‘A Distant Grief’ by Bart Ziino


2007, 191p & notes

In the time of coronavirus, we have seen funeral services stripped back to just ten people. It’s a cruel thing. Just those few people, sitting far from each other, unable to hug or comfort- those most human of responses to pain and grief.

A cruelty of a different sort was exerted on the families and loved ones of soldiers who died over in Europe during WWI (and the following war).  After some hesitation in the early months of the war, it was decided that none of the soldiers who died in British Empire troops would be repatriated to their home countries: not English, not Canadian, not South African and not Australian soldiers.  Apart from the practical difficulties of locating and shifting the remains (if any) of individual soldiers, this was seen as an expression of equality and solidarity amongst the countries of the Empire, with no soldiers seen as any more important than the others.  It was a big call. There was serious dissent against the policy in Britain by the 1920s.  I would imagine that for British families, it would have seemed to be merely bureaucratic inflexibility that prevented bodies being transported a relatively short distance. Canada was unhappy with the policy, especially when America managed to ship back 70% of their dead. (p.83)  But Australian families had few expectations that the bodies of their soldiers would be sent home. It hadn’t happened during the Boer War, and a recognition of the logistics involved meant that there was little public agitation for it to occur in WWI either.

Instead, the role of interring and marking the graves of Australian soldiers fell to the Imperial War Graves Commission. With the exception of the soldiers who fell at Gallipoli,  it was decided that each soldier should have an identical headstone marker, 81cm high, 38 cm wide and 8 cm thick. They were generally of white Portland stone and engraved with name, rank, unit, date of death and age. A religious emblem could be included if desired, and next of kin were permitted a personal inscription at their own cost. Where the identity was unknown, the headstone reads ‘A Soldier of the Great War. Known to God’. (p.3)

The Imperial War Graves Commission asked for 10 years to finalize the burial of WWI soldiers, and this book, which draws on the archives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, tells the story of the Commission, and the way that Australian reactions to death were defined by distance. Certainly, these deaths were of individuals – loved, mourned individuals- but without individual bodies, mourners had to take on more communal responses to their loss.

Chapter 1 ‘Imagined Graves’ examines the imaginative way that bereaved loved ones tried to understand soldiers’ deaths and make some connection between their lives on this side of the globe and the grave on the other. As Ziino writes:

Imagination, of course, could not function in a vacuum. From the first news of death, grieving Australians sought knowledge of what exactly had become of loved ones. They needed that knowledge to give substance to the mental images they were already developing. Relatives wanted to know that the last moments of life had been painless or that the dead had received the particular blessings of their faith. Ultimately, they wanted confirmation that the body had been buried and identifiably marked- an essential part of their imagining. Mourners wished that they had been there to palliate soldiers’ dying, to make the break between life and death personally- this was an important part of coming to terms with death. At home these people were removed from all but the fact of death, and detail was required to give structure to that event. (p. 15)

In the absence of a grave, ceremonies of farewell and release were carried out through the ‘In Memoriam’ columns of newspapers – sometimes for decades afterwards. Other families treasured photographs and relics of the dead that made their way home, while soldiers still serving at the front often served as a conduit between the front and the family by writing to and visiting bereaved families after the war.

Chapter 2 ‘The Sacred Obligation’  shows the way that Australian families, realizing that it was unlikely that they would visit the European cemeteries, turned to others to care for the war graves. The state stepped into this space. Public memorial services were held in Australia, while over on the front administrative responsibility was initially vested in the Directorate  of Graves Registration and Enquiries, and turned over to the Imperial War Graves Commission which came into being on 21 May 1917.

