Going home: The War that Changed Us, ep. 4

‘Going Home’, the final episode of The War that Changed Us, mostly covers 1918 and the first year of peace but otherwise continues the approach of earlier episodes, interweaving the experiences of its six lead characters in Europe and Australia.

At the front, Archie takes flirting with nurses a lot further on leave in Paris with ‘joy girls’ . Then he is wounded for the third time, evacuated to England and convalescing in Birmingham. He is coping far better than the other patients but is still desperately missing family, sick of the Army and ‘itching to get home’. From now on, he writes, ‘The only time I would fight again is in defence of my own country’.

Army nurse Kit also ends up in England, earning the respite of lighter duties at No. 3 Australian Auxiliary Hospital, Dartford, Kent, having survived Zeppelin bombing in London and, before that, shelling at Passchendaele. Described as ‘running on empty’ and suffering the ‘secondary wounds’ of accumulated shock, she is shattered at the news of the death of her close friend Harold, ‘that beautiful boy’. Life becomes a blank; she loses all hope and stops writing her diary.

‘Pompey’ Elliott’s reputation as a fighting general is reinforced in 1917 at Polygon Wood and at Villers Bretonneux the following year. Then the deaths of his brother George and brother-in-law Jack Campbell make him wish for death. Passed over for promotion as a divisional commander, he becomes obsessive about justification and redress.

As in earlier episodes, there is a larger canvass too. Generalship, reinforcements from the United States and the Eastern Front, stalemate, then breakout, frames the two opposing forces’ changing fortunes. Bill Gammage likens the two sides to prize fighters ‘slugging it out’ in round fifteen.

Our three now familiar representative figures active in and around the Australian Parliament in Melbourne are just hanging on, too. Prime Minister Hughes further tightens his control of protest, keeping IWW leader Tom Barker jailed beyond his sentence then eventually deporting him to Chile. Another conscription referendum is held and resoundingly defeated. Undaunted, Eva Hughes, representing all right-thinking patriotic women, calls for even greater loyalty and sacrifice and, as news of the Armistice comes through, concludes that ‘right has prevailed’.

When the peace treaty terms are announced in June 1919, Vida Goldstein is at a Women’s Peace Conference in Zurich. Her judgment is prescient:

The Terms of Peace tacitly sanction secret diplomacy. They deny the principles of self-determination. They recognise the right of victors to the spoils of war and they create, all over Europe, discords and animosities which can only lead to future wars.

So what did it all mean? Casualty totals and percentages are stated and compared and several of the series’ experts offer their judgements which cannot but make us think. Here are two:

I think what the war did was root Australia in a moment that was about death, that was about heroism, but it was a military heroism. So that by tying Australia’s future fortunes to the idea that the nation had been born on the battlefields at Gallipoli, Australia became a backward-looking nation. It always returned to that moment. (Clare Wright)

This optimistic Australia that believed that the way to utopia was social progress, the war completely destroys that because they’ve all seen the world can turn on itself and can savage whole nations and a whole generation can be decimated. (Peter Stanley)

And did the war change us? The series’ creators only hint at answers by again returning one final time to the six protagonists, sketching in the facts of their post-war lives. Nothing of what happened was entirely predictable, nor could one say they all lived happily ever after in a land fit for heroes.

The saddest for me was the relatively short post-war life of ‘Pompey’ Elliott, who commits suicide in March 1931. His decline, arising mainly from the unresolved perceived wrong about his promotion and his despair at the Depression’s impact on returned men he commanded, is a story of slow post-trauma mental breakdown. It is related to camera by Ross McMullin, who summarises the full detail contained in chapter 22 of his magnificent biography of Elliott (Scribe, 2002). We see now, of course, the ultimate injustice that officially Pompey did not die of war-related causes and thus is not on the Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour.

Following McMullin, Bill Gammage says:

When you think of the casualties of the First World War, when you put that count down – 63 000 dead – you’re short-changing. Those casualties continue in suicides and early deaths right up until the 1960s.

The Elliott story stands for so much, for example, family grief and political division (when his public life in the 1920s is told) additional to the main facts that episode 4 covers. Like the war itself, and the question of commemoration, it almost defies words. Fittingly then, the series ends with Eternal Flames, Last Posts and the story behind the two minutes silence.

Michael Piggott

11 September 2014

Our reviews of episode 1, episode 2, episode 3.

 

 

 

 

 

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2 comments on “Going home: The War that Changed Us, ep. 4
  1. Michael piggott says:

    Of course Bruce is correct about Elliott not being on the AWM Roll of Honour because of the cut-off date, and by not be 100% clear in what I wrote, led some readers to infer the reason was the nature of his death. My apologies.

    Yes, there are servicemen on the Roll whose cause of death is described as “Died of wounds (Self inflicted)”. A search of the Memorial’s on-line Roll shows 63 in this category and the breakdown by rank (up to Lieutenant Colonel) and war (WWII predominates) is I think interesting. No doubt there were more who, out of despair, in effect suicided by being deliberately reckless, but had their death recorded for all sorts of official, bureaucratic and social reasons as just “died of wounds”. Even in the final episode I reviewed Elliott behaves at one point with this motive.

    As for cut off dates and the US Vietnam Veterans Memorial, unfortunately all line drawing creates problems, whether the line is a date (eg the day before the official disbandment of the AIF in 1921) or a cause of death (eg 20 years after returning, dying “as a result” of wounds).

  2. Bruce Cameron says:

    I did not see the program, however, I understand from the above review that it stated that: “officially ‘Pompey’ did not die of war-related causes [he committed suicide in 1931] and thus is not on the Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour”.

    The fact that he committed suicide is not the reason hie is not included on the Roll of Honour. There are a number of service personnel who committed suicide on the Roll. Psychological wounds are just as much war-related as physical ones. The reason that ‘Pompey’ is not listed is that his death came after the end of the prescribed period for the First World War (31 March 1921). Such a period exists for each war that Australia has been involved in. Those veterans who die as a direct result of their active service after this period are not officially acknowledged in any way. Is this right?

    Of course not. The official number of Australian service personnel (not servicemen as politicians, including at least on PM, are wont to say) who died as a result of Australia’s commitment to Vietnam, is 521. This is the cost to the nation that is taught in schools and recorded in history books. The real cost, however, is hidden from the Australian people.

    Hundreds of other veterans have died as a direct consequence of their service in Vietnam. It has always been so. Imagine how many soldiers who were gassed or suffered as POWs lingered on and died as a result of their wounds after the end of the prescribed periods for WWI and WWII. Appeals to the Government and the AWM for the service of these Australians to be at least recorded in a Commemorative Book at the AWM, have gone unheeded.

    This is not the case everywhere. In Washington, the names of those Americans who died as a result of wounds suffered in Vietnam continue to be added to the Vietnam Wall today.

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