Shell-shocked: Australian teachers, their schools and families after Armistice

Dr Rosalie Triolo

The following paper was presented by Dr Rosalie Triolo at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra on 18 March 2009.

Last year I completed my thesis ‘Our Schools and the War: Victoria’s Education Department and the Great War’.

As the foundation for today’s presentation most of the stories I will share with you are Victorian. Nevertheless, they should resonate with you on two levels: one, as Australians familiar with the experiences of certain aspects of the Great War and, two, more uniquely for many of you as teachers.

My focus on teachers, pupils and school communities sets my research apart from most Australian studies of the Great War. Certainly some historians in Australia and overseas have investigated the wartime experiences of individual private schools and some have looked broadly and generally at private and government school fundraising and comforts making.

But no-one in Australia has thoroughly investigated one education department system in terms of the Great War, nor has anyone internationally, it appears, looked in detail at how teachers as a professional cohort fared as soldiers, sailors, airmen and nurses in that war, nor how the war affected their careers afterwards. Nor has anyone looked at how teachers on the home front, during and after the war, dealt with their own and their pupils’ grief. This is very unique research.

Where did the research start for me? It started with this photograph of Perth State School in Tasmania, 1916. Here are two teachers responsible for 81 students, teaching all of Grades Prep through to Grade or Year 8.

There are four children of at least one family of seven children in the photograph. The eldest daughter of the Dennis family is Edith, squinting in the sun with long dark hair in the back row. Dorrie, the next, has long dark hair and a necklace. Bessie is next and down in the corner here we have Lloyd, the youngest son, who in what was his typical fashion has rounded up the local dog and brought him to school for the day.

What makes this photograph significant for me is that it was my grandmother’s. Edith, squinting at the end, was my grandmother. But what makes it more significant is that by the time the photograph had been taken, she and her sisters and brother had endured the death of an older brother, Archie, in the Great War.

But here they are at school, life as usual. Life as usual? Could that really have been the case? What must it have been like for the four children to deal with such a loss, to have lived through the farewell, the fears, the news of their brother’s death and the experience of grief at so young an age?

And then, two years after this photograph was taken, in 1918 they lost a second brother, Roland, or Roly, who had landed at Gallipoli on the famous 25 April 1915, had lived and fought through another three years of war to die on 25 April 1918 in the retaking of Villers–Bretonneux.

The family had lived with fears for this second brother’s safety for nearly four years. And my grandfather, for whom I have no school day photos, also endured the death of his two older brothers while he was a schoolboy during the Great War.

An investigation of the children’s perspective is rare and so are evidences of it. I have another item of evidence that was my grandmother’s. This here is the box that my grandmother, as I grew up, used to keep bits of string and rubber bands in. It’s quite old. It’s very old and very beautiful. Because I’d always shown an interest in it, it was passed down the line to me.

When it was given to me after my grandmother had passed away, I was cleaning through it and then I discovered on the lid inside, in pencil, her handwriting as a child. It’s definitely her handwriting but it’s something that she would have written probably when she was a bit younger than this, perhaps, well probably the same age, Year 7, Year 8 to put it in familiar terms. She’s written inside the box ‘Roly’s letters’ box’. So she had kept his letters in here and I didn’t know that until after she had passed away.

I wish – it’s just one of those things. Who goes looking on the inside of a box? But it would have been so interesting to ask her a bit more about what the letters were that she’d put in there.

Australian schools were full of loss and grief and my grandparents’ families would not have been alone. Surely other children in this photograph experienced the deaths of one or more family members, friends and acquaintances from their communities and had their letters’ boxes. And they endured the deaths of their teachers.

In Victoria’s case, for example, 21 per cent or one in five teachers did not return. What was it like being in classrooms or school yards after such news had been received? How was the children’s schooling affected and their early emotional development?

Moreover, as a teacher, I’ve tried to understand what life would have been like for the teachers in this photo. Female. Male. How did they deal with their pupils’ grief, their pupils’ repeated grief? How did they deal with their own grief and the loss of their brothers, husbands, sons, friends and fellow teachers? Many staff were terribly affected and yet, looking at these ones, these two teachers and their 81 pupils, they did everything expected of them in time of war whilst dealing with that.

Of course, the photo raised more questions. Why didn’t the male go to the war? He seems to have been of eligible age. Was he a quiet conscientious objector? Did he have family reasons? Was he a reject as the rejected teachers called themselves? Other reasons? So many questions to ask and so a PhD was born and transferred across Bass Strait from Tasmania to Victoria because I had been a student and a teacher in Victoria’s Education Department.

