The Anatomy of Silence
A short story by Anthony John Ollevou
Cold stone embodies the final resting place for thousands of men who perished
in the Great War of 1914-18, it was called the 'the War to End All Wars' due
to the magnitude of its horror. In Australia one in three families were directly
touched by the tragic enormity of empires end. When the eleventh hour of the
eleventh day of the eleventh month arrives the nation pauses for a minutes silence
as a mark of respect, for those lost in the War.
A spectre haunted my Grandmother, symbolised in that minute of lamentation,
and tormented her long after the Great War receded into the back catalogue of
the nations history. Like a fog settled on a bleak day this phantom permeated
the lives of my mother and her sisters and tormented their lives with its presence.
As November eleventh approached my Mother furiously fielded the phone, calling
for emotional reinforcement, her weekly calls to her sisters increased to hourly
dispatches from the front line reporting the enemies advance, till with parade
ground efficiency the dreaded day dawned. Like a funeral courtage they'd accompany
my Grandmother to Martin Place for the wreath laying ceremony and the minutes
This ritual continued unabated down the years til death eventually released
my Grandmother from that enigmatic spectre of the Great War.
At my Grandmothers wake I was introduced to a Mr James Maurice, a barrister
who represented the family in legal affairs, he stated that he 'wished to see
me at my earliest convenience'.
Mr Maurice's office had none of the old world charms that I expected from this
octogenarian it was brash, better living by design. He saw me assessing the
These are my grandsons chambers I use them now and then for special matters.
I retired from practice years ago. Your Grandfather consigned to my care some
of his personal papers which I was to pass to you upon the death of your Grandmother.
He believed that they would be of professional interest to you and offer something
of an explanation. There is a proviso to the affect that you will inform your
mother and her sisters of the contents contained herein. Your Grandfather could
never fully explain this matter to his daughters.
That night I sat down with the box and plunged into the mystery within. There
was a manila envelope with my Grandfather's strong flowing script addressed
to me with the instructions to be opened last. The box contained a number of
envelopes containing photographs and newspaper clippings. There were two thick
medical case files. One of the files dated from nineteen seventeen and was from
the Beechworth Asylum the patients name was Florence O'Harah. The other file
came from Bellbirds a private North Shore Psychiatric Hospital where Grandfather
was head of clinical staff. The contents dated from the 1940's and contained
periodic entries up to the 1970's.
One of the envelope's contained a series of black and white studio portraits.
The first had Florence with three young men, the two in uniform stood stern
in their masculinity. The look of great adventure shone from their faces, most
of them thought the war would be over by Christmas. Cursive script flowed across
the back of the image. Florence, William, Robert and Tommy O'Harah. Grandma
had brothers, this was a revelation. In the second Florence sits with another
soldier holding hands smiling straight at the camera. On the back was written
'To my beloved Florence your true heart of hearts Phillip Flannan'. The third
had all five photographed together. Young Tommy's pride in his brothers still
radiated from the image after seventy years. They were stamped Robertson's on
the Hill Photographic Studio, Fitizmaurice St, Wagga Wagga and were dated 1915.
The second envelope contained a series of articles from various newspapers
along with a letter and two typewritten carbons.
A black edged clipping, obviously a casualty list, published in August listed
William and Robert O'Harah killed in action at France on 20th July 1916.
An undated clipping from the Melbourne Age cited that following the Easter
Uprising in Ireland the actions of Cardinal Dr Mannix, in advocating the Catholics
of Australia to vote No in the conscription referendum, could only serve to
unleash sectarian violence and destabilise the war effort.
A Daily Sentinel dated September 12th 1916 proclaimed Mannix's Marxists Arrested.
The reporter cited that a group of anti conscription Bolshevik agitators had
been arrested following a riot outside the Wagga Wagga Council Chambers yesterday.
The women were advocating the case for the No Vote in the October conscription
referendum. Council workers advised them to disperse and stop their unpatriotic
antics. The women declined, a Miss O'Harah attacked a council worker who attempted
to confiscate their placards. The journalist expressed his personal view that
Miss O'Harah, whose family had paid a high price for the freedom of the Empire,
was a Fenian traitor. The Judge fined the women two pounds each for affray and
further gave Miss O'Harah a six month good behaviour bond for the assault on
the council worker.
