In 1935 ‘Alan Tiveychoc’ (a pseudonym) attempted to give narrative shape and meaning to his war experiences, then almost twenty years past. His is an account inevitably coloured by memory, time, and his own shattered health and morphine addiction arising from extensive war injuries.
The description of his moment of return, still on the ship outside Fremantle, concludes with these brief reflections: ‘he felt not the glamour of heroics but rather the pathos of this eventide that signified the passing of so much – the venture, the great experience had ended – the sun had set’.
Not the least interesting aspect of this passage is that it is written in the third person, signifying a rupturing of past and present selves, and serving to highlight the contrast between the pure world of war and mateship, and the present world of ‘eventide’.
I was home and the greatest adventure of my life was over
This account is far from unique. It resembles many others, some published, many lying in diary and note form in libraries and archives. Equally, it reflects the experience of Australians from different wars.
Second World War returned airman Alan Hoyle, to take just one of many examples, found that ‘I was home and the greatest adventure of my life was over’. Time and again these accounts position war experience as the defining moment of existence. After it, nothing seemed to match it for intensity or meaning. For some, like Tiveychoc or Hoyle, this was a moment of nostalgic and melancholic recollection of a richer past, but for others, like E.J.H. Joseph, it was an embittered cry for a lost self that could never be recovered: it was if he ‘had completed a life’s work’, a feeling that so paralysed him that he felt incapable of ever summoning up the energy to engage in productive employment again.
Though we give freedom to the race of men / Yet who shall give us back Ourselves Again?
Some of these meanings achieved a higher literary formulation. Second World War poets, such as Alexander Turner, could write: ‘Though we give freedom to the race of men/ Yet who shall give us back Ourselves Again?’. Here war experience takes on a different inflection, as the death of an innocent ‘true self’.
In these accounts the loss of self frames the years after return as a time when soldiers would wander in the wilderness.
In diverse ways, the period after war, in literature and private recollection, is represented as a time of loss and darkness, in which returned soldiers are forever condemned to live in the past tense and the third person.
The Cost of War: War, Return and the Re-Shaping of Australian Culture, published on 1 April 2020, is available for purchase.