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Book Review – Shattered Anzacs

March 12, 2011

Shattered Anzacs - living with the scars of warShattered Anzacs – living with the scars of war. Marina Larsson , ISBN:  9781921410550, UNSW Press, March 2009.

This is the book I’ve been looking for.  There are plenty of books about the experiences of the men who went to Gallipoli and the first world war.  There are plenty of books and stories that build on the Anzac legend and glorify the war and those who fought (and died) in it.

My recent burgeoning interest in the first world war and war generally is more about the experiences of the loved ones at home while their young men went to the war – perhaps never to return.

This book, Shattered Anzacs, is about those who DID return, wounded in one way or another – physically or mentally.  There were those with physical injuries – limbs missing, shrapnel embedded in their bodies and organs; there were those who were blinded or deafened, and those who came home with respiratory problems due to gassing or tuberculosis, and there were those with less tangible effects of war – the ‘shell shock’ or ‘nerves’ – what we might now call post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  The numbers of these men far outnumbered the number who didn’t return.

But this book is more focussed on the experiences of the loved ones and families, the social support networks of the returned soldiers, and how they experienced life after their young men returned from the war, ‘changed’.  Having endured the months or years of fear, not-knowing, and loss – in their own families and those around them, of the actual war, those ‘lucky’ enough to have their soldier returned to them during or after the war, medically discharged or discharged after the Armistice, these families and support networks (often young women who married the men during or after the war), had to deal with the ‘change’ in their young men, but also with the bureaucracy and government policies, the social stigma of having a ‘mental’ soldier to care for, or a ‘TB’ or a venereal disease brought into the home.

For these families the war did not end in 1918 or 19, with the end of conflict or the return of their soldier.  The experience of the war and it’s effects on their soldier and families went on for many years after the war, and often after the (early) death of the soldier years later.

Financial impacts, social impacts, health impacts and deeply personal impacts of the war upon these families went on for decades, and sometimes generations.

This book is the first I have found that deals with this aspect of the first world war in detail.  For this reason alone, it should be compulsory reading in any school or university course dealing with the subject of the first world war and the Anzac experience.

It is written a little too ‘academically’ for my personal liking.  The structure of introduction, body, summary in each chapter, section and indeed the book itself, a little too much like an academic paper – for my personal preference.  However this is a minor consideration.  The book is meticulously researched, including personal insights gained from interviews with family members of the returned soldiers to fill the gaps in the official record, just as the charitable organisations filled gaps in the official services to the returned soldiers.

Marina Larsson details how the official policies of the governments, military organisations and society at the time placed the women and children of the returned soldiers as ‘dependents’ of the soldier, even though these might be the very people the soldiers themselves were dependent upon for income and support.  She explains how women’s wages were different to men’s wages because men were paid a ‘family wage’ while women were never seen to be supporting a family, even if they were, and how ‘manly independence’ was valued above all else as the goal the returned soldiers should be striving for in their repatriation – a goal that was often unrealistic, if not impossible to achieve.  Further, the official repatriation services applied only to the men themselves, so that although a soldier’s tuberculosis ‘may’ be deemed ‘war caused’ (and equally may not be deemed so), when the tuberculosis was transmitted to the wife and children of the soldier, the government did not take responsibility for their medical costs or care.  Available benefits were for the servicemen themselves and not for their families, who were left to finance their own medical expenses.

The inequity and social injustice of the policies outlined in the Shattered Anzacs seem bewildering and even ridiculous by today’s standards, and yet while reading this book, I have come across recent news items reporting similar inequities and injustice in the care of the soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, and their families.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone with any interest in war, or the first world war in particular, and those with an interest in the experiences of the AIF soldiers in particular.  I hope to find many more books like this being published in the future.  I wonder that it has taken so long.

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