Chapter 3 looks at ‘Gallipoli and Australian Anxiety’. As the first large scale ‘Australian’ battle of WWI, there was particular concern that the bodies of fallen soldiers lay for three years in ‘alien’, non-Christian soil where there were no brother soldiers or officials to act for relatives. While the war was still underway, there were attempts by the British government to gain access to the cemeteries on the peninsula that the Turks had created. Not surprisingly, the attempt was rebuffed, but an Australian presence was quickly established at Gallipoli after the Armistice.  There was not, as they had feared, widescale desecration of the graves, although wooden crosses had been removed by Turkish soldiers for firewood. Almost immediately there were attempts to make a claim on the cemeteries, a difficult legal point of  sovereignty. It was decided that the cemeteries on Gallipoli would not have cruciform shapes visible from beyond their walls, and that the headstones would take the form of a low sloped stone, rather than upright headstones as in other Commonwealth War Cemeteries. Australians had to accept that Australian graves would rest on Turkish soil, which gives some context for the words purported to have been said by Mustafa Kamal (Ataturk) – an issue of recent controversy.

Chapter 4 ‘Agents for the Bereaved’ turns its attention to the Western Front and the way that families wanted an ‘Australian’ presence and identity on the former battlefields. The Australian Graves Service was established, with its headquarters at Australia House in London. It oversaw (rather than conducted) exhumations and concentrated on identifying Australian remains and maintaining records for the bereaved at home. They provided photographs of the grave for the families at home, and were seen as an ‘Australian’ presence even though there were serious questions asked about their behaviour. When it was disbanded in 1921, with its work subsumed into the Imperial War Graves Commission, there was dissatisfaction back in Australia not only amongst families, but also the RSSILA (forerunner to the RSL) and different public bodies.

Chapter 5 focuses on the Imperial War Graves Commission itself, and the way that its role changed over time. At first, it held itself aloof both physically and emotionally, from the bereaved of the Empire. It was essentially a political body, and as time passed the  Commonwealth War Grave cemetery, with its row upon row of identical headstones, came to have a different meaning for generations who had not known or loved the individual who was buried there.

In Chapters 6 and 7 focus returns to Australia, and the ways that Australians expressed their grief. Chapter 6 looks at the memorials erected, the photographs cherished and the nature of the 66-letter inscriptions that families were allowed to place on the gravestones. As returned soldiers began dying in Australia, the question of ‘official’ headstones in local cemeteries arose.  Lost sons began to be commemorated on their parents’ gravestones and horticulture began to be linked with commemorative spaces. The 1991 repatriation of an unknown Australian soldier in 1991 reminds us that grief carried across generations, although now it was imbued with other political and nationalistic themes.  Chapter 7 ‘Pilgrimage’ looks at the personal journeys that some families were able to make to the grave of their loved one. Most Australians at first accepted that would never make the trip to see it, and especially immediately after the war, the Government actively discouraged trips to the politically unstable Gallipoli. Those who travelled often had a keen awareness that they were doing something unavailable to most Australians, and many felt a personal obligation to share their experiences with other families through photographs and letters. A formal pilgrimage was organized in June 1929. And as we all know, a pilgrimage to ANZAC Cove has become a rite of passage for young Australian travellers- one that I find rather problematic, especially with recent Australian governments’ obsessions with creating memorials on other people’s land.

This book is an academic monograph, but a very human one.  The argument of the book is the juxtaposition between administrative efficiency and personal grief, and this is reflected in Ziino’s use of his sources. As well as the bureaucratic archives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and other bodies, Ziino draws on personal letters and communications in family archives, and the human stories found in newspaper articles.

As he points out in the conclusion, if physical distance marked the Australian experience of battlefield death, it is now a chronological distance that shapes our response.

Australians are no longer so distant from the graves of their dead. Modern transport has telescoped distance and made travel to the battlefields possible for thousands of Australians who now undertake such pilgrimages. Yet distance remains important to Australians’ relationships to the Great War. While it has contracted physically, distance has lengthened chronologically. Today’s generation is reconceptualising the legacy of that war…These modern pilgrims are expressing grief, but the nature and meaning of that grief is not the same as for those who endured it first hand. Time and further conflicts have intervened in their memory of war. (p. 190-1)

Source: My own copy

3 responses to “‘A Distant Grief’ by Bart Ziino

  1. This is great, Janine. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this book, I’ve bookmarked it to chase up when the libraries are open again.

  2. Roll on that day!!

  3. Pingback: ‘Australian War Graves Workers and World War One’ by Fred Cahir, Sara Weuffen, Matt Smith, Peter Bakker, Jo Caminiti | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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