Thomas Abdullah

Another story we would like to bring from Project Albany, is about Thomas Abdullah and what his name is telling us. It is something we don’t often hear about the 1st AIF - its social and its cultural diversity. This kind of stories is what we need to recover, if we are to say something new about the Great War. Now Thomas Abdullah’s name stands out but in most cases the ethnic, the cultural diversity of the 1st AIF is concealed by the service record. Recruits are described as British subjects - there’s no clue to their Indian, their Chinese or their Aboriginal descent. Because repatriation records are fuller accounts, because the accounts are embedded in community, because they are a record of families as well as former soldiers, they are a record that tells us that post-war story.

We need to reflect on the quality of the testimonies - what makes them facilitate new historical understandings? Why are they so important? Firstly, there is the potential for what are called intergenerational health studies. Few other countries in the world possess so comprehensive a health record for so vast a cross-section of the population, and not only talking about veterans either. When former servicemen and women lodged a pension claim they answered detailed questions not just about their own health but also about the health of their families, because they had to prove that the illness was not a congenital one. Now current work that is being done by Janet McCalman at the University of Melbourne has demonstrated the potential of these intergenerational health studies and by digitising this collection we are going to be showcasing a remarkable resource to a global community. Second point, the repatriation files are not just about the health of the nation, they are also an insight into society of the day. They tell us about a neglected phase in Australian society and the role of the state in the interwar period and the intervention of the medical expert into the life of an individual citizen, the working of public welfare and private charity. They demonstrate, as Marina Larsson and Al Thomson have shown, how war reaches into and damages the social fabric.