Australians are familiar with the War Memorials that stand in nearly every suburb and country town. They are so much just a part of the built environment now that we barely see them, except on Anzac and Remembrance Day when you walk past and see wreaths of flowers placed on them. At times I stop and look at the names, and shudder at the groups of names from one family, but more than 100 years on from World War I, they do not have a particular emotional resonance. That was not true at the time they were constructed. As Ken Inglis explores in Sacred Places, war memorials in every small town were a surrogate – however inadequate- for an individualized grave.
Quite apart from the practicalities and logistics of repatriating so many dead bodies from World War I, the decision was made at a Commonwealth level that all soldiers from Commonwealth countries would be buried in the Commonwealth War Cemetery closest to where they fell. But they had to be located first. In battlefields that were bombed repeatedly, with weapons that could blow a man to pieces and without time for careful record keeping, this was no easy task. At first it fell to the Australian Graves Detachment, which worked alongside the English Graves Registration Unit in identifying and burying Australian bodies. At the end of 1919, the remaining soldiers working for the Australian Graves Detachment merged into the smaller, newly founded Australian Graves Services. The tasks of digging up bodies remained with the English Graves Registration Unit- after all, who knew what nationalities were going to be uncovered?- but once located, the Australian Graves Services (AGS) would inspect the body and its remaining clothing, looking for identification to ascertain if it was an Australian soldier, and if so, who it was. It was hard work, physically and emotionally, and soldiers who worked in these deployments were cut some slack, especially in terms of their leisure time activities. But the families at home did not know that, and the government wanted to keep it that way. And when questions began being asked at home, often prompted by disgruntled ex-employees, there was a concerted effort to keep any inquiries out of the news.
This book is the story of the two inquiries that were held into the Australian Graves Services unit in the first two years following the war. Quite apart from the difficulties of the job, this was a unit riven by jealousy, ego, incompetence and deviousness. It was overseen from Australia House in London, with three main bases over in Europe: Somme/Amiens; Villers-Bretonneux and then Poperinghe up on the Belgian border. Each of the officers who headed these bases loathed the others, for various reasons. Van Velzen approaches the story from multiple viewpoints, moving from one officer to the other, retelling events from their perspective. This leads to a certain degree of repetition, but it does also allow for actions and people to be viewed in different lights. Nobody comes out of this well. Jealousy, obstruction and rorting look bad no matter how you describe it.
After an initial inquiry cleared out the initial ‘troublemakers’ (who returned to Australia to make even more trouble there), there was a reshuffle of authority and a forging of an alliance between George Lort Phillips at Australia House, and Alfred Allen, a Quaker who had come to the AGS through the Red Cross, who was in charge at Poperinghe . Exonerated and perhaps emboldened by the first inquiry, Allen had become increasing sure of his ability to find bodies through ‘divining’, and it was this confidence that brought him into collision with Cecil Smith who had been charged by his wife’s uncle Col. James Burns with locating his son, Robert Burns. James Burns was wealthy and influential (he was the Burns in the Burns-Philp shipping company) and he had the money and contacts to persist when Phillips and Allen began stonewalling Cecil Smith in the search for Robert Burn’s remains. Smith alerted the politicians back in Australia, who wanted to keep all this out of the newspapers, leading to a second inquiry which was quietly shelved, just as the first one was. And as for Robert Burns’ body? Well, you’ll need to read the book.
Van Velzen has relied heavily on the 790 page report ‘Court of Inquiry: To inquire into and report upon certain matters in connection with the Australian Graves Services’. Bart Ziino’s also drew on this source in his more academic text A Distant Grief (my review here), as did a recent article “Suppressing an ‘undesirable public controversy’: Corpses, the Department of Defence, and the Australian Graves Services, 1919–1921” by Romain Fathi in the most recent edition of History Australia (Vol 19, Issue 3). However, in this longer, and less academic book, Van Velzen draws more heavily on the evidence given to the inquiry in a more conversational style, using it to bolster the varying viewpoints as she moves from character to character. The tone is rather sensationalist, tending to look for good guys and bad guys. However, by locating the inquiry within the very human story of Robert Burns and his grieving father, you as a reader do not lose sight of the fact that it is a young man who has died here, even though the other players in this grubby affair may have.
You are left with a sense that everyone comes out badly here. Perhaps it is just as well that people ‘back home’ did not know, and perhaps there was a justification at the time for keeping it quiet. As is often the way of things, it is deputy heads that roll.
Marianne Van Velzen has written a very readable if populist book, with neat narrative framing around Robert Burns. Your attention is captured anew with each new character, with a satisfying ending, which is not something that you can often say about military books. Its marketing might be a bit sensationalist, but it’s a well-constructed story that uses its sources well in an engaging, but thought-provoking way that emphasizes the human and the political over the military
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library