12 Aug

Post War Australia: Trauma, Grief, Mourning

For many years it has been difficult to study material relating to the postwar lives of Australian ex-World War One soldiers. The war affected the families of all those who were killed or wounded and the process of finding out what happened to Australian society after World War One continues to be difficult for the uninitiated. However in recent years, the contents of Repatriation files have become available with the approach of the Centenary of the Great War and this has open the world of post war Australia up to keen researchers.

At this stage, only a small number of files have been digitised and made available to the public for research purposes. However it is already evident that these files are of great social and cultural interest to a wide range of people as they shed light on civil society in Australia post World War One, particularly as to the quality of life for ex-soldiers and their families. The files consist of medical treatments, war pensions and related correspondence regarding those returned from the war. An exploration of the Repatriation files of soldiers whose service is discussed in the novel Murphy’s War shows that their postwar lives were fraught with a wide range of problems and difficulties. The men and their wives and families had to struggle just to survive following the war and the support offered them by the Government as well as local community organisations appears to have varied.

Anzacs in Swanston Street, September 1918. AWM J00350
A detachment of Anzacs in Swanston Street, Melbourne, on their first home leave. September 1918. [AWM J00350]

It is nearly impossible for us to imagine today just how difficult the lives of such families must have been. Of those soldiers from Murphy’s War who returned to Australia following service abroad, all would marry some time in the 1920’s. Yet life for the women they wed and for the children they raised was never what they expected it to be. Most often the relationship for the women evolved into one of full time caring and activism on behalf of the needs and rights of their husbands who were all physically and/or psychologically damaged in some way. The emotional and psychological effect on their children was immense and would be felt through the course of their lives. For those men whose physical debilities caused by war injuries were visible; such as when they’d lost a limb, there was usually financial remuneration in the form of full or part war pension paid by the Commonwealth Repatriation Department (now department of Veterans Affairs). However these men and their carers had to continually beg the authorities to have their needs met appropriately or even met at all.

Organisations such as Returned Soldiers and Sailors League (now the Returned Services League (R.S.L) were formed by soldiers themselves to strengthen representation on their behalf or help families left financially destitute when their husbands were hospitalised or died early or they became ill themselves. Legacy Organisation was also set up by returned soldiers to assist widows and children of men who were killed. It was not until after the Second World War that the War Widows Association was formed for similar reasons.

Experiences of the ex-soldiers in post-war Australia.

Jack Foott, one of the central characters in Murphy’s War, was a highly experienced veteran of the A.I.F, serving for nearly four years across some of the toughest fighting of The First World War. He had his right leg amputated below the knee as a consequence of actions he was engaged in at a farmhouse at Neuf Berquin during The Battle of Lys, a part of the allied retreat of March and April 1918. Jack Foott passed away in 1965 from lung cancer. No doubt his lungs had been damaged after he was several times gassed during his close to four years of First World War service; first at Gallipoli and then along the Western Front. After the war he was in constant correspondence with the Victorian Repatriation Department as he suffered continually with his leg. At first the doctors supplied him with an artificial leg which he found he could not wear. He said it was ‘useless’ and gave him ‘phantom’ pain and eventually they had to supply him with a better one. After his death in 1965, the Victorian Repatriation Department continued to pay for his wife’s medical care.

Hugh Foott, Jack Foott’s younger brother returned home suffering serious problems with his feet after his service in the infantry in the First World War. He had a badly shattered ankle with derangement of the ankle joint that inhibited his ability to walk along with marked wasting of the muscles and calf of his foot. He suffered this damage when he was shot in the ankle. He also suffered from a condition known as ‘trench feet’ which came on during the heaviest fighting around Passchendaele toward the end of 1917. After the war he could not walk without surgical boots supplied by the Artificial Limb Factory and when these wore out he had to return the badly worn boots to the repatriation authorities before he could be issued with a new pair. On his return from the First World War Hugh laboured as a farmer at Curyo Mia near Birchip. He suffered from heart and lung trouble as he had been gassed. His wife said that he spent ‘many weeks in bed with his lungs’. Hugh also suffered from a bleeding gastric ulcer and had to have many transfusions. He also suffered from jaundice/hepatitis that he received during one of these transfusions. Eventually he died at St Arnaud in 1954 during an operation.

Dan Shine & Mary BickleyDan Shine was gassed in the final months of the war during the famous Battle of Mont St Quentin when General John Monash pushed his depleted forces in a daring attempt to capture the Mont St Quentin fortress. Dan would spend several months recovering in hospital after the battle and would receive a war pension on his return home to Australia. After the war he married Mary Bickley but they had no children together. In 1922 he was granted land near Coleraine and would work his block for many years, even when many other soldiers walked off their blocks as they were simply too small. When he retired Dan and Mary went to live in Warrnambool. In 1966 Dan Shine died of emphysema and heart failure, injuries attributable to effects of his war service.

