The John Laffin Memorial Lecture is held annually in July. The lecture is open to members, their guests and anyone with an interest in the First AIF and its part in the Great War 1914-1918.
The inaugural lecture was held on 13th July 2003 at the Richmond RSL. Each year guest speakers address the audience. This is followed by a question time and an opportunity to socialise over light refreshments.
The 2007 John Laffin Memorial Lecture was held at the Ashfield RSL. Sam McSkimming, inaugural winner of the John Laffin Travel Prize, spoke with great passion of the anguish and grief experienced by families in Australia when loved ones went missing, were injured or killed during that dreadful war. Their heartache was all the more acute due to the vast distance involved. To most Australians, their loved ones may as well have been on another planet. There was no way they could afford to travel to pay tribute, either physically or financially, and in any case, thousands who perished had no official grave. It is little wonder memorials were erected in most areas of the country as soon as was practical; at least they provided a focal point for the grieving.
A transcript of the lecture follows:
© Copyright Sam McSkimming. Subject to the fair dealing provisions of the Copyright Act 1968, reproduction in any form is not permitted without written permission of the Author.
I’d like to thank the Families and Friends of the First AIF for inviting me to deliver the John Laffin Memorial Lecture. It’s a great pleasure to be part of such a genuine organisation; and one that continues to make a significant contribution to the study and commemoration of Australian involvement in the Great War.
Today I have chosen to speak, perhaps unwisely for a Sunday morning, of loss, bereavement and grief. My aim today is to explore how a mother or father, in a new country and one impossibly far from the Front, could ever come to terms with the loss of their son.
Sixty thousand Australians were killed in the First World War. Some were buried far from their homeland, in places that most families could barely imagine, let alone ever visit. Thousands were afforded no grave at all: modern warfare simply obliterated their bodies. How does one grieve for a son one cannot bury, in a place one cannot imagine?
• Frederick Melville enlisted on 1 September 1914, joining the 3rd Australian Light Horse. He was 25 years old, six foot tall, with blue eyes and blonde hair. He was South Australian and, fittingly given his physique, a forester by trade and a member of the Wirrabara Rifle Club.
• He served at Gallipoli and in Palestine, was wounded several times – indeed; he was incapacitated for most of 1916 in Australia with an infection.
• On 5 October 1918, he was admitted sick to hospital near Jerusalem with malaria. He died from the illness a week later.
• He had enlisted shortly after the war began, and died shortly before it finished.
• He was buried at the Jerusalem Military Cemetery. As was the practice, the family were allowed a 66
• letter inscription on the military headstone. They used less than half their allotment, by writing: Thoughts Bridge Oceans.
I have begun this lecture with Melville’s epitaph as the sentiments expressed in its few letters frame the characteristic Australian approach to grief in the First World War.
It was a process of bereavement characterised by, and mediated through, the dialectic relationship of distance and imagination. The bereaved sought comfort in trinkets, photos and anecdotes: anything that allowed them to bridge the distance between Australia and the killing fields. Yet at the same time, it was recognised that these were poor substitutes – a recognition, if you will, of the difference between real and imagined rituals.
At the close of the war, the bereaved in Australia did not think of the distance between themselves and their sons in the terms we do today. This was an age before aircraft, international telephony or the Internet. The ship to Europe took two months at the very least, and until the end of the 1930s cost around 80 pounds for the cheapest ticket. A white male worker salary was around 2 pounds a week, a war widow pension was 42 shillings a week, and the old age pension was a pound a week.
Thousands of British families journeyed to the Front in the 1920s. For Australians however, this was totally impossible, and the bereaved were acutely aware of this. The gravestone of Private Watson reads:
He Sleeps; Beneath a Foreign Sky; Far From Those Who Love Him
Likewise, the gravestone of Private Stevenson reads:
He was the Loved of All; Yet None; Over His Grave May Weep
In this lecture, I want to explore practices of Australian grief, as mediated through distance and imagination. In particular, I am going to focus on the cemeteries themselves. This is because the grave is the locus of grief: it is central to the rituals and practice of death, particularly in the early twentieth century.
