In 1916, an unknown patient was admitted to Broughton Hall, a ‘mental facility’ for returned soldiers in Sydney. Some said he’d been found behind the lines in France—wandering aimlessly and wearing a slouch hat. Others said that he had been taken in by a group of soldiers roaming the streets of London. Everything about this man was a mystery.
Doctors noted their patient was ‘shaky’, ‘nervous’ and ‘disoriented’ and attributed his condition to ‘the stress of the campaign’, and, in the rambling conversations recorded in the Asylum casebooks, sketched what might have happened to him. ‘Patient had shock’, ‘was buried by sandbags as a result of a shell,’ suffers ‘from Hallucinations of hearing’ and frequent ‘distressing dreams’. A doctor looked with clinical interest at the ‘vacuous’, ‘semi-stuporous’ expression on his charge’s face and printed ‘Recommended for discharge as permanently unfit’ on the medical record’.
The unknown patient remained in Callan Park Asylum for over a decade. They called him George Brown, a name so nondescript it might have belonged to anyone. Personal details were circulated to the press in the hope that someone might come forward—aged somewhere in his thirties, straight brown hair, blue eyes, ‘two vaccination scars, one above the other’. Hundreds of ‘anxious enquiries’ flooded in, ‘from fathers, mothers, brothers or sisters all over Australia, who fancy he might be the long-lost member of their family’. Lost quite literally. In the wake of the Great War, tens of thousands of bodies vanished altogether: over a million dead were buried as ‘unknowns’, never to be identified. Even a decade after the war, families hoped against hope that their soldier might come home to them.
‘A sad procession made their way to Callan Park Asylum’, an eyewitness reported, ‘mostly parents who had cherished the fading hope that perhaps their boy had been wrongly reported missing.’
They watched a man ‘baulking furiously at the cameras brought in to photograph him’ or standing ‘lamblike’ indifferent to his surroundings. After a while they turned away, thankful—perhaps - that their boy had been spared that anyway.
Almost a decade after the end of the war, the unknown patient was identified as George Thomas McQuay, a carpenter from Taranaki. McQuay signed up with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in 1914, fought in Gallipoli and France and was posted as a deserter after the battle of Armentières. Perhaps that helped to explain the voice that shouted in his head, ‘calling him a coward’. In May 1928, George was reunited with his mother. Emma McQuay had crossed the Tasman with a fare provided by the Returned Soldiers’ League as both the Australian and the New Zealand governments would do ‘nothing’ to assist her.
How should we read the story of George McQuay? A simple version is consoling. A son was restored to his mother after years of searching. But the fate of George McQuay suggests a far more problematic ending. Within weeks of returning to New Zealand, McQuay was admitted once again to an asylum. Over the last two decades of his life he drifted in and out of institutions, sometimes in the care of his family, sometimes locked away, always a burden to others. The unknown patient died in 1951, aged sixty-four years. He was buried in the Soldiers’ Cemetery at Kopuatama. Veterans from both world wars attended the funeral and the Last Post was sounded over his grave. But there was no such service for the other 30,000 Anzac troops still listed as missing. Their families never found them.
For full attribution of sources, suggestions for further reading and an extended version of the story itself see ‘Out of the silence: The unknown patient’ in Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James, World War One: A History in 100 Stories (Melbourne, Penguin/Viking, 2015) pp. 328-330; 363.