Unsung healers: disabled Anzacs and family caregiving after the First World War

During the First World War, 60,000 Australian soldiers were killed and a further 90,000 were physically or mentally disabled. War disability transformed the lives of thousands of Australian families who welcomed home a ‘changed’ man. Although the Commonwealth Repatriation Department provided pensions, hospitals and medical treatment for ex-servicemen, in many instances much of the practical and emotional burden of care fell to family members – particularly wives and mothers. Families played a vital role in caring for the nation’s ‘shattered’ Anzacs in the aftermath of 1914-18. As Mrs Violet Aiken reflected in 1940: ‘My husband [was] a long sufferer from his war injuries … & was nursed … day and night in our own little home here by myself.’

Despite the caregiving burdens carried by ex-servicemen’s families in the 1920s and 1930s, their stories have not yet been fully integrated into mainstream histories of the First World War. In part, this is because of a lack of archival sources. The National Archives of Australia, however, holds First World War veterans’ repatriation medical files which shed light on families’ experiences of care in the domestic sphere. Although these records primarily document hospital treatment, they also contain correspondence and observations about family life. Along with primary sources from other national and state archives, they help us understand how families were the ‘unsung healers’ of a generation of soldiers scarred by war.
For thousands of Australian families, the 1918 Armistice marked the end of the war but signalled the start of many years of caring for their war-damaged soldier. During the 1920s and 1930s wives and mothers nursed ailing ex-servicemen, children learnt to manage the disturbing behaviours of shell-shocked fathers, and households were forced to survive on a meagre pension income. In some instances, relatives spent years visiting veterans in repatriation hospitals, while others witnessed the lingering deaths of those who finally succumbed to their war wounds. The letters that families wrote to the repatriation authorities demonstrate powerfully that although disabled soldiers sustained and bore the wounds of war, their families also shouldered considerable burdens as a consequence of their loved one’s disablement.
The first disabled soldiers returned to Australia after the Gallipoli campaign in mid-1915, and were followed by thousands more throughout the war. While some men required permanent institutionalisation, the majority was cared for in the home by their kin after medical treatment had ceased. Parents were the most common caregivers as 80 per cent of the First AIF was unmarried and 52 per cent was aged between 18 and 24. In the postwar years, many disabled soldiers married and their wives took on the burden of caregiving. This often involved negotiating a schedule of medical appointments the ‘Repat’, as war bride Edie Hyslop declared in 1919 ‘Practically ever since my arrival [in Melbourne] ‘my husband has had to have medical aid & advice’. Some men, however, were unable to marry because of their disabilities and remained living with their parents or in ‘Anzac Hostels’ well into the 1930s and beyond.
Within the home, wives, mothers and sisters most commonly looked after the day-to-day needs of ex-servicemen, reflecting women’s social role in the early twentieth century. Women carers ensured that medicines were correctly administered and prepared special remedies and health-giving foods. In some instances, the nursing care women provided was intimate and confronting. In mid-1917, Mrs Louisa Hogan commenced a regime of hand-feeding her son with liquid meals. Frederick Hogan had returned home with his ‘lower jaw shot away’ and was unable to use his right arm. Fathers offered practical assistance, such as providing transport to hospital, dealing with the repatriation bureaucracy or taking mobility-impaired men on excursions. Other relatives were called upon to provide company for bedridden men who, as one Repatriation Department official observed, had ‘nothing to do’ and relied upon them for entertainment.
Within the home, shell-shocked soldiers were one of the most challenging groups for which families cared. The repatriation medical records of Albert Brown reveal that by the late 1920s, his wife was struggling as his primary carer. Albert had returned from Gallipoli with physical wounds, and upon arriving home his mental outlook began to decline. He became subject to ‘moody turns’ and ‘would sometimes sit for hours without speaking’. Mrs Brown tried to be supportive of him, but when he developed paranoid thoughts, she asked Albert’s sister, May, to move into the household. By that stage Albert required around the clock monitoring which could only be achieved by two live-in carers. While many families were willing to care for a shell-shocked man and manage his confronting behaviours, relatives sometimes requested short or long-term institutional care because they ‘could not control him’.
Like Mrs Brown, the carers of physically and mentally disabled soldiers often called upon relatives to ease their burden of care. Sisters, aunts and resident grandmothers all undertook various domestic responsibilities to provide respite to primary carers. Families were networks of survival for disabled soldiers, and the willingness of a greater number of family members to help was an advantage. Conversely, disabled soldiers with smaller families or strained relationships had fewer opportunities to share the load. In some instances, the absence of family carers meant that the responsibilities of care fell to friends, rather than kin. In 1919, after the death of his mother, Charles Berg, a paralysed soldier from Sydney, was taken in by close friends of the family, Mr and Mrs Semple, who subsequently showed him seventeen years of ‘unremitting kindness’.
Some families cared for their soldier for years, even decades. In March 1929, Miss Edwina Leonard wrote to the Department describing how her mother had ‘done little else but treat’ her brother, Jim, in the twelve years since his discharge. Jim Leonard had been invalided home in 1917 with shell shock, trench foot and gassed lungs and a few weeks later suffered a ‘general breakdown’. After his return, Mrs Leonard developed a regimen of home therapies for Jim, including ‘mustard feet baths & eucalyptus massage’, and prepared ‘the most nourishing & fattening foods’ to build up his strength. For the Leonard family, the demands of caregiving were significant and ongoing, but somehow they managed to pull together and cope as the years passed.
Other families, however, broke apart under the strain of living with a ‘changed’ man. In May 1918, the distraught mother of a severely disabled Rutherglen soldier committed suicide, unable to deal with her son’s extensive physical wounds and psychological scars. After many years of caregiving, some women abandoned their sons and husbands to institutions. In 1930, Mrs Dorothy Clements asked the authorities whether she could ‘go into the country with her children’ because she felt that she could no longer ‘do anything’ for her husband, a shell shocked veteran. Although we think of the 1920s as an era which provided new freedoms to the ‘new woman’, the wives and mothers of disabled soldiers experienced unprecedented demands on their emotional labours within the home.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the family was a key site of caregiving for ex-servicemen disabled by the Great War. Family caregiving sometimes came at a high personal cost for kin, however they received little public acknowledgement or support from the Repatriation Department. The primary focus of the Department was shoring up the formal repatriation hospital system, not the invisible familial worlds of care that underpinned it. Australia’s First World War repatriation medical files reveal the important work of families in ‘healing the nation’ in the aftermath of that conflict. They also remind us that war does not just wound soldiers – it wounds their entire families. As Mrs Clara Stephen wrote in 1927 as she reflected on a decade of caring for her shell-shocked son ‘it has been a long war to us’.

Note: In some instances, names have been changed to conceal the identity of ex-servicemen and their families. Please see NAA Fact Sheet 54 for more information about veterans’ case files access conditions. Provided the veteran is dead, First World War case files are generally suitable for release, although some information may be exempted to protect the privacy of a surviving spouse or other family members. Case files for veterans of the Second World War and subsequent conflicts are not available for general public release.

Contact Marina Larsson about this article.

Subscribe to our FREE MHHV newsletter here

We are proud to have the support of the following organisations: