PRIVATE ARTHUR WILLIAM SINGLETON – SERVICE NUMBER 301
Aged 20, Tasmanian born Arthur Singleton enlisted in the 12th Battalion, one of the first raised in Australia. He was a farmer’s son, and had already served in the state’s volunteer military service for several years. Like many young men he was eager for adventure. If he had one regret, it was leaving his sick mother, who was suffering from diabetes.
Arthur participated in the dawn landing at Anzac Cove, disembarking from the same ship as the 3rd Field Ambulance, which included medical orderly John Simpson Kirkpatrick. The 12th Battalion’s commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Lance Fox Clarke died within the first few hours of landing as did many of Arthur’s mates. He later fought at the Battle of Lone Pine. While recovering from injury on Malta he received word that his mother had died, aged fifty. He was eventually evacuated to Egypt with an infected hand, dysentery, and a dislocated shoulder. The photo below shows the haunted face of a grief stricken man who has witnessed all the horrors of war. What a heavy burden for a twenty two year old. He looks very different from the young man who left Australia in October 1914.
In February 1916 Arthur’s family were advised that he was to be repatriated to Australia. Instead, he rejoined his battalion in France. Perhaps he wanted to be with his mates, and volunteered to stay. On leave in London over Christmas 1916, he was hospitalized again for several months undergoing a complete shoulder reconstruction. During this period he apparently saw his name in a list of those recommended for the Military Medal (for action at Lone Pine).
Finally declared unfit for further service he was shipped home in August 1917, where he received a hero’s welcome. His newborn nephew was named Arthur in his honour and there was a community party to welcome him home. Sadly, Arthur had to confront the loss of his mother; who had been the very heart of the Singleton family.
The first real hint of trouble came when Arthur did not receive his Military Medal. Enquiries were made on his behalf, but no record could be found of such an award. ( Recently I managed to sort out the confusion surrounding the medal, at least to some extent. The Mystery of the Lone Pine Medal. ) Not surprisingly, he was utterly humiliated. He had married soon after returning home and the couple had two little girls. However, by 1920 he was just not coping. Tortured by memories of his friends who had died at Gallipoli, his mental health deteriorated. Despite being raised in a strict Methodist family, he began to drink. His wife turned to other men and eventually left home. The children were placed in an orphanage….. much against their sick father’s wishes.
In 1926 Arthur turned up on his widowed sister’s doorstep, homeless and unemployed. His behaviour became so irrational that a few weeks later the police were called. While in the local lock-up Arthur tried to strangle his elderly father, believing him to be an enemy soldier. He was committed to Tasmania’s mental asylum at New Norfolk on many occasions, with a diagnosis of shellshock and delusional insanity. From 1936 until his death in 1966 he did not leave (apart from brief periods of freedom when he absconded!) During those long years he would march phantom squadrons of men around the airing yard, and speak of hearing the voices of his dead mates at Gallipoli. It was dementia that would finally release him from torment. At one point he told staff that he had two little girls who visited him sometimes. In reality, Winifred had died years earlier and Emily had grown up believing her father was dead.
Asylum records show that no members of the family visited him. In 1950 he wrote the following letter to his sister Amy. By now he was barely able to communicate. I have no idea whether the letter was actually sent. The address of North West Coast was certainly a bit vague.
‘Dear Amy, I am writing a few lines to you hoping to find you all well. I would like to see some of my own dear ones alive. You may not see me alive, I am failing pretty fast. I am letting you know I have not heard from anyone down here for some time. So I will bid you bye bye from your loving brother, Arthur Singleton.’
The nephew (my father ) named for a war hero would never be referred to as Arthur. The shame of mental illness was so great for the Singleton family that the boy was registered in a new school (ironically on Remembrance Day 1927) by the name Robin.
In 2007 medical notes and associated documents (including letters written by Arthur and his siblings) were released to me by the Tasmanian Mental Health Service. They cover some forty years. Here is an extract dating from 1961, five years before Arthur died. Note that he was still falling ‘his’ soldiers in and marching them around, forty years after WWI.
A psychiatrist who reviewed the documents prior to their release commented that they were the most extraordinary she had ever read.
I was also able to obtain the files of Arthur’s two children, compiled during their many years at the orphanage. Their story too, is very moving. Winnie died in sad circumstances, aged 19, Somehow, Emily managed to build a decent life for herself. She travelled widely, and had a successful career as a nurse.
It could be said that Private Singleton fought in WWI for over fifty years. May he rest in peace.
FOOTNOTE – The nurses who cared for Arthur and his friends when they were sick and injured deserve so much respect and admiration. For a story about the two nursing sisters who travelled to Egypt with the 12th Battalion in 1914, click HERE.
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