Cashen, Phil: ‘Service and sacrifice’ in the Great War: analysed (as it should be more often)

Phil Cashen

‘”Service and sacrifice” in the Great War: analysed (as it should be more often)’, Shire at War, 30 October 2022; 11 December 2022

Honest History has often republished posts from Phil Cashen’s Shire at War blog (use our Search engine). Phil has done sterling work over a number of years about the men who came from the Shire of Alberton (around Yarram, Gippsland, Victoria) and went off to World War I, and about the community they came from and (many of them) returned to.

Phil is finishing his work and we thank him for it and wish him well. Two of his final posts contain a detailed study of 753 men from the Shire. The first post (30 October 2022) is ‘221. Analysing the “sacrifice” of the cohort of men who enlisted, embarked and served overseas‘.

The data that I am drawing on [in this post] comes primarily from the individual service histories of the men. These records detail a significant amount of information on any wounds, injuries, sicknesses and diseases experienced. They also cover matters such as length of time spent in hospital and other related institutions. Importantly, they indicate whether the individual soldier was discharged as “medically unfit” (MU) or at the “termination of the period of enlistment” (TPE). The same records give an indication of the longer term disabilities and suffering the returning men had to carry with them after discharge from the AIF.

The post covers general health, rejection on medical grounds (the men were not as strong and healthy as legend has it, having particularly bad teeth), discharge on medical grounds, desertion, and died of disease. In summary:

  • 168 men of the cohort of 753 were killed in action, died of wounds or died of disease (22% or 1 in 5);
  • of the 585 men who “survived” the War, roughly 50% (280) or 1 in 2 were discharged from the AIF on medical grounds (“Medically Unfit”), as the result of either wounds, injury, disease or some other physical or mental disability.

Phil’s second post (11 December 2022) is ‘222. A closer look at the “supreme sacrifice” of those who died on active service‘. The post looks at 118 men killed in action, 35 died of wounds, 12 died of disease, and one suicide, for a total of 166.

Phil breaks down the deaths by time period (worst in the second half of 1916), notes the frequent initial uncertainty (first missing, then eventually listed as dead), the variations in the period of ‘survival’ from first enlistment, the types of disease causing death, and the relative lack of detail for those killed in action, compared with those who died of wounds.

Men died within a short period of time after having been wounded. Presumably, this was the result not just of the wounds themselves – note the prevalence of men hit in the head, chest and back – but the length of time that passed before they received any medical attention and then the quality of the attention they received. Also, even though some men survived the initial traumatic period after being wounded, both the ever present risk of infection and the extreme nature of the wounds themselves – for example, paralysis – meant that the very idea of “survival” was highly qualified, both in terms of time and the degree of suffering the men experienced over the period they “survived”.

The post also contains much detail on the wounds and illness previously suffered by men who were eventually killed in action.

Here is Phil’s conclusion:

Importantly, the very act of describing death as a form of “supreme sacrifice” had the effect of neutralising and “sanitising” the dreadful effect of the death itself. The terminology implied some sort of high moral purpose to the death. It became a code for people to use, on the one hand, to provide comfort and a sense of righteousness for those mourning and, on the other, to distance everyone from the reality of the individual death and its specific circumstances.

Distancing was reinforced by the geographical distance between Australia and the war. Men were away for years, wrote only occasionally and, if they died, were buried in places that were difficult or impossible for families to visit later. Details about the circumstances of deaths were often sparse, out of a desire to spare families. The notion of ‘supreme sacrifice’ assisted with what we have come to call ‘closure’.

However, from the perspective of history there are obvious failings when the shocking carnage of WW1 – and any war for that matter – is papered over with notions of “supreme sacrifice”. It denies and warps the suffering and grief of the loved ones left behind. It minimises the enormous social, economic and other impacts on the local area, state and nation. And, ironically – given the very terminology employed – it fails to give an honest picture of the nature and extent of the suffering the men endured.

We wrote something similar in The Honest History Book (2017):

Historian Drew Gilpin Faust’s remark about the American Civil War could apply to any war, certainly to Australia’s World War I: “The war’s staggering human cost demanded a new sense of national destiny, one designed to ensure that lives had been sacrificed for appropriately lofty ends. So much suffering had to have transcendent purpose, a ‘sacred significance’.” King George V proposed such a purpose after the Great War. The words on the “King’s Penny” or “Dead Man’s Penny”, the commemorative medal presented to bereaved subjects, were “He Died for Freedom and Honour”. No need to question whether the death was worth it; the King had provided the answer and his answer would have been a comfort to many families.

David Stephens

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