Degrees of insanity
In September 1915, the Public Service Journal of Victoria proudly recorded a testimonial dinner in honour of three recruits, all employees of the "Hospitals for the Insane" managed by the Chief Secretary's Department.
Using the National Archives Website, it is possible to reconstruct the war record of these three men. One of them was Ernest Eberhard McDuff, an asylum attendant from Burnley. Eberhard was gassed in December 1917 in the aftermath of the bloodiest campaign of the war - when 10,000 Anzacs lost their lives in the mud of Passchendaele. He was invalided home a few months later.
Edward Lowry, who also described his occupation on enlistment as "Asylum Attendant" and gave his birthplace as Dublin, began his war service in an unpromising fashion. He was punished in September 1916 for overstaying his leave. He made up for this when, on 21 November 1916, Field Marshall Haig mentioned him in dispatches for his "gallant service" during the battle of Pozieres. He was eventually rewarded for this with a promotion to corporal in April 1918 - a minor prominence from which he was deposed by a field court martial in February 1919. The reason for his disgrace was that he had once again gone AWOL in December 1918, a few weeks after the Armistice was signed. He appears to have been a man for whom the signing of the Armistice was a signal to abandon military discipline. We can only speculate on what he did during those months of absence, given his proximity to his native Dublin, then in the midst of a revolt against British rule.
The third member of the trio was J. Foster. There are many J. Fosters in the AIF ranks, but the most likely fit in the records is a John Atkin Foster who rose to the rank of Major, serving from Gallipoli till August 1918. His rise through the ranks no doubt indicated his value as a soldier and he was mentioned in dispatches for his conduct at Passchendaele.
Good conduct over such a prolonged period in such circumstances took its toll, however. He was wounded by gunshot fire in May 1915, shortly after the Gallipoli landing. In France, he was one of the victims of the awful shellfire that decimated the Australians at Pozieres, buried alive at one point, emerging dazed, with his hearing damaged and suffering shell shock. In May 1917 he was wounded again - shell fragments piercing his back. On 24 August 1918, in the fourth week of the "100 Days", when the AIF played a prominent role in breaking the back of the Germany army in France, John Foster was shot dead. The Armistice was signed in November but he was not coming home.