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Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

CHAPTER 7

OLD DIGGERS

Another war

After the Depression — in which half of my interviewees lost their jobs and several lost their homes — the next major event in the lives of the generation that went to war in 1914–18 was the war of 1939–45. Some men of that generation, including both my grandfathers, re-enlisted in the Second AIF, but most of the diggers from the ranks whom I interviewed were wary the second time around. Bill Bridgeman and Doug Guthrie had compulsory call-ups because they were members of the fleet reserve. In 1918 Doug Guthrie had joined up too late for active service, and he didn’t want to miss out again, but Bill Bridgeman was not so pleased about leaving his growing family:

It was a drag to drag yourself away from your wife and young kiddies […] but I thought to myself, better go quietly. I didn’t think they would send me back overseas again. I told them I wanted … generally given home service, see. ‘Oh no’, they say to me, ‘you got to, on your papers here, you’ve got a high gunnery rate’. That finished the subject. So I went to sea.

A. J. McGillivray joined up again so that his younger brother — who had a wife and children — could remain on the family farm in a reserved occupation:

I couldn’t bear to think of my brother going away and leaving little children and that, and actually that’s one of the things that did … ‘cause I hated really, it wasn’t because I had any liking for war.

McGillivray’s wars make for a poignant life story. In his first war he had been wounded and then almost drowned when the hospital ship was torpedoed. This time he was captured in Singapore and spent most of his military service in Japanese prisoner of war camps, along with another brother who died on the Burma Railway.1

Ted McKenzie recalls that he would have enlisted if he had not been married, and that as an alternative he joined the ‘Dad’s Army’ unit set up by the local RSL branch. Percy Fogarty was too old to go to war, but he enlisted for home duties in different parts of the State. More often, 1914–18 diggers had had enough of war and had no desire to be soldiers again. Alf Stabb recalls that ‘there was no argument with me. NO! [laughs …] I’d finished with the army. No way! Not after that turn out, no. Anybody that went for a second lot was … he was hungry’. Charles Bowden and his wife had not forgotten the pain of their own separation in 1914, and now tried to prevent their son Kevin from enlisting:

He really wanted to go to the war. He would have walked to the war if he could have […] We didn’t want to let him go […] Oh well, he was only nineteen years of age. He didn’t know his own mind. What war was like. I did [laughs]. His mother wouldn’t let him go. Course I couldn’t let him go without her having some say in it. Anyway, he pestered the life out of us that much that we eventually said, ‘All right’.2

Although many of the men I interviewed did not want to go to war again, most of them were active on the home front. Stan D’Altera decided that this was a ‘just war’ (despite being a communist he felt uncomfortable about Stalin’s initial treaty with Hitler), and as the Secretary of the Yarraville Citizens’ Club collected money for the war effort and organised amusements for servicemen. Ern Morton was now a Shire Secretary in rural Ararat, where he took on responsibility for organising plans to evacuate people to the country from the Bellarine Peninsula: ‘I had no time to take an active part in the Peace Movement. I thought I was doing something that was very beneficial at the time’. Bill Langham was less happy to be assigned to factory work ‘by the Manpower’, but at least this lifted him out of the unemployment that had plagued his inter-war years.3

The Second World War had a major impact on the lives of some Great War veterans, like A. J. McGillivray and Bill Bridgeman, and it became a signpost in the life stories of all my interviewees. Yet in most cases the Second World War did not have the emotional impact or life-changing significance of the First, and it did not take on the same, central role in memory. By 1939, working-class diggers who had survived the Great War and the traumas of repatriation and the Depression were mostly settled into family, home, work and neighbourhood. The 1939–45 war was usually a temporary blip in the mid-life decades which were characterised by continuity in employment, residence and domestic life. The next, dramatic life change followed retirement in the 1960s.

Growing old in Australia

Old age was the third major context in which World War One diggers remembered and composed their life and war stories, and it was the context in which I came to be told these stories. The experience of old age was not an explicit focus of my interviews, and even in the second set of popular memory interviews I was only vaguely aware of the relationships between old age and remembering. For me this awareness was heightened by subsequent participation in reminiscence work in England. Reminiscence work usually takes place in care settings with groups of elderly people. Whereas in oral history the primary aim of remembering is to contribute to historical understanding, in reminiscence work remembering is primarily intended to enhance the emotional and social well-being of participants. Reminiscence workers use a range of approaches to help make remembering a positive experience which reaffirms an individual’s identity and sense of worth. Informed by my own experiences in reminiscence work, I returned to my notes and memories of each interview in order to write about growing old in Australia and remembering in later life, and about the distinctive experiences and remembering of old Anzacs.4

By the time I conducted my interviews in the mid-1980s, all of the interviewees had been retired for well over a decade. There is a gap in my own knowledge about the initial years of their retirement, but certain themes in their experience of growing old in Australia were apparent when we met, and were recorded in my interview summaries.

