Discussion: Professor Alistair Thomson

Alistair looks at politics, society and the soldier settlements in more detail. He looks in particular at his own relative Hector Thomson who comes down with a debilitating neurological problem in the 1920’s. This coma or unconscious state had been linked to the Spanish Flu and because Hector had in his medical records that he had respiratory problems, it allowed his wife to claim for a pension for looking after him and his farm. The story of the family history can be put together by looking at the repatriation files for Hector and the letters, photos included in it from his wife.

Up to 1916/1917 Australia was flourishing as a new nation but once conscription began, it started to show divisions. When veterans returned home, there were strikes and riots.  The Returned Soldiers League brokered a deal with the government and said they would look after the returning servicemen in exchange for certain privileges- a repatriation scheme paid for by government. When they return home in 1919, diaries and letters are no longer written and soldiers come back to having to live in a house with wife and children after four years at war.

Fred Farrell returned from war, didn’t join the RSL or go on ANZAC Day marches but handed out peace pamphlets instead. He became more radicalized and joined trade unions. The government hadn’t kept up their end of the bargain – no jobs when war was over, no good land to use and no housing for the returning soldiers. They had done their part for the war effort and their country – now it was the governments turn to keep the bargain.

Getting a pension was very much related to what the doctors knew about the mental conditions that returning soldiers would have as well as when and where they applied for a pension. Many would only claim for a pension if it was a physical disability as it was a stigma to have a mental problem, but by the 1930’s this was a reason for getting a pension as the life of the soldier was now very debilitating. They had tried to cope for the ten years after war but now they were a “burnt out digger” who really needed the help.

The RSL was great as a place where veterans could talk with other veterans about their war stories. They were comfortable talking to people who had been through the same experiences as themselves rather than talking to family where they might have to gloss over the negative sides of the war and perhaps some of the terrible things they had done.

I liked Alistair’s comment: A war story becomes a post war story and a veteran’s story becomes a family history. We in Australia are so lucky to have all the archival records to put together these family histories relating to veterans.

My reflection:

I loved the way Professor Thomson led us through the change in beliefs in his family history through looking at the archival records now available. I also found it interesting how the view of participation in war would change depending upon who you were talking to – family, mates, government departments. I don’t think we have learnt much from what happened 100 years ago when it comes to repatriating returned members of the defense services.  Governments are only planning according to their term in office rather than 15/20 years ahead.


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