Archive | April 2016

Shell shock: a century of silence

Frank Masters

Frank Masters, a veteran of WWII

As we approach ANZAC Day, I thought it was timely to reflect on the legacy of war.

I came across this podcast of historian Jay M. Winter, the Charles J. Stille Professor of History at Yale University, who is a specialist on World War I and its impact on the 20th century, in an address at Sydney University last year.

In this presentation, Jay Winter examines the incidence of shell shock during the First World War and argues that it was far more common than the medical and other historical records indicate.

He contends, and I agree, that shell shock – what we now know as PTSD – its effects and significance have been underplayed for a century.

In the presentation, he makes reference to the Monash team’s research efforts which resulted in the book I blogged about recently – World War One, A History in 100 Stories, by Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wheatley & Laura James.

All men, he says, despite popular belief, have a breaking point and that many veterans are a ‘time bomb waiting to go off’. Others are in a sort of limbo between sanity and insanity.

Most tellingly, he speaks about the ‘language of masculinity’ and the ‘silence’, i.e. the failure to speak about mental problems.

He also alluded to the issue of late onset of post-war mental problems – I saw that in my own father (pictured above) who had a typical WWII experience – Middle East, brought back, training in far north Queensland, two stints in New Guinea and then a desperation to leave the Army at the end of it, only to struggle to settle into civilian life in the first post-war years. Raising seven sons then took his time and energy so that it was only in late life that he had the time to think about his experience in New Guinea and then the nightmares emerged. Fortunately he wasn’t a violent man with his kids – but many families suffered a brutal family life that descended into misogynistic violence.

This is really worth listening to. As much as we honour those who gave their lives, there were others who paid a high price too for the whole of their lives.

Highlights of Shell shock, Gallipoli and the generation of silence co presented by the Beyond 1914 project and Sydney Ideas – University of Sydney – can be accessed at this link


Unseen Anzac: George Hubert Wilkins, photographer, contemporary of Frank Hurley


The Unseen Anzac
How an enigmatic polar explorer created Australia’s World War I photographs
By Jeff Maynard

Published by Scribe Publications
RRP $39.99 in hardback, 296 pages
ISBN 9781925106787

Frank Hurley is a name that will be familiar to many readers of this blog but what about George Hubert Wilkins?

Historian Jeff Maynard has pieced together the fascinating and little known story of Wilkins, who, along with Frank Hurley, was assigned as a photographer to Charles Bean on the Western Front in 1917. It was Hurley who complained that he could not get close enough to the fighting and produced, instead, staged pictures, before repeated arguments with Bean, saw him return to Palestine to photograph the fighting there, leaving Wilkins as the sole photographer to record Australia’s Western Front participation.

Like Hurley, he was also a polar explorer but perhaps that’s where the similarity between the two men ended.

Within weeks of arriving at the front, Wilkins’ exploits became legendary. He did what no photographer had previously dared to do. He went ‘over the top’ with the troops and ran forward to photograph the actual fighting. He led soldiers into battle, captured German prisoners, was wounded repeatedly, and was twice awarded the Military Cross — all while he refused to carry a gun and armed himself only with a bulky glass-plate camera.

It’s hard to imagine now, but this how Wilkins himself summarised the situation:

The fighting thereabouts was pretty hot. During a burst of enemy machine-gun fire a man on one side of me was riddled with bullets. The man on the other side received one bullet. It killed him outright. Six bullets scored my chest, two went through my right arm and one clipped the tip of my chin. Still I was able to carry on. I had to abandon my camera and help stop a bomb attack. Later it seemed necessary to get a picture of the enemy trench. I recovered my camera – one that needed a tripod, especially as the light was bad, but before I could get the picture the tripod legs were shot away. I set the camera on my knee and the enemy, I believe, seeing me make the second attempt did not then try to shoot me. In fact they shouted and waved to me as I slithered back to my own trench.

Wilkins ultimately produced the most detailed and accurate collection of World War I photographs in the world, which is now held at the Australian War Memorial.