What were the sources? I think the teachers will find these sources particularly interesting. Aside from using the standard Charles Bean’s 12-volume official history and AG Butler’s three-volume official medical history, I made extensive use of the following.

In 1921 The Education Department’s Record of War Service was published and distributed free to every government school and teacher soldier or their next of kin in Victoria. It contained brief overviews of the department’s wartime activities as well as brief biographies of 769 teacher soldiers. There were pages of text and then photographs of the dead. There were briefer biographies of the returned.

I’ve included this page because it shows what happened to numerous teachers after the war. Lieutenant Fred Baxter of Mia Mia State School was awarded the Military Cross and Bar – now he’s been a primary teacher and then gone to war – awarded the MC and Bar for leading a storming party in France under heavy machine gun fire. He held a position for three hours under that fire with four men, then held it for another nine alone before the arrival of another seven men, capturing, in his 12 hours, 25 prisoners of war and four machine guns.

He returned to Victoria and resumed teaching almost immediately as any teacher who could stand up basically did. However, six months later, or six months before the book went to print, he died suddenly of the effects of war. Hence the editor hastily placed the black border around his biography and added one sentence to make it an obituary.

Another rich source of history that no historian has investigated in detail is the Education Gazette. Here’s the classic-look government publication. Any old Victorians in here, that banner was around for decades.

There were 12 editions annually. All teachers were expected to read and initial each edition as proof of having read it. Inspectors would come into schools and check that all the initials were there. During the war it included many short items on the teacher soldiers’ experiences including segments from their letters. It is a rich and almost completely untapped source of World War I eyewitness accounts. There, for example, is a typical page during the war, our department in the war and in this case these three teachers have died.

The school paper, Grades 3 to 8, 1896 to 1929 has been investigated by some writers but not exhaustively. It cost a penny. There were 12 editions annually and every pupil was expected to buy each edition. There were editions for Grades 3 to 4, 5 to 6 and 7 to 8. It was the main resource for teachers and their pupils’ reading, and once again inspectors would check that the students had worked with this by asking them questions and if they couldn’t answer the question, the teacher’s teaching was suspect.

I love this one. This is the Empire Day number, ‘The Empire’s Call’, and there’s the British soldier at the top on his horse with all the colonial peoples clamouring to reach the ascent.

I consulted all books recommended by the department for use by teachers and pupils during the war. The final page of one, called The Citizen Reader, pretty well sums up the message that all teachers and pupils received. England expects every man will do his duty.

I investigated also teachers’ career records, official correspondence, private correspondence, local histories, unpublished biographies by people such as Don Charlwood, Weary Dunlop and Hal Porter who were Victoria state school boys, school magazines and school histories. Those and other leads have led me on this journey of research and one of the joys has been that as I’ve gone along people have heard that I’m doing it and have submitted their own stories.

Finally I used official service records as held by these archives. Looking into each of the 769 records would have been an enormous task. Rather, I used them to corroborate selected evidence just to verify as the department was reporting it and there was more corroboration than not.

My intention was foremost to view the war through the department’s lens as if I had been a teacher teaching in a school or having made the choice to serve at the front or to become a nurse in a hospital.

In today’s lecture, if I name a place I am talking about its school. It will be a state school, primary, unless I say it’s a central school or a high school.

Let’s now join some of the teachers, pupils and their families alive at the time of the Great War and in the years soon after.

Head teacher of Warrnambool Agricultural High School, Alfred Watson, experienced the death of two sons during the Great War: Percy at Gallipoli and David, two-and-a-half years later, in France.

When Gallipoli was evacuated in December 1915 Percy was listed as missing. Soon after, Mr Watson wrote to the department: ‘We fear he was killed the day of the landing. He was one of the first ashore. He was seen to go with his company and was not seen or heard of afterwards. If he had been taken prisoner he would surely have managed to send a word. He wrote regularly right up to the time of the landing.’

Mr Watson was experiencing what historian Jay Winter has described as knowing that something dreadful had happened but not knowing how bad it was. Four years later Watson wrote for the department what had probably transpired. He knew that Percy had been one of a party of 30 men to go further forward and then one of three to proceed even further. ‘The bodies of the 27 were found about a month afterwards in a pile all dead together. The three have never been traced. Percy was not with the 27. We cannot get further information. Those who might have helped us have all been killed.’

