Saturday, November 3, 2012

Vernon C. King

Pte Vernon Charles King

Enlisted: Boulder, Western Australia- August 1914
Age at enlistment: 26
Occupation: Miner
Unit: 11th Battalion (WA), "F" Company

Vernon King began the First World War like many other Western Australian men. As a fit and healthy miner on the WA goldfields, he signed up to join the first Western Australian battalion, the 11th, within a couple of weeks of the declaration of war by Britain on August 4th, 1914.

But Vernon's war was short-lived. He shipped out with his battalion and landed on the beaches of Gallipoli on the 25th April, 1915- the day that became known as ANZAC Day, Australia's first true taste of war as a nation. Vernon was physically injured immediately, but it was his mental injuries that defined the rest of the war for him, and ultimately occasioned his early return home.

In his absence, life on the home front was anything but easy for his wife and mother, and by the time he returned, things had changed significantly not only in himself, but in the world he left behind.

Before the war

Vernon was born to parents Lillian and James King in the Melbourne suburb of Windsor, Victoria. His father had several other children by a previous marriage. At some point in the early 1900s, the family moved west to settle in the gold rush mining town of Kalgoorlie- a town that even today is know for its duality of good times and hard luck, as well as for having one pub for every 1200 people in town. Yes, that's 25 pubs for around 30,000 inhabitants, which pales a little in comparison to the number of drinking holes available for around the same level of population in the early 1900s- over 90 hotels and 8 breweries, or one hotel for every 300 people. The number of brothels was probably not far behind.

Vernon probably did his share of carousing as a young man. In 1907 at the age of 19, he was arrested with several others at the goldfields mining town of Gwalia for playing the illegal gambling game Two-Up, in which punters bet on the outcome of a coin toss. Though he was charged, there was not enough evidence to convict, and so Vernon was allowed to go free. He stayed out of publically-visible trouble after that, working on the mines and making no further appearances in the crime reports, and married Louisa Johnson in 1910. Their only child Ethel was born in 1911.

During the war

When war was declared on August 4th, 1914, there was great enthusiasm in Western Australia. Australia had only been a federated nation since 1901, and since 1911 under the Universal Service Scheme, the young men of the state had been enlisted in compulsory military training. As a man aged between 18 and 26, Vernon would have been required to serve in a militia or military unit, and his enlistment record shows that he had been part of one of the Army's Infantry Regiments for five years.

No surprise, then, that Vernon signed his official papers almost as early as possible at Boulder on August 18th 1914, declaring his intent to fight in the war. He was placed into F Company, which was comprised mostly of men from the same area. By September, he was at the central training camp of Blackboy Hill in Perth, and on November 2nd he departed on the HMAT Ascanius with the rest of the 11th Battalion, bound for further training in Egypt, and from there, the real show in Turkey.

The men of Vernon's battalion were amongst the first to land on the beaches beneath Ari Burnu Point at 4:30am on April 25th, and were immediately met by heavy fire from Turkish troops. Around 20000 Australian soldiers landed on the beaches that day, and by the time the sun set again that evening, over 2000 men- or 10% of the total force- had already been killed. From that point onward, the Australian troops faced relentless and chaotic battle that would last for eight months, resulting in the deaths of over 10,000 Australian men, and injuries to a further 20,000. With a national population of just over 3 million people at the time, it's easy to understand why Gallipoli is a campaign remembered every year on ANZAC Day.

Vernon King didn't last long on the battlefront. On the very first day of fighting, he was removed to the hospital ships with a serious injury to his back. He was transferred to hospital in Malta to convalesce, and it took nearly two full months before he was healthy enough to return to war in June.

But Vernon fought for only eight more days before a new injury sent him back to hospital- this time, one that was to become the silent suffering of many: neurasthenia, also described as nervous debility, or, as it was more commonly known at the time, shell-shock.

Each of these terms had a subtly different definition. Neurasthenia and nervous debility were terms essentially used to describe a nervous breakdown, characterised by any or all of fatigue, agitation, anxiety, fear, insomnia, nightmares and hallucinations, shaking, and numerous other mental and physical symptoms such as headaches and phantom pains. Shell-shock was the same, but while the other conditions were considered to originate from within the sufferer, shell-shock was considered to originate from the physical effect of sound waves on the body, as encountered on the war front under the never-ending barrage of detonating shells.

