The version of history presented each Anzac Day holds up those who fought as heroes. As the author ’s family can attest, the reality can be less flattering. By Jo Stewart.

The Gallipoli lie and other tall tales from the front

The author’s grandfather, James Millard Stewart.
The author’s grandfather, James Millard Stewart.

The truth arrived in a package delivered to my house from the National Archives of Australia. Inside a folder emblazed with the words “Your story, our history” were records of my grandfather’s service in World War I. In my family, there is a gulf of many years between generations, and not much was known about him. All I had was a black-and-white photo from when he enlisted, stories from older relatives who said he had served in Gallipoli, and an anecdote involving an incident during the war where he got trapped in a wine cellar with his friends and they had to drink their way out. The usual Stewart family yarns.

Seeing his cursive signature more than 100 years after he signed his life away for king and country was bittersweet, yet strangely the records made no mention of Gallipoli. He was never there. Although he was stationed briefly in Egypt, the records indicate he spent most of his time in Europe fighting on the Western Front. How the Gallipoli lie came to be, who knows? But he certainly didn’t serve there.

That wasn’t the only surprise as I leafed through the folder of James Millard Stewart’s war service. The records indicated he was far from a model soldier. He was absent without leave (AWOL) on many occasions, one time taking himself off for a 15-day break over Christmas and New Year in 1916. He faced military court on many other occasions, mostly for disciplinary problems. He also spent a significant proportion of the war in hospital being treated for venereal disease. All of his hospital admissions were there, marked in red pen. Between 1916 and 1919 he spent more than 250 days in hospital being treated for sexual infections. 

Raden Dunbar researched the topic extensively while writing The Secrets of the Anzacs: The Untold Story of Venereal Disease in the Australian Army, 1914–1919. He found that venereal disease was very common among soldiers of all combatant countries during World War I, and was a significant issue for the Australian Imperial Force. 

“About 60,000 Australian soldiers were infected with venereal disease during World War I. Many of those soldiers were treated for multiple infections, so the number of hospital admissions was much higher. In the combined forces of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, there were more than 400,000 hospital admissions for venereal disease,” Dunbar explains, before adding: “The infection rate among the Australian contingent approached record levels in Egypt in early 1916 with 1500-2000 Australian soldiers being treated in hospital every day.” 

The AIF was conflicted between treating the infections as a moral problem and as a medical problem, such was the stigma associated with sexually transmitted infections. Soldiers were frequently punished under military law for having caught a venereal disease and were scorned by fellow soldiers and military commanders. Yet Dunbar believes that the real punishment came in the form of the gruesome treatment regimen, which was invasive, painful and humiliating. 

Occurring at a time before penicillin was available, the only way of treating gonorrhoea was via urethral injections of a silver solution. Syphilis patients were treated with arsenic and mercury.  Essentially, patients were injected with poisonous substances to kill diseases. Treatments went for a month, or longer. The heavy metals used in treatment during this period were all subsequently banned for use in any kind of medical treatment. 

Unsurprisingly, most returned veterans went to great lengths to conceal the venereal diseases they acquired at war. These types of medical records weren’t readily available until they started turning up on the National Archives of Australia website during the past decade. Almost a hundred years after the event, the truth has only recently started to emerge.

Peter Burness has worked at the Australian War Memorial for 43 years and as a senior historian he advises me to pay attention to the records but also to look for what’s not there. While venereal disease was common in troops who served in World War I, Burness suggests that I look at all the other information and to keep my thoughts in context. “As the father of three sons, I can say that young men all through history are crazy. Some blokes went through the war with a clean record but others got into all sorts of strife.” 

Burness looks at the dates and mentions that my grandfather’s first taste of combat was during the Battle of Fromelles where he was shot in the face and evacuated to England for a long period of hospital treatment for both the facial wound and the venereal disease he subsequently acquired on leave. By the time he returned to the Western Front many months later, about half of his battalion had been killed. Burness also explains that towards the end of the war, my grandfather’s battalion fought on the Hindenburg Line, a pivotal, nightmarish battle that resulted in a huge number of casualties. 

Burness explains that the troops on the Western Front experienced unspeakable horrors, and the idea of returning home to their families in Australia became an abstract concept as the war dragged on. The combined effect of trauma, grief, pain and shock often gave soldiers a fatalistic outlook on life, which led to risk-taking while on leave. After all, most Australian soldiers who served in World War I were naive young men with little life experience and limited military training. While the term AWOL conjures up images of men running from battle, Burness explains that most AWOL cases during this period can be attributed to nothing more than boredom. “Absence without leave was typical over there, especially in places like England, where troops were sent to recuperate in hospital. Your grandfather was sent to hospital and he’s hanging around doing nothing while recuperating. So he just shoots through for a couple of days because he’s feeling fine.” 

My grandfather’s story does not fit easily with the Anzac myth. But unlike many from the older generation, my siblings and cousins are happy to look the truth of his service in the face. Before the records were located, none of us assumed anyone in our family was capable of living a pious life. We’re not religious nor are we shrinking violets. We were brought up on a steady diet of colourful stories fed to us from aunts and uncles who possessed a wicked sense of humour and a fondness for larrikinism, as we do. 

My cousin Paul visited the Western Front in 2000 and as an ex-serviceman himself, he counts it as a spiritual experience. “It’s so vivid in my mind. That was where my grandfather walked into battle, not knowing if he was destined to leave. I wish he and his mates never had to endure these battles but they did, and when I think of James Millard Stewart in the thick of it all I’m incredibly proud.” 

We all agree these records are invaluable, providing the younger generation with an opportunity to get to know a man none of us ever met. “Having these details gives me a strong connection to him,” Paul says. “I never met the man, yet these records make me feel like I know him. Yes, his records are colourful; but who has the right to judge a man or woman for their actions in these situations? No one does. He is everything I would want my grandfather to be.” 

While Australia is proud to celebrate its war history, the version of history presented each Anzac Day continues to be a rather narrow one. Like me, many believe there’s room for a wider range of stories to be included in the national narrative. Talking about the focus of his book, Dunbar says, “It’s certainly at odds with the mythical, modern-day, superficial heroic image…” And then he adds: “But the truth is far more interesting.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2016 as "Tales from the front".

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