By comparison, the death of Watson’s other son, David, was easy to bear. ‘A shell burst in his platoon’s midst and did much harm. Poor David did not suffer. He was killed instantly without a sound or a struggle. Thank God he did not suffer.’

Even so, Watson’s suffering at the loss of his sons was palpable in his classes. Decades later the Warrnambool school history included an unnamed former pupil’s recollection of Mr Watson during the war. He was rigid in his grief and walked up and down the classroom without a word.

The Warrnambool history offers a powerful glimpse of a teacher burdened with extraordinary uncertainty and grief, and a pupil’s awareness of his suffering.

Whilst Australian social histories of the Great War include many accounts of individuals bearing anxieties, few offer records by children at the time or adults reflecting on their childhoods or by teachers. There are equally few records even in departmental and school-based sources.

One class at University High School recorded in its school magazine that: ‘With sadness we note that many in the school have lost relations at the front. With them are the heartfelt sympathies of Form 5.’ Another wrote: ‘We regret to say that Frank Johnston, one of our boys, has lost his brother at the Dardanelles. We all sympathise with him very much in his loss.’

The expressions were sincere but brief and early in the war. As news of death, wounding and illness became commonplace, no further statements were published in University High School’s record.

Melbourne High School took the approach of publishing only once in its magazine the recognition that scarcely a family in the school did not have someone at the war: ‘The war seemed a long, long way away yet we never lost awareness of the fact that it was real.’

‘I was fortunate,’ wrote one boy. ‘It never touched my own life but it was all around me, a brother or a father killed.’

Little is recorded about how children coped with the death of the often most significant other adult male outside their family, their teacher. The anxiety and grief borne by children was almost certainly intensified through attending school and learning what was happening to its members, including the teachers.

Melbourne High School, for example, farewelled many teachers and grieved collectively and solemnly when six and the school’s messenger did not return.

Wangaratta State School pupils never again saw three teachers. Beechworth, Footscray and North Koo Wee Rup schools mourned for two teachers from each large school. The pupils of Back Creek, Ouyen, Ryanston and Ryton also each lost two teachers but probably felt more keenly considering that the men had lived alongside them in the very small communities.

The thoughts of a few children on the deaths of teachers are scattered and brief, and were usually recorded later in life. Former Sandringham pupil, Stella Chapman, recalled it was a sad day when teacher Reg Woods enlisted for the First World War. ‘Reg Woods was a loveable person and when we heard that he was amongst the first Gallipoli casualties our grief was deep and sincere.’

Former pupil of Princes Hill State School, Jay Penfold, mourned for his teacher, Mr Fletcher, who had enlisted early and died late in the war in France. Penfold related long after the war how ‘Fletcher’s death deeply saddened me and I truly grieved about him’.

Former pupils of Camp Hill, Wesley Harry and Edward Thompson, remembered teacher, Mr Robert Campbell: ‘He was a young junior teacher who obtained a sextant from somewhere. He fascinated us as he taught us the rudiments of latitude. Alas, poor Wallaby Campbell’s days were fast running out as he was killed in action in France in 1916. He was only 19.’

Teachers and pupils had also to bear the loss of their school’s former pupils. A few school local and oral histories convey how teachers on the home front felt about the loss of former pupils. Teacher William Friday of Sale Agricultural High School was saddened by what he called ‘the indiscriminate slaughter’ of many of his former pupils.

A Miss Moriarty of Glenferrie told her pupils of weeping over the names of the boys she had taught as she wrote the school’s honour roll. Her tears may have had a double expression. Because she could at that time enjoy a teaching career only if she remained unmarried and without children, her pupils were possibly as close to being her children as she could hope.

At least two teachers expressed themselves through poetry. Lawson’s ‘Semper Nobiscum’ that I put up at the start included the loss of his Melbourne Teachers College former trainees, while Frank Williamson, who taught at many schools during the war, offered a gentler reflection on three former pupils who had died.

