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Lest We Forget The Heroes Who Came Home

25/04/2016 6:02 AM AEST | Updated 28/09/2016 9:59 PM AEST
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Philippe Wojazer / Reuters
An Australian army soldier attends the dawn service to mark the 100th anniversary of ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day at the Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, in northern France, April 25, 2015. The Gallipoli campaign has resonated through generations, which have mourned the thousands of soldiers from the ANZAC cut down by machinegun and artillery fire as they struggled ashore on a narrow beach. The fighting would eventually claim more than 130,000 lives, 87,000 of them on the side of the Ottoman Turks, who were allied with imperial Germany in World War One. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

I did not know my grandfather, Angus McSwain. I have no memories of the sound of his voice, the colour of his eyes. I did not have the opportunity to talk with him about his life, his childhood, his youth. My grandfather existed, ghostlike, somewhere on the outer edges of my family.

I grew up with no understanding of who he was or what he did. I did not know that he had stepped from the ordinariness of the life of a labourer from a small, rural community and, for a short time, did something extraordinary. I did not know of the cost and I did not understand how that shaped the lives of generations. He was hidden from us as children. It is only now -- reaching back in time through the lens of technology -- that I have started to build an understanding of who he was, who he might have been.

Angus fought at Gallipoli and in the mud, the blood and the guts of the Western Front. But he was not one of the fallen. He did not die in battle. His name is not on a stone memorial in a foreign land or at home.

He was one of the 90,000 wounded and disabled who came home.

These were the soldiers who did not, could not, stand in the brilliance and glare of ANZAC and Remembrance Day. They were the ones with the invisible wounds, who suffered from gassing or shell shock, who returned to the hospitals and asylums. They lived in sheds out the back or they lived rough because they couldn't sleep in a bed; and they relied on booze to make 'peace' bearable.

The returned died slowly -- compared with their comrades -- their quiet deaths marked in suburban cemeteries.

Angus enlisted in September 1914, a single, 31-year-old labourer. Looking at his enlistment papers today, you can see a handwriting that was strong and determined. He wasn't one caught up in the patriotic fever to serve God, King, Empire and Country.

In the early days, there was a recruitment pamphlet which talks of the European tour, and, in a Monty Pythonesque way, does not mention the war. When Angus enlisted in the second wave, the volunteers were older, in their late twenties or early thirties. It was not about the grand adventure. This was the handwriting of a man who had an idea of what he was enlisting for. As part of the 21st battalion, Private Angus McSwain was on the troop ship 'Southland' when it was torpedoed on the way to Gallipoli. He survived in the water for eight or so hours until he was rescued. Later in life, while looking at one of his children's geography books, he pointed to the general location and said: "I once took a bath there and didn't much care for it."

He was in the second wave of troops at Gallipoli -- he did not land on 25 April and become the men of the legend of ANZAC. In later years, he apparently said the greatest respect you could show your fallen mates was not to stand on their face.

From there, he fought in most of the major battles on the Western Front, where the war was already bogged down in trenches, blood and mud.

No one really explained Angus -- he was hidden from us. But there was a clear, unspoken understanding that the man who enlisted was not the same one who returned. Angus was a man not prone to explaining much, and was not at ease talking about his experiences. If he did speak of his experiences, it was with tears.

To understand what shaped him means I have to understand a man I never saw, let alone met; never talked with and whose voice I never heard. The only contact is through technology, his military records and bits of remembered family mythology, some of it accurate, some perhaps not.

The digital world is a wonderful thing, allowing you to reach back through time, across the decades. It allows you to explore and deal with, as the author Patsy Adam Smith said, "the generation whose fathers, uncles, and sometimes elder brothers were either dead, or 'returned'". It defined that generation -- that and the Great Depression.

I wonder what he saw and what he experienced. How did he and his mates survive? Angus was with the 57th Battalion at the Battle of Fromelles, now described as: "The worst 24 hours in Australian history... not the worst 24 hours in Australian military history, but the worst 24 hours in Australia's entire history. The Australians suffered 5,533 casualties in one night. The Australian toll at Fromelles was equivalent to the total number of Australian casualties in the Boer War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War put together."

In his book To The Last Ridge, which tracks a young man's experience with the 57th Battalion, W.H Downing gives an idea of that world: "Stammering scores of German machine-guns spluttered violently, drowning the noise of the cannonade. The air was thick with bullets, swishing in a flat criss-crossed lattice of death... Hundreds were mown down in the flicker of an eyelid, like great rows of teeth knocked from a comb... Men were cut in two by streams of bullets [that] swept like whirling knives... It was the charge of the Light Brigade once more, but more terrible, more hopeless."

There is a reference in the documents to Angus being 'blown up' and wounded. This fits with the story of how he stopped to take a piss only to see mates killed by a land mine. On such small acts did survival turn.

Angus McSwain's records show he was discharged on 20 January 1919 with the note he was suffering from shell shock and a list of wounds and sicknesses. There's the occasional court martial for going AWOL. (I'd like to think his history of going AWOL -- he made it all the way through France to London -- was to do with his lack of respect for authority. The McSwains were some of the early boat people, driven from Scotland by the British policy of forced evictions.) He was awarded the 1914-15 Star and the British War Medal and Victory medal 1914-1919.

His handwriting when he was discharged is spidery, uncertain -- a stark contrast to the strong and sure hand of his former self.

Angus returned to his small rural community and, at 40, married a woman half his age and attempted to transition back into the small, country town life. For the rest of his life he was a returned serviceman whose hands would shake and tremble, who would suffer nightmares and trench feet -- bacteria would cause large, green, painful blisters that stank when they burst.

Apparently, he didn't make the transition. According to his children, the nightmares and drinking never stopped. He lived on the periphery of the lives of his six kids and lied about his age to enlist for the Second World War. He remained in Australia on garrison duty and was discharged early. His papers note early signs of dementia.

He lived rough and the local paper recorded his death on September 1967 as that of an "old identity". Angus McSwain died aged 83 in the local hospital in St. Arnaud.

In the little towns or municipalities around Australia, there is an Honour Board which marks both those who died on the battlefield and those who left their soul and spirit in the blood and mud along with the fallen. They were very ordinary men who, for a brief period in their lives, did something extraordinary and paid the price every day for the rest of their lives.

"We bow us down to a dusty shrine, or a temple in the East,

Or we stand and drink to the world-old creed, with the coffins at the feast;

We fight it down, and we live it down, or we bear it bravely well,

But the best men die of a broken heart for the things they cannot tell." Henry Lawson, The Things We Dare Not Tell, 1901

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