An unprecedented number of men were killed on the battlefields of the First World War. The scale of the carnage brought not only emotional challenges, but administrative and political ones as well. In the Boer War, various charities had cared for the graves of the fallen: this was no longer possible. The task was simply too overwhelming; State involvement was in this sense inevitable.
Moreover, as the army was made up of civilians, relatives were unwilling to accept the same treatment for their dead sons as that previously afforded to regular soldiers. This was especially true in an all volunteer army, such as the AIF. It was felt, quite understandably, that the nation owed a ‘sacred obligation’ to those who had willingly sacrificed themselves in service.
Thus it was clear, by early 1916 at the absolute latest, that the Empire would have to tend to its war dead, and could not disclaim responsibility as it had in the past. The government would tend the graves of the dead.
In many ways, the government was simply formalising a process of grieving that had existed since the early days of the war. Australians, being unable to visit graves, sought ‘agents’ who could act in their place. Most commonly, these agents were fellow soldiers – who felt duty bound to their mates, and more importantly to their mates’ families.
The letters sent to the mothers of the fallen by comrades were mercifully reticent with detail: deaths are always ‘instantaneous’, men are ‘killed instantly’ or ‘killed outright’. Wounded men are described as being ‘ill’, where those hit by shell are ‘knocked about’. When Private Hillcoat of the 3rd Australian Field Ambulance was killed, his entire unit wrote to his ‘people’. They sent mementos, personal affects and photos, and told the grieving family of their son’s bravery and popularity.
Joy Damousi has noted that ‘in the interaction between home front and battlefront … loss, absence and displacement were defined by physical distance’. For the men still on the front, it was as much a comfort to write to a distant home as it was to the families to receive the account. The correspondence between the Front and Australia evidences a desperate attempt to bridge the impossible gap.
These letters to the bereaved always, almost without exception, provide detail of the grave and the funeral. This is because, in Australia at least, it was realised early on in the war that the bodies of the dead would not be returned to Australia. Not only had this been the practice in earlier engagements – such as the Boer War – but there was some recognition that the expense involved was prohibitive. Moreover, it was thought unjust that the rich or senior be repatriated, and others not.
Repatriation was never as serious a political issue in Australia as in the United Kingdom. Of course there were many exceptions to this, particularly in the early part of the war.
Horace Halloran of Sydney offered 15 pounds to the government – a small fortune – for the repatriation of his son’s remains. Likewise, Mr and Mrs Jagoe were prepared to go to the Western Front – in 1916! – in order to bring back their son’s body. The repatriation and state funeral given to Major-General Bridges in 1915 is, of course, the exact type of special treatment which by the end of the war had become politically impossible.
The impossibility of repatriation was ameliorated by a government commitment to ensuring our boys were given a permanent and fitting memorial to their sacrifice. In this pursuit, the Imperial War Graves Commission was established in 1917 by the Prince of Wales – it gradually absorbed the various Directorates of the Armed Services which had previously managed internment, and by 1921 had assumed control of the war cemeteries.
The Commission quickly became the institutional substitute for wartime agents. It was the formal body that attempted to bridge the gap between Australia and the Front. Yet it saw itself as having a higher purpose.
Quite explicitly, the Commission sought to strike the very difficult balance between individualising
grief while, at the same time, producing a fitting symbol of national grief. Given these contradictory aims, it is unsurprising that the Commission was quickly met with controversy.
The Commission was committed to the principle of equality: officer/private – rich/poor – all would be remembered as equals. What does this mean? Individual memorials were banned, as was repatriation. This proved to be an incredibly difficult principle.
In the House of Commons, Sir James Remnant thundered that the “dead are certainly not the property of the State”. Likewise, Lord Cecil attacked the ‘terrible confusion of thought’ behind ‘the idea that you are entitled to take the dead of relatives and build them into a national state memorial’.
Particularly offensive in the eyes of many was the secular tombstone, or as one mother described it – the ‘hideous and unchristian memorial’. A cross was thought more appropriate (although, no doubt, the family of Private David Levy of Sydney wouldn’t have been thrilled at this suggestion, nor indeed a good number of Protestants). The Commission thought – with some justification – that fields of crosses would be extraordinarily ugly.
