APRIL 25, 2015, heralds 100 years since the Gallipoli landing, and the country is in the grip of patriotic celebrations for the men who sacrificed their lives.
But there are other stories that need to be recognised at this time too, stories that are not so often told in histories of war.
These are the stories of the women and the families back home who also bore the cost of war and its aftermath, for whom war was not a romance but a nightmare of shattered dreams.
As a historian I’ve been reflecting on Australian women in the Great War and the diversity of women’s experiences in this country. But on this first centenary of Gallipoli and Anzac Day, my thoughts turn to the stories in my own family history.
There are two “Anzac legends” in my family tree. My great-grandmother Joan’s adored aunt, World War I nursing matron Narrelle Hobbes, revered in perpetuity.
And my great-grandfather Norman Kingsley-Strack, a Gallipoli veteran at 24, who served again in the next war. At first glance they seem to conform pretty closely to the script.
But closer examination reveals the real cost of war behind the sepia-tinted dreams of glory.
Aunt Narrelle was so anxious to join the war effort that she got herself to London where, the day before the Anzac landing, she applied to join the British imperial nursing service.
She was at Malta as the casualties from the Dardanelles came flooding in, and after the evacuation she was posted to Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) in the wake of another shocking defeat of the Allied forces.
Then in June 1917 she came down with a mysterious, lingering illness and in May 1918, on her way home to die, Narrelle was buried at sea.
Her death deeply shocked my great-grandmother Joan. Narrelle had advised Joan against marriage and to seek an independent career. Caught up in the emotional drama of the war, Joan had instead married Norman, an ex-AIF officer. Their first child was born in October 1917. At the height of the conflict, surrounded by death, Joan found hope in the birth of her son.
It soon became obvious their marriage was a disaster. Norman was deeply troubled and unable to find regular work. Joan wrote of the shameful stress of caring for her baby while secretly taking in sewing work and dealing with Norman’s “frayed nerves”, but even when the war ended their problems did not cease.
They had two more children (one of them my grandmother, who Joan named for her aunt), but in 1926 Joan wrote of how he had taken to toying with his revolver and vowing to “end his misery”. She planned to take the children and leave him, but that was a difficult option in those times.
They battled on together, their marriage wracked by arguments, until they divorced in the midst of World War II.
Perhaps they never should have married in the first place, but their ordeal was the legacy of war. Joan blamed Norman’s problems on a severe head wound he had received at Gallipoli.
Sent back home on the day when the Turks and the Anzacs came out to bury their dead together there, a full third of the men of his battalion killed, he might have hurt his head not in battle but in a fall, and he was officially discharged as suffering “neurasthenia (traumatic)” – what we today call post-traumatic stress disorder.
Neither accidental injury nor psychological distress were at all unusual for the men who fought at Gallipoli or elsewhere, but they didn’t fit the Anzac Digger mythology and I don’t doubt Norman struggled to deal with the realities of his war experience.
And my great-grandparents were not alone in their anguish. The war had a devastating impact on the women and families dealing with the damaged men who came home.
Domestic violence escalated and was deadlier than ever, while the divorce rate in Australia had doubled in 1921 from the last census, taken three years before the war – and for the first time it was women who were the majority of petitioners.
In my family, and many others, Gallipoli created a generation of fighting, weeping, torn families.
And we know that war continues to wreak a terrible toll on the families of those who fight. At this time, then, it’s important that we recognise that these stories are just as potent in our collective experience – maybe more so – as the scaling of the cliffs of Gallipoli.
Associate Professor Victoria Haskins is a historian at the University of Newcastle and holds the NSW Centenary of Anzac Commemoration History Fellowship for her research project, Anzac: Her Story, a history of Australian women’s experiences of the First World War.