Prime Minister opens Shell-shocked: Australia after Armistice

Media release: Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd today opened a new exhibition at the National Archives, which shows the ongoing impact of World War I on Australia and its people.

'While many exhibitions have dealt with what happened during World War I, we believe this is the first time the human toll of the post-war years has been shown,' said Director-General of the National Archives, Ross Gibbs. 'The war left 200,000 Australians dead and injured.

'Our new exhibition Shell-shocked: Australia after Armistice gives a glimpse at how soldiers who returned – blind, maimed and disturbed – got on with their lives, and how their families adjusted.'

During World War I, 416,809 Australians enlisted for service, almost 40 per cent of the total male population aged between 18 and 44. If Australia made the same commitment today, the nation would see 1.4 million men enlisting. For many thousands of Australian men and women, the decades following the war were far from easy. Men driven mad by the constantly exploding shells of the Western Front were said to be shell-shocked, a new word created at the time to describe the physical and mental effects of artillery warfare on human beings.

'With 65 per cent of Australians who served overseas being killed, injured or missing in action, you could almost describe the nation itself as being shell-shocked.

'It wasn't only those who served who were affected,' said Mr Gibbs. 'When Australian soldiers returned home, nearly 60,000 war dead remained buried in foreign soil. More than 23,000 had no known grave. With no body to bury and no grave to tend, their families had no focus for their grief.'

Mr Gibbs said individual soldiers' files from World War I are among the most popular in the National Archives' collection.

'It is from these files that our researchers have pulled a range of stories that show the ongoing human impact of war and which form the basis of this exhibition. We are very pleased to be working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to breathe new life into the records in our collection.'

The financial burden of the war was ongoing. By 1938 there were 1600 men still in hostels and homes for the permanently incapacitated, and around 23,000 outpatients in repatriation hospitals. Shell-shocked: Australia after Armistice will be on display at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra until 27 April 2009.

High-resolution images are available for media.

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0427 853 664 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au
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