Dying continues long after shooting ends
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.