Trauma at the Shrine

“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”

Laurell K. Hamilton, Mistral’s Kiss

This week there has been much in the news about war – it is the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific when the Japanese surrendered shortly after the dropping of the atomic bombs and in Australia, a government backbencher exhorted the government to start bombing Syria deeming the escalation of the ‘war on terror’ necessary.

I’ve been writing a series of stories about my family that may turn into a novel and in the research process I’ve attended lectures at the Shrine in Melbourne because one of the “characters” is  an uncle who fought at Gallipoli and later died in Alexandria of enteric fever.

Through reading factual accounts, novels and poetry you learn of the deep and abiding sorrow that comes from war. Why are some people so keen to fight? So desperate to invade or bomb another country? Whether it’s the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli or the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, the mourning and grieving never ends and as writers we must try and be honest about that and perhaps make our contribution to world peace. We must try and put a human face on statistics.

This quilt block from an exhibition I attended in April needs no words.

receiving the telegram

And this one a sentiment that touched my heart as I write about our family’s loss in the “war to end all wars”.

a beautiful sentiment many shared_1024

Three days after Hiroshima, an American B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. It was  August 9, 1945,  74,000 people died. Most of the dead were civilians and much of the city obliterated. On a summer morning three days before, the epochal use of the first atomic bomb  on Hiroshima stunned the world. Tokyo and Yokohama and other cities had been extensively fire-bombed, but no one could have imagined the devastation of the A-bombs (I hope no human being will ever again wreak such widespread and long-lasting pain and suffering on fellow human beings).

This poignant expression of grief from a survivor, interviewed in 1995, 50 years after the bombings:

Like so many, Shima has always wondered why she lived and her daughter did not. Not a single photograph of Akiko survived, but Shima still carries her image everywhere, just below the surface, like the tiny shards of glass embedded in her scalp.” 

Watching television and reading the various reports this week reminded me how the loss and devastation of World War One also ran deep. And like all wars, the conflicting emotions and opinions about its necessity, its causes and consequences are still being debated today. Death in war always more senseless than the usual death by old age, disease or accident.

I often think of the effect of Uncle George’s death on his family – how do you recover from farewelling a 19 year old and welcoming home his rabbit skin vest, Bible and pipe? Never seeing his dead body, never visiting his gravesite – having to accept, along with thousands of others, your son, brother, husband, father is no more. 25000 dead in ww1 have no known grave!

“We find a place for what we lose. Although we know that after such a loss the acute stage of mourning will subside, we also know that a part of us shall remain inconsolable and never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it is completely filled, it will nevertheless remain something changed forever…”

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939)

Some time ago, I attended a lecture by Jen Hawksley from the School of History and Politics at the University of Wollongong where she presented Bereft, a selection from her PhD exploring Trauma, Memory and Madness. A three minute summary of her thesis is here and well worth watching:

There were ideas and facts Jen discussed that gave me the proverbial food for thought:

There was a callous use of language by doctors and others when describing the grief experienced by those who lost someone, especially the descriptions of mothers grieving their sons. Many of these women ended up in asylums and were treated abomniably. Many were  not just coping with the death of loved ones, but those missing, and also those who survived, but grieved for the way life was before.

We are not born all at once, but by bits. The body first, and the spirit later; and the birth and growth of the spirit, in those who are attentive to their own inner life, are slow and exceedingly painful. Our mothers are racked with the pains of our physical birth; we ourselves suffer the longer pains of our spiritual growth.”

Mary Antin

Parental bereavement is different to other grief. A language of mourning did/does not exist. We have no word in English for a parent who has lost a child, but we have widow and widower. Uncertainty and with the grief of losing a son, mothers retreated to their own world – many visiting spiritualists.

I have to be grateful my Granny was not committed or admitted to a mental institution. My father’s oldest brother was drowned off the coast of Texas in 1927. As a merchant seaman he was a victim of the economic war of the Great Depression and just like the young men of WW1, he left for an adventure overseas never to return. My Grandmother spent the remainder of her days seeking some word or sign that her John was okay. She went to many meetings of spiritualists who grew in number after WW1.

