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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.