Searching for Hector Thomson – Anzac Memories Revisited

Alistair Thomson

by Alistair Thomson

Sometimes you can't write the history that needs to be told. In 1986, the draft first edition of my book Anzac Memories reported that my grandfather, Hector Thomson, contracted malarial encephalitis while serving with the Light Horse in Palestine during the Great War, and that after the war he was ''in and out of mental hospital''.

I only knew about Hector's mental illness fourth-hand, from my mother. My father, David Thomson, never talked about it. He was appalled by my reference to the mental hospital and demanded I remove it from the book.

The stigma of mental illness ran deep. Dad insisted he would never have been accepted into Duntroon military college in 1942 had they known about Hector's illness. In the 1980s, mental illness in the family was still shameful. Perhaps worst of all, my writing ripped open a scab that had formed across dad's terrible childhood and unleashed angry, painful memories. I changed the line ''in and out of mental hospital'' to the more acceptable half-truth that Hector was ''in and out of Caulfield Repatriation Hospital'' after the war.

The point of the story about Hector had been to show that within families, as within the nation, some histories can be told while others are hidden or forgotten. In removing the reference to mental illness, I was perpetuating a selective version of Anzac history.

A quarter of a century later, it's easier to write about soldiers and mental illness. The stigma of mental illness has begun to lift, and historians and veterans themselves now write more readily about ''shattered Anzacs'' who return from war physically and mentally damaged.

We can also access sources that weren't available 25 years ago. The case files for ex-servicemen created by the Repatriation Department (today's Department of Veterans' Affairs) are now available on application to the National Archives. The medical files for Victorian First War veterans comprise almost three kilometres of archive shelf space. They are a rich record of 20th-century Australian social and medical history.

File 58164 details Hector Thomson's medical history, from enlistment through to his death in 1958. Six foot tall and solidly built, Hector was a healthy young man from a farm near Sale in Gippsland when he went to war in 1914. Serving in Palestine with a Light Horse field ambulance unit, Hector was awarded the Military Medal in 1916 for helping rescue wounded men while under ''heavy rifle and shell fire''.

Hector's service record also details less commendable behaviour that was common in Australia's volunteer army, including disobedience, ''familiarity with natives'' (an ambiguous charge which may refer to prostitutes), ill-treatment of a mule, being ''improperly dressed'' and bringing intoxicating liquor into a hospital.

Hector Thomson's war record of bravery and larrikinism exemplifies two sides of the Anzac legend.

In March 1917, Hector was hospitalised with his first malaria attack. Over the next year he spent another 87 days in hospitals recovering from malarial fevers and a respiratory infection. Back on the family farm in 1919, Hector continued to suffer debilitating malaria attacks - at one point he was found lying unconscious beside the plough - and was granted a 50 per cent war disability pension. As Hector slowly recovered, his pension was reduced. It was suspended in August 1922 when he failed to attend a Repat medical examination.

In the same year, Hector inherited a 160-hectare mixed-farming property in Gippsland, near to several other Thomson farms. In February 1922 he took up residence in a four-room cottage with his new bride, Nell Scott. The property was called ''Bungaleen'' after a 19th-century Aboriginal leader from the area who died in police custody. The loss of Hector's pension just a few months after their marriage would become a source of great regret for Nell, but in 1922 Hector did not want his bride to think that he was war-damaged.

Hector's illness recurred in an unexpected and debilitating form. He began to suffer exhaustion and memory loss, accompanied by violent headaches and vomiting, usually brought on by strenuous farm work. On one occasion he went into Sale to have some horses shod, did not come home that night, and the next day was found in Melbourne's Botanic Gardens with no memory of how he got there.

In 1926, Nell was granted power of attorney over Hector's affairs. By 1929, with drought and the Great Depression buffeting the farm, Nell was desperate. She appealed to have Hector's war pension reinstated and then took the lead role in proceedings: ''My reason for asking for a pension for my husband is that my husband is unable to work for any length of time without a complete breakdown & I cannot afford to keep a permanent man. For three years I have been unable to keep any domestic help & I have had to manage all the business part & the running of the farm as well as the constant nursing of my husband & the care of my two very small sons aged 3 years & 4½ years. I feel that if my husband could receive a pension it would enable me to carry on.''

The clergyman's daughter mastered many unexpected roles in her married life. From Repat records we know that Nell Thomson was just one of many wives of damaged veterans who managed postwar family life and livelihood.

Melbourne specialists were puzzled by Hector's condition and concluded that he was suffering either ''exhaustion psychosis'' or ''post encephalitis lethargica''. There was an outbreak of encephalitis lethargica throughout the world between 1915 and 1926, with symptoms including high fever, headaches, sleepiness and, at worst, a coma-like state. The cause was not known, though it is possible the Spanish influenza epidemic caused brain damage in some survivors.

On examination, the Repat doctors found Hector ''extremely candid and apparently truthful'', gave him the benefit of the doubt about a possible connection between his wartime respiratory illness and the postwar condition, and reinstated his pension at 75 per cent.

Hector was lucky. Veterans suffering a mental breakdown were often refused pensions because no such physiological connection could be made. Many doctors rejected psychological explanations of war's impact (what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder) and were suspicious about malingering.

There was no cure for encephalitis lethargica. Hector suffered further breakdowns, and Nell sought a pension increase. Specialists began to doubt the earlier diagnosis, and to suggest that Hector was ''the typical manic depressive character type and has been all his life. There are occurrences in his military history which point towards slight psychotic trends or character defects.''