The lives of the soldiers after The Great War.

For those ex-soldiers whose debility was not overtly visible i.e. they had been gassed or had shellshock, many were refused pensions and support in kind was limited. Frank Murphy was badly gassed during his Great War service in the Field Ambulance in France and as a result his voice box and lungs were severely and permanently damaged. When I was studying the repatriation files I had similar feelings to Scates (2014) who could ‘hear the hushed voices’ of men like Frank and his mates who were called ‘the whispering men,’ men whose lungs were corroding, who died, years after the war, from the effects of having being gassed’.

On his return to Australia after The Great War, Frank applied for funds from the Repatriation Department on 4th September 1919 to assist him in regaining ‘employment and sustenance’. He had been a teacher before the war and was given five pounds to obtain Tools of Trade. These comprised a number of course books in various subject areas from Whitcombe and Tombs Educational Suppliers to be used to assist him to complete a refresher course at Melbourne Teachers College. The lives of women and children whose husbands served in the Great War become highly visible in any study of repatriation of their husbands. Payment for the women’s medical services were made by the authorities where the husband was in receipt of a war pension. If the soldier had not received a war pension during his life but his widow applied for one on his death she did not always receive remuneration. In the case of Frank Murphy’s widow Millicent she applied for a widows pension on the 16th August 1960, three years after his death at 65, but did not receive one. The reporting doctor said that Frank’s death was not attributable to his war injuries even though he died from multiple related causes such as emphysema, a lung abcess, diabetes, pneumonia and heart failure.

Jack Shine lost his right arm at The Battle of Broodseinde when following severe wounds it was amputated above the elbow. He suffered greatly from ‘phantom’ pain in the section of his arm that remained. He was continually having blackouts caused by severe epilepsy that commenced after 1922 as a consequence of the circumstances in which he acquired his injuries. He was in and out of Caulfield Repatriation Hospital but little could be done for him. He required expensive medicine for his epilepsy that was only available from Melbourne and sometimes it did not arrive on time in the country where he lived. This added greatly to his suffering as he had blackouts in the interim while he was awaiting its arrival. Jack worked as an Inspector for the Closer Settlement Board in the Lismore District, Then he went back to work on his farm at Konongwootong where he fell from a cart during an epileptic convulsion and subsequently died at the early age of 41 years. He left a wife and two small children who grew up without knowing their father. Margaret Shine (nee Hourigan) who was Jack’s wife, kept the memory of her husband alive for her children and told her niece in later life that she lost her husband because of bureaucratic indifference.

Charlie Maginness suffered gun shot wounds to both hands while with his artillery battery at Polygon Wood. The date of his wounds were listed as October 14th, 1917. Polygon Wood was captured in the famous Australian attack on 26th September 1917 and Charlie’s artillery battery were stationed in the wood providing support for troops continuing the attack towards Passchendaele. The wounds sustained at Polygon Wood were serious and Charlie only narrowly avoided having his hands amputated. He spent months in hospital in England and did not return to Australia until November 21st 1918, over a year after he first sustained his wounds. He also spent six weeks in the repatriation hospital in Melbourne after his arrival home and didn’t attempt to return to farmer, his intended occupation until the following year. Like many other veterans Charlie did not seek a lot of assistance from The Department of Repatriation. At the end of his life when he developed heart disease, he applied for funding from the department for heart surgery but his illness was deemed to be unrelated to his war service.


COMMONWEALTH DEPARTMENT OF REPATRIATION FILES, (now Department of Veterans Affairs), National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

FOOTT, HUGH SCHWARZ No.6263. benefits received in Victoria/died in Victoria.
FOOTT, JOHN LANCE No. 666 benefits received in Victoria/died in Victoria.
MURPHY, JOHN FRANCIS No. 10034 benefits received in Victoria/ died Victoria.
SHINE, DANIEL PATRICK No 4113 benefits received in Victoria/died in Victoria.
SHINE, JOHN CORNELIUS No 3064 benefits received in Victoria/died in Victoria.

Damousi, J. Living with the Aftermath, Trauma, Nostalgia and Grief in Postwar Australia, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Damousi, J. Mourning Practices, Found in Winter, Jay (Ed) The Cambridge History of the First World War, Civil Society, Cambridge University Press, Volume 3, Part 1V, Bodies in Pain, 2014
Larsson, M. Unsung healers: disabled Anzacs and family caregiving after the First World War, Military History and Heritage Victoria Web Archive 2014
Murphy, G. Moving women to the frontline of Military History, Melbourne University, voice.unimelb.edu.au May, 2014
Scates, B. Plans to digitise repatriation files will change the way we think of the Great War, Web Archive, Nov 11, 2013.
Thomson, A. Anzac Memories:
 Living with the Legend,
 Second Edition, Monash University Publishing, 2013.
Ziino, B. A Distant Grief: Australians, War Graves and the Great War, University of Western Australia Press, 2007.



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