Repatriation Stories

The repatriation files, help us to imagine what those who haven’t been to war couldn’t possible understand and the visceral quality of that testimony just doesn’t lend it self to that sanitation of war. When these men’s accounts are read, we can imagine what it must have been like to spend days and nights in continual fever and delirium, shaking and shivering as the file puts it. It can be heard the hushed voices of what they called the whispering men, the ‘gassed’ men whose lungs were slowly corroding, who could barely breathe, who vomited up their meals, who fell over with giddiness, and who, like this man, lost confidence in themselves. And it can be seen the physical and the psychological scars of what was then called a war-wrecked generation and how their injuries also destroyed the lives of those around them; not just for the duration of their war service; not just for the duration of their service record but all throughout their all too short life.

The file of a Leroy shows us the story of a man who is suffering the long-term effects of mustard gas; he turns to drink and he turns on his wife as well. This can be perceived as an unmitigated tragedy, a canvas catalogue of horrors, but history is never just that – let us look again at Bertram Burns – there is a great dignity in Bertram Burns. We can read about the efforts he made to provide for his family. His war did not end though in 1918 did it? When the repatriation records came to the national archives from the Department of Veteran Affairs, archives had to decide what to do with them and, frankly, they posed a huge problem. ‘Huge’ in this case, is quite literally: ten kilometres of shelving space. It’s a veritable forest of files and as is so often the case with bureaucracies, people clutch to the simplest solution. Who would want to read the medical charts of these long-dead men? Maybe there are awkward issues of privacy too. And so, for several months, the fate of these files hung in the balance. With this, we can pay a tribute to the historians and archivists back then who fought for the preservation of these files. And back then was not such a long time ago; it was 2004.