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Who is this ANZAC?
David Hastings’ Odyssey of the Unknown ANZAC is a great deal more than a fascinating story of a lost soldier of the First World War who was ‘rediscovered’ and reunited with his family 10 years after the end of the war. It is also a commentary on how the British Empire saw war then as an extension of Greek mythology, of how the colonies of New Zealand and Australia saw themselves at the beginning and during the war, and particularly how psychiatric medicine was still in its infancy.
Actually, George Brown’s case was a stuff-up right from the beginning. He should never have gone to war to fight in Gallipoli and the Western Front, because of his psychiatric condition. It was recommended by army medical staff on the ship going to war that he should be discharged. Someone lost the paperwork.
After bitter experiences in both theatres of the war, he was found wandering the streets of London, wearing civilian clothes and an Australian army hat.
From the London streets, David Hastings unfolds the often dark story of George Brown as he is sent to Australia and more or less ‘lost’ in a medical institution for returned soldiers. No-one really knew who he was or where he came from – was he an Australian from the outback or a kiwi from Eketahuna or Stratford? It was not until a photo was eventually published in the Sydney Sun in 1928 that the mystery of who George was, and where he came from, began to unravel .
This book and the way Hastings, a journalist by training has written it, reminds the reviewer of another journalist, Simon Winchester and his book The Surgeon of Crowthorne where the connection is made between a reality, in this case brutal war, as opposed to a brutal murder, and mental illness. Both books explore the context of the times, conflict and tragedy and its affects on family and individuals.
David Hastings has added a timely addition to New Zealand’s war writing. In this book, he allows us to understand that war and conflict cannot always be told in the poetic heroics of the Odyssey and the Iliad, but rather can also be told in terms of deep personal loss and tragedy.
Reviewed by Lincoln Gould
Odyssey of the Unknown ANZAC
by David Hastings
Auckland University Press