Anzac Day myths and the stunning story of an 'unknown soldier'

The first Anzac Day was held in 1916, a year after the Gallipoli landings.

Solemn commemorations for the casualties of that campaign were held throughout the country in a half-day holiday starting at 1pm.

By 1922, it had become a full holiday with all businesses, hotels and banks closed. Race meetings were prohibited. Dawn parades were introduced but public interest waned until the outbreak of World War II.

Anzac Day then took on a new meaning as a means of commemorating those who sacrificed their lives in all wars.

In 1949, Anzac Day was fixed as April 25 and dawn services rose in popularity. In the mid-1960s, hotels and cinemas were allowed to open at 1pm.

Historian Ian McGibbon said in 1965, the 50th anniversary held at Gallipoli itself was commemorated mainly by the UK, France and Turkey.

Media coverage at the time in New Zealand was limited to veterans’ memories. No mentions were made of the now common view that it was the date at which the sacrifices of New Zealand (and Australian) troops marked the beginnings of a national identity.

By the 75th, 90th and 100th anniversaries, thanks to heavy promotion in Australia, Anzac Day at Gallipoli has become a rite of passage for young Kiwis as well as a gathering for politicians and VIPs, being marked at home with all-day coverage by Maori TV, including specially made programmes.

Publishers have joined in, annually producing Anzac Day-themed books for adults and children.

This year, Auckland University Press has produced two serious volumes – a reprint of Alexander Aitken’s classic memoir, Gallipoli to the Somme: Recollections of a New Zealand Infantryman, first published in1963; and David Hastings’ Odyssey of the Unknown Anzac.

Both feature the long-term psychological impact of war, a subject that Mr Hastings’ research took him to the "stunning" story of one man, George McQuay, who had disappeared for 12 years and was effectively dead to the world until he suddenly reappeared.

He was at Gallipoli and later the Western Front where, in the official account, he was buried by an exploding shell in the trenches and, when pulled out, had completely lost his memory. In mid-1916 he was taken to a hospital in Britain and then to Sydney. He had identified himself as an Australian soldier called George Brown, who was also at Gallipoli.

“By this stage he was seriously mentally ill,” says Mr Hastings, who was not satisfied by the official version. “At the very best this is only part of the truth. He [McQuay] had deep-seated psychological issues that stretched back a long time – perhaps even before the war.”

In 1928, this Sydney Truth story about an “unknown soldier’s living death” was read by a close friend, who finally named “George Brown.” Media coverage was extensive, based on a flyer by the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Auckland seeking the identity of an “unknown patient."

“The stories that were published at the time left lots and lots of unanswered questions,” Mr Hastings says. “It seemed like no one wanted to probe too deeply what had happened to him during the war and why it had taken so long to reunite him with his family.”

Through Mr McQuay’s niece, Vivi Cave, Mr Hastings obtained military and medical records to reconstruct the story,

He says medical staff took Mr McQuay to be incoherent and missed clues he was throwing out that he was a New Zealander.

“They weren’t listening and so they never assigned anyone to study the file to find out who he was. They even got to the point where they were assuming he wasn’t really a soldier at all, which is why they called him the unknown patient rather than the unknown soldier that he was.”

Back in New Zealand, Mr McQuay was admitted to Porirua mental hospital where it was said he would never recover. But his mother insisted he return home to Stratford. He lived out the rest of his life under the 24-hour care of his mother, Emma McQuay, and then his sister.

“If not for the fulltime care, which his mother bore at her own cost, he would have died in a psychiatric hospital,” Mr Hastings says.

His research has led him to conclusions about the way the mental victims of war have been treated and some myth-making about the Anzacs themselves.

“I am not convinced by the theory that ‘mateship’ provided a cohesion that regular army discipline couldn’t emulate,” he says.

This is the idea that the Anzacs were physically superior to their British cousins at Gallipoli, mentally tougher and better equipped to stand the stresses and strains of trench warfare.

 “Lots of Anzac soldiers suffered from ‘shell shock’ in its various manifestations,” he says, referring to what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder.

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