Review of Marina Larsson’s ‘Shattered Anzacs: Living with the Scars of War’ by Kellen Kurschinski

by | Nov 28, 2011 | LCSC, Reviews, War and Society | 0 comments

Marina Larsson, Shattered Anzacs: Living with the Scars of War (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2009). 320 pages.

Reviewed by Kellen Kurschinski (McMaster University)

For veterans and their families, the trauma of war never fully ends. This is especially true for soldiers who return home with debilitating physical and mental disabilities as a result of their service. Disability has always been one of the most enduring legacies of war, but it took the mass industrial slaughter of the First World War to bring disability and disfigurement to the forefront of discussions amongst medical professionals, reformers and politicians on the world stage. Advances in science and technology brought unparalleled savagery to the battlefield from 1914-18. Ironically, science also fostered an optimistic belief that wounds – both mental and physical – could be healed and adapted to through improved surgical and antiseptic procedures, access to post-injury treatment, neuropsychiatric therapy, and prosthetics.

As we approach the war’s centenary, it is somewhat surprising that there are still relatively few scholars in the international historical community who have taken a critical look at the civilian reintegration of disabled soldiers. No concrete figures exist on just how many were disabled by the war, but some scholars have estimated that upwards of 20 million soldiers suffered some form of physical or mental disability as a result of their service. Of the over 600,000 Canadians that served in the war, at least 70,000 became disabled. Amongst ANZAC troops the proportion is even greater; some 90,000 out of a frontline force of 324,000. (p. 18) Marina Larsson’s Shattered Anzacs: Living with the Scars of War tells the story of these 90,000 Anzac veterans and the impact of disability on their families.

Shattered Anzacs differs from the other major works in the international historiography on the First World War’s disabled veterans. Larsson does this by adopting a family-centric approach. Specifically, she seeks to understand disability as “an aspect of families’ experiences as soldiers and their kin aged and the social and economic worlds in which they lived underwent transformation.” (p. 27) From the front lines of Northern France to the confines of Anzac mental hospitals and sanitariums, she skillfully traces the experience of becoming disabled and living with disability, exploring a variety of conditions including amputations, ‘shell shock’, and chronic tuberculosis. Since the author is principally concerned with the impact of disability on family life, she does not attempt to create any sort of hierarchy of importance for the myriad of afflictions veterans endured. This allows her to delve into the “physical and social dimensions of disability” through several case studies, including chapters on tuberculosis and ‘shell shock’, without detracting from the analytical coherence of her study. (p. 20)

Nurses and wounded soldiers at Anzac Hostel, 1919 (Australian War Memorial: P03098.005)

The first four chapters of Larsson’s study examine the experience of disability from the fear of it at the front lines to its post-war impact on, marriage, employment, pensions and even sex. Larsson clearly illustrates how veterans adapted to their status as ‘changed men’ and their families’ struggles to cope with the loss of the male breadwinner. The financial and emotional burdens of disability are also explained in the context of state interaction and public memory. One particularly striking example Larsson points to is the gulf between the public perception of visibly disabled as “innately robust and fit men” and that of men suffering from tuberculosis, venereal disease and insanity whom were labeled as a source of “racial decay.” (p. 84) Contemporary notions of citizenship, race, class and gender all figured greatly in the experience of being disabled.

Chapters 5 and 6 provide case studies of mental trauma and tuberculosis. For those historians familiar with the growing literature on ‘shell shock’ and established works on the history of psychiatry, Larsson’s discussion of tubercular veterans will be the more illuminating of the two. The ‘invisible’ and chronic nature of tuberculosis made it both difficult trace to military service and also created widespread fear of infection. Because of this, the families of tubercular veterans faced unique challenges. These veterans and their kin found it particularly difficult to obtain disability pensions often because the disease lacked a clear measure of ‘attributability’ to wartime service. Others found employment nearly impossible to obtain because of public stigma. In the home the true impact of the disease hit hardest, with family members constantly at risk of infection, while simultaneously bearing witness to the “slow physical demise of their loved one.” (p. 204)

Larsson transitions eloquently from her discussion of the degenerative nature of tuberculosis to a broader, generally understudied theme of the veteran experience: ‘burning out’. Chapter 7 explores how many veterans developed new disorders or conditions resulting from stress and lingering war wounds, while Chapter 8 shows how families coped with the premature deaths of their loved ones and memorialized them. Larsson’s discussion of ‘burning out’ and the challenges of early death shows how the experience of disability is always in flux over time and space, something that is often difficult to glean from documentary sources. The post-war lives of these veterans hinge on their disabilities, whether their condition improved or worsened.

The most unique feature of Larsson’s work is her use of oral sources. Throughout her study she incorporates the stories of eleven children of disabled Anzac veterans, which she obtained from interviews carried out from 2004-2006. The majority of these children were born in the late 1920s, and particular emphasis is placed on the childhood memories they have of their fathers’ disabilities. These stories add a compelling dynamic to her narrative, but critical readers may take exception to a lack of critical discussion on the methodological problems of cognitive dissonance, myth-making and the influence of popular memory. Larsson does include a brief appendix on how she obtained these interviews, but a bit more attention to explaining methods would have been beneficial. Nonetheless, it is important for readers to see the oral sources as complimentary, rather than foundational. Indeed, although Larsson notes that the stories are “at the heart of this book,” the thrust of her argument is aptly supported by an exceptional mix of letters and diaries from the families of veterans, veterans’ case files, government reports, the popular press, and other private collections. (p. 25)

Disabled soldiers making toys at a Red Cross facility in Sydney (Australian War Memorial: H11726)

Some readers may also be disappointed that Shattered Anzacs does not critically engage with the growing number of studies in the field of the ‘new’ disability history. Originating as a component of critical disability studies in the late 1980s, disability history seeks to frame disability as a valuable analytical category in which to examine power relations and identity. Although some disability scholars tend to overstate the constructionist aspects of the able/disabled body, it is nonetheless important to explore the interaction between contemporary notions of disability and other social categories that can be applied to veterans. A coherent and developed discussion of how race, gender, class, citizenship and age (among other themes) shaped the experience of disability personally and in family life would have greatly benefited this study. These themes are certainly apparent, but the connection is rather loose at times. Other historians of disabled veterans like David Gerber have been very successful in employing these methods to examine group identity formation and public perceptions of disability, so it is a bit surprising that, particularly when dealing with the public press and government publications, Larsson chose not to explore disability in a similar analytical fashion.

But where Larsson falls short in historiographical breadth, she succeeds in compelling narrative and prose. The stories of individual and family struggle contained in Shattered Anzacs will interest scholars and popular audiences alike. There is a humane current through this work that underscores the emotional and physical struggles veterans and their families endured. This characteristic feature of Shattered Anzacs, in this reviewer’s opinion, is unmatched by the other major works in this still limited historiography. More fundamentally for Australian readers, Larsson’s account provides a valuable contrast to the pervasive nationalistic and masculinized “Anzac legend,” which commemorates the birth of the nation at Gallipoli and immortalizes the dead at the expense of remembering those families whom endured the traumatic legacy of war in their homes on a daily basis, long after the guns fell silent. Given current trends in the Canadian historiography on the First World War, perhaps it is about time we started making similar observations. If students and professionals alike are compelled enough by intellectual desire to explore the intimate details of soldiers in combat, surely the lives they lived after 1914-1918 and scars they carried with them deserve attention as well.