ASHA Book Review: The Secrets of the ANZACS

The Secrets of the ANZACS

The Secrets of the ANZACS: The Untold Story of Venereal Disease in the Australian Army, 1914-1919 by Raden Dunbar

Published October 2014 and distributed by Penguin Books New Zealand. RRP $37.00

Review by Dame Margaret Sparrow, a doctor, reproductive rights advocate and author.

During World War 1 about 60,000 soldiers or 13-15% of troops in the Australian Army were treated for venereal disease (VD), mainly gonorrhoea, less commonly syphilis and fewer still for chancroid. In this pre-antibiotic era treatments were often prolonged and unsatisfactory and soldiers also had to cope with the stigma surrounding VD. The book is in three parts.

 Part 1 outlines the problem starting in Cairo and moving on to the UK and Europe. Preventive and treatment strategies ranged from severe and moralistic punishments, including demotion, isolation and docking pay to those offering a more enlightened and practical approach. In the latter category was Major James Barrett whose preventive strategies appealed to Ettie Rout. In the preface the author writes “Although the wonderful story of the New Zealand wartime safe-sex campaigner Ettie Rout is mentioned briefly, far more space is given to her Australian collaborator James Barrett. Rout’s story has already been told in a book by her compatriot Jane Tolerton.” Jane Tolerton has updated her 1992 biography, now available with the title "Ettie Rout: New Zealand’s safer sex pioneer"  (Penguin 2015). 

Part 2 tells the moving personal stories of five of the 275 young men who contracted VD and were returned to Australia in disgrace on the troopship A18 Wiltshire in 1915. They had to deal with the consequences for the rest of their lives. One of them is the author’s great-uncle Ernest Dunbar (1890—1925) who at the age of 24 enlists as John Dunbar and is wounded in Gallipoli. Convalescing in Alexandria he contracts gonorrhoea and is transported back to Langwarrin, a VD isolation barracks outside Melbourne. After discharge he deserts then re-enlists as John Beech. In 1917 he is wounded at Flanders and is repatriated as an invalid. In order to obtain a war pension he would have to confess to his changes in identity but he chooses not to reveal his secrets. Crippled by trench feet and reduced to living in an institution for paupers, he finally makes his confession in 1924 and applies for a disability pension. Relief comes too late and he dies prematurely. His lasting legacy is a series of wartime sketches, a number of which are reproduced in the book.

Part 3 deals with the domestic response to venereal disease. Major Walter Condor receives a special tribute for transforming Langwarrin from a punitive isolation barracks to a respected hospital conducting research and integrating soldiers back into the community. The hospital closed in 1921 and is now the Langwarrin Flora and Fauna reserve. The Wiltshire troop ship which carried the young men back to Langwarrin is now a diving wreck off Great Barrier Island.

Although the layout of the book in three parts results in some repetition, it is an engaging account which lives up to its title of uncovering some of the untold secrets. We are made aware of the negative attitudes which encouraged secrecy despite the fact a number of risk-taking soldiers earned a VC as well as VD. For health professionals an appendix provides interesting details of the treatments available during World War 1 including the instructions issued by Ettie Rout. We can be grateful for advances since 1919.