The quiet, old-fashioned home of Mr Daniel Woodfield, nestling snugly in a picturesque and fertile valley among the hills to the north of Rheola, was the scene of a distressing tragedy on Friday night, when the second-eldest son of the family, Andrew, took his own life without apparent cause or reason.
It was mid 1920 and Andrew Woodfield had just turned 30. A year had passed since his return from the war, and although he had not been his ‘old self’ since returning home, he seemed to be finally settling in. Some months earlier, under the influence of drink, he had threatened to shoot himself, but since then had abstained from alcohol and seemed to be satisfied with his prospects. He didn’t have any money worries, and had actually only just returned from a trip to Melbourne, where he’d been organizing the purchase of a block of land through the Repatriation Department.
That Friday evening there was a dance at the local hall, and Andrew’s father’s services as a musician were in demand. He suggested Andrew accompany him, but wishing to play football with the Rheola team the following day, Andrew opted for ‘spending a quiet night in front of the fire’. Daniel left behind a contented, cheerful group of three, Andrew & his 2 teenage siblings, Norman & Eliza. Their mother was visiting in Melbourne with another of their siblings. During the course of the evening, Norman suggested that he needed a haircut, and Andrew quite happily performed this duty for him. The three eventually went to their beds around 9.30pm.
Somewhere around midnight Eliza was awakened by movement in the adjoining living room, as a fully dressed Andrew was wandering around with lamp in hand. Presently Eliza heard the glass from the lamp shatter on the floor, followed by ‘the report of a rifle and the sound of a body falling heavily upon chairs’.
Both she and Norman rushed to their brother’s side to find he was still alive but in a serious condition. Leaving Norman to make their brother as comfortable as he could, Eliza caught and harnessed one of the heavy working horses and set out on the lonely drive to Rheola, over rough, heavy roads, to summon her father. On her arrival at about 1a.m. dancing was in full swing, but on receipt of the sad tidings the assembly broke up and Mr Woodfield was accompanied to his home by several friends anxious to render what assistance they could. On arrival it was seen that medical assistance was imperative, and Mr Woodfield at once started on the long drive to Inglewood. Motor power made the return journey shorter, but before the arrival of Dr Deravin death had resulted, the bullet having passed upwards from the throat to the brain.’
Andrew had enlisted two months after the Gallipoli landing, and had sailed with reinforcements for the 6th Battalion in the September. Not long after reaching Egypt, he was hospitalised with mumps, and his baptism of fire didn’t come until much later, when he arrived in France with the 57th Battalion, and walked straight into the Battle of Fromelles. Seeing the rest of the war out without being hospitalized, it was however reported that he had experienced the effects of gas, which the majority of front-line troops probably did to some degree.
One newspaper reporting his death stated that “His action is attributed to indifferent health, following on the effects of being gassed.” Although the Deputy-Coroner simply “found that death was due to a gunshot wound, self-inflicted, while, in his opinion, suffering from temporary insanity.” – a fairly standard verdict in the majority of these cases.
The small town of Rheola had given Andrew a huge send-off before he sailed to war & again had welcomed him with open arms upon his return mid 1919. He was also welcomed lovingly back into the family home, and as stated earlier, was preparing to launch into his own independent future and build a new life. A member of the local branch of the R.S.S.I.L., he must also have kept in regular contact with his mates.
So what went wrong?
These men were hailed as heroes on their return home, but the people were ‘war weary’ and soon wanted to forget and move on. Many of the returned men no doubt wanted to forget some of their experiences too, but this wasn’t always an easy thing to achieve. Sleepless nights found many of them reliving the horror that those who had stayed behind would never really understand.
They were expected to meld back into civilian life in a country that had changed, in a body & mind that had also changed. How could they settle into the old routines, when they had lived an alien life for so many years? How many of them found it hard to carry on, knowing what they had been, dreading what they might still be – taught to kill & maim, and then expected to nurture a family?
It was an era when ‘men were men’, and they didn’t talk about their feelings – they bottled them up and tried to go on, except perhaps when they ‘hit the bottle’ in an attempt to forget.
Andrew’s was just one of many suicides during and after the war, but fortunately one of the few that had had his story told openly and compassionately. So many suicides were clothed in secrecy – to protect the image of the ‘hero’; to protect their families; to hide the shame.
Andrew was buried in the style of a military funeral, his mates wearing service dress and providing the firing party. The Last Post sounded over the Inglewood Cemetery on the 4th of July, where he now rests in peace; though sadly, no tombstone marks his grave.
Heather (Frev) Ford, 2010