At breaking point

Frank Wilkinson, a farmer from Banyena in Victoria, sailed off to war in 1916. He served in Egypt, contracted pneumonia in France and was nursed for gunshot wounds in England. Gunner Frank Wilkinson was also awarded the Military Medal at Passchendaele. In July 1917 he battled the blaze of burning ‘ammunition dumps set alight by hostile shell-fire’. It was a courageous action, his commanding officer noted, involving ‘great personal risk’.

Frank survived the war, but arguably not the peace. He took up a plot of land in Stanhope under Victoria’s soldier settlement scheme and that bleak and barren holding yielded only debt. By 1927 Frank owed more than a thousand pounds. He was also having trouble breathing, a result of being gassed on the Western Front. He suffered from ‘shattered nerves’, found it difficult to sleep and was often seen staring off into space. Elizabeth sensed her husband was at breaking point. ‘Frank,’ she confided to a friend, ‘is going to go off his head.’ 

On the morning the young family had resolved to quit the farm, Frank was found face down in the kitchen, a razor in his hand. Isabella, his four year old daughter, had been battered to death in her bed. Frank had also taken a hammer to Elizabeth. Her skull was crushed, her brain exposed, and she could barely speak. 

Elizabeth’s life ended a few days later in Mooroopna Hospital. She lingered long enough to forgive what her husband had done. ‘He couldn’t help it, he couldn’t help it,’ was all she said, time and again. 

Frank was buried with his ‘loving wife’ and ‘beloved daughter.’ All were victims of the Great War, though they died over a decade after the fighting had ended. Frank Wilkinson’s story reminds us of the harm war wrought on women and children. Its violence was not confined to the front: damaged and shell-shocked men often carried a terrible anger into civilian life. ‘Peace’ is inscribed on Frank’s and his family’s headstone. But for those who went to war, and those who had to live with them, the battles didn’t end in 1918.

For full attribution of sources, suggestions for further reading and an extended version of the story itself see ‘At breaking point: Frank Wilkinson’ in Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James, World War One: A History in 100 Stories (Melbourne, Penguin/Viking, 2015) pp. 68-69; 355.