Mr Williamson was well known for his love and teaching of nature studies. What he used to do is take students for walks in the leafy, ferny gullies around Colac, and having learnt that three of his former pupils had died at Gallipoli, this is what he wrote:

Oh, sweet was the morn on the mountain road
When the stars again in the blackwood glowed;
And dear were the boys who were there with men,
As they lent to their teacher eyes to see;
Now one by the Nile in his slumber lies,
While the alien stars above him rise,
And the voice of the Mussulman calls to prayer
Over his grave in his desert lair.
And another sleeps – O! you dreamed, my boy,
Of the heroes old by beleaguered Troy,
And, worthy to rank by your deeds with these,
You are lulled by the sighs of these storied seas.
And you the fair youngest did fate entice
To die in far battle by Paradise;
And the gazing seraphim raised no sword
When, like sinless man, you approached the Lord.
Now here on this morn do they walk with me,
Though the glory blinds as each face I see,
And my soul, as it harkens the song they sing,
Is wed unto youth and eternal spring.

The war record and many school and local histories reveal that most teachers were taught, and taught in, more than one school and therefore were known in more than one community. Therefore, the news of a teacher’s death or consequences affected many communities.

There was also a high incidence then, as there still is, of teacher families where parents, children and siblings had been or were teachers. Aware of this, the department published in its war record a three-page list, in small print, of inspectors, teachers and other departmental officers whose sons or brothers died on service. The long sobering list merely hints at the daily anxiety of anyone who had someone away.

The department could never have tracked fully the number of teachers and officers affected by the war, receiving the news, often brief and often ambiguous, of a family member or a close friend, even acquaintance, wounded, ill, prisoner of war or missing.

Many departmental employees simply continued working despite such distressing news.

Thus, teacher Mr Earles of Bungaree taught on whilst knowing that his son firstly had been torpedoed on the Southland and survived but was later killed in France.

Teacher Edward Williams of Glen Iris continued teaching despite news of his son having been wounded by a shell burst, then suffering trench feet, then having toes amputated from both.

Teacher Thomas Rule of Canterbury continued teaching knowing that his son was hospitalised overseas due to gassing, shellshock and heart problems.

A Miss Glew of Yanac continued teaching despite news that her brother had lost one eye at Gallipoli then slowly, whilst overseas, lost the vision in the other.

Miss Hazel Moore of Echuca could only imagine the experiences of her cousin who was a prisoner of war, who wrote of being well housed but being fed non-nutritious food.

Teacher Robert Reed of Gunyah Central knew that one brother had lost an eye when a bomb exploded in his face, then had reason to fear worse when his brother was declared missing, later killed in action.

Miss Charlotte Lamb of Easy Street, Collingwood continued despite her brother being wounded multiple times in various parts of the body and being invalided home, only to have his leg amputated following an accident at Ascot Vale Railway Station.

No list in any records could account for the teachers and officers who, after a day in the classroom or office, returned home to deal with a returned serviceman in so debilitated a condition as to need psychological, physical or material support for life.

Historian Joy Damousi has also argued that the psychological impact of war remains well after the event, not only for soldiers but for those around who absorb the legacy of war.

This was true for the department’s teacher families. Five had two teacher brothers serve where only one returned, probably to contemplate for life why he was spared when his brother was not.

Many teachers, widows and children had to start new lives. In such situations the department named the families. Therefore, for example, Lieutenant WG Barlow, formerly a teacher at Watchem, left a widow and several young children. Sergeant Ernest Smith, a mature-age departmental clerk who had helped organise Victoria’s big Broadmeadows camp, was one of the first Gallipoli fatalities, and left a widow and two children as did Lieutenant Arthur Wilcock of Bendigo High School. His brother, Lieutenant Ernest Wilcock was left to look after the widow.

Elsewhere, Mrs TJ Bartley and her son relied on the care of her brother-in-law and parents-in-law, all of whom were, or had been, teachers in the department.

Captain William Hoggart’s widow and two children were reliant on Hoggart’s brother, teacher John Hoggart of Newry. John Hoggart’s story draws attention to the diversity and complexity of war as well as relationships in the department’s community. He enlisted after news of William’s death but whilst surviving the war appears to have had his own difficult experiences to live with.

These, along with the pressures of looking after his brother’s family, may have contributed to less positive inspectors’ reports of his teaching post-war than pre-war. A retired inspector put me on to that, to look at the sorts of records that were written about teachers before they went, including descriptions such as having a sunny disposition, and then after the war the teachers being reported for thrashing, alcoholism and so forth.