Considering that these old diggers were well into their eighties, and had often suffered wounds and other war-related illnesses, they were in relatively good health. I was walked around well-kept back gardens and along well-trod local paths, and ninety-year-old Ern Morton drove me to Maryborough railway station in his brand new car! My interview sample of survivors was inevitably somewhat biased in this regard. What was more surprising and impressive was the spirit with which most of these men coped with their physical disabilities and rejected the stereotypes of old age. Jack Flannery had suffered a stroke in the previous year and was now less active in his garden or on interstate hunting trips, but he still went rabbiting with a set of ferrets he kept out the back. Stan D’Altera had recently returned from seven weeks in the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital after being knocked over by a car and, though he was very fragile, he was teaching himself to walk again and joking with local columnists about not using the pedestrian crossing. The following comment from one of my interview summaries was a typical impression:

Charles Bowden […] has lived alone since his wife died a few years ago. Mr Bowden is old — 94 — and frail, with crook legs, gout, bad skin cancer and very poor hearing. Yet, as he says, he is not ‘a geriatric’. His mind is keen and alert, and though his speaking voice is slow and feeble, his memory for dates, people and events is quite stunning.

What I was realising as these men introduced me to their lives and life stories was that old age was not necessarily a negative experience, and that a spirit for life was often more durable than a worn-out body.

I was also realising that this spirit, and the enthusiasm and capacity for remembering, was affected by the particular material circumstances of each man. None of the men I interviewed was destitute or suffering extreme poverty. Only a couple of them were wealthy, but most lived in relative comfort. They often had savings from a long working life to supplement the State pension, and as war veterans some of them also had a service pension. In comparison with their complaints about the Repat between the wars, most spoke favourably about the good deal they now received from Veterans’ Affairs, including high quality free medical treatment and ‘gold’ travel passes for public transport.

Housing conditions provided the most obvious sign of this material well-being. Almost all of the men I interviewed owned their own home, usually a free-standing bungalow or semi-detached house built between the wars in a residential neighbourhood of the western suburbs. Most had lived in the same house, or at least in the same neighbourhood, for much of their adult lives. A few were slightly less well-placed. Stan D’Altera and his brother had pooled their gratuities to buy a Yarraville house, but as a lifelong bachelor Stan had moved out when his brother started a family, and then lived in various rented accommodation, including the caretaker’s hut at Yarraville Football Club. When I met Stan he had moved into a tiny pensioner’s flat on the sixth floor of a Housing Commission block in Footscray. Another man who had lost his own house in the Depression now lived in a crowded house with his son’s family.

Despite examples of difficult individual situations, what stands out among the digger interviewees is that none of them were institutionalised. It’s not surprising that institutionalised veterans were not included in my sample; they would have had less contact with the organisations that introduced me to the veterans. The men I did interview had not suffered many of the illeffects of institutionalisation: the loss of familiar places and people, and of privacy, independence and self-esteem. In their own homes and their own lifelong neighbourhoods, these old diggers had in most cases sustained a sense of place and self-esteem.

What had changed in old age, in some cases with dramatic consequences, were their primary relationships of care and support. Just under half the men I interviewed were still living with their wives in what appeared to be traditional marital relationships, with the female partner responsible for the bulk of domestic care while the male partner was more active as handyman or gardener, or in local clubs and associations. In most of these relationships the wife was the younger, more active partner and played a vital role in maintaining the material well-being of a less capable husband. Some elderly couples were also supported by their neighbours and by adult children, but on the whole husbands were supported by wives, and their different experiences of growing old were profoundly shaped by gender roles.