There is nothing in Hector's military record that suggests psychotic trends or character defects (unless the doctor was referring to Hector's wartime disobedience and ''familiarity with natives''). Many interwar doctors explained mental illness in terms of a flawed character and family history. The doctors' speculations say as much about the limits and prejudices of medical understanding as they do about Hector.

In November 1931, Hector was admitted to Caulfield Repatriation Hospital in Melbourne suffering from ''cerebral exhaustion and loss of memory''. The next day he had a ''violent maniacal attack'' and was discharged to Royal Park Receiving House, the short-term admissions section of Royal Park Hospital for the Insane. There is no further detail in the files about this attack, which seems to have been out of character. Within a few days the Repat decided that Hector's ''acute mania'' was due to war service, agreed to pay costs at the civilian mental hospital, and increased the pension for Hector's family to 100 per cent. At slightly less than the basic wage, the full war pension consigned a family to the breadline, but it was much better than the miserly support for families of the unemployed.

After six weeks of hospital treatment for ''nervous exhaustion'', Hector was sent back to the farm. Nine months later, Nell died after a botched gall stone operation, and Hector was a widower with two small boys aged seven and five. The boys stayed with their grandparents on the neighbouring farm for several months. Then, astonishingly, Hector brought them back to live with him at Bungaleen, with the support of a paid housekeeper. The contrast with their earlier life was stark. Dad remembers Nell as a bright and witty woman, ''full of laughter'', who ''was quite modern'' in her ways of upbringing, ''very particular about the way we dressed'', a voracious reader who read classics while she was pregnant in the hope that it would influence the unborn child. She was reading Dickens' David Copperfield to her boys in the week before she died.

Life was now ''really pretty grim''. Hector was struggling on the farm and began drinking heavily. By the late 1930s he was increasingly silent and withdrawn. They could no longer afford a housekeeper and the teenage boys did all the housework as well as working on the farm. Dad recalls that on Christmas Day 1939 the three of them made a haystack. ''No one else to do it. And we had cold mutton or something for Christmas dinner. We hadn't been invited for Christmas dinner by anyone else, so the three of us had it ourselves.''

That Hector managed at all was exceptional. In the 1930s, widowers often found a new wife to raise the children and keep the house, or gave up their children to a female relative or an institution. Hector saved a note Nell wrote from her hospital bed the night before she died. ''In case anything should happen to me, please promise me that the boys will not be separated.'' My father testifies that Hector ''stuck to that, we weren't separated, we were kept together for our childhood, difficult though it was''.

The Repat files show that Hector barely managed to keep his health together while he raised his sons. Throughout the 1930s and '40s he battled Repat doctors over medical diagnoses and pension claims. Hector was mentally unwell, though it is not clear whether this was due to a physiological condition with its origin in the war, or a psychological condition such as depression.

Although Hector was an inadequate parent, the fact that he kept his boys with him on the farm, in dire circumstances, was an impressive achievement. While Nell was alive, Hector came to rely on her and succumbed to ill-health. Unwell, unable to provide for his family, unable to manage the finances or even conduct his pension claim, Hector almost certainly felt a failure as a husband and father, and as a man. Nell's death must have been a terrible blow, yet it also led Hector to take back control of his life and work through the worst of his illness for the sake of his sons.

But Hector was lonely and unhappy on the farm, and in 1941 he joined the 2nd AIF and went back to war. The First War may have ruined Hector's health, but he had no grudge with the army, which offered a welcome escape from the hardships of farm and family life.

He enlisted in Melbourne where he could get away with lying about his age (39 instead of 50), birthplace (Glasgow instead of Sale), surname (he added a ''p'' to Thomson) and health. Back in the Middle East, Hector was photographed looking content in the security of the army among soldier mates. One year later, his real age was discovered after an accident, and in 1943 Hector was discharged to Australia.

In 1946, with both of his sons now serving in the army of occupation in Japan, Hector sold Bungaleen without telling them and spent the proceeds. David and Colin were furious, and in the following years they rarely saw their father, who lived in Melbourne boarding houses until he died in 1958.

In old age my father declined with Alzheimer's. He couldn't remember yesterday and spoke very little, but he still recalled that his father was ''damaged''. Over the Christmas of 2012, I explained about the Repat files and gave him a draft of this article. He spent hours slowly reading each page. His eyes narrowed and creased with pain as he recalled his childhood. For a lucid, fragile moment I think that he, too, came to a new understanding about his father's illness and his mother's tenacity. He agreed that Hector probably did the best he could in the circumstances and consented to the publication.

Dad died a few weeks ago. I was so pleased that we resolved our differences.

When, as a young man, I interviewed old war veterans for the first edition of Anzac Memories, I may have been searching for Hector Thomson all along. It's been good to find Hector in the files and explain the story behind a painful family secret. I didn't expect to find my long-lost grandmother Nell, who came to life in the Repat correspondence.

Many Australians connect to 20th-century wars through family history. We should take care and risks with these histories. Broaching secrets and breaching confidences can hurt people we love and disturb family relations. But secrets and lies can be more damaging than confession. Family historians who delve deep not only make better histories, they also generate better family understanding.

In an Australian context, where the Anzac legend frames stories of Australians at war, family history has an especially important role. By questioning family mythology and using all the available evidence, we can create family histories that illuminate complex military experiences, of bravery and fear, of loss and achievement. We can show that it is not just military men who are affected by war. We can explore the family consequences of war and war's reverberations across the generations. We might even create a different type of war history.

Professor Alistair Thompson works in the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University. His book Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend is available through Monash University Publishing. 

This article has appeared in the Sunday Age.