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Secret WWI history of Australian soldiers with venereal disease

Around 60,000 Australian soldiers had contracted venereal disease by the end of the First World War. They were shunned and shamed, but a new book aims to restore their honour.

In the scrubby silence of a nature reserve east of Frankston lie the remains of a stone statue whose once elegant form contained a catastrophic irony.

A hundred years ago, Venus, as she was known, was a marble maiden, posed on a pedestal in the middle of a fountain, balancing an amphora. When the pump was switched on, water flowed seductively over her semi-naked body, much to the delight of thousands of soldiers in World War One who had been sent to the former military barracks at this isolated spot to recuperate.

While Venus represented all that is wholesome and glamorous about love, the soldiers' presence at the Langwarrin barracks was a testament to its darker side. They were suffering from venereal disease, picked up from prostitutes in the brothels of Egypt and France, and had been sent to the hastily established isolation unit in ignominious disgrace.

Around 60,000 Australian soldiers ended up contracting venereal disease by the end of the First World War. Just as they were hidden away to undergo treatment at the time, their story has, up until now, remained largely untold.

The image of a soldier riddled with gonorrhoea and syphilis, hiding weeping ulcers on his genitals beneath the emblematic khaki uniform, is a far cry from the usual portrayal of the ANZAC digger. The events surrounding Gallipoli have become the bedrock of the nation's story, perfectly encapsulating the idealised virtues that lie at the heart of the Australian identity; the embattled soldier refusing to give in, the selfless bravery of the larrikin prepared to die for his mate. Moral weakness, impetuosity, hedonism and disobedience are character flaws which, we are led to believe, were either missing or successfully sublimated amongst Australian Imperial Force recruits.

It takes a brave man, in this, the centenary year of the start of World War I, to cut through the pomp and, some would say, hubris that surrounds this occasion to reveal a more rounded truth, but in the Secrets of the Anzacs, author Raden Dunbar has done just that.

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"I am not in any way critical or scornful about what they have done; what I wanted to do was demonstrate there was this other aspect of our diggers' existence from the moment they arrived in Egypt until after the war had ended. There were terrible consequences for men who ended up being infected and they should be given every sympathy we could muster," he says, speaking from his ex-pat home in Java.

Dunbar, a former Melbourne school teacher and writer, is not the first to explore the human side of the hero myth. It was historian Peter Stanley's book Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force in which he gives a frank account of aspects of the AIF usually omitted from the war vernacular that ignited Dunbar's interest, especially the references to VD. He began to do a little digging into his own past and discovered that his great-uncle, Ernest Dunbar, from Scone, in the Hunter Valley, was one of the soldiers affected.

In Secrets of the Anzacs Dunbar uses his great-uncle's experiences to fill in some of the gaps in the Anzac legend. He explores themes of displacement, fear and adventure and examines how fifteen minutes of recklessness can cast a very long shadow on the rest of a life. In crisp, unsentimental language, Dunbar tells the tale of how a young lad from a small town went off to war with a glint in his eye and money in his back pocket and returned several years later, sick, broken and shamed.

In many ways Ernest Dunbar's story is one replicated by thousands of other young men, whose dalliances with the exotic, primped and powdered prostitutes in the infamous Wasa'a District in Egypt or on the Rue des Soeurs in Alexandria went on to impact on the rest of their lives, just as profoundly as embedded shrapnel, lost limbs or shell shock.

Ernest Dunbar's story has an extra layer of complexity because, for reasons unknown, he enlisted with the AIF under the name John Dunbar. After contracting a stubborn case of gonorrhoea in Alexandria he was sent to Langwarrin on the steamer, The Wiltshire, along with close to 300 other "pariahs", mostly between the ages of 18 and 22 and from all backgrounds; bush, immigrant and middle-class homes.

After six weeks of treatment he was cured and sent to retrain. Instead he absconded and a warrant was issued for the arrest of John Dunbar. When Ernest decided to rejoin the army some time later, he had to use yet another false name, enlisting as John Beech.

On the sodden, autumnal battlefields of Flanders he was wounded again by a German mustard-gas shell, and was sent to a hospital in England to convalesce. A massive spring time offensive saw him being returned to France, but his shell shock and trench feet rendered him "useless" as a soldier and he was sent home to Australia, where he had to confront the ramifications of his multiple identities.

Unable to work, Dunbar/Beech needed the army pension to survive. But to qualify he had to reveal his chequered past. Tragically, records were restored just a few months before he was diagnosed with heart disease and terminal cancer; he died a pauper at the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum and was buried at Cheltenham Cemetery just ten years after he first signed up.

According to Dunbar, Ernest's premature death was one of thousands of such mortalities amongst returning AIF soldiers in the decades after the war. "The post-war dead are not included in the roll of Honour at the Australian War memorial but they should also be remembered for having lost their lives as a consequence of their war service."

