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Think Piece: Remembering My Grandfather – an early advocate for Veterans

Thursday 12 January, 2017

Colleen Buchan croppedMy grandfather was Senator John Owen Critchley (1892- I964). He was elected to South Australia’s House of Assembly as the State Member for Burra Burra in 1930 but lost his seat in the 1933 election. He was later elected to the Australian Senate as a Labor Senator for South Australia on three separate occasions; firstly in 1946, then in 1951, and again in 1953. He was also a veteran of World War I.

During his parliamentary career he was appointed Australian delegate to the Empire Parliamentary Conference held in Ottawa in 1949; he was a Member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on War Gratuity in 1951; and became Opposition Whip in the Senate from 1950 to 1957 but was forced to retire from Parliament in 1959 due to ill-health.

Grandpa Jack, as he was known to the family, enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 14 January, 1916. He served with South Australia’s 10th Battalion, embarking from Australia on 25 March 1916, and deployed to the Western Front for the remainder of that year.

In November 1916, while in the line at Ypres near Fleurs in Belgium, a shell exploded in front of him. Fragments of the shell struck him on the head rendering him virtually paralysed. Fortunately he was found by stretcher bearers, but not before suffering severe pain in his head and arms that took him in and out of consciousness for more than 30 hours.

Evacuated by stretcher to a first aid post behind the lines he was soon sent by train to the General Hospital at Rouen. There he remained for two weeks before being transferred to Bristol General Hospital where he remained for another month. A further five months were spent at a convalescence camp in England, before he was returned to Australia on 11 December 1917 having been diagnosed with torticollis and pneumonia. He was discharged unfit for general service on 25 January 1918 but fit for home service.

When Jack arrived back in Australia in 1917 and returned to his parents, Joseph and Julia Critchley at Gumbowie near Peterborough, South Australia, he commenced his home service receiving and distributing messages in morse code.

One of the messages he received to decode in June that year was the death of his younger brother Harry. Immediately returning home by horse and buggy, accompanied by the local Catholic priest, he broke the dreadful news to his mother who upon learning she had now lost two sons to the war, was devastated.

Grandpa’s two younger brothers – Michael and Harry Critchley had both enlisted in March 1916 – not long after their elder brother Jack. Michael, or Mick as he was better known, joined the 48th Battalion. He was killed in action at Messines on 12 June 1917. Harry joined the 32nd Battalion and was promoted to Corporal on 1 December, 1917.  He was killed in action at Morlancourt on 24 June 1918, where he is buried close to where he fell.

My Grandfather suffered as much psychologically as he did physically as a result of his war service, compounded by the death of his brothers. I believe it is this psychological suffering that gave him a deep and compassionate understanding of those servicemen who experienced severe psychological and somatic reactions in World War I, which at that time was termed “shell shock”.

Later when Grandpa Jack was elected a Labor Senator for South Australia, he became an early advocate for soldiers who had returned from WWI and WW2 suffering from ‘’war neuroses’’ as it was referred to in the 1940s.  Today we call it post-traumatic stress syndrome; an acute stress disorder (Bryant, R.A. Acute Stress Disorder, Guilford Press, New York, 2016, pp.7-18) and although acquired through a different type of warfare, is no less severe for those who suffer with it today.

As recorded on Wednesday 14 March 1951 in the Hansard Parliamentary Debates of the 19th Parliament, 1st Session, p.395, under the heading “War Neurosis’’ my Grandfather, Senator (Jack) Critchley asked the following question:

“Will the Minister for Repatriation please inform the Senate as to what progress has been made with the building of suitable institutions for ex-servicemen and women suffering from war neurosis? Will he assure honorable senators that, at no great distant date, all such cases that can be safely removed from civilian mental hospitals will be so removed? Is a report yet available from the medical officer who is in charge of the matter?’’

Senator Cooper, Minister for Repatriation at the time, responded saying:

‘’A considerable amount of work remains to be carried out for the Repatriation Department. Although provisional plans have been prepared, unfortunately, because of the heavy call on materials for defence purposes, it has not been possible to proceed with these works as quickly as was expected. Dr Stoller, the senior officer in charge of the psychiatric treatment in the Repatriation Department, returned recently from a trip abroad. He has informed me that he exchanged ideas with leading physicians and psychiatrists abroad, and that the discussions that he has with them were of great value to him, and ultimately will be of considerable value to neurosis sufferers in this country.’’

Separate psychiatric services were set up at Repatriation Hospitals throughout Australia. South Australia’s Ward 17* was established early as one of these; a dedicated centre providing specialist psychiatric services to South Australia’s returned servicemen and women for over 70 years, and arguably one of Australia’s finest examples.

Last year, when the state government announced its decision to close the Repatriation General Hospital “as a casualty of federal cuts to South Australia’s health budget,” South Australian veterans, their families and carers, as well as Repat staff and associated medical personnel, were justifiably disappointed and concerned.  How would these servicemen and women from past and current conflicts be adequately cared for if not at the Repat?

The new $15 million dedicated centre to be built at Glenside** promises to be a state-of-the art mental health care centre that will fulfil this need. Like the Repat built in 1942, the Jamie Larcombe Centre, will be a purpose-built facility offering 24 beds (the same number offered at Ward 17) as well as a full suite of outpatient services and links to world class best practice mental health care.

In sharing my grandfather’s story, I am proud of the commitment he made throughout his public life to ensuring the rights of our veterans were upheld. I applaud his early efforts to highlight the contribution made by our servicemen and women in the cause of the defence of this great country of ours, and their right to have specialist psychiatric facilities and services provided at the highest possible standard, not only for their benefit but also for that of their families.

As a young child, I remember sitting with my Grandpa Jack, listening to a recording of the Irish tenor John Mc Cormack as he sang: ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning ‘’…till the boys come home. This is one of the songs I have chosen for the young members of the Pompoota Children’s Choir, who will sing at the Centenary of the opening of Pompoota Hall on Sunday 22nd January. Built as part of the Pompoota Training Farm initiative established by the state government, the centenary celebrations feature an exhibition titled “After the Trenches’’ which examines the impact repatriation had on the lives of our returning servicemen and on their families and communities. The exhibition will be opened by Premier Jay Weatherill with anyone who is interested to attend, most welcome to do so.

Lest we forget.

Full details of the Pompoota Hall Centenary celebrations and launch of “After The Trenches” exhibition.
Listen to Graeme and Colleen’s interview on Service Voices. 

Colleen holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from Flinders University (2005), a Licentiate Teaching Diploma in Speech and Drama from Trinity College, London (1995) and is an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker via the Australian Association of Social Workers. Since first graduating as a social worker in 1970, Colleen has worked in a wide range of psychiatric, welfare and administrative service roles in South Australia. She is currently employed as a Mental Health Clinician with the Murray Mallee GP Network in Murray Bridge. Colleen and her husband Graeme live in Pompoota where they ran a dairy farm until 2005. In addition to her clinical work Colleen has been collaborating with other members of the Pompoota community to highlight the importance of the Pompoota Training Farm where World War I servicemen were repatriated. This includes celebrating the centenary of the opening of Pompoota Hall taking place on Sunday 22 January, 2017 in Pompoota.
*As reported in February last year, by South Australian Heritage expert Sandy Wilkinson, South Australia’s Repatriation General Hospital “was purpose built in 1942 to provide rehabilitation to returning servicemen and women in World War II and offered 700 beds at its peak. 27/veteran-speaks-out-against-closure-of-safe-ward-17/6266142 Feb 26, 2015 … Accessed 11/01/2017)
** story/5986ba4c856ecd5ca92bbc631c08edc1

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