There was a letter from a Sargent Williamson 5th Division AIF sometime late
in 1916 forwarded to her by the Red Cross.
Dear Miss O'Harah
I spent a lot of time with your brothers after they landed at Gallipoli, they
were good blokes. You could rely on them to get the job done. I don't think
anything they told us prepared us for what we have seen in France. I was with
your brothers on the night of the 19th of July when we attacked the German trenches
at Fromelles. We were ordered over the top at six pm and had to advance over
four hundred yards to the objective. We got there with many of our mates strewn
behind us wounded and dying. We took a German trench and dug in, they tried
most of the night to repel us. They came at us for hours. Your brothers fought
bravely. Your family should take great pride in them. At dawn a German bombing
party inflicted great damage upon us. The officer in charge realised our position
was hopeless and ordered the men to retreat. We jumped the parapet and ran like
the Devil himself was after us. Bob went down some yards from our lines and
Billy ran to his aid. A German machine gunner opened up on them I heard screams
for a while then nothing. They never had a chance being stuck in no mans land.
A couple of days later we were able to bring their bodies in and bury them.
They were brave lads, always good for a laugh they will be sorely missed by
Fromelles, it was the first major battel the AIF fought in France, in one night
the AIF lost over five thousand men. It was another one of those tactical blood
baths that the English High Command regularly conducted throughout the war.
The typewriter carbons were reports from a Sgt Sullivan of Wagga Wagga Police,
the arresting officer at the anti conscription demonstration. The first described
the activities of Florence O'Harah. In 1917 Florence decided she wanted the
remains of her brothers returned to Australia for burial. After numerous letters
to the local Federal and State members and the Department of the Army Sgt Sullivan
was dispatched to advise her that her actions were detrimental to the war effort
and should cease forthwith.
The second carbon was two pages long it was an arresting officers report.
On the morning of 20th July 1917 I was called out to the Wagga Wagga Cemetery.
Persons unknown had dug two graves next to the O'Harah family plot. They were
discovered by a Mr Morrison a Cemetery attendant. I then proceeded with Constable
Hall to the O'Harah residence. When we arrived I noticed the curtains were drawn
in the traditional gesture of a house in morning. I was greeted by Florence
O'Harah who was dressed in mourning black. I thought this strange as her brothers
had died over a year ago and I had seen her in public since. I informed Miss
O'Harah of what was found this morning at the Cemetery. Miss O'Harah began to
behave in a agitated manner and told me to be on my way as this matter was of
no concern to the Police. I asked to come in and speak with her further. Tommy
O'Harah came to the door and began to be abusive to my self and Constable Hall.
Tommy O'Hara made profane and disparaging comments on our enlistment eligibility.
Tommy O'Hara then pushed me away from the front door. I informed him he was
under arrest for assaulting a Police officer. Miss O'Harah became more agitated
and abusive to me disparaging my past employment with the RIC. Constable Hall
and I forced entrance to the premises.
Upon entering the premises Constable Hall and I saw two coffins laid out with
candles burning at the head and foot of the coffin in the parlour. The coffins
were laden with floral wreaths. Upon closer inspection the coffins I observed
they contained Army Uniforms and photos of the deceased O'Harah brothers. Miss
O'Harah became hysterical and began to scream at myself and Constable Hall ordering
us to leave. I sought to restrain her. Tommy O'Harah attacked Constable Hall
with a shovel and knocked him unconscious. I drew my service revolver in self
defence. I told Tommy O'Harah to drop the shovel. Tommy O'Harah swung at me
with the shovel landing a blow which sent me to the floor. I fired my service
revolver fatally wounding Tommy O'Harah in the chest. I subdued and handcuffed
Miss O'Harah. I then sought assistance from neighbours. Miss O'Harah was admitted
to the Base Hospital and confined under section 21 of the Mental Health Act.