If Ernest Dunbar felt shamed and stigmatised by his condition, he could also feel proud at his contribution to history. A gifted artist, his legacy includes a collection of 40 or so wartime sketches, under the name John Beech, many of which record the drinking and hedonism that took place in France. The sketches, which the young soldier gave away to friends, resurfaced after the war and are now in the Australian War Memorial. Dunbar includes several in his book. "I thought 'how appropriate that he recorded this stuff and was so personally affected by it.'"

It was learning about his great-uncle's past that got Dunbar thinking about his own. At the age of 68, he still feels the sting of "foolish" decisions he himself made when he was a young man.

"I was talking with an old school friend recently and we agreed that had we been with the AIF in Egypt in 1915, we would have probably also have been found guilty of similar misconduct," he says. While the book, he acknowledges, is in many ways a "cautionary tale" to young men of today, it is also a letter to his teenage self.

It is this insight into aspects of his own character that enables Dunbar to be so sympathetic to the soldiers he writes about. He hopes he has also managed to demonstrate through them how character is formed not so much by the errors we make "but in our courage to respond to those mistakes, in order to correct them and restore our self-belief and reputation."

Like Stanley, his exploration of the murkier side of the Anzac story is driven by a need to somehow free the soldiers from the lonely pedestal on which they have been placed and restore them with the dignity of being human.

"In Europe a strange and remarkable discovery was made; it was possible for AIF solders with records of drunkenness, crime, misconduct, absence without leave and VD to also be outstanding soldiers."

Two of Australia's Victoria Cross recipients had been sent home with VD and at least six men on board The Wiltshire – that ship of shame – ended up being highly decorated. Initially, army regulations made it difficult for men who had committed acts of misconduct, including contracting VD, to be awarded medals but this was later retracted: around 15 per cent of the entire AIF contracted VD.

How this fits with the overall statistics amongst allied soldiers depends on who you ask. Dunbar says: "Some people like to think that Australian soldiers caught more VD than those in other combatant countries and other people say they caught less. I think it depends on the extent to which the person you are talking to upholds the myth of the heroic digger."

It would be a challenge for any writer to make an entire book on sexually transmitted diseases appeal to a wide audience, but Dunbar's sensitive probing of the human psychology and social mores involved transcends the First World War experience and is a timely reminder of the damaging effects of glossing over our human flaws.

Scratch at the gilt veneer of today's elaborate ceremonies that honour the dead, and the festering ugliness of reality is never too far away. War, he argues, upends the moral order; while early forays with prostitutes in Cairo may have been simply sexual adventuring, morality soon became a confusing terrain. "Once you have been told to kill someone, then it made you question what else you could do," says Dunbar. "And having to constantly live in the presence of death led to changes of attitude. They realised they may never see Australia again; that something very bad was likely to happen to them. There wasn't much in life to look forward to."

This search for a more authentic version of events is engaging a growing number of historians, including Ben Eltham, research fellow at Deakin University, who is currently writing a monograph on the role of memory and forgetting in the creation of the Anzac myth. He argues that a selective amnesia kicks in when revisiting history, leaving gaping holes in today's narrative.

"I think a lot it has been papered over," he says. "Modern day ceremonies are overtly militaristic; they pay lip service to the horror of war. There is very little discussion of what the reality of World War One was like. Instead, paradoxically, we look upon war almost as an adventure. The official history dominates the way we remember, rather than the more disparate, individual memories. It is possible simply by looking at the diaries and letters of veterans that you would get a very different story than the ones that we get to hear."

It is doubtful, however, that too many diaries and letters would contain the graphic details of the treatment for VD, outlined in its full ghastliness in Dunbar's book. This entailed repeated daily injections of heavy metals such as silver, arsenic and mercury; urethral syringings, douching and the application of caustic substances on their genitals. One of the upsides of the VD epidemic was that treatment for sexually transmitted diseases improved exponentially during the war years.

Although affected soldiers were initially punished by having their pay docked, officials were forced to drop their disapproving attitudes due to the sheer number of affected men. The focus also shifted from a moral problem to a medical one, when the need to return soldiers to active service became paramount. The camp at Langwarrin morphed from being a place of detention to a state of the art hospital and rehabilitation centre, complete with landscaped gardens, art equipment and musical instruments, pets, shrubbery and even its own brass band. It also pioneered the work of occupational therapy, involving recuperating soldiers in gardening and music.

Groundbreaking research into VD between 1915 and 1916 succeeded in reducing the length of each disease and halving the cost of treatment. But the wonder drug, penicillin, was still an accident waiting to happen.

The medical advances begun at Langwarrin stopped when the hospital closed after the war. "Had they continued," writes Dunbar, "they might have examined the long-term health consequences of gonorrhoea, syphilis and chancroid infections for soldiers and their families after the war. This might have included the studies of the long term effects of the toxic drugs used to treat these diseases."

The Langwarrin military camp continued to be used intermittently by the Department of Defence until the 1970s when it was handed over to the Victorian government and became the flora and fauna reserve that it is today. There is very little that remains of its controversial history. Just the majestic oaks and pines planted by convalescing soldiers rising out of the native scrub that surrounds the broken statue of Venus.

The Secrets of the Anzacs by Raden Dunbar is published by Scribe.

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