Collectively, the symptoms describing these illnesses are today known as Combat Stress Reaction. The rapid increase in cases during the First World War initially took the Armies by surprise, and it wasn't long before neurological conditions began to get a lot of attention, if not a lot of sympathy. This somewhat disturbing film from 1918 shows the very wide range of war neuroses of a number of soldiers, and is a good indicator of why the problem could not be ignored.

However, in the earliest days of the war, shell-shock was not always given a great deal of credibility, and Vernon King was returned to the front after just one day of respite. This time, he lasted six days before he was removed again to hospital suffering nervous debility. From that point on, Vernon never set foot again on the battlefield.

He was transferred from hospital to hospital before finally being sent across to England to the 5th London General Hospital at St. Thomas, where he would remain a neurological patient for almost a full year.

It appears that removal to a hospital in the United Kingdom was considered something of a last resort in the treatment of shell-shock cases, reserved only for those who were given little hope of recovery in the short to middle term. Vernon's removal to London, his year in hospital there, and his discharge from the Army as unfit for further service, suggest that his case was of the most serious kind; however, despite repeated requests from family, the Army provided no further details of his symptoms or treatment.

He was discharged from hospital in London in May 1916, and arrived back in Western Australia in June of the same year, discharged from the Army in October to face life forever changed.

For a further look at neurasthenia and shell-shock in World War I, by the way, I highly recommend Pat Barker's mostly-fictional Regeneration trilogy, which follows a number of mental patients recovering under the care of the psychologist W. H. Rivers, who became something of a world expert on the condition through his wartime work.

On the home front

While Vernon was away at war, life on the home front appeared to be unravelling a little. His wife Louisa was listed as his next of kin, but in June of 1915, his mother Lillian sent a letter to the Minister of Defense complaining that she had only learned of his April injury upon receiving a letter from him, sent from the hospital in Malta. She was very unhappy that she had received no previous word from the Army.

The person who replied was surprised, because a telegram had indeed been sent advising Vernon's next of kin, L. King, that he was injured. And here was L. King telling them she hadn't received the telegram. It took a couple of back and forth pieces of correspondence before Lillian admitted that she was not actually Louisa, and therefore not actually entitled to receive the telegrams that should have been reaching her son's wife.

Her reply was interesting, and says a lot about the stresses the family were facing. She detailed a story of considerable woe, in which Louisa had not been seen or heard from in a long while, and seemed to have left Vernon while he was away. The relationship with her daughter-in-law seemed full of animosity on both sides, so whether this was true or not isn't clear. But as a result of the breakdown in communication between the women, his family were not aware of what was happening to him overseas, and it concerned his mother greatly that she should know if any further harm befell him.

After further correspondence, the Army agreed to include both Louisa and Lillian in all future correspondence regarding Vernon. But Lillian never had her greatest concern answered before Vernon arrived home- she was desperate to know what injury he had suffered, to prepare herself for looking after him upon his return.

After the war

Vernon arrived home in June 1916, to a home situation that isn't fully clear from the records. His wife may have been absent, and his mother was preparing for the worst. From the available records, she seemed concerned that Vernon would come home disfigured and broken physically. I'm not sure what she would have expected, or for that matter what she got, when he arrived back physically unharmed, but seriously mentally damaged.

Once Vernon arrived home, he didn't appear often in the records. But contrary to what his medical assessments might have suggested, what does appear in the newspapers seems to show that he lived a life far more productive and, in a sense, normal, than his injuries otherwise have allowed. Time, it seems, was a healer.

How much his shell shock continued to affect him is something we can't know from what appears in the public eye- the struggle he may have had behind closed doors will remain private.

But I do think it's really interesting that one of the places he's listed is in records for shooting competitions. So many of those affected by shell shock were unable to handle the sounds and sights that had been associated with war, and yet it seems that Vernon became quite a champion shooter for the Albany district, where he moved in the mid-1920s to become a shopkeeper.

Vernon lived until 1964, and died at the age of 76. His wife Louisa had been buried in the same area at Albany Cemetery upon her death in 1962.

Edited to add (9/1/16): Vernon's grand-daughter Beryl recently contacted me to chat about her grandfather, his war history and his life both before and after the war. She holds a great amount of additional detail about his life that is quite fascinating, from sources including letters and a diary. She tells me that Dylan's restaurant in Albany, one of my favourite eateries anywhere, was owned by Vernon for many years, and that they have a memorial to him there. I much appreciate Beryl taking the time to get in touch to confirm many of the details above, and correct some minor errors.

No comments:

Post a Comment