Died of shell shock

Royce Baesjou worked as a bank clerk and served part-time in the Western Australian Artillery Militia prior to joining up. A southern son of Empire, he believed—passionately—in England’s cause. 

Royce Baesjou fought with the 28th Battalion at Gallipoli, endured heavy artillery bombardment on Russell’s Top and was evacuated ‘shell shocked’ from the Peninsula. Private Baesjou would suffer shell shock a second time in France. What the doctors diagnosed as ‘Myalgia/Neurasthenia’ took him out of the line. With nerves shot to pieces, and suffering from debility and rheumatism, the young soldier was invalided home in 1916.

Despite a brave attempt to return to civilian life, Baesjou never recovered from his injuries. The shell blasts that had killed the men around him, and blown his body yards from where he stood, damaged and weakened his brain. Shell shock was not just a psychological disposition—a kind of emotional trauma. Doctors at the time believed it also sprang from physical causes, the ‘shock waves’ that attended the explosion of a shell. In Baesjou’s case, concussion—or what the doctors called ‘commotional shock’—had caused irreparable harm.

Royce Baesjou died of a cerebral haemorrhage at the 8th Australian General Hospital in Fremantle on 19 May 1918. It was just a few months before the fighting in Europe ended and almost two years after coming home. He was buried two days later in the Church of England section of Fremantle Cemetery. In July 1921 the citizens of Albany raised a memorial, an Avenue of Honour stretching a mile along Middleton Road. A red gum was planted for each of the ‘brave men’ of the township who had ‘made the supreme sacrifice’, and a plaque set at the base of each tree reverently recorded their rank, battalion and age. But the family of Royce Baesjou added another epitaph, one not repeated on any other memorial in the world:

MAY 19 1918

Royce Baesjou’s story reminds us that not all Australia’s war dead lie in the soil of a distant country. Men died and were buried in the midst of their ‘kindred’ as well. It alerts us to the plight of men who survived the battlefield only to die in their homeland. And it demonstrates that shell shock—or PTSD as we would call it today—could be a physical as well as a psychological wound. 

For full attribution of sources, suggestions for further reading and an extended version of the story itself see ‘Died of shell shock: Royce Baesjou’ in Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James, World War One: A History in 100 stories (Melbourne, Penguin/Viking, 2015) pp. 82-84; 356.