Veteran strives to name 72 unmarked graves of servicemen who died ‘shell-shocked’ in mental asylum


April 25, 2020 10:17:53

In an Australian Imperial Force (AIF) plot at the Ipswich General Cemetery, west of Brisbane, lay 72 servicemen who died forgotten in unmarked graves and without commemoration.

The men, who returned after serving in World War I and World War II, were patients who lived at the Sandy Gallop Asylum, which later became known as the Ipswich Mental Hospital.

Their fate was a wooden box built by the asylum’s boilermaker, painted black, and dropped in a hole at the cemetery that was left unmarked.

Several years ago, Korean War veteran Matt Rennie OAM applied to reserve himself a spot in the AIF plot, only to be told the cemetery was full.

“I couldn’t accept the fact it was full because there were only four headstones there,” Mr Rennie said.

“I ran around trying to find out who, what and where they came from, and I couldn’t get any answers until one of our older [Returned Servicemen’s League] members told me they had all come from Sandy Gallop.”

The asylum, which was established in the late 19th century, operated until the mid 1990s under several different guises, including as the Challinor Centre.

It is now part of the University of Southern Queensland campus.

Mr Rennie said most of the men were buried between the late 1930s and early 1970s and came from all over Australia.

Over the past six years, he pored over cemetery and military records, as well as making many requests to disability services departments, to establish the names of the men.

So far he has managed to do this for 38 of the 72 men.

“It was like a cow paddock when I first saw it — there was nothing to indicate who, what and where — I couldn’t believe it was an AIF section,” he said.

“I didn’t believe the Australian Government allowed that sort of thing to happen.

“The stigma in mental homes in those days was pretty horrendous.”

Mr Rennie said some of the men who were buried in the cemetery had performed heroic acts.

“One of them won a military medal,” he said.

“He carried artillery shells on his back across a battlefield through artillery fire for four days on the battlefields of France in World War I — he has no recognition — it is not fair.”

Mr Rennie said he wants the men recognised so that future generations could read their names and know what they had done.

“You hear about men who were wounded and sent back to the frontline five or six times and when they got home, they were locked in a mental institution because they were shell-shocked,” he said.

“People said ‘he’s a nutcase’ but they didn’t stop to think why he was like that.”

Ipswich RSL subbranch deputy president Michael Blaine said returned servicemen with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), at the time referred to as being “shell-shocked”, were treated poorly.

“The treatment today is you have a doctor and you have one-on-one sessions with a treating psychiatrist and you get medications to calm your nerves and balance out the chemicals in your brain,” Mr Blaine said.

“For these poor chaps there was nothing — they came back with shell-shock or battle fatigue and there was no treatment — just lock them away so no-one could see them — absolutely terrible.”

Mr Rennie said many of the men were picked up drunk and vagrant, with no money to their names.

A community on the fringes

Professor Christine Neville, head of nursing and midwifery at the University of Southern Queensland, said the community around the Sandy Gallop Asylum was self-sufficient, with an on-site farm and workshops.

“The philosophy of care at the time was that people who had mental illness needed to be — instead of contained, as what treatment was prior — it was set up so that people could enjoy more of an open environment,” she said.

“More gainful activity was encouraged during the day — they grew their own food and cooked their own food and there was some training of staff that came in and looked after them.”

She said people with varied mental and intellectual conditions were lumped together.

“They didn’t have the advantage of the diagnosis or the treatments that we have now, so they probably tried to do the best with what the current evidence was at the time,” she said.

“They were too ill to work and they probably had strange symptoms that people couldn’t deal with at the time.

“People with intellectual disabilities were cared for in that setting as well.”

Professor Neville said stigma caused many families to shut their loved ones away in the asylum.

“Quite often, homeless people were put into these institutions as well, because there weren’t the big non-government agencies to look after them like there are today, so often they became dumping grounds for all sorts of people,” she said.

Patching together the past

Mr Rennie said finding the names of the men and part of their backstories had been extremely challenging.

“One of the members from the disability service pulled files and gave me the names of about 15, which was a tremendous starting point,” he said.

“Then I had to marry them up to their services and go through World War I records and World War II records.

“You only had their age and their date of death, and service records don’t show their date of death, but they show their age, so you can marry them up and we were able to put plaques up.”

Mr Rennie said there were more than 32,000 burials recorded in the Ipswich General Cemetery.

“You will find in the column where it says their occupation … [was a] returned soldier and you will find in the remarks they are buried in the AIF section,” he said.

He said he hoped to be able to identify every single person buried in the plot.

“I get a great sense of relief to know that in 50 or 60 years’ time people will see those names and know that he was a veteran and what he did for this country,” Mr Rennie said.

“It is a very personal thing for me — I have shed many a tear over these men and I am not frightened to admit it.”

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First posted

April 25, 2020 09:32:19

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