In a final example of widows’ struggles, staff sergeant Charles Sullivan of Williamstown State School died of disease in October 1918 in Egypt, probably as a result of his bacteriological work in Egyptian hospitals. I’ve seen the photos of this work in the hospitals, no masks, no glasses, no gloves. Men just leaning over open Petri dishes of goodness knows what. Six months after he died the Education Gazette printed the notice:

A soldier’s widow would be glad to receive offers for his school books and equipment comprising textbooks, sample sheets of Australian woods, photographs, models, scales, weights, astronomical items and university textbooks. Lists may be obtained from Mrs E Sullivan of Wellington Street, Flemington.

The nature and extent of phases of mourning varied. For some teachers on the home front there was a degree of closure once details of the death of a loved one were confirmed. But for some employees such as Alfred Watson of Warrnambool, or the families of other teachers, there was no immediate closure.

Historian Bart Ziino explains that the physical disjunction between home and the battlefield forced those in Australia to imagine the worst conditions of life and death. Rarely was there comfort. A haunting experience was the receipt of mail from a family member after the man had died, as was the case for numerous families, teacher colleagues and school communities.

Another drawn-out experience of anguish was when a loved one was reported missing. Teacher W Wilkin and his community at North Melbourne were still dealing with the news in mid-September 1916, and possibly for longer, that Wilkin’s son, Private HV Wilkin, who was a clerk in the department, had been listed as missing in France since mid-July. Wilkin was found, then again listed as wounded.

Inspector Hurley recorded for the Education Gazette: ‘I have heard no news about the fate of my second son who led a bombing party in the second battle of Bullecourt when he and all his party disappeared.’ JC Hurley was eventually listed after the war as killed in action at Bullecourt.

Private William McHarg of Ryanston was presumed to have died early at Gallipoli although there was never a body. His family members included a brother, another teacher, who was McKenzie McHarg who continued to teach at Korumburra. Someone in the family forwarded details and a photograph to the department so that it listed McHarg in the Education Gazette as dead. But the department must have received other advice on how to word the obituary in the book, adding his mother still clings to the hope that the official report is not final and that her son may be a prisoner in the hands of the Turks.

The anxiety for a teacher called Percy Pepper, and it’s not the Percy Pepper who’s in the book that the National Archive sells, believe it or not, was intensified because his letters continued to arrive whilst he was declared missing. He was presumed to have been killed in action at Villers–Bretonneux in the same battle that took my great-uncle, but no details as to the manner of his death were available because his body had not been found.

His sister, Ivy, was a teacher at Mortchup State School. After the armistice her mother wrote to the authorities seeking details of his death and grave. The Pepper family believed a report that 97 men and officers were buried in one large grave between Pozieres and Harbonnieres. But Ivy and her family could not rest and Ivy travelled to France in 1924. She made more inquiries and eventually received a letter from the Imperial War Graves Commission declaring emphatically that Percy must be dead.

Listen to the wording: ‘We are in possession of evidence that leaves no doubt that your brother is buried in Heath Cemetery, north of Harbonnieres, but unfortunately his actual grave cannot be located. In these circumstances we have a special cross inscribed with your brother's name and regimental particulars and note buried in this cemetery, actual grave unknown.’

One of the saddest stories I uncovered was that of Major George Matson Nicholas of Melbourne Junior Technical School and his wife, Hilda. George Nicholas had fallen in love with Hilda Rix. She was a budding artist and she was also the daughter of an inspector. That’s pretty game of a teacher to date the inspector’s daughter.

She travelled to meet George in London during one of his periods of leave. There they married and here they are going out on their few days of honeymoon. Several days later he departed for the front and was killed soon after.

Hilda Rix painted this portrait of him. It is on display in the War Memorial today. It’s called The Man. She slept with his army greatcoat for years and, as an established artist, she kept her name as Hilda Rix Nicholas, most sensitively and amazingly for the time. Even though she remarried, her second husband understood why she kept her first husband’s name.

In the last school paper for all grades in December 1918, the department stressed to all readers that the soldiers must not be forgotten. Indeed the department stressed this over again right from the Gallipoli landing: ‘a roll of honour shall be compiled and displayed in every school of the state from which old boys have enlisted for service.’

The following month art inspector, Mr Carew-Smith, said, or wrote: ‘It is all important that these memorials should be of a permanent character. They should leave the impression that they are intended to last as long as the schools in which they are placed.’ He recommended sturdy metal, terracotta or glazed earthenware.

In fact what Mr Carew-Smith wanted placed in most Victoria schools was a smaller monument and then more emphasis on honour books and honour rolls that would be in a bookcase next to such a monument.