Interestingly the author contends that a number of the photographs routinely attributed to Hurley were actually taken by Wilkins, after examining Wilkins’ personal copy of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Volume XII, Photographic Record of the War, which he had annotated.

After the war, Wilkins returned to exploring, his work at the Western Front largely forgotten. Throughout his life, Wilkins wrote detailed diaries and letters, but when he died in 1958 these documents were locked away. In the end his estate, inherited by his estranged wife, passed to her former lover, and thence to his family, who had little appreciation of the value of the Wilkins archive stored haphazardly in a barn. This too is an intriguing story.

Jeff Maynard managed to locate what remained of the previously lost records allowing him to reveal the remarkable, true story of arguably Australia’s greatest war photographer.

In this video, author Jeff Maynard introduces the book, link here:

You can also check out the author at this link:

This is an interesting book with a good collection of photographs in the centre pages, some from World War I, including the iconic Chateau Wood photograph, which Maynard contends was taken by Wilkins, not Hurley as has always been assumed.


Harry Smith tells the story of Long Tan


Long Tan
The Start of a Lifelong Battle
by Harry Smith

Published by Big Sky Publishing
ISBN 9781922132321
RRP $29.99 in paperback

Long Tan: The Start of a Lifelong Battle was launched last year by MAJGEN John Cantwell, AO, DSC (ret’d) who will be remembered for the no-holds-barred story of his own battle with post traumatic stress disorder in Exit Wounds.

This book takes us back 50 years to August 1966 and Vietnam, to the battle of Long Tan, in which a dispersed company of 108 men held its ground with courage and grim determination against a three-sided attack from a force of 2,500 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army troops. When the battle subsided, 17 Australian soldiers lay dead, 24 had been wounded of which one died 9 days later. Battlefield clearance revealed 245 enemy bodies with captured documents later confirming the count at over 500 enemy killed and 800 wounded. The Australian men were led by a gruff and gutsy perfectionist, Major Harry Smith, who now tells his story for the first time.

Written in partnership with award-winning journalist Toni McRae, this book is also Harry’s life story. It tells of his many personal battles, from failed marriages to commando-style killing; from a horrific parachute accident through to his modern-day struggles with bureaucracy for recognition for his soldiers.

Long Tan may be 50 years ago but it has been a constant thread through the fabric of his life, most particularly because of his determination to see his men receive the recognition he believes is long overdue.

To read more about this book and its author, there is a detailed interview at this ABC News link:

The case for awards to the soldiers under Harry Smith’s command is currently before the Defence Honours Tribunal. You can read the details at this link:

This is a story that will resonate with other Vietnam veterans and those who have taken an interest in that ill-fated war.

World War I: A history in 100 stories


World War One
A History in 100 Stories
By Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wheatley & Laura James

Published by Viking/Penguin
RRP $59.99 in hardcover
ISBN 9780143799986

I’ve been away from the blog for a couple of weeks, on holiday, so I have a bit of catching up to do.

I was intrigued by this book, written by a team from Monash University, as it was first proposed as an Anzac Centenary project, only to meet resistance at the inclusion of the saddest story, the death of four-year-old Isabella Wilkinson at the hand of her father Frank, who also took his own life and that of his wife. The committee deciding such matters pontificated that the public wanted a ‘warm fuzzy feeling’ from the official Anzac Centenary commemorations, not brutal honest history. Fortunately the writers stuck to their guns.

This is a fine collection of stories and a remarkable social history.

Although the stories are just a snapshot of the lives featured, they are representative of the many Australian families irreparably damaged by the First World War. Telling the truth about war requires courage; we need to understand how the impact of war resonates down the generations. In this book, you will find a collection of deeply personal stories of loss, of grief, of violence and of breakdown. Its aim, say the authors, is to widen ‘the ambit of remembrance …. To the broken years that lay beyond.’

I think this is a fine ambition – to counter the ‘nation-defining narrative’ that now accompanies remembrance of the Gallipoli disaster. War is brutal, its impacts lasting and its damage to individuals and families irreparable. That is the real story of war.

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