Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]



Jay Winter

‘Memory is not an instrument for exploring the past’, wrote Walter Benjamin, ‘but its theatre. It is the medium of past experience, as the ground is the medium in which dead cities lie interred’.1 This claim is particularly true in the case of oral history, which replays the past through a three-way conversation. The first party is the historian or archivist, who poses the questions, or encourages the subject being interviewed to develop a point or turn to another one. The second party is the interviewee, as she is at the moment of the interview. The third, and most quicksilver presence, is the interviewee, as she was at the particular point in time in the past on which the interview dwells. This triangulation is what gives such power to the record we have of these exchanges.

This is not at all an original or surprising observation to the large and growing number of oral historians who have done so much to enrich our understanding of the past. But Alistair Thomson’s book adds a fourth party to the conversation and, by doing so, breaks entirely new ground in the retrieval and interpretation of narratives of the Great War.

What is new is that in this book we follow the interviewer at two points in time. The first is the moment when he did his pioneering work between 1982 and 1987 in collecting an archive that, once digitised, will be available at the Australian War Memorial to all those in the field. The second is the moment when, as Edmund Blunden put it, he went back over the ground again, and explored materials, both oral and written, which enabled him to write about matters excluded 20 years ago.

This quadrilateral of remembrance is striking. First we have the men as they were in the 1980s interviews; then we have the self each of these men recalled, living through the Great War and its long aftermath. These two sides of the encounter — parallel lines if you will — meet Alistair Thomson at two points in time in his life; and his story, again in two parts, completes the quadrilateral. He is there in the 1980s, tape recorder running, listening to these life histories and interpreting them in his research journal and then in the first edition of the book. But in the new edition, we have a fourth participant, Thomson in 2013 adding significantly to the book by exploring the life of his grandfather in ways he could not put in print a generation ago.

A similar story might emerge were a psychoanalyst and his analysand to take up the challenge of dealing with the past a second time, two decades after their first encounter. When they start again, they have the memory of their earlier exchanges with them, and their second exchanges reflect who they have become since.

It is in part this layering of remembrance over time which gives this new edition much of its power and its originality. But there is a second way in which in this second edition Thomson has shifted around the furniture in the field of memory studies. He has injected into the narrative the way the stories — both his and his subjects’ stories — have silence at their core.

All families, I believe, are defined by their silences. We all know about family photograph albums which need commentary to make sense of them. What someone needs to point out in these images is what and who they do not show. Pierre Bourdieu once remarked that with such albums in hand, this was the way mothers-in-law welcomed daughters-in-law into their families, by pointing out who does not talk to whom, or who never comes to various celebrations or funerals. Or who did something unmentionable in the past. What the new family member learns is to see who isn’t there and to hear why.

What is taboo in any family or in any society is never fixed. And neither is that body of family information which everybody knows but no one talks about. Mental illness is one such subject, and it created a kind of fence around one central element of Thomson’s work in the 1980s — his grandfather Hector’s story. He has had the courage to take that fence down and use a range of sources to enter the no man’s land of suffering and isolation which was a part of his grandfather’s life, and perforce, that of his grandmother and the young child who became his father.

When the first edition was in preparation, Alistair Thomson’s father objected strenuously to any mention in the book of his father’s (Alistair’s grandfather’s) mental illness; reluctantly Alistair agreed to leave out the subject. We can understand why the author’s father, himself a soldier, felt so strongly. The images were too hard to bear for the man who was a young boy in the 1930s, living through very, very hard times with his disturbed father after his mother’s death. Now, afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, but still able to read the text, he gave his son permission to tell the story. And it is a compelling and important one.

From that story, we see the price families and in particular wives paid for the multiple wounds men brought home with them from war. What the new edition shows was the sheer force of survival in his grandmother Nell, who had not only the handful of two small boys to raise, but a damaged husband to support. And making her life harder still was that her husband’s disability was very hard to define precisely. Was it malaria, contracted in Palestine? Was it an infection arising from a sequel to the Spanish flu of 1918, about which Oliver Sacks has written in Awakenings? Was it depression or a personality disorder? We will never know, because Hector Thomson lived at a time when psychiatric ailments were stigmatised. They still are today, but not to the degree that was the case in the 1920s and 1930s.

Demobilised soldiers knew this, and so did the doctors who tried to assess their war-related disability and validate or invalidate claims to war pensions. If a veteran had lost an arm or a leg, there was no problem; but physicians struggled harder with those who had unclear ailments, and who (like Hector) did not report their full medical condition before returning to civilian life.

This is why historians have consistently underestimated the number of soldiers who left the service suffering from various kinds of mental illness. Soldiers were loath to see themselves as ‘mental cases’, and doctors knew that their patients’ chances of getting a disability pension were higher if they stayed away from this grey area, whenever possible. Hence the documentary record itself is silent on a central feature of the story of what Bill Gammage termed ‘the broken years’. Broken indeed, and in the case of Hector Thomson, neither fully recognised nor fully treated, and never repaired.

We know that the damage war does to families is generational; it doesn’t stop when the shooting stops. It is passed on indirectly from father to son to grandson, and to the women with whom they live. By retelling his family’s story, Alistair Thomson has been able to fashion a moving portrait of his family: his grandmother Nell, and after her death, of their sons, Al’s dad and his uncle, still children, having cold mutton for Christmas dinner, alone with their father, a soldier of the Great War.

The Argentine troubadour Atahualpa Yupanqui wrote a wonderful song entitled ‘Le tengo rabia al silencio’ — ‘I feel anger towards silence’. That is what this book makes me feel. To be sure, most of us bypass the painful elements in our families’ histories. Few have the chance and the courage and the skill to go back to a locked box, find the key, open it, and share with others the truths he finds. Alistair Thomson has done just that. We are in his debt for telling the story, the fuller story, a second time, and for showing us that breaking these silences is not a choice but a necessity.

Jay Winter

Yale University

1    Walter Benjamin, ‘A Berlin chronicle’, in One-way street and other writings, translated by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, Verso, London, 1979, p. 314.

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

   by Alistair Thomson