NOT all war stories add up, as XAVIER DUFF discovers
It was like the circus coming to town.
In 1916, in the midst of World War I, for a shilling a ticket you could hear ripping yarns of derring-do and heroic battles from that fateful first day of the Gallipoli landings - from a soldier who was right in the thick of it.
He was Tom Skeyhill, a signaller in the 8th battalion, now discharged and billed the blind soldier poet.
During 1916 and 1917, the 21-year-old soldier from Hamilton was a celebrity, filling country town halls to overflowing as he toured with his show.
Wearing his trademark dark goggles, he had audiences agog with his story of the landing on that fateful April 25 morning, the great battles that followed and his personal hell when blinded by a bomb that exploded at his feet at Cape Helles in May 1915.
But Tom was not the man everyone thought. His blindness was fake and his show was more imagination than reality, designed to bring him fame and fortune. In short, he was a fraud.
At his height, Tom was probably as famous as Simpson and his donkey. But until recently, when Canberra historian Jeff Brownrigg published Tom's life story, From Anzac Cove to Hollywood, he had become a forgotten figure in the Anzac story.
Born in Terang in 1895, Tom moved to Hamilton. He joined up in 1914 age 19.
He survived the baptism of fire at Gallipoli but, like his fellow soldiers, he soon learnt it was no adventure: it was a nightmare.
In May at Cape Helles a Turkish bomb supposedly exploded at Tom's feet and, after regaining consciousness, he claimed he was blinded. He was discharged and back in Australia in October 1915 after only 13 days' active service.
He began writing about the war before his accident and continued during his rehabilitation. Soon he had written enough to publish a book and SOLDIER-SONGS from ANZAC, released in 1915, was a success, selling 50,000 copies.
One of the most popular was Me Little Wet Home In the Trench, which became a popular war ditty.
Back home, Tom hit on the idea of a lecture tour to make money, touring on the Tivoli circuit. He was a big hit and made a lot of money. But sensitive to the idea he was profiting from the war, he would donate the proceeds of one show in a town to the Red Cross.
Two years later he took his show to the US where he was just as popular and helped raise millions for the American war effort.
Miraculously, in 1918 while in the US, Tom's blindness was "cured" after manipulation of his supposedly damaged spine from no less than the physician of former US president Theodore Roosevelt.
Jeff is convinced from his research that Tom was never blinded, faking it as a way of escaping Gallipoli.
Jeff uncovered a story suggesting Tom slipped up back in Hamilton soon after his return from Gallipoli. He was at the Hamilton races and recognised the local librarian Stella Baley, turning to her and saying: "Good day Stella, how are you?"
Tom spent the rest of his relatively short life in the US though returning to Australia in 1921 - again on a lecture tour.
This time he was an "expert" on the Russian Revolution, claiming to have smuggled himself into Russia to visit Vladimir Lenin.
He became even more grandiose, claiming he had studied at Oxford, cradled the famous English poet Rupert Brooke in his arms as he died on a hospital ship in Greece and that he was an accomplished playwright.
Tom died wealthy in 1932 aged 37, from injuries after crashing his plane.
Jeff explains Tom's bizarre flights of fantasy simply by his desire for fame and fortune.
As for his elaborate ruse of blindness to get out of the fighting, Jeff wonders if you could blame him. Most soldiers knew the Gallipoli campaign was a folly and that their lives were being needlessly and wastefully sacrificed.
What would offend most people, particularly those bereaved or who fought on for years, was how hypocritical Tom became as a war propagandist for the war, urging others to enlist.
But Jeff said it would not be right to write him off completely as a fraud and charlatan as some war historians were keen to do. Tom was a flawed but charismatic figure who achieved some positives.
"He deserves a place in our military and possibly cultural history, even if it is only in our national rogues gallery, " Jeff said.