Ten of my interviewees were widowers (McGillivray and D’Altera were bachelors) and their situation in old age was markedly different from that of the married men. These widowers had learnt to fend for themselves as best they could. Fred Farrall told me that he had learnt to cook after Dot died, and he treated me to his new-found culinary skills; Fred was also looking after an old socialist friend whom he had taken in as a housemate. More often, widowers were dependent on a variety of new carers, including grown-up children, neighbours and social services staff. Bill Williams still lived in the large eastern suburbs house he had bought in 1920, but as a widower he now coped with the support of a cleaner, Meals on Wheels volunteers, a helpful woman neighbour and visits from his four sons. When I arrived to interview Albie Linton and Bill Bridgeman, I was met in each case by a woman neighbour who wanted to keep an eye on the visiting stranger, and whose support had helped Albie and Bill to remain in their own homes. Stan D’Altera was virtually trapped in his sixth floor flat after his accident, but even while I was with him a string of teenagers from the same housing estate looked in to see if Stan was all right and to do his shopping. When I first interviewed Percy Bird in his sprawling Williamstown home he did seem isolated and lonely, but not long afterwards his daughter persuaded him to move to a home for veterans and war widows which was in the same street as her house on the other side of town. Once he got used to the change, he was delighted by the new company and care.

I don’t want to romanticise the experience of growing old. One of the old diggers — who refused to move into an old people’s home — declined badly and wandered lost through the cold streets in the middle of the night. Others were angry about their failing bodies or a changing world which they could not understand or accept, and for some the interview was a rare opportunity to spend an empty afternoon talking about their younger, vigorous days. But for most of these men an impressive ‘community’ of carers made old age a relatively secure experience.

Alongside these care relationships — and often an important part of the care — were a variety of networks and associations that offered friendship and activity, and thus helped to sustain emotional well-being. Daughters, sons and other family members had often become more important in old age, and in most cases were regular visitors. Although some of the men had lost touch with workmates after retirement, and long-time friends and neighbours were dying off, they usually still had local friends (despite suspicion or wariness of postwar immigrant neighbours). Albie Linton attended local football matches and, like several other western suburbs Anzacs, made occasional visits to his RSL club. After a lifetime of local public service, Stan D’Altera was regarded as the ‘uncrowned King of Yarraville’, and in 1977 the City of Footscray named him their Citizen of the Year. Right up until the car accident he maintained an active interest in the Footscray Historical Society and the Yarraville football, RSL and Citizens’s clubs. According to a relative who used to invite Stan for Christmas lunch with their family in another suburb, he was like ‘a fish out of water’ when he left the familiar places and people of Yarraville.

In old age these men also developed new activities and contacts; this seemed to be particularly true for widowers who needed to fill the gap left by the loss of a partner. Bill Williams became active in the Gallipoli Legion and would make regular trips into the office for ‘work’ which kept him ‘alive and ticking in retirement’. Percy Fogarty took up pensioner politics and became secretary of the Footscray Pensioners’ Association. After he retired from local and State politics, Ern Morton initiated a campaigning pacifist group in rural Maryborough.

Old age was a period of both loss and gain for these old diggers. While they had often lost partners, workmates and neighbours, and though their bodies were faltering, they had gained new friends and support networks, and new activities and identities. It may well be that my sample of old diggers was especially well-placed to make the most of old age. Living in their own homes and neighbourhoods these men had often retained a positive self-esteem and identity, and could usually rely on familiar local carers. With the material privileges enjoyed by Great War veterans they were perhaps marginally better off than other Australians of their generation and class, and their emotional well-being was often bolstered by the public veneration for old Anzacs.

I am not arguing that the remembering and identity of these Great War veterans can be simply and solely attributed to the common factor of old age; as the memory biographies of Percy Bird, Bill Langham and Fred Farrall show, different life courses made for very different war memories and identities. Rather, I want to stress that the specific material and emotional circumstances of growing old affected the ways in which, in later life, each man remembered his life, and that being an old Anzac was an influential part of that process.

Remembering in later life

Although we compose our memories at every stage of our lives, there are aspects of remembering that are specific to the later years of life, and these were apparent in my interviews with old diggers. The remembering of a couple of my interviewees was confused and disconnected, perhaps due to physical decline or as a result of isolation and neglect. More often, in the particular set of men I interviewed, remembering was vibrant and clear, and it was influenced more by the social experience of old age than by physical or emotional deterioration.

It was clear that for many of these men the rapid technological and social changes of recent decades were difficult to comprehend and to accept. To some extent this lack of understanding was due to limited access to new ways and younger people, but it was also born of genuine fears about displacement, loss and danger. City centre gatherings of teenagers with shocking new clothes, language and manners, or the extended families of ethnic communities that had moved into western suburbs’ streets with their different lifestyles and languages; these were regular subjects of conversation over a cup of tea after an interview, reflecting the social isolation and fears of this particular set of white, working-class men. Some men — especially those with friends or family members who helped make change familiar and positive — were open to new ways, but most found them threatening and difficult.

