A VERY LONG WAR

Arthur-W-Singleton-Certificate.jpg

 

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.

Farewell family photo. Arthur in uniform back row, far left.

Farewell family photo. Arthur in uniform back row. His mother (middle of centre row) looks very ill.

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.

Private Singleton in 1916 after being evacuated from Gallipoli.

Private Singleton in 1916 after being evacuated from Gallipoli.

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.

Arthur's little girls Winifred and Emily at the time they were placed in an orphanage.

Arthur’s little girls Winifred and Emily at the time they were placed in an orphanage.

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.

Asylum notes from New Norfolk re Arthur Singleton

Visitors – NIL

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.

Emily Joyce Singleton

Her father would have been so proud.

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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10 Comments
  1. It’s so sad that there was little understanding or support for our soldiers who returned tortured & debilitated by the atrocities of WW1. Investigating my own family history make me realise how strong my grandfather must have been shutting out all he witnessed as well as living life without 3 brother who were killed in France

    • Pauline

      Thanks for your message, Meree. Oh my word, fancy losing three brothers. Yes, your poor grandfather must have fought so many demons.

  2. What an incredibly sad story – brought me to tears. You are certainly right in stating the war never ended for Arthur Singleton – or his immediate family for that matter. Such a shame that his illness wasn’t recognised for what it was.

    When will humankind realise that war never solves problems and instead creates more 🙁

    • Pauline

      Arthur was my great uncle, Christine; it was my father who was named after him. There was just no proper treatment in those days…the poor fellows didn’t stand a chance.

      • Hopefully Arthur is looking down from the Other Side and sees that we now appreciate what he must have gone through, and how awful his life turned out, through no fault of his own.

        • Pauline

          I hope so too, Christine. I have made a commitment to tell his full story.

  3. How sad at what he saw and how he was treated on his return home – the combination of war and his mother’s death must have hit him very hard. Such a shame that they weren’t helped when they returned home, and he was so young!

    • Pauline

      I don’t think they had any idea how to treat severe mental illness such as Arthur’s Lynne. His daughter Winifred’s story is just as tragic.

  4. How very tragic, Pauline. He must have suffered great physical pain with that shoulder, as well as mental anguish. It sounds as though the humiliation of not receiving the Military Medal had much to do with his subsequent collapse – his mental state would have been fragile anyway. And his wife – one can understand her not being able to cope with him, but to abandon their innocent daughters as well? What an appalling thing to do.
    Yes, you’re right – it was a very long war for so many people. And then the generation who’d suffered so much, had to face another bloody conflict 20 years later. Or as my son once remarked, ‘It was really one war divided by twenty years of a dodgy peace…’

    • Pauline

      You are so perceptive Ann. Yes, his shoulder troubled him all his life. As for his wife and daughters…well it’s a long and awful story, which I will tell one day. It became a bit overwhelming for me, which is why I put it aside and concentrated on the 12th battalion’s medical officer, Victor Ratten. And your son is so right, WWI and WWII were virtually the same ghastly conflict. Certainly the second arose from the first.

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