His own brand of broken men

As a young man Walter Bagenal was apprenticed in Bordeaux, the wine capital of the world. In 1894, he ventured to the other side of the world to the newly planted vineyards of the Emu Wine Company in Victoria. A decade later, the outbreak of war drew Walter back to Europe.

At nearly forty-four years of age, Walter was one of the older Anzacs. Sapper Bagenal and the 10th Field Company Engineers were stationed on the Somme in 1918. On 24 April more than two thousand shells blasted their position. Several men were killed and Walter himself severely wounded. A hasty operation saved his life but not his leg.

Returning to Australia, Walter Bagenal became a founding member of the Victorian Limbless Soldiers’ Association. Many saw him as their strongest advocate—a formidable committee man and zealous campaigner. Bagenal’s activism reminds us that returned men—even those crippled by war—worked to improve their lot in post-war Australia. They did not define themselves as victims.

Alongside that voluntary service, Walter worked tirelessly to promote the burgeoning wine industry in Victoria. The Emu Wine Company went from strength to strength under his management.  

Walter was never a man to settle for second best. The artificial legs issued by the Repatriation Department were heavy, crude, and clumsy. In his own time, and at his own expense, he experimented and fashioned a prosthetic limb from an alloy of aluminium, copper, manganese, and magnesium. The piece he produced was two pounds lighter than any apparatus issued by ‘the Repat’, sparing much fatigue for the wearer. By the 1930s, ‘the Repat’ had entered into partnership with Walter and they began to use his innovations at the Artificial Limb Factory in South Melbourne.

When Walter Bagenal died in 1952, the Department accepted his death was due to war service. Although he was nearly eighty, sympathetic doctors acknowledged he had lived too long in a ‘good deal of pains’ and the ‘sepsis associated with the stump’ had reached a dangerous level. In a sense the war had killed Walter thirty-four years after his leg had been severed from his body.