A common response of older adults to the discomforting present is to compare it with a more comfortable and familiar past or, rather, to render the past in ways that emphasise familiar, acceptable and appropriate behaviour. We can see this attitude in the ways in which, for example, Percy Bird portrayed his childhood in idyllic terms, or Bill Langham contrasted his own practical, disciplined youth with that of ‘young people today’. A rather different response, less apparent among the men I interviewed, is to retreat into confusion and painful silence because the modern world makes no sense and no connection with a person’s past and identity.5

Different again, and another significant aspect of remembering in later life, is the attempt to articulate and make sense of the life journey as it nears its conclusion. This process of ‘life review’ is often especially significant, indeed urgent, in later life, as we are faced with our mortality and try to explain or justify our life. Most of the men I interviewed clearly appreciated the chance to relate and relive their life story, and life review was often a process that had become important in their old age. As Fred Farrall commented about his own renewed enthusiasm for relating the past, ‘I suppose as you get older you have some sort of feeling for what happened long ago’. While reflecting upon the effects of age upon memory, Ern Morton concluded that his own memory was ‘much more vivid than twenty years ago’. As I met these old men I was often impressed by their efforts — sometimes difficult, troubling efforts — to make sense of the life they had led.6

One further motivation for life review is the desire to ensure that a memory of the life, and of the lessons learnt along the way, lives on after death. The life stories I heard were often told in the interview, and in other contexts, so that they would be heard by children, grandchildren and future generations. In some cases — especially when a man felt that significant aspects of his life had been neglected by history — the life story was told to represent a forgotten history and to ensure that it survived after its bearers had died. For example, that attitude was a driving force in the remembering of radical diggers like Ern Morton and Fred Farrall. After discussing the need to remember men and women who had opposed war, Ern Morton rounded off our final interview as follows: ‘Yes, oh well it’s nice to meet you. I’ll have a few moments now I suppose of recollections, but still, if it’s made public and does some good, it’s worthwhile’.7

Life review is also driven by the emotional need to come to terms with unresolved issues and experiences, to compose a past we can live with and a life history with particular emphases and silences. At the end of my interview with Charles Bowden I asked, ‘how important an effect do you think your going off to war had upon your life?’:

Oh, I don’t know that they had any great … impression on my life at all, to get it out of the routine or anything like that. I’ve always been a hard worker, and my job always, since I’ve been married, is to look after my wife and kiddies. That’s my main object in life. I’ve done all I can for them.

Unlike almost every one of my other interviewees, he shrugged off the impact of war, and instead emphasised his successful identity as a man who supported his family. Enlistment against the wishes of his wife had caused Charles Bowden to neglect his family role for the duration. To make up for that failing, and to appease his own sense of guilt, he worked tirelessly after the war and highlighted his identity as a breadwinner in his remembering.8

In this process of life review, the personal histories we create are also shaped by the ways in which other people represent our lives. This was true for all the digger interviewees, but was most obvious for successful civic men like Ern Morton, Fred Farrall and Stan D’Altera, whose later years were capped with glowing public tributes. Ern Morton’s ninetieth birthday was attended by notable local and State labor politicians, and recorded with a celebratory life history in the Maryborough newspaper. Stan D’Altera received similar newspaper tributes after his car accident, and had in fact been living with a life story set in stone since 1962, when the Yarraville Club honoured its retiring secretary with a plaque that read: ‘The Yarraville Club honours in his life-time Stanley V. D’Altera, a gentleman, an Anzac at 15 years of age, a Worthy Australian Always — Secretary of this club for 34 years’.9

This focus on life review reminds us that, in old age, remembering is an important part of the process of personal and public affirmation of the worth of a life. In remembering and being remembered we can reaffirm that our lives have been worthwhile, that we are valued for our achievements, and that we are heard and respected as the bearers of family or community history. Indeed, the spirit and enthusiasm for life amongst most of the men I interviewed was strong precisely because these men still felt that their lives, and their life stories, were of interest, not just to this oral historian, but also in their everyday social relationships. And, crucially, this self-respect was reinforced by their local status as ex-servicemen, and by positive social regard for the military contribution of their generation.

At every stage of life our identities (and life histories) are defined and affirmed within particular public relationships. In old age, as I have already noted, we depend upon new social networks which in turn shape our identities and remembering in new ways. For the men I interviewed the social and support networks of extended families, neighbours and local associations were also the particular publics with whom they now related and articulated their life stories, and through which they gained self-esteem for their privileged knowledge of the past. The role and influence of new particular publics is especially obvious in relation to Anzac memories.

