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Matter of Interest | Battle of Pozieres

The Hon. A.L. McLACHLAN ( 15:26 ): This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Pozieres. The Battle of Pozieres took place in the Somme Valley between 23 July and 7 August 1916, involving the 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions capturing the village of Pozieres and Pozieres heights from German forces. In under seven weeks, three Australian divisions suffered 23,000 casualties. Of these, 6,800 men were killed or died of wounds. Of those men who died at Pozieres, 4,112 have no known grave.

As described by the World War I correspondent Charles Bean, Pozieres was ‘more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other spot on earth’. I speak on this today in order to raise awareness of this battle, the psychological trauma that these brave men experienced, and the continual need for the Australian community to better understand mental illness as it affects our veterans today. The psychological trauma suffered by those who were part of the Battle of Pozieres and World War I was something Australians did not fully comprehend, understand or acknowledge.

This trauma can be seen through a letter Second Lieutenant John Alexander Raws wrote from Pozieres. Raws described:

One feels on a battlefield such as this that one can never survive, or that if the body lives the brain must go on for ever. For the horrors one sees and the never-ending shock of the shells is more than can be borne…Several of my friends are raving mad…It is all nerve. Once that goes one becomes a gibbering maniac.

Psychologists at the time described the behaviour exhibited by these men as ‘shell shock’, believing this was a physical condition at its core, rather than psychologically based. It was believed that some men were born weaker than others and it was for this reason that some men experienced shell shock. Unfortunately, once they returned, many believed these men pretended to be ill in order to claim the pension.

This view of mental illness did not vastly improve during the conflicts that followed. It was not until 1980, when post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD—was officially recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that the behaviours that many veterans had exhibited over the past 70 years were recognised and understood. It is now known that being part of a war zone is among a variety of traumatic situations that can trigger PTSD.

While the official recognition of PTSD was a good first step, more work is required. A 2016 Senate report titled ‘Mental health of Australian Defence Force members and veterans’ found that since 2000, ‘108 ADF members are suspected or have been confirmed to have died as a result of suicide’. It was also reported that the ADF rate of suicide was double that of the general Australian population. The most common mental anxiety disorder within the ADF was PTSD.

While not all mental illness in the ADF may be the result of a brutal experience of war, these deaths serve as a poignant reminder of the importance of understanding and treating mental health issues in the community. Sadly, as was the case after World War I, the stigma associated with being diagnosed with a mental illness relating to their experiences in a war zone still continues today.

A recent report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has revealed that several members of the ADF fear reporting their PTSD symptoms, as they believe it will affect their chances of career advancement. Consequently, many service personnel are seeking treatment outside of the ADF because of this fear. While many programs have been implemented to treat ADF personnel with mental health illnesses, we as a community need to do more to assure service personnel that we will support them and assist them with their healing.

I also wish to draw the chamber’s attention to the Pozieres Remembrance Association, which has been tireless in its dedication over the past 10 years in raising the Battle of Pozieres to national prominence. Mr Barry Gracey and the association have been steadfast in their commitment to ensuring anniversaries are marked every year and campaigning for a memorial path that is being built in honour of those soldiers who fell at the battle. As we approach the centenary of the battle, we should remember the 23,000 Australian casualties, but also the men who returned and struggled with PTSD. We should also continue to progress in destigmatising PTSD for those who are serving, or who have served, who are suffering from this illness.

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