Soldiers’ real stories are the best defence against Remembrance Day conditioning

Our politicians ask us to imagine that our ‘fallen’ soldiers ‘sacrificed’ themselves for a higher cause. For many young men sent to the first world war, there was no happy, patriotic ending

Article by Paul Daley, originally published in The Guardian

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Corporal Hurtle Emery, who was killed in action in France on 11 April 1917. Photograph: flickr

Our politicians ask us to imagine that our ‘fallen’ soldiers ‘sacrificed’ themselves for a higher cause. For many young men sent to the first world war, there was no happy, patriotic ending

This year, yet again, the keepers of our national myths will tell us that the soldiers of the “Great War” have passed from life into our collective memory.

Some of us knew a first world war soldier. But, a century after the war began, for most of us who’ll stop today to mark a minute’s silence for Remembrance Day, the soldiers of the first world war long ago passed into – or always have been part of – our imaginations rather than our memories.

Good men, all, and brave too, we have long been assured, were those who were “lost” to the war. The fog of hindsight has inaccurately rendered them a rarefied, almost saintly, generation, whose terrible experiences have become cloaked in benign euphemism and cliché.

The reason, I think, is as unsettling as it is simple. If we can be culturally conditioned to imagine that the “fallen” somehow “sacrificed” themselves for an end loftier than just the battlefield – be it empire or freedom or a new federation – then the prosaic ugliness of war death and survivor torment becomes ever more remote from the politicians who are ultimately responsible for it.

What will we imagine today about the 62,000 Australian first world war soldiers who died and the countless hundreds of thousands more who were maimed, physically and psychologically?

You can listen to what the politicians say. Or you can make an effort to understand the real experiences of those who died or survived to live on with guilt, remorse, endless sorrow and pain. A good place to begin is One Hundred Stories, a project by Monash University’s centre for Australian studies.

They are stories that tell it like it was. They do not deify the men or the women who looked out for them. They don’t sugarcoat the post-war treatment meted out to the living and the dead by society and the responsible authorities.

remembrance day anzac

Driver Albert Llewelyn Lang suffered trench fever on deployments in Egypt, France and Belgium. He survived the war and died in 1951. Photograph: flickr

But before I go to one of the stories there, let me tell you another – that of John Francis Naughton, a young baker from Charters Towers in Queensland, who enlisted in the 3rd Battalion in September 1914 just after war’s outbreak.

He was big for his day, standing five foot ten, and weighing 11 stone, dark complexioned with blue eyes and fair hair. It sounds like he was a spirited bloke: in January 1915 he was sentenced to 14 days’ detention in Egypt, for what we don’t know but can well imagine.

Naughton was among the first wave who landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 and was wounded less than a fortnight later. He was less fortunate the second time he was wounded during the allied August offensive; a bomb exploded in his hands, shredding both and badly injuring his knee and thigh.

A full day passed before Naughton could be evacuated to a hospital ship, during which time his hands became gangrenous and fly-blown. Eventually he arrived in England. A note on his file reads: “Bomb exploded in his hands necessitating immediate amputation both hands.”

For the next 15 months Naughton was moved from hospital to hospital in London, while back home his mother and brother were left to ponder his fate. In November 1916, he died of kidney disease at Fulham military hospital. His pain was over. But his indignity was not.

remembrance day anzac

Lance corporal John Vockins, a teamster before enlisting, served in France and was discharged in 1919. Photograph: flickr

A recent article by academics from Monash and the Australian National University has disclosed that Naughton was among many Australian troops who were buried in mass graves after dying in English hospitals. It’s a story that has not been told before, but one that should be for all that it says about the empire’s treatment of the men who supposedly “sacrificed” themselves for it.

“A parcel of personal effects was sent to his mother in Australia and the body (of Naughton) itself bundled up for burial,” write Bruce Scates, Frank Bongiorno, Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James in their paper, Such a great space of water between us; Anzac day in Britain, 1916-39.

“Yet death did not end his indignities. Naughton’s body was left in an open grave in [London’s] Kensal Green cemetery; exposure to the elements led to ‘consequences’, as one anxious report put it, ‘better imagined than described’. It was several weeks before the plot was filled in, and then only after protests by the London branch of the Australian Natives Association.”

The ANA, which organised some of the earliest Anzac day ceremonies in Britain, focused on attaining the type of decorum and grace in commemoration that eluded some of the soldiers during sudden battlefield or lingering hospital death. Only imperial officers were entitled to individual graves.

“Enlisted men were often buried in common plots, as many as twenty corpses piled unceremoniously one on top of the another. Naughton’s grave was left open to receive other bodies in just this way,” according to the paper by Scates and the others.

By 1919, 2135 Australian soldiers of the first world war were buried in 343 graveyards across Britain, a good number in common graves. In 1921, what remained of Naughton was exhumed and individually buried in a special plot that (thanks to the ANA) was established in Kensal Green cemetery. A simple wooden cross marked it.

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Corporal John Moore, who was killed in action on 12 May 1918 in France. Photograph: /flickr

Instructively, Naughton’s mother Harriett did not want any other memorial to her son erected on English soil, writing: “I haven’t any desire to have any further action being taken with the erection of a permanent headstone on the resting place of my son.”

It’s fair to assume that, a world away in Australia, Harriett’s private commemoration of her son would have had as its focus his few possessions: a photo, hairbrush, autograph book, four handkerchiefs, a collar, tie, tie pin, four cigarette holders, a cigar holder, a pipe, rosary beads, a safety razor, a cigarette lighter, some letters and a “Lock hair”.

The lock of hair; another tragedy of which we’ll never learn.

Lives like Naughton’s make it impossible for me to accept any notion that our soldiers’ life force somehow transformed into an enduring “spirit” of Anzac after they supposedly willingly sacrificed themselves in battle. No less ludicrous is the cultural acceptance that they are the “fallen”, not the killed or dead.

The real stories of the men who died and survived are harrowing. The men themselves deserve more than to have their reality shrouded in distracting, quasi-religious hyperbole.

The truth is that politicians and generals, both British and some obsequious Australians, sacrificed antipodean troops. Yes, the men followed orders, sometimes knowing that doing so would lead to death. But that is not the same thing as actively renouncing life.

Which brings me to one more real story I’m thinking about today – that of Gordon Wallace, “the man with half a face”. Searing shrapnel ripped off the other half at the battle of Menin Ridge.

So began the rest of his life as one of thousands of Australian “face cases”. He could never eat properly, was difficult, violent, cruel, depressed, miserable, unemployable and often drunk. He lived like this until Anzac Day 1954, when he drowned in Melbourne – an apparent suicide.

His wife Evelyn, who’d long cared for Gordon, could not survive without her husband’s pension.

“The Repatriation won’t accept his death as war related but the background of it all was due to war service. Gordon gave his life for his country and what is his country doing for him?” she wrote.

“It is all very well to say Greater Love Hath No Man.”

There was no happy ending. There rarely was. And it pays to keep this in mind when remembering – or imagining – the war dead today.

The authorities refused to grant Evelyn a widow’s pension on the grounds that drunkenness, not war service, caused his death. She died just two years later.

Gordon Wallace and his wife would have been better off had he sacrificed himself on the battlefield. But it just didn’t happen like that.

Article originally published in The Guardian

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