In the mid-1980s some Great War veterans were still active in the subculture of ex-servicemen. Many of the western suburbs men I interviewed had known each other through the local RSL clubs (and in social or political organisations), and a few of them still tried to get out to the major club or Anzac Day events. Some of the stories that were told to me had been told many times among these mates, and were thus shaped by the culture of ex-service organisations. Bill Williams was in regular contact with many Gallipoli veterans through his voluntary work with the Gallipoli Legion, and Doug Guthrie was a prime mover in the Minesweepers’ Association. Stan D’Altera continued a life of writing by contributing snippets to the 7th Battalion Association journal, Despatches, and by winning a prize in a Veterans’ Affairs short story competition.

But for most old diggers these service contacts had declined as their own mobility was reduced, and as wartime mates died. Percy Fogarty had been active in both the Pioneers’ Unit Association and in the Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmen Fathers’ Association of Victoria: ‘I finished up State President [of the latter]. As far as I know I’m still State President but where’s the others? […] I think they’re all dead, that was in it’. Ted McKenzie decided that Anzac Day 1983 would be his last march because only three members of his battalion had turned up and he ‘didn’t see it through’ anyway. In future years he might watch the parade from the roadside or on television, but he would miss the company and reminiscence of wartime cobbers.10

The most familiar faces from the war were now in photos, and I was struck by the number and prominence of such photos and other wartime memorabilia in old veterans’ homes. Doug Guthrie brought out a vast collection of newspaper clippings about his two wars and ex-servicemen’s affairs; Ern Morton told me that he had tried, unsuccessfully, to have his AIF number reproduced on the licence plates for his new car. On the walls of Percy Fogarty’s living room were two almost life-size AIF photographs of Percy and a brother who died in the First World War — enlarged and framed by their mother — and the testimonial they received from Footscray Council.

The physical presence and prominence of wartime memorabilia indicated the continuing emotional significance of memories of war, and of the identities they recalled and reaffirmed. Anzac was not the only identity on display. Albie Linton’s living room was full of sporting trophies because — as a prominent sportsman who played football for North Melbourne and Victoria — sporting prowess was an important feature of his identity as an old man. But the prominence of wartime memorabilia, and its resurrection for display and family reminiscence, highlighted the renewed significance of the war in old age.

Throughout history a soldiering youth has been important in most veteran’s memories, but in the 1980s an Anzac past attracted new interest and new audiences, and became especially significant for its bearers. Several of my interviewees commented that their grandchildren were becoming more interested in grandfather’s Anzac past, and that the interview tape or transcript was received with great interest by family members. Alf Stabb told his one surviving sister that I was coming to interview him about the war:

‘Oh’, she said, ‘it’s about time’. ‘No, it’s not about time at all. None of you ever asked me,’ I said. I wouldn’t volunteer it.’ We went through it but we didn’t want to remember it that much. I said, ‘I wouldn’t talk war to you’. ‘Oh, we wondered why you never spoke.’ ‘Well’, I said, ‘you never asked me. If you’d have asked me I might have told you something, but now’, I said, ‘this interview is going to come out’, I said. ‘I believe I’ll have tape of it and then you can have a borrow of it.’ ‘Oh, fine’, she said.11

The resurgence of interest in First World War Anzacs went beyond the family circle. Some veterans, like Percy Bird, were invited to local schools to talk about their experiences of war; others attended special events for First World War men at the local RSL club, the League’s Victorian headquarters and even at the Australian War Memorial. Several were interviewed for other oral history projects, and some became Anzac media celebrities in their own right. Bill Williams was cast as one of the ‘Children of Federation’ in a television documentary that traced the lives of that generation and highlighted the impact of war upon them. Ern Morton was disappointed that the local RSL disapproved of his pacifist politics and would not have him speak at Anzac Day, but he found a national audience in an Anzac Day special for ABC Radio’s Social History Unit.

The declining membership of Australia’s First World War contingent undoubtedly contributed to this renewed media interest. In turn, the revival of public interest in the Anzacs gave new life and meaning to the wartime reminiscence of old diggers. The remembering of Anzac in later life was shaped in part by the particular personal and social situation of each veteran, and by the need for life review in old age, but it was also influenced by growing public interest in Anzac, to which I now turn.

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

   by Alistair Thomson