WWI mental casualties were ‘hidden’
Tuesday Apr 25 17:11 AEST
Of the 330,770 young Australians who served abroad during World War I, 61,919 never came home and 137,013 were wounded in action.
But there’s another group of hidden casualties – the psychologically scarred who may have suffered no physical harm but whose wounds in many cases endured to the end of their life.
Historian Michael Tyquin said the full story of this group, their suffering and treatment during and after the Great War, had been kept quiet for generations.
“It’s an area that has been hushed up, either through family embarrassment but more importantly because it doesn’t match up with the Anzac myth according to (official historian) Charles Bean,” said Dr Tyquin, a retired army officer.
“Since that time we have continued to disenfranchise the psychologically scarred soldiers from our Anzac Day memory and our Anzac Day celebrations.”
Launching Dr Tyquin’s new book “Madness and the Military: Australia’s Experience of the Great War”, army chief Lieutenant General Peter Leahy said it showed what happened in the past and what could be done about it in the future.
He said the story resonated in continuing discussion of post-traumatic stress disorder in troops who served in Vietnam and more in recent wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
“We know that many physical wounds are capable of healing quickly and they leave only a scar – even a lost limb can be replaced by an artificial one,” he said.
“But the mind is different, scars on the mind are internal and frightening and their healing can be a long and difficult process.
“Shellshock did not accord with figure of the digger carefully composed by the official historian C.W Bean and others.
General Leahy said in those days, a physical wound was regarded as a badge of honour acquired in service of the nation.
“Shellshock was blamed on the weakness of the individual rather than the nature of war. That was a view that long persisted,” he said.
Dr Tyquin said there had been little previous research into Australia’s psychological casualties of World War I.
He found material in letters, soldier’s diaries, medical officer’s field diaries and patient case notes from mental asylums.
Dr Tyquin said British doctors first applied the catch-all term shellshock to soldiers returning from France with curious symptoms.
“The rationale behind this was that they had been blown up by an artillery shell, they had been physically concussed, the brain had somehow been affected and this was causing their withdrawal symptoms, their stammering, twitching and seizures,” he said.
“Only later with increasing numbers of men coming back who had never been exposed to a shell blast and who had no physical injury did they start to ask questions.
“In the first war the science of psychology was very much in its infancy and they were still looking for answers.”
Dr Tyquin said in all armies in that conflict there was a strongly held view at the top levels that many soldiers exhibiting such symptoms were malingering or somehow morally lacking.
“Even amongst the medical profession there was always a doubt at the back of their minds as to whether this guy was trying to get away,” he said.
Dr Tyquin said just how many suffered psychologically wasn’t known but the best estimate was about one per cent of all who served.
On return to Australia, some committed suicide, some ended up in mental hospitals while others drank to excess, took drugs and turned to criminal behaviour. In a few sad cases, wives killed abusive veteran husbands.
“This is the untold story of what families suffered and suffered in private,” he said.
Some only manifested symptoms years later, aggravated by the Great Depression.
“Between the wars often the only way these fellows could make sense of their own experiences was at the RSL clubs at boozy, smokey pub nights,” he said.
“They couldn’t sit down with their wife or mother and say this is how it really was.”