The honour board was to be artistic, highly visual but was not to bear the names of former pupils. Names would be better listed in the book, and the book should be as beautiful and as worthy of its purpose as it was possible to procure. He envisaged the book being displayed on Empire Days for years to come.

In fact what he wanted was the school creating its own book, putting it in a wooden case such as we have here.

Indeed the department itself stressed over and again that there should not be lists on boards. ‘Lists will soon cease to provide information to those outside the immediate circle,’ it wrote. Whether or not this was an attempt to conceal the extent of the sacrifice is speculation but given the department’s predilection for detail in the majority of matters, war-related or not, and given its pride in its servicemen and belief that Empire Day would endure, there is less reason to believe that it was seeking to disguise the war’s extensive human cost.

In the end, the department and Mr Carew-Smith were proven completely wrong, not only with regard to the longevity of Empire Day but also regarding the honour books and that they would be treated by schools.

Time tested their durability but some were intentionally or inadvertently discarded during clean-ups. Some were souvenired and many were thrown out at the beginning and end of World War II. Hardly any survive and the few schools that broke the rules and created the wooden lists are the ones that survive.

In many schools such lists, even without biographical details, now often form the only historical records in those schools of past pupils and teachers.

The invalid teachers

Most teachers who returned to Australia even as invalids resumed teaching. The head teacher of Violet Street, Bendigo stated several decades after the war that his school was particularly fortunate in having a relatively large number of former servicemen on staff. The director of education agreed, believing that the war had benefited the men’s character, academic knowledge and ability to teach, owing to their wide outlook and to the toughening of their fibre through their military training and experience.

Despite recommending one book on shellshock, the department was reluctant to admit that there could be significant problems within its returned community. It did say that whilst many men sadly had not returned, those who had were now settled down to routine work.

Certainly many family members and members of school communities did resume duties as if unaffected, however, many were profoundly affected by the war and did not resume routines.

Several teachers returned as invalids and could have resumed teaching but recovered and promptly re-enlisted. One died the second time around. Others were so profoundly physically or psychologically affected that they were incapable of returning to the classroom. A few examples illustrate the situation.

This photograph is actually out in display. William Morris of Bonang must have asked someone in 1919 to write a letter inquiring into the whereabouts of his copy of the war record that he was entitled to. He was a quadriplegic in the Anzac Hostel in Brighton. Now I notice that the display says that this is an Anzac hostel but I know it’s the Anzac Hostel in Brighton because I live in that area, I’ve been to this place and I’ve been in that room. It was only last night, and I could be drawing a long bow here, but this photograph was taken in 1919 of the men who were quadriplegics. William Morris in 1919 wrote from that place demanding to know where his book is.

That’s him there and it was only last night, and you can take the book in with you, but I’ve got a feeling when I look at the sunken eyes on him there, the shape of his eyebrows and the nose which has a slight bend in it, although the name of the fellow isn’t known I think that’s him there. Just one of those things. I could be wrong, but I think that’s William Morris of Bonang. I asked my partner last night to corroborate. He was wanting to say no, Rosalie, you’re way off, you’re way, way off but he couldn’t say that. Just a few too many coincidences.

One teacher not to resume teaching was not because of intellectual incapacity but more because of the fear that he and others believed he would instil in children. He was one of the men with broken faces which Jay Winter, a historian, has ascertained comprised 4 to 12 per cent of all wounds. A former school inspector and now historian, David Holloway, has attempted to locate the teacher’s name and details of his career. He told me he had half his face shot away and was given one of those marvellous tin faces hand painted by someone famous. But he didn't teach for long and I can’t imagine that he had a long life.

Henry Sumpton of Brimin was invalided to Australia in 1916 but was not fit to resume teaching, and while boarding at Cardinia he was accidently burned to death in his room owing to the house catching fire.

Mr Burt of Mt Alfred also did not teach, being accidently lost overboard on the return voyage to Australia.

The department listed the latter two in its war dead. Even if their deaths were accidental, recent detailed research into the fragile psychological condition of many returned men cannot discount the role of their mental and physical states contributing to their accidents as well as the possibility of suicide.

Finally, school and local histories record how some men resumed teaching for only a short time.

Mr Robert Jenkin from Leongatha, who had been gassed, retired early, coughing himself to an early death.

Edward Reynolds returned to Woodlands in 1919 but, due to wounds received during the war, was ill for most of 1921, after which time he had to retire and a new teacher was appointed.