The request for a custom grave was common. Mrs F.E. Coombs wrote to the Australia authorities: “Can I request a small stone, shield, shape or any neat design to put on the grave instead of the one put up by the War people?”
Also common was the seeking of private agents to tend to the grave. Mrs F.E. Coombs, again: “Will the Authorities allow us to pay someone in Belgium to care for our boys’ graves and keep the grass from running wild over where they are sleeping?”
Requests of this nature failed to appreciate fully the significance of the war cemeteries: the State had, quite intentionally, expropriated the graves of the fallen for a higher purpose. For many, this was a further injustice perpetrated against their sons.
The one contribution the bereaved were able to make to the grave was the inscription. The Commission allowed them 66 letters, including spaces, charged at 3 pence and one half penny per letter.
“Sensible” epitaphs were mandated. Bruce Scates, in his recent book, recalls one family whose
epitaph, “His Loving Parents Curse the Hun”, was rejected. They had another crack at it, this time in poetry:
“With every breath we draw / We Curse the Germans more”. Also rejected.
Many of the accepted epitaphs praise king and country: men always die for others, for duty, and for
their country. Many, many of the Australian graves, tellingly, refer to distance:
Tho Far Away you are Still Near
Too Far Away for Touch or Speech / But Not too Far / For Thoughts to Reach
The Midnight Stars / Are Gleaming / On a Grave I Cannot See
Too Far Away / Your Grave to See / But Not too Far / To Think of Thee.
Many also ask passers-by to care for the grave: again, stressing how acutely distant the bereaved felt from their loss:
Please Place a Flower / For His Loves Ones / In Australia
Tread Gently on the Green Grass / A Mother’s Love Lies Here.
The Australian experience was one of so very distant grief. Private John Edward Barclay, with the 8th Battalion, 22 years old, was killed at Gallipoli and buried in Shrapnel Valley. He married two months after enlisting, and was dead four months later. A newspaper report, contained in his records, hails him as a hero for killing seven Turks that had seized an Aussie trench. His epitaph does not contain a whisper of this: it aches with a very distant longing:
We’ve no darling now / I’m weeping / baby and I you left alone.
The grave had always been the central focus of Australian grief: it was the imagined place that acted to transcend the distance between home and the very distant Front. Mothers were always keen to know that their son had been buried: many requested, and few received, pictures of the hastily erected wooden crosses on the battlefield. Indeed, after the war, many requested that as the permanent stone headstones were laid, the wooden crosses be returned to Australia.
The Commission sent photos of the graves to the next of kin, once the stone tablet was erected. Optimistically, the Commission also let the next of kin know the closest railway station. We cannot underestimate how important these photos were. They gave the families a sense of place: their sons were not simply loss to the abyss.
Not all had a grave however. Sara Smith, an Englishwomen who lobbied for repatriation after the war, wrote that “many thousands of mothers and wives are slowly dying for want of the graves of their loved ones to visit and tend themselves”.
Of the million British dead, more than half of the bodies were never recovered. A third of the Australian dead were never found. Of the bodies that were found, only one in five could be identified. For a decade after the war, Grave Registration units scoured the battlefields, exhuming the dead and searching for the missing. As late as 1921, hundreds of bodies were being found every week.
The American journalist F.H. Simonds described the battlefields in France as ‘far more terrifying and terrible’ after the war, with ‘hundreds and thousands of square miles covered by the blight of war’. Deceptively, flowers quickly grew over the battlefields after the shelling ceased. However, for the military detachments on grave duty, it was said that the thicker the flowers in an area, the more horrible it was underfoot. The soundtrack to this work was the frequent explosions of unexploded ordinance. A Court of Inquiry in 1920 found that the AIF Grave Registration Units were frequently (if not invariably) drunk, inefficient, ill-disciplined and habituated to vice. This is no surprise really, given the circumstances of their work.
For the men who spent a decade after the war, this was far more than another part of their service. As with servicemen in wartime, the location of the missing was the ‘sacred obligation’ owed not only to the fallen – but also to their families. Said one letter to the Herald: “We soldiers want our dead comrades found and identified for the sake of the loved ones they left behind who today are mourning them with the only notification they have – the cold, official type-written message.”