The rituals of funerals are missing for those whose bodies are never found, or for those buried in foreign soil without loved ones being there. Family can’t see the grave, don’t get the support of the community – all of this traditional support mechanism lost.  “The individuality of death buried under millions of corpses.” (J Winter)

Vietnam was the first war where the Australian Government brought bodies home. However, it makes a difference how popular or unpopular a war is – whether the public consider a soldier’s death a glorious sacrifice or not.  In the first and second world wars parents cloaked themselves with the comfort their sons were one of 40 million combatants and fought in a “just war”. The Vietnam War was controversial from day one and Vietnam Veterans suffered tragic ignominy on their return as Australian poet Bruce Dawe‘s iconic poem indicates:

All day, day after day, they’re bringing them home,
they’re picking them up, those they can find, and bringing them
they’re bringing them in, piled on the hulls of Grants, in trucks, in convoys,
they’re zipping them up in green plastic bags,
they’re tagging them now in Saigon, in the mortuary coolness
they’re giving them names, they’re rolling them out of
the deep-freeze lockers – on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut
the noble jets are whining like hounds,
they are bringing them
– curly-heads, kinky hairs, crew-cuts, balding non-coms
– they’re high, now high and higher, over the land, the steaming
their shadows are tracing the blue curve of the Pacific
with sorrowful quick fingers, heading south, heading east,
home, home, home – and the coasts swing upward, the old ridiculous curvatures
of earth, the knuckled hill, the mangrove-swamps, the desert emptiness…
in their sterile housing they tilt towards these like skiers
– taxiing in, on the long runways, the howl of their homecoming
surrounding them like their last moments (the mash, the splendour)
then fading at length as they move
on to small towns where dogs in the frozen sunset
raise muzzles in mute salute,
and on to cities in whose wide web of suburbs
telegrams tremble like leaves from a wintering tree
and the spider grief swings in his bitter geometry
– they’re bring them home, now, too late, too early.

With a poet’s eye Dawe shows how worthless a soldier’s life is when war strips your identity, makes you insignificant even if  bodies are shipped home, not to a hero’s welcome or a society that respects their contribution, but ‘where dogs in the frozen sunset raise muzzles in mute salute,’

Jen Hawksley mentioned there are iconic photographs encapsulating WW1 that like propaganda influence our feelings:

  • the silhouette of a soldier leaning on his rifle by a cross
  • a row of graves
  • devastated countryside and a line of weary defeated soldiers
  • a group of women quayside waiting for soldiers to disembark

If these photographs are deconstructed, as we do with the volume of poetry from the war from Wilfred Owen, Sassoon,  McCrae, Hodgson and others a tear-filled ‘Why?’ rents the air.


Increasingly, we realise war is not even about soldiers – the greatest casualties are always civilians – just like the atomic blasts all those decades ago.

Returned men and women, damaged beyond recognition suffering the extremities of loss and bereavement. They do not get over it, or move on, or get closure. Survivors with grievous wounds
often chose suicide, others clung to another existence, a shadow of their previous life. There were soldiers who had accidents or illness and died without getting near a battlefield.

How to make sense of all of this?

  • the soldier full of grog and adrenalin coming back off leave and run over by a tram the night before heading for Gallipoli…
  • Clifford later died after 43 years in an asylum in Sydney. Aged 70 he was hit by a taxi on a day out. Irony was that his severe depression, which led to him being committed was because he had been hit by the tram and lost a limb.
  • Aussies bemused to be in Egypt referred to the place as Shit Sand Sin and Syphilis – many died from disease, accidents, crime… families at home refused to accept or were ashamed to announce these deaths as ‘heroic’.
  • Many families abandoned their soldiers if these damaged sons did not live up to expectations.


The sculpture, The Parents by Käthe Kollowitz in  Roggevelde German war cemetery shows the father being stoic and the mother prostrate at the gap in their lives when ‘boys’ died. As a mother and an artist Käthe captures the anguish endured by mothers on both sides of a conflict. This expression of broken-hearted and traumatised parents easily recognised.

