The taint of history

My passing mention of the Anzac myth in a post earlier today has triggered a train of thought I can only quench (derail?) by writing. It’s perhaps the most powerful aspect of Australian heritage and tradition, its effects flowing down through Australian society to the present day. The Anzac myth is especially potent in my own family, where the echoes are felt even now.

Anzac heroism was a very real phenomenon, but Australian forces also exhibited their fair share of cowardice as well, something the national mythology has airbrushed away until quite recently. The convenient failure of popular history to deal other than in passing with the bombing of Darwin and the mass desertion that followed the first huge raid is a case in point, but World War 1 provides the example that impacts my own family most directly.

My maternal grandfather Denis Cadigan was one of five children who were orphaned when grand-dad was 10. Grand-dad and his brothers Cornelius and Andrew were sent to Glebe Boys’ Home in Sydney’s inner suburbs, while their sisters Martha and Kitty went to a girls’ home nearby. All three brothers enlisted in the First AIF as soon as they were old enough (in fact grand-dad, the youngest brother, lied about his age to enlist early), and were sent to France to fight in 1915-16.

The eldest brother, Uncle Cornelius (“Con”) , endured perhaps the heaviest fighting, eventually going AWOL for a week or so. The medical and military reports from the time, copies of which my mother recently obtained, speak powerfully of a man who had simply cracked under the unimaginable pressure of mud and death of trench warfare. Today we’d recognise an acute case of post-traumatic stress disorder and he’d be retired and hospitalised. Instead, he was branded a deserter and sentenced to 3 months imprisonment.

Returned to the front lines, Uncle Con soon afterwards participated in a large-scale mutiny of Australian forces, and was again tried, this time for mutiny as well as desertion, along with many others. He was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, and served just over a year. However, once the war ended his sentence (along with those of his fellow mutineers) was commuted and he was shipped back to Australia, returning in the same convoy as his 2 brothers.

On their way back to Australia, Con, Andrew and Denis discussed their two sisters. The younger of them, Kitty, was still a minor and still living in the Girls’ Home. The brothers vowed that they would meet at the Girls’ Home on a designated day after their demobilisation, get Kitty out and pool their military severance pay to support her until she could get work and look after herself.

Andrew and Denis arrived at the appointed time, and they duly rescued Kitty. Con never turned up. Grand-dad Denis refused to speak to Con or even acknowledge his existence for almost 30 years afterwards, until my mother insisted on inviting him to her wedding when she married my father a few years after the next world war.

Grand-dad, by comparison with Uncle Con, was the archetypal Anzac hero. Decorated numerous times for bravery, he had part of his head shot away in France, and spent the rest of his life as a TPI (Totally and Permanently Incapacitated) pensioner with a metal plate in his skull. He managed to father 3 kids including my mother, but he was never able to hold down a full-time job and apparently became quite a bad alcoholic at one stage. He spent a lot of time playing cards with his mates down at Bondi beach, and at one stage tried unsuccessfully to become a SP bookie.

My grandmother reacted badly, and took up with a series of lovers whose existence she made no effort to hide from grand-dad or anyone else. This was, of course, scandalous behaviour in Sydney’s eastern suburbs in the 1930s and 40s. Apart from anything else, it engendered in my mother a disturbing lifelong mixture of aggrieved petty snobbery and a paranoid fear that she might breed a child harbouring a hidden genetic inheritance of social shame.

When I got very drunk a couple of times in my teenage years, mum would go into a histrionic fit of the vapours lasting months. Convinced that I’d turn out an alcoholic like her father, she once gave me the silent treatment for almost a year, communicating only through others (“Tell your son that …”).

One of my sisters suffered an even more extreme dose of this treatment after she engaged in a minor bout of shoplifting with a couple of schoolmates at the age of 14. She was doomed to follow in the footsteps of Uncle Andrew, mum thought. Andy had become notorious in the annals of minor Sydney crime as the Crossword Bandit, and spent the majority of his adult life after WWI in prison. He was in the habit of doing crossword puzzles while casing premises prior to breaking and entering, and would always obligingly leave them behind for police to find.

Fortunately, Sue didn’t become a thief nor did I become an alcoholic, but the legacy of my mother’s war-generated obsessions affected us in a multitude of more subtle ways, and it still does. History and mythology are forces more powerful than most of us imagine, and their effects shape and taint us in ways we may not even suspect.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Niall
2022 years ago

Sounds like many, many families having ‘family’ troubles, as happens. I’m not so sure those ‘troubles’ can be attributed to military service which didn’t sit well with a particular individuals’ psyche.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Niall,

I’m sure there were lots of influences on my mum’s psyche as well as reaction to wartime events and their aftermath, and I’m certainly not suggesting my family is in any way exceptional. That’s the whole point. But I’ve got no doubt that the echoes of those wartime events are a part of the whole picture, and probably a fairly important part.

