Dy­ing con­tin­ues long af­ter shooting ends

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - - NEWS - TERRY SWEETMAN sweet­words@oze­mail.com.au

ONE hun­dred years ago to­day the killing of the Great War stopped but the dy­ing went on.

It is be­lieved that 18 Aus­tralians died on November 11, 1918, al­though ac­cord­ing to Aus­tralian War Me­mo­rial his­to­ri­ans, none was listed as “killed in ac­tion”.

The with­drawal of the ex­hausted Aus­tralian divi­sions from the line meant most of those who died on that day suc­cumbed to ear­lier wounds or dis­eases such as pneu­mo­nia or in­fluenza.

The dy­ing went on for years – even decades – as wounds and ill­ness even­tu­ally crept up on sorely tried men and stole away their lives. And hun­dreds died at their own hands as the hor­rors they ex­pe­ri­enced and the dis­ap­point­ments of peace be­came too much to en­dure. How many we will never know.

For oth­ers, the bot­tle rather than the bul­let be­came their es­cape from mem­ory.

We of more blessed generations could never en­tirely un­der­stand what drove th­ese men to de­spair, al­though the ex­pe­ri­ences of our lat­ter-day vet­er­ans are grad­u­ally open­ing our eyes.

One of those who per­ished on November 11, 1918, was 2029 Pri­vate Richard Wil­liams, 51st Bat­tal­ion, 1st Aus­tralian Im­pe­rial Force, whose file tersely lists his cause of death as: Drown­ing (sui­cide).

Those two words in­vite fur­ther ex­am­i­na­tion and de­liver in re­turn some inkling of what so many men en­dured and what Wil­liams could not.

Wil­liams, a South Aus­tralian iron­mon­ger, was 39 years and six months old when he en­listed on Fe­bru­ary 22, 1916.

He was rel­a­tively old and rel­a­tively late to en­list and may have been what the orig­i­nal An­zacs called a “deep thinker”.

Why, we will never know and nor do we need to know. Suf­fice to say that by July 1917 he was in the line with the 51st Bat­tal­ion that was to be in­volved in some of the bit­ter­est fight­ing of the war.

His records in the Aus­tralian Ar­chives re­veal noth­ing of his per­sonal role at the front but nor do they sug­gest he was any­thing but a sol­dier who did his best.

Twice he was evac­u­ated to hospi­tal with trench feet and then in the file on Case 54934 an un­known med­i­cal of­fi­cer wrote that Wil­liams “states he had be­gun to crack up”.

“Pulse rate is rapid, short-winded. RMO (Reg­i­men­tal Med­i­cal Of­fi­cer) states that an ul­cer on right great toe is con­tin­u­ally break­ing down. It’s break­ing down now.’’

A med­i­cal board found he was suf­fer­ing “de­bil­ity”, an all-en­com­pass­ing term that could mean many things, in­clud­ing shell shock or what we would to­day call post­trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

The cause of his dis­abil­ity? Ser­vice and “stress, strain and ex­po­sure’’.

“Stress, strain and ex­po­sure” are re­cur­ring words in his records and even­tu­ally led to him be­ing de­clared “per­ma­nently un­fit for gen­eral ser­vice” and “tem­po­rar­ily un­fit for home

ser­vice’’. The med­i­cal ob­ser­va­tions are brief and some­times dif­fi­cult to fol­low but there is no hint of any crit­i­cism.

In the Bri­tish Army bro­ken men were some­times shot but come 1918 the Aus­tralian Army doc­tors at least seem to have had some sen­si­tiv­ity to­wards a prob­lem beyond their sci­ence.

Wil­liams was put on a ship – His Majesty’s Aus­tralian Troop­ship Ru­nic – and sent home.

It seems that he jumped over­board in Dur­ban but was res­cued and put into con­fine­ment with or­ders that he “be taken ashore at Fre­man­tle un­der re­straint and placed un­der ob­ser­va­tion’’.

The di­ag­no­sis was “melan­cho­lia with sui­ci­dal ten­den­cies’’ which turned out to be spot on when on November 11 (re­port­edly as the Ru­nic was com­ing to an­chor at Fre­man­tle) he eluded his guard and threw him­self over the side.

Life pre­servers were thrown to him but he pushed them aside and dis­ap­peared. His body was never found.

A chap­lain gave ev­i­dence at an in­quiry that ear­lier that morn­ing an ag­i­tated Wil­liams told him he feared he was to be shot by mil­i­tary po­lice and would rather do any­thing than go back to Aus­tralia.

He left a note in which he said he was “wrongly ac­cused of ma­lin­ger­ing” and that it was “a put up job by of­fi­cers on the bat­tal­ion’’.

Was this the rav­ing of a fa­tally dis­turbed man or a cry from a man wrongly ac­cused of some­thing? We will never know.

We do know that he was awarded his ser­vice and vic­tory medals, his vic­tory plaque and scroll, and is re­mem­bered as noth­ing less than a sol­dier who did his duty.

For Wil­liams, the killing ended but he could find peace only on his terms.

How­ever, “ser­vice, stress, strain and ex­po­sure” would be fit­ting words on the graves of thou­sands of ser­vice­men and women. Even to­day.

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