Teacher John Cameron had been wounded at Fromelles, returned to Australia almost immediately, resumed teaching and then died soon after from the effects of his wounds.

Other teachers and pupils looked daily for years upon the physical manifestations of war.

The head teacher of Violet Street, Bendigo praised teacher soldier Albert Sullivan who bore the constant reminder of his service in the loss of his arm. Sullivan taught for many years at Violet Street because the school was able to record its sorrow on the death of his son in World War II.

Lewis John, head teacher at Camberwell Central, was most supportive of his teachers and well liked but with the unattractive habit, as a result of being gassed, of expectorating often into an enamel bowl during classes, in the storeroom adjoining his office. Can you imagine the children growing up with that?

Former Inspector Holloway recalls visiting Donald Sutherland at the same school and minding his class one day of 67 pupils. Holloway later learnt that Sutherland needed to dress his suppurating leg wound during the day in addition to regular visits across the term to a hospital. Sutherland had been wounded in 1918. Holloway minded his class in 1946, 28 years after the war. Apparently Mr Sutherland was remembered for having this carbolic antiseptic smell that lingered around him.

Lloyd Lehmann remembers William Patterson of Ballarat Junior Technical School as bald at an early age because of being gassed.

Mr Spencer at Hamilton High School walked with a stick and was rumoured to have a silver plate in his leg.

Even though he could not write properly as a result of a serious wound to his arm, Joseph Akeroyd resumed the role of inspector in the Bendigo district although sometimes he felt ill and rapidly departed schools. A woman later told Inspector Holloway that the smell from the local soap factory affected him in some way related to the war.


Two former pupils specifically recall their teachers as having nervous disorders. Princes Hill pupil, Jay Penfold, remembered how the problem forced his teacher, unnamed, to quit. Pupil, Andrew Bear, remembered teacher, Mr Eldridge of Caulfield, whose biography attests to horrific engagement. ‘We pupils knew that he had been in the war and that he suffered from something mysterious called shellshock. Twenty eight years after the war, his hand shook as he wrote on the blackboard, the chalk lines showing the pattern of wobble on both the up and down strokes.’

There were other impacts. Teacher Francis Lord, who had experienced the war from the Gallipoli landing through to the Armistice, and who had then opted for additional service in Russia, ran his schools militaristically, rammed his war experiences down pupils’ throats and annually arrived at his school’s Anzac Day service on a horse. It wasn’t his own horse. Apparently he just went out and got someone else’s.

Former pupil of Mincha, Mary Bartels, remembered her teacher, Mr Tregellas, remembered how the war left him unwell and on medication which possibly contributed to his overuse of the strap. When he first arrived he boarded at Pyramid Hill and rode his bike along the railway track to Mincha. He carried his strap with him to use on any Pyramid child he met as he rode along.

John Sorrell was appointed to Balnarring in 1921. There were many complaints that he lost his temper easily and often strapped the children. During his rages he would continually thump the blackboard.

But there were at least two teachers who emerged profoundly anti-war.

Royal Miller’s son remembered his father’s war experiences as always very close to the surface. Mr Miller had been head teacher at Corryong and Euroa, was highly supportive of Legacy and poppy appeals and fond of reciting In Flanders Fields. However, he encouraged children to learn about the waste and horror of war.

Finally, Frankston High School pupil, Don Charlwood, remembered his teacher, Mr Matheson, at Frankston High School in 1928, 10 years after the Armistice. ‘Mr Matheson was the only person we heard speak out strongly against the war. We had been startled one Anzac Day to hear this controlled soldierly looking man speak with emotion against war. On Armistice Day he spoke in the same tones. He was not cynical about the sacrifices that had been made, but he was saying rather that war must be seen as a monstrous waste of human life which seldom solved anything. Mathie was urging us to think.’

That is what I have sought to make you do today, to think and to feel. There remain veterans and/or families of Australia’s involvement in wars and conflicts right up to the present day, as close as the family members of the soldier killed in Afghanistan only a couple of days ago, or his comrades, or other soldiers still from quite unrelated conflicts who return quietly, supposedly unwounded, but who carry with them the experiences in other ways.

We need to know these stories of the past to generate compassion for our fellows, and I think as history educators and teachers we are so aware of that, to generate compassion for our fellows in the present and into the future, and to seek alternatives to war in conflict resolutions.

Thank you for enabling teachers, pupils and school-related families of the past and I hope to help generate in you the tendencies to compassion and towards thinking as Mr Matheson did.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2018