Tysen
Tysen
2022 years ago

I think the Anzac tradition, particularly to younger people, is an expression of respect for those that actually physically fought for something they believed in, even if they didn’t fully appreciate the sacrifice that they would most likely have to make. It’s a pretty extraordinary thing to do and I’m not sure how many of my generation would be willing to do it. It’s not too hard to protest when a right is threatened but I can’t imagine many of us sacrificing our lives to fight for it.

So many were able to lead normal functioning lives. My grandfather fought all through Europe and then the Pacific (1939-44) yet never mentioned any of it. That’s what probably kept them sane.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Tysen,

I hope no-one thinks I’m denigrating the Anzac tradition or the sacrifices they made; I’m just reflecting on them from an intensely personal perspective.

I suspect that young Australians today would be just as willing to fight for their country as those old diggers, if it was clearly under threat. Australians in WW1 saw themselves as an integral part of a British Empire that was under imminent threat, even if our own little part of it wasn’t. That’s why so many were willing to enlist, fight and die. There were anti-conscription demos during WW1 every bit as radical and vehement as today’s protests. The existence of protest movements tells us we live in a democracy; it says nothing at all about the courage or willingness of young Australians to make sacrifices in a just cause. The courage shown by some young Australians in the immediate aftermath of the Bali bombing was akin to that of WW1 diggers, I reckon.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

I was actually thinking driving home about the ANZAC legend, and how it is perhaps better to let some sleeping dogs lie about how great our forces were.

Generally, I’d have a look to the military historian credentials of any historian that revisited this topic- there is some work to be done, but if an academic historian with no prior record of specialising in military history tries to point out certain facts, the suspicion will arise that the historian is not really about setting the record straight (it is only slightly crooked, IMHO) but rather about, shall we say, a more contemporary agenda.

It is my view that Australia derives a great deal of benefit from the Anzac Myth, and it shouldn’t be disturbed without good cause.

A very well written story though Ken. Cheers for sharing.

wen
wen
2022 years ago

Ken, you’ve got about 15 novels there, I reckon. And all best-sellers.
What happened to Kitty & Martha?

wen
wen
2022 years ago

Ken, you’ve got about 15 novels there, I reckon. And all best-sellers.
What happened to Kitty & Martha?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Wen,

Both married and lived fairly standard suburban lives in Sydney. When I was a kid Auntie Martha lived in comfortable widowhood in Seaforth not far from where I grew up. I don’t remember Auntie Kitty, but she figures in family yarns because one of her daughters was a woman named Joy Cavill, a lifelong avowed lesbian (before it became trendy) who became a fairly well-known Australian film and TV producer. She was the producer of two of the three series of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. She also wrote and produced a movie about the life of Dawn Fraser (called, unoriginally, Dawn) and wrote a truly appalling movie called The Nickel Queen, which starred Googie Withers, Ed Devereaux and (of all people) John Laws.

woodsy
woodsy
2022 years ago

When you include the novel about Joy, thre’s probably more than 15 don’t you think Wen ? BTW what’s the problem with posting twice ?

wen
wen
2022 years ago

woodsy,

I just like the sound of my own voice.

Tysen
Tysen
2022 years ago

I didn’t think that you were denigrating the Anzac tradition. And I agree with your comments on the bravery of those in the Bali aftermath.

I’ve read a few books and watched a fair few documentaries but I obviously can’t speak from experience (I guess only a handfull of Australians still can). Certainly the government of the day felt that Australia was indirectly under threat because of the fact that the heart of the Commonwealth was under direct threat. I don’t know how many recruits were too sure though, and many possibly just wanted adventure. Given most of the current generation are more fully informed, and more cynical, I can’t imagine anything like the mass recruitment of the first world war. That doesn’t mean they are cowards, just they are unlikely to fight and die for an abstract principle. The debate over Iraq is a good illustration of how difficult it is to determine exactly what a threat even is.

In my opinion, the protests of that era were of a different nature. They were a means for voters to demonstrate their opposition to government policy in a time when opinion polls didn’t really exist (or weren’t nearly as complex). These days our protests are far less civilised and largely irrelevant given they simply inconvienience the majority of people and fail to directly influence governments who have far more precise means of measuring public opinion. It does have a PR benefit though.

mark
2022 years ago

My goodness, Tysen, that was well-reasoned and argued.

(I take it you won’t be joining the ranks of our brethren frothing at the mouth and screaming “APPEASER!” and “COWARD!”, then?)

Antony
Antony
2022 years ago

Yesterday was another country. At the time of the First World War, people thought of themselves as British as well as Australian. As late as the 1960s, the cover of an Australian passport bore the heading AUSTRALIA but below, underneath the Australian Coat of Arms and in smaller letters were the words: BRITISH PASSPORT. (I’m looking at one as I write this.)

I’d like to quote something from Sir Paul Hasluck’s delightful autobiography “Mucking About”

trackback
2022 years ago

http://hotbuttereddeath.ubersportingpundit.com/archives/003432.html

Ken Parish’s happy family. My maternal grandfather Denis Cadigan was one of five children who were orphaned when grand-dad was 10. Grand-dad and his brothers Cornelius and Andrew were sent to Glebe Boys’ Home in Sydney’s inner suburbs, while their…