It was firmly believed that Australians must find Australians. Unscrupulous rumours of the British were common. Major Allen, AIF, accused the British of cutting bodies in half to double their returns – and ordered his men to watch them closely.
It was also believed that only those that had served could act as proper agents for the bereaved. Said Lieutenant Lee: “I had the interest of the work at heart, I had fought over all areas with our troops, and knew all its associations and tragedies, whereas he [the officer] who had never been a soldier understood nothing of the men’s sufferings and less than nothing about the work.”
For the relatives, hope sprung eternal. All wished for a body to bury. While civilians had been banned from the front from 1919 – a British mother had gone into shock at finding her son’s remains – some still visited. Others sent endless letters to the Registration Units. Others persisted, long after the war, to think their sons prisoners of war. Alexander McKernan’s sister wrote the Red Cross: “I also got a letter from his mate and he said he had been sent with a message up the line on horse … and they found his horse killed and his pay book was lying beside the horse but no sign of him could they find & he said that searched the fields thoroughly. He said that he had gone too far or lost his way so we are thinking perhaps he may be a prisoner of war & we would be thankful if you would make enquiries for us …”.
For the families of the missing, the grave itself was central. Their sons had been expropriated in their entirety. Many were outraged that their boy’s sacrifice was diminished for want of a grave. One suspects that this outrage emerged from fear: these families had never seen the Front, and could scarcely imagine it. For them, their sons were missing on what may as well have been another planet.
The Prime Minister heard their cries, suggesting in 1919 that graves be erected for the missing, even where a body could not be found. Billy Hughes considered that every man was entitled to his six foot of ground.
The objection to the idea was not just due to the costs involved. Kipling thought the idea ‘distasteful’; Ware was anxious to avoid any ‘fake’ graves that might diminish from the real ones. Although there were a few Australian memorial plots to the missing erected – temporary wooden crosses – these were removed by 1920. The Australian government did not pursue the issue.
For the families of the missing, without a grave to imagine, the grieving was all the harder still. Many embraced false hope, scouring the battlefields in their hundreds and writing a stream of letters well into the 1930s. In 1936, Mary Wickens wrote the Australian authorities. “If at any time any information of my Eldest Son … should come to hand from Lone Pine would you kindly let me know?”
Bodies were still being unearthed from the Western Front in their thousands in the early 1930s: for example, 40,000 British dead were discovered between 1922 and 1934. Australian bodies are still being recovered – most recently, to my knowledge, the six diggers unearthed in August 2006.
The grave was the focal point of Australian grief after World War I, but it must be stressed that it was only one way that families sought to ameliorate distance. Australian trees were planted at Gallipoli, and the soil of France brought to Australia. At Gallipoli, serious efforts were made to transplant the wooden supports for the Lone Pine trenches to Australia, while War Memorials were erected all over Australia as surrogate graves. The practice of Australian pilgrimage to Gallipoli began almost immediately after the war, and continues to the present day.
These practices and rituals of grief are only beginning to be studied in a systematic way by historians. The field is rapidly expanding, with many brilliant new studies – including Bruce Scates’ latest book.
In my mind, this is critically important. It is through the rituals and practices of grief that the dead are individualised. Too often, history – particularly military history – sees the dead statistically, even clinically, as mass of faceless men. I hope that this lecture today has served to historicise Australia’s fallen at the individual level, and served as a reminder that these men were brothers, husbands and sons – and all of them were tremendously missed by those grieving in a distant country.
Note: These are unreferenced speaking notes. I am however indebted to the following studies, and reference them here:
Ziino, B. A Distant Grief: Australians, War Graves and the Great War, PhD Thesis, (University of Melbourne, 2003).
Damousi, J. The labour of loss: mourning, memory, and wartime bereavement in Australia, (Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1999).
Laffin, J. We Will Remember Them: Australian Epitaphs of WWI (Kenthurst: Kangaroo Press, 1995).
Scates, B. Return to Gallipoli: Walking the Battlefields of the Great War (Cambridge University Press, 2006).