The gold-leafed letters on framed honour rolls spell out the names of those who served their country in the Great War. Crosses identify those who made the supreme sacrifice. Some names are repeated – were they brothers? Cousins perhaps? Their names only hint at the family’s anguish as they went off to war. It is a scene repeated in school halls, churches, and hundreds of RSL clubs across Australia. Familiar to us all, yet oddly detached. Who are these people? How did war change them and what impact did war have on the nation?

Sixty-two thousand Australians died or were taken prisoner in that conflict. More than 156,000 were listed as casualties, receiving life-altering injuries and disablement. What is not recorded, and can never be known, is the number whose lives were disfigured by psychological trauma along with the suffering of those families and loved ones to whom they returned.

What began as an attempt to better understand the lives of the men and women commemorated on various memorials around Canada Bay became a much more differentiated enquiry. The experience of these servicemen and women varied according to where they served and in what capacity. Their stories are all different and yet there is a commonality, which is the impact of the war on society as a whole. Although the Australia to which they returned was forever changed, it was expected they would “just get on with it” and resume their pre-war lives.

Some did so, putting all that they had endured behind them – determined to create a better future in spite of the past. Others withdrew, suffering in silence, haunted by the memories of fallen comrades and lost youth. The following life stories reflect different outcomes for those who returned and for the families of those who did not.

James Thomas Brunton Gibb (1897-1968)

James Thomas Gibb was born in Balmain in January 1897. He was a bright lad, educated at Drummoyne Superior School and Sydney Boys High. Superior schools were those that prepared students in years 5 and 6 for secondary education and possible matriculation. There were only a handful of high schools in Sydney and entry was selective. He left school at 14 and became a clerk in a shipping company, a position he found exceedingly dull.

At 18 he seized the opportunity for adventure and enlisted in the AIF. He was assigned to the 5th Field Ambulance and served as a stretcher-bearer on the Western Front.

 In October 1917, Private Gibb joined an Australian Army concert party, known as “Anzac Coves”. They were not professional entertainers but came out of the trenches using makeshift staging and costumes fashioned from whatever was available. At the end of the war the “Anzac Coves” had a Royal Command Performance at Buckingham Palace and toured England with the show. Gibb found his niche as a performer, writer and producer of these shows.

Returning to Australia in June 1919, Gibb continued his love of entertaining; performing in amateur theatre and organising charity concerts for Legacy and the Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League. He compered a number of concerts and benefits, organised debating teams and adjudicated public speaking competitions. As a tribute to his mother, who encouraged him to pursue his love of words, he included his mother’s surname, Brunton, as part of his professional name.   

Gibb trained as a teacher of speech at the school of elocutionist Lawrence Campbell. It was through this connection he met his future wife, Ethel Isabel Lang, whom he married in 1923. Gibb became one of Australia’s most sought after teachers of speech. He coached Australia’s Davis Cup captain, Ken Rosewall, taught Qantas air hostesses microphone techniques, and gave tips to the Australian cricket team on how to respond in radio interviews. For many years he advised organisations such as manufacturers James N. Kirby Ltd and General Electric on the art of public speaking. He was much in demand as an after-dinner speaker and renowned raconteur, with a story to suit every occasion.

During World War II Gibb filled the position of Amenities Officer of 113th Australian General Hospital (Concord) and presented entertainment to wounded patients, including complete Tivoli (musical) shows. He was able to recruit artists such as Gracie Fields and Peter Dawson to entertain the troops.

Gibb used his experience of the war to help those who suffered its effects. The war gave him an opportunity to forge a vocation that brought out his own talents and encouraged the same in others. After living almost his whole life in Canada Bay, James Brunton Gibb passed away in 1968 at his residence in Five Dock.

A recording of James Gibb reciting the ode, “Lest We Forget”, is played on ceremonial occasions in every RSL Club.

Dr. Ronald George Ponton (1885-1926)

In August 1915, Ronald Ponton, a medical student at Sydney University, paused his studies to enlist as a private in the AIF. He was assigned to the 13th Battalion and later transferred to 9th Field Ambulance Brigade. He served as a stretcher-bearer near the French town of Villers Bretonneaux – the scene of some of the fiercest fighting on the Western Front.

In April 1918 he was wounded by a shell fragment in his left thigh and invalided to a Canadian military hospital in England. He returned to Australia in February 1919 and was discharged after doctors declared he was fully recovered from his injuries and suffered no ill effects from his war service.

Ponton returned to his studies and graduated in April 1923. His practice in Rawson Street, Drummoyne, was close to his parents’ house in Queen Victoria Street where he lived prior to his enlistment.

In June 1926 Ponton decided to visit the Northern Rivers District in NSW where his family had lived before moving to Sydney. Accompanied by his brother, who lived at Kempsey, he visited some old school friends before boarding a train at Macksville to return to Sydney.

Approaching a station near Nambucca, Dr Ponton apparently fell out of the train. Fortunately, the train was not moving quickly and the wheels of the train only grazed his right hand. Several fingers were partially crushed and he suffered a knock on the head.

After making his way to the station about 100 metres away, Ponton was taken in a semi-conscious state to the local infirmary.  After treatment, he was discharged.

The following day, after visiting the hospital for a final check-up, Ponton, accompanied by his brother and some friends, returned to Kempsey, and then continued on to Sydney.

 His brother decided to take him to stay with relatives at Randwick, however shortly after arriving Ponton deliberately cut the femoral artery in his right leg and bled to death within minutes.

A coronial inquest determined the cause of death as “a temporary mental aberration” and referred to a nervous breakdown Ponton experienced two months earlier in Gympie, Queensland. Ponton had been the consulting physician in several inquests at Lithgow which sparked interest from the press because of their horrific nature. The deaths involved the possible suicide of returned servicemen in somewhat bizarre circumstances. Ponton took leave following these inquests and travelled to Gympie to recover. 

Ponton’s injuries, when returning to Sydney, would appear to have been a suicide attempt, although there was reluctance, in the Northern Rivers area where Ponton was well known, to describe it as such. Ponton’s death was linked by the coroner to his wartime experiences.  There was a tacit recognition of this within the community. However, the stigma of suicide and a widespread lack of understanding about the long-term effects of stress combined to bring down a veil of euphemism and denial. Such matters were left unspoken and yet Dr Ponton’s death deserves as much recognition as those who fell on the battlefield.

 

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