At the time of the First World War there was little understanding of what today is termed post-trauma stress disorder (PTSD). Returned soldiers often suffered lingering psychological damage which, although largely unrecognised, was at least as debilitating as physical injuries. Doctors were generally reluctant to diagnose a patient with shell shock, attributing their condition to a nervous disposition that might be cured by a period of respite, before sending the soldier back to the front.
Returning to Australia soldiers were expected to “just get on with it”, to adjust almost immediately to civilian life and put aside all that had happened to them. No-one appreciated how long the effect of these issues might last, or indeed whether they might re-occur after being triggered by a seemingly unrelated incident.
The cost in personal terms was incalculable. The trauma of war affected not only the soldiers, but impacted also on the families to which they returned. The number of returned soldiers who took their own lives within a few years of the war’s end has never been quantified, while the suffering endured by their wives and families is beyond measure.
One such example is the story of Norman Byrnes, (Service No. R309) who was one of the first to enlist in the AIF in September 1914. Byrnes (aka Burnes) was born in Penrith in 1890. He worked in country NSW as a shearer. He was an excellent horseman and after training at Holsworthy Camp was assigned to the 7th Light Horse Regiment. Byrnes served at Gallipoli and subsequently in the 2/4 Camel Regiment in Palestine and Syria.
Throughout 1916 Byrnes was stricken with dysentery and recurrent bouts of typhoid and enteric fever. He was also treated for venereal disease. His health continued to deteriorate and eventually he was assigned to the Nursing Staff of the University War Hospital in Southampton. He was medically discharged and repatriated to Australia in December of that year.
The war left Byrnes physically weakened and emotionally fragile. Unable to return to his previous work as a shearer, he dreamed of getting married and starting a new life in the bush. He applied for land under the Soldier Settlement Scheme which offered returned servicemen blocks of land in sparsely settled areas. Most soldier settlers struggled to make a go of farming and burdened by impossible debts and collapsing world markets, abandoned their holdings. They became part of a growing army of unemployed, the once proud heroes of Gallipoli and the Western Front now stripped of their dignity, desperately searching for work.
Byrnes had taken up land near Barmedman, in NSW Central West, where he hoped to settle. He married Elsie May Spinks of Mortlake in February 1920 and in May 1920 he returned to Sydney where he attempted to persuade his wife to join him camping on the 6 ha. block of yet-to-be-cleared land. Elsie was reluctant and a row ensued in which Byrnes fired a revolver, critically wounding his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Spinks, in the chest. He then pursued his wife along Frederick Street, Mortlake firing a further four shots at her. She escaped by jumping aboard a passing tram. Byrnes reached the tram shed at the corner of Cabarita Road and Frederick Street where he shot himself.
The coroner returned a verdict that death had been a result of a fatal bullet wound to the head inflicted while Byrnes was “temporarily insane”. Mrs Spinks was conveyed to Western Suburbs Cottage Hospital, where she recovered.