and to identify himself as a victim of war.

The inter-war years were not the last stage in the development of these men’s Anzac memories and identities. For each of them, the meaning of the war, and their identity as soldiers and veterans, also changed as they became old diggers, and as Anzac took on new cultural forms and meanings in Australian society during the 1970s and 1980s.

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

   by Alistair Thomson