The  extremities of bereavement could have been changed by knowledge during WW1 – parents wanted to know how and where and when their sons died. Photographs of the battle for Lone Pine show utter decimation – so many missing and official silence led to rumour and misinformation. Early dog tags were of compressed cardboard so decomposed with the bodies – so many bodies  lost and no official attempt at recovery for 4 years. Families never received personal effects and there were many suicides at home in Australia after the news of the large numbers killed and how they died.

And what of the non-military casualties? The total number of deaths includes about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. Rarely are the deaths of those not in uniform recorded in official history.

War is beyond the ordinary person’s control – unless of course we can organise a peace movement:

A peace movement is a social movement that seeks to achieve ideals such as the ending of a particular war (or all wars), minimise inter-human violence in a particular place or type of situation, including ban guns, and often linked to the goal of achieving world peace.

Ordinary people standing together saying loud and clear that the loss in war is never over. The trauma continues for generations. The mourning too.

Bereavement exacerbated by ongoing pain, shame, stigma, confusion lasting decades. How many were ‘put away’ into asylums unable to come to terms with their grief. Unspoken family secrets. Violent alcoholism, domestic abuse from physically and emotionally damaged men and women trying to cope with the tragedy of their lives because of war.

In every process of remembering there is also forgetting. Anniversaries are celebrated, people’s contributions and sacrifices acknowledged, but we must never forget how ugly war is, the devastation left, the people’s lives destroyed.

There is a huge disparity between public remembrance ( the monuments, solemn artefacts) often misused for militarism and nationalism compared to the ambivalent stories of sacrifice and experience of survivors. The poems and stories that people write about their experience so very important for true understanding. We must share our stories and listen to others as they share theirs.

“The following poem brings us face to face with what is easily forgotten. However large or small the conflict, whatever weapons are being used, war means murder, and more often than not a painful and possibly slow death. The dead may be counted, but that’s just a number. What’s important is that each one is an individual, each one’s ‘body is susceptible to pain’, each one shudders, writhes, bleeds, and cries out. Each one could be oneself. The mind or soul may wander, but the body, the individual physical being of each one of us, inescapably ‘is, is, is’. It’s the same for all of us, tortured and torturer, killer and victim. We should not inflict on anyone the pain we would not want inflicted on us.”

Tortures by Wislawa Szymborska

Nothing has changed.
The body is susceptible to pain;
it has to eat and breathe the air, and sleep;
it has thin skin, and the blood is just beneath it;
an adequate supply of teeth and fingernails;
its bones can be broken; its joints can be stretched.
In tortures, all this is taken into account.

Nothing has changed.
The body shudders as it shuddered
before the founding of Rome and after,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
Tortures are just as they were, only the earth has grown smaller,
and what happens sounds as if it’s happening in the next room.

Nothing has changed.
It’s just that there are more people,
and beside the old offences new ones have sprung –
real, make-believe, short-lived, and non-existent.
But the howl with which the body answers to them,
was, is and ever will be a cry of innocence
according to the age-old scale and pitch.

Nothing has changed.
Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.
Yet the movement of hands to shield the head remains the same.
The body writhes, jerks and tries to pull away,
its legs fail, it falls, its knees jack-knife,
it bruises, swells, dribbles and bleeds.

Nothing has changed.
Except for the course of rivers,
the lines of forests, coasts, deserts and glaciers.
Amid those landscapes roams the soul,
disappears, returns, draws nearer, moves away,
a stranger to itself, elusive,
now sure, now uncertain of its own existence,
while the body is and is and is
and has nowhere to go.

Perhaps one day we will build an effective peace movement and there will be strong and immediate public disapproval when politicians take us into war, or as we heard this week a politician recommending we escalate our involvement in someone else’s war. We could instead follow the women who were involved in the peace talks in Northern Ireland:

Male negotiators sometimes worry that having women participate in the discussion may change the tone of the meeting. They’re right. During the Northern Ireland peace talks, the men would get bogged down by abstract issues and past offences. The women would come and talk about their loved ones, their bereavement, their children and their hopes for the future. These deeply personal comments helped keep the talks focused. The women’s experiences reminded the men that it was people who really mattered.’


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