The Resident Doctor then assessed her and advised that she was suffering from
a condition known as 'Dementia praecox' A special sitting of the local Magistrates
Court will be held at the Base Hospital to rule upon what will be done with
I placed the report down and felt a slow burning anger which was quickly turning
to rage at the stupidity of the authorities. I thought of how my Grandmother
was confined like a criminal. Anger griped my heart, no lets face it this was
more of a primal rage. I walked down to Campbell Parade and then along the coast
path to Bronte and back to North Bondi letting the sea assuage my anger. After
rounding the heads at Tamarama for the second time I felt calm enough to return
The Beechworth file contained Florence's admission details; she was presented
in a mute catatonic state and remained that way for the next two years. They
hit her with a cocktail of drugs which only pushed her deeper into a state of
On November 11th 1918 the Armistice was declared and the War was over. Beechworth
held celebrations long into the night as the populace rejoiced in the end of
hostilities. The next afternoon a telegram arrived at the Asylum with the news
that Patrick Flannan had died of wounds in an English hospital. The notes state
that it was decided to withhold the news from her till she showed signs of improvement.
Three months later they told her and she plunged deeper into gloom. Florence
stayed in this limbo of the lost unresponsive to any treatment until January
A new Psychiatric Registrar arrives a Doctor Leopold Groddeck, Florence's future
husband. In 1969 Leopold was offered a Knighthood, for recognition of the work
he had done with returned Veterans. Leopold turned the Knighthood down due to
his wife's Fenian ancestry.
Dr Groddeck took her off the drugs and left her alone for three months. He
then stated intensive psychoanalytic sessions which occurred twice a week for
a year. Florence responded to this new treatment and by the end of 1922 she
was released back into the community.
I put the file down and picked up the Bellbird file. It appeared that she had
relapses into an acute depressive state requiring hospitalisation during the
forties, fifties and sixties. I have memories of my Grandmother disappearing
during my childhood and the anxiety it produced in my mother. No particular
regime of drugs or electroshock was prescribed. Grandfather was a firm believer
in the talking cure and its healing affects.
I opened the envelop with Leopold's letter addressed to me.
In August 1922 I read in the Daily Sentinel that a Cenotaph had been erected
to the Great War Dead of Wagga Wagga and it was to be unveiled in September
of that year. I arranged to take Florence to the unveiling. It was an overcast
day and the gloom of day matched the sombre mood of the crowd. As the officials
concluded their speeches I observed many persons sobbing silently. It was then
that a great wave of human emotion burst forth in a single cry of loss and grief.
The crowd pressed forward past the wreaths and the official podium to the Cenotaph.
Men and women wept openly as they sought out the names of their beloved inscribed
on the Cenotaph. Women kissed their hands and ran them over their names. Some
embraced the monument weeping. I realised how deep the wounds of the Great War
still were in these rural communities. I had witnessed an event of communal
catharsis, a poignant step on the road to healing. The Great War had not only
sacrificed their men to a rapacious Mars it had robed these people of the rituals
of death. You must understand that Death was not the depersonalised event it
is in today's society. Death was celebrated in the home, where the final passage
to grave began. For the Great War dead their were no wake's to tell tales or
celebrate the life of family members and say farewell. The absence of the body
precluded any of the traditional funerary rites of passage to occur. Death had
become depersonalised and the living were left bereft unable to fully articulate
their grief. In these communities War monuments became the surrogate body and
took on a sacredness as a symbolic expression of loss and provided a locus for
the individual to grieve. Florence, I realised had decided to deal with her
grief in a manner which was to compensate for the absence of the body. The Greeks
told their warriors 'come home with your shield or on it' Florence and Tommy
needed to perform the rituals that they were born into in order to grieve and
assist them during their period of mourning. Unfortunately Florence's plan went
awry with tragic consequences. The authorities saw only the actions of a mad
woman and confined her for offending the moral order of society.
I put the letter down. I was tired after this night of emotional and historical
conflict. With the dawn unfolding on the horizon I experienced an intense feeling
of compassion for my Grandmother. I looked out the window and watched the sun
illuminate Bondi Beach.
© 2002 Anthony Ollevou