Escaping the memory of war

Harry shortly before he set out for war, aged 17. (Supplied)

To mark this year’s Anzac Day, SBS reporter Sylvia Varnham O'Regan reflects on the life of her grandfather, Harry, and how the struggles he faced after coming home from war proved too great to overcome.

I was 17 when I learnt the truth about my grandfather's death.

Before then, I'd always believed he died of a heart attack at the age of 71.
I had imagined him with only one leg – he had lost the other leg after being injured in war – as a stoic man whose body was worn from a life of labour and disability; a quiet man who carried with him memories of blood and brutality, and a devoted father who wrote long letters to his daughters at boarding school.
Most of those things were probably true, but the reality of how my grandfather died was far from anything my childhood self could have imagined.

The opportunity of a lifetime  

Harold Ernest Varnham, known as "Harry" to his friends, was 15 when World War I broke out in 1914.
His home in a remote farming community north of Wellington, New Zealand seemed a long way from the battlefields and he was keen to get involved – believing, like many, the war would be an opportunity to travel and see the world.
In 1916 he tried to enlist but was turned away for being too young. 
Undeterred, he went back a few weeks later, lied about his age and was signed up.
On July 26th 1916, he set sail with the 15th Reinforcements Wellington Infantry Battalion, bound for England and then France.

By all accounts Harry didn’t have an easy time of it after landing at Étaples in northern France and being transported to the Western Front.
He was hit by shelling early on while fighting in the trenches and his left leg was badly injured.

He spent many months in an army hospital near London after his leg became infected and gangrenous.

Harry was out of hospital but considered unfit for service when, in 1918, he was called to return to the Front.

By then the Americans had entered the war and the German forces were making a final desperate push in France. Every available soldier, even many who were barely able-bodied, had been called up.

On the outskirts of the walled town of Le Quesnoy, Harry was again caught in shelling and this time his right leg was badly injured.

It was amputated at a nearby field hospital the same day.

A changing tide

The way my Aunty Sally recalls it, she was at a job when she found out about Harry's death.

It was the summer of 1971 and she was working as a cleaner at an office building in Wellington, one of two jobs she was juggling over her university break.

She considered her boss a bit sleazy so when he told her to come to his office that afternoon she was reluctant.

"He told me, 'You have to go home – now,'" she tells me.

"When I got home there was a police car at the end of the drive.

"That’s what I remember the most."

Recovering from war

Like many returning servicemen and women, Harry had struggled to adjust to life after coming home.

It was likely he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although little was known about the condition in those days.

A 1920 press clipping shows that Harry filed a complaint after being pushed off the platform of a tram in Wellington by the conductor, a man named William Scoble. 

Mr Scoble said he didn't know Harry had a wooden leg until he saw him sprawled along the pavement.

The complaint was dismissed. 

When World War II broke out in 1939, it was expected that able-bodied men should enlist, and those who didn't were often anonymously sent a white feather, a symbol of cowardice.

Harry once told my mother he had been sent a feather by someone obviously unaware of his disability, and it had greatly upset him.

Despite the obstacles he faced, Harry trained as a dental technician and married Marion, who was 18 years his junior. Together they had two daughters, my mother, Mary, and her sister, Sally.


As a child my mother had a close relationship with her father.

Harry encouraged her to learn, brought her books from the library, and made a point of writing her long letters after she went away to boarding school.

He affectionately called my grandmother "the censor" and noted in the letters when she was hovering overhead.

But he also suffered from bouts of depression and before his death had been subjected to electric shock treatment.

My mother was 24 and living in a flat in Wellington when Harry died. Sally broke the news to her in a phone call and drove over to pick her up.

Harry had taken his own life. 

Brave faces

My grandmother told everyone her husband had died of a heart attack, and she stuck to that story until her death in 2006. Suicide was a taboo, and rarely spoken about in those days.

My mother and aunty remember that after the funeral Harry’s death was rarely mentioned. In time both women married and had children of their own. 

Thinking back, my mother tells me Harry didn’t want to talk about the war but did enjoy spending time with other veterans at his local RSL.

"A lot of those men felt that no one else understood what they had been through," she says.

My grandfather

Every now and again, I think about Harry and what kind of person he must have been.

My mother says he was warm and social up to a point, but that he didn’t cope well with stress and was undoubtedly haunted by the horrors he’d witnessed in the war.

Sometimes I try to imagine the places where Harry would have fought.

I picture trenches thick with mud, and young men huddling in them while shells rage overhead.

I imagine what it would have felt like to come home and start again with so much you wanted to forget.

I picture that cruel white feather resting in his hand.

Harry would be more than 114 years old if he were alive today.

I wish I could have known him.

* Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or follow @LifelineAust @OntheLineAus @kidshelp @beyondblue @headspace_aus @ReachOut_AUS on Twitter.


Source SBS

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