Think Piece: After the war…what happens?

Source: by Prof Melanie Oppenheimer, published on Thursday 13 October, 2016.

oppenheimer-melanieThe title of US combat veteran, Bryan Wood’s, 2013 bookUnspoken Abandonment: Sometimes the hardest part of going to war is coming home [Huffington Post, 29/1/13] examines the question of how as a society, we don’t reflect very much on the experiences of those who survived the war; those who returned to pick up their lives ‘afterwards’.

This theme came up during a pilgrimage I went on with my own family to the western front in 2005. Seven of us including my eldest daughter, my brother and sister and our mother, went to the battlefields of WWI to retrace our two grandfathers’ wars. As we walked around cemetery after cemetery – all beautifully tendered – full of the graves of young Australians, British, French, and German servicemen, my brother asked – “Where are the memorials to the living? To those who survived the war?”  It was a valid question – for our two grandfathers had survived the war, so we had nothing to find of them per se, nothing that validated their service on our ‘pilgrimage’.

Our two grandfathers never met each other. Alexander Stratford or ‘Poss’ Nivison – was 21 when he enlisted in September 1915 as a private in the Australian Field Artillery. He was severely wounded in France – he and a mate were watering horses when a stray shell blew his friend’s head off and killed two young French children nearby.  After extensive convalescence (he carried shrapnel in his back for the rest of his life) Poss was promoted to Lieutenant, served on the Western Front and returned to Australia in July 1919.

My other grandfather, Martin Oppenheimer, was from a Jewish banking family in Germany. He volunteered in June 1915, aged 19, in the artillery. He saw active service in France, including Verdun. Martin, too, was promoted to Lieutenant. Martin suffered gassing and he was medically discharged in 1918.

Both men’s ‘wars’ were in fact quite similar – they were of similar age, both volunteered for service, both enlisted in the artillery, both were promoted to Lieutenant, both were wounded and survived the war. It was in the aftermath of the war where the direction of their lives changed so dramatically.

Poss (on the victor’s side) returned to Australia. He went back to the farm and never left it. He never spoke of the war, he never joined the RSL, and he never marched. He married and had three children. My mother says he refused to go camping with the family, saying simply that he had done enough camping in the war. He poured his life and soul into his family and his land, and became a respected member of the community. Poss died in 1965 in the paddocks, on the land he loved, with his boots on; apparently his one wish. His post-war life was essentially stable; he managed to get on – to put the war behind him.

My other grandfather’s life was much more complex. Martin completed a PhD in political science at Wurtzberg University. The topic of his dissertation – How the Bank of England won the War. He worked for Karsddart Department Store in Berlin; married (an aristocratic woman) and they had a son. In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, he and his young family fled Germany, firstly to Holland and eventually migrating to South Africa (most countries either had quotas on Jewish refugees or refused to accept them). Unable to get work, and with his qualifications unrecognised, the marriage fell apart and divorce followed. They became ‘enemy aliens’ in WWII.  Martin died in 1946, aged 50, and was buried in an unmarked grave in a Jewish cemetery in Cape Town. I never met him.

Poss and Martin were part of that generation that Erich Maria Remarque described in his classic novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” – as the ‘generation that was destroyed by the war – even those who survived the shelling.

It continues. Each generation who goes to war suffers both differently and the same – especially those that survive and return to civilian life.

Take one example from WWII, Mr Oscar Horace Goldsworthy – otherwise known as ‘Ossie’ [And I’d like to thank his family, and in particular his daughter Marina, for the family history].  Ossie enlisted as soon as he turned 18. When he left the army to re-join ‘civvie street’ he was ‘not in a good place’ – he was ‘untrained, poor’ and ‘suffering a broken wartime marriage’. He returned to live with his family in inner Adelaide – to re-group. He was an apprentice jockey before the war, so tried his luck as a ‘jumps jockey’ – travelling across South Australia with steeple and hurdles racing. This all came to an end in Port Augusta when his horse went straight through the first hurdle and Ossie was badly injured.

So Ossie had to try something new. He began studying accounting and real estate. He found stable employment at the Electricity Trust of SA; married the girl next door; built a house in Blackwood (where he still lives) and began a family that soon grew to 6 children.

He became interested in local politics – served as a Councillor for the City of Mitcham, then Alderman, Deputy Mayor and Mayor – he remains the longest serving member of that local council. Mitcham Council has named a park in Blackwood in his honour – the Ossie Goldsworthy Park.

Throughout his life, Ossie volunteered his time to a range of local community bodies; initially those that his children were involved in – local kindergartens, school councils and lots of sport. His volunteerism and devotion to local community became an integral part of his life – reflective of his generation – they put back through their volunteering.

Also part of that generation, he wanted to retire from paid work early – and at 57, he and his wife did just that – allowing more time for travel, spending time with their extended family, and continuing to volunteer.

Overall, Ossie Goldsworthy managed peace pretty well – but for other returned Australian veterans from WWII and more recent conflicts – it has been much more difficult.

A few weeks ago a weekend newspaper, The Herald Sun, [14 August, 2016] had a front page headline ‘Australia’s National Shame’ featuring a 6-month investigation by journalist Ruth Lamperd. The death toll in Afghanistan in 13 years was 41 killed – so far in 2016 alone, 41 current and ex-servicemen and women, had suicided.

A campaign has begun to Save our Soldiers. It calls for the introduction of the Gold Card for every veteran with operational service; to fund a register to collect correct data on ex-service suicides; to provide proper post-service employment training; and in-depth mental health courses for next of kin, etc.

I recently returned from the US where I noticed a quite different approach to current serving men and women, ex-servicemen and women, and their families. This includes priority boarding on all airplanes; in some airports there were special lounges for returning and ex-servicemen and women and their families; discounted food; recorded messages from local government officials acknowledging them and welcoming them to the city, etc.

Now obviously in the US, they still have many, many problems and many, many more returning veterans – but this is an approach we could consider here in Australia.

To quote [Maria] Tumarkin from her 2005 book Traumascapes, “The past is never quite over … Years and decades after the event, the past is still unfinished business”. This especially applies to our veterans as, despite the passage of time, the war is often never far away.


Melanie Oppenheimer is one of Australia’s leading historians of women, war and volunteering. She was appointed a Professor of History at Flinders University, Adelaide, in July 2013. Prior to this she held positions at the Western Sydney University and University of New England.  She is author/co-author of seven books, including All Work. No Pay. Australian Civilian Volunteers in War (2002); Oceans of Love (2006); Volunteering. Why we can’t live without it (2008); and The Power of Humanity 100 Years of Australian Red Cross (2014). Her most recent monograph, co-authored with Bruce Scates, The Last Battle. Soldier Settlement in Australia, 1916-1939 will be published by Cambridge University Press in November 2016. Melanie was part of the Anzac Centenary’s Cultural and Military History Working Party, and the National Archives of Australia’s Anzac Centenary Committee. In 2014, she was appointed an Australian Red Cross Ambassador, and has chaired a working group for the SA Volunteering Strategy. She was recognised by the Australian Research Council (ARC) with an appointment to the College of Experts (2016-2018). She has contributed to ABC Radio National’s “Life Matters” program on a series, Vita Activa (2007-9), produced the radio documentary, Nursing for Empire for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight program, and provided research expertise for the TV documentary,Girls’ Own War Stories. Melanie is committed to finding new ways of communicating history to a wider public audience.