Gallipoli, the returned soldier, and the social safety net

The 100th Anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli  recalls my maternal grandfather who was a Gallipoli veteran – and a member of the 9th Light Horse Regiment. He returned to Australia physically in tact but psychologically damaged*. He received a TPI pension in his latter years, paid for the condition, now termed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that marked his life until his death in 1974. He lost two brothers on the Western Front in WW1, one buried at the Birr Cross Roads Cemetry near Ypres in Belgium and the other at the Bancourt Cemetery in northern France. We can guess the long shadow that these losses cast over my grandfather’s life.

He was a reserved man who never spoke of his war experience and who avoided involvement with the RSL. Through my mother I knew what had happened to him and the family following his return from the war. In the early 1920s, he married my grandmother and in the later part of the decade they had 2 children – my mother and her sister. He had some sort of manual job through the 1920s.

However, he became unemployed in the Great Depression from 1929 to the start of WW2. By all accounts, ex-service men were particularly hard hit by the Depression as explained well here.  His family was reliant on the susso (food rations) at some times, and also on my grandmother’s aunts who ran a private hospital. There was a State Government ‘work for dole’ – or susso – scheme on public infrastructure like roads and rails. I heard a story that work came up on one of these projects on the railways but the worker had to have his own shovel. My grandfather had to break into some sort of public facility to obtain the shovel to get the work to provide for his family. So for all the sacrifice on the battlefields of Europe and the shores of Gallipoli, the losses and trauma they endured, they were highly exposed to poverty and unemployment especially through the Depression years. I recall my mother talking of the hardships the family endured when she was a child.

Life did not really improve for my grandfather until the onset of WW2 when, too old to enlist, he did gain ongoing work on the railways which he was able to do through much of the 1940s and into the 1950s until he retired. He and my grandmother then benefitted from the age pension entitlements and other provisions for the elderly instituted by the Menzies government, as well as that special payment for traumatised and disabled veterans – the TPI pension*. It meant that they could have a dignified and peaceful retirement and an annual holiday during Melbourne winter to the Gold Coast.

My grandfather’s story through the Depression years is a reminder of the importance of a strong social safety net which was absent for those traumatised WW1 veterans. It took until after the second world war for the full suite of social welfare provisions to be implemented especially anunemployment benefit. But in the second decade of the 21st century the safety net is riddled with holes and grotesquely inadequate on many fronts. 

The anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli is an important milestone in the nation’s history. Its legacy of loss and trauma must be remembered and honoured as part of the enduring aspiration for peace. What also must be remembered is that men like my grandfather returned to face down more trauma and hardship through the years of the Depression. The post WW2 social settlement linked to the availability of  work in the full employment era marked the real and long overdue improvement in their lives. The right to work and social welfare must be strenuously defended in the years ahead – that would be the best way to honour those who suffered so much in the Great War.

Post script 29 April  – The adequacy of the TPI pension was raised on the ABC’s Qand A on 27 April. It was troubling to hear veterans who had been wounded in wars speak of the declining value of the TPI pension – with concerns about the 2014 Budget Indexing arrangements which would further reduce the value of pensions.

Post script 8 May – the changes to indexing arrangements that would reduce the value of pensions will not go ahead in the 2015 Budget.

 Post script 2017, 28 September

Two years after writing this post, I found that the Frankston Veterans Centre had done substantial research on my grandfather’s WW1 experience which they had posted on Facebook. In fact, my grandfather, Robert Donovan had sustained as serious leg wound in France on the Western Front on 26 January 1917 taking many months to recover. The post accompanied by a photo of his grave plaque at Frankston Cemetery reads as follows:

Remembering Service and Sacrifice
Private Robert Donovan
Service No: 993
Conflicts: WW1
Date of Death: 11 May 1974
Buried: Frankston Cemetery
Age: 82 years
Robert Donovan was born in Warrnambool where he lived with his mother and father. He worked as a labourer and enlisted in 1915 when he was 22 years old.
In March 1916 he was transferred to 3rd Light Horse Reserve Regiment from the 9th Light Horse. The 9th Light Horse had been reduced to half of its strength after suffering a 50 percent casualty rate from its attack at Hill 60, Gallipoli in August 1915.
In Nov 1916 he was sent to France to reinforce the 57th Battalion which was raised in Egypt .This battalion comprised of half Gallipoli veterans and half fresh recruits from Australia. In early 1917 the 57th Battalion advanced with the retreat of the Germans to the Hindenberg line. It was to later face its first major battle at Polygon Wood in September 1917. However on 26 January 1917 Robert was wounded in action whilst he was with 10th Machine Gun Company. This is also recorded in the Australian Imperial Forces unit war diaries. He was admitted to hospital with a severe gunshot wound to his leg and spent many months recovering. Finally in December 1918 he returned to Australia to marry his wife Eileen and have two children Norma and Roma.

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