My visit to the exhibition Road to Recovery: Disabled Soldiers of World War I at Te Papa was almost my only observance of Anzac Day. The exhibition has been there for a while, and certainly wasn’t attracting the crowds that queued for the main exhibition to open when I arrived for a morning meeting. Quietly tucked away in a very small gallery and easily missed, it mirrors the situation of the men it features.
The optimistically-titled exhibition features eight photographs of men injured in World War I. “The limbies”, as they were called, were men who had lost limbs as a result of gas gangrene. All but one of the men are nameless. There were many limbies during the war. They are shown in the exhibition at a rehabilitation facility for New Zealand soldiers in the UK where they are learning trades to help them return to civilian life and earn a living.
I looked into the angry eyes of a young war-hardened man and felt deep sadness. I wondered what happened to them after their rehabilitation, how did they adapt to their status as disabled veterans? These anonymous men are the disquieting faces of war.
They are not the mourned dead soldiers. They are not the returning victors. None of them smiles for the camera. There were more than the “limbies” of this exhibition. Others were gassed, deafened and blinded. Then there were the “shell-shocked” men, those who bore no visible scars but who struggled to settle into regular life again: the swaggies, the drunks, haunted men who couldn’t hold down a job for any length of time. Those with visible scars of war did, and still do, receive better support from the State that sent them off to war.
I remember some of those older men from my childhood. The farmer with the old-fashioned wooden leg, our tough but kind old cowman gardener who wouldn’t talk about the war or attend Anzac Day parades. I also remember his predecessors – two alcoholic veterans who were almost always too drunk or hungover to work. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) hadn’t been discovered then.
Since then, injured men have returned from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, the cause célèbre of my generation. Then there was Afghanistan, and we are about to do it all again. These men, especially those with PTSD, are still the uncomfortable faces of war that many people would prefer not to confront. They remind us that war isn’t over with the last shot fired, the lost bomb dropped, the last burial. It can’t just be left behind on someone else’s soil.
The maimed and damaged soldiers induce unresolved unease. They are given titular status from having served their country in war, but in reality they experience the same deep-seated disableism and prejudice rampant in modern western society and experienced by all disabled people.
Their history, unlike the dead and the victors’, is part of a hidden and largely unacknowledged history in New Zealand. There is food for thought in this small, sad, and anonymous exhibition. It raises more questions than it answers.
Ironically, as a vision impaired person, I was unable to access all the written material and labels accompanying the exhibition.
I didn’t hear The Band played Waltzing Matilda on Anzac Day this year. But I will remember them.
So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed, and they shipped us back home to Australia.
The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane, those proud wounded heroes of Suvla
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay, I looked at the place where me legs used to be.
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me, to grieve, to mourn, and to pity.
But the band played Waltzing Matilda, as they carried us down the gangway.
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared, then they turned all their faces away
Eric Bogle, 'The Band played Waltzing Matilda'