‘Australian War Graves Workers and World War One’ by Fred Cahir, Sara Weuffen, Matt Smith, Peter Bakker, Jo Caminiti

2019, 143 p.

The subtitle of this book is ” Devoted Labour for the Lost, the Unknown but Not Forgotten Dead”, which gives an indication of the stance towards war graves workers adopted in this book, several chapters of which were contributed by descendants. Published in 2019, it moves into the commemorative space left open after all the WWI centenary celebrations by looking at the physical and emotional work that followed the suspension of fighting, most particularly through the men who were attached to the Australian Graves Detachment.

The book opens with two very good context-setting chapters that explained the bureaucratic structure of the grave-worker organizations, both in relation to the British Army and to the AIF. It describes what was involved in grave work: opening the grave, checking for ID disks, paybooks and other identifying objects, wrapping the body in a blanket, sewing it up and marking it with an identifying tag. Bodies were collected and buried in designated cemeteries, some of which were later consolidated into larger cemeteries. Photographs of the relocated graves were sent to next-of-kin in Australia. The Australian Graves Detachment, comprising over 1000 men, was created in March 1919 when there was still a large number of soldiers waiting repatriation back home. It ceased to exist on 20 August 1919, when demobilization was largely complete, at which time its functions devolved to the much smaller Australian Graves Service.

The book then moves to biographical sketches of different men involved in the Australian Graves Detachment. These chapters start off with descriptions of the men’s military experiences (with the exception of Private William McBeath, who arrived too late to see military action, although he did undertake training in England in case the Armistice did not hold). Their military involvement explains the reality of war experience that they brought to their war graves tasks, both in terms of personal bravery but also in terms of the camaraderie of being ‘one of the men’. This camaraderie influenced -for good or bad- their leadership style with the AGD. This is seen in the case of Major John Eldred Mott, featured in Chapter 3, who as an ex-German POW, had displayed great ingenuity in escaping prison camp, and was seen as a largely sympathetic man-of-the-men. His leadership style was more consistent with management of civilian workers than a hard-and-fast military approach, but this was of course one of the ambiguities of the AGD. Drawn from a volunteer army, they were no longer operating under the rules of war.

Frank Cahill (also known as ‘Carr’), in Chapter 4, was one of the 1914 men who were promised an early return to Australia under the ‘first in, first out’ demobilization strategy, but he decided to stay on and volunteer with the photographic section, a division of the AGD that came in for criticism for the number and quality of their images. He returned to Australian in 1921 but could receive only a 25% pension for an injury to his wrist. He committed suicide in 1928, and his widow had to struggle to have her husband’s death acknowledged as “materially hastened by war service”.

In Chapter 5 Peter Bakker and Fred Cahir identify four indigenous soldiers who worked with the ADG: Edward “Darkie” Smith from Queensland, William Charles Miller from Tasmania, George William Mitchell from Queensland and John Ogilvie from Western Australia. Smith continued to work with the Australian Graves Services and was Australia’s longest serving indigenous WWI soldier, clocking up six years, two months and five days of continuous service. However, it is notable that the only court-martial within the AGD was the stabbing of Private Ogilvie- a manifestation of racism within the group?

Chapter 6 looks at Captain Allen Charles Waters Kingston, who was caught up in the Court of Inquiry in March and April 1920 which was critical of Kingston’s command of the AGD in Villers-Brettoneux. He was suspended as a result of the Court of Inquiry, and returned home on the same ship as two of his most trenchant critics.

Chapter 7 is probably the most personal of the biographical chapters, as it incorporates diaries and letters from the author’s grandfather. Private William Frampton McBeath enlisted in June 1918 after completing his carriage-making apprenticeship, and the war was over by the time he arrived. He was drafted into the Graves Detachment, where he kept a brief diary- one of the few kept by graves workers. He arrived back in Australia on 13 November 1919, along with 1300 other troops.

The biographical approach taken by this book, particularly when the chapters were written by descendants, leads to a fairly terse dismissal of van Velzen’s “tabloid” book Missing in Action which is more critical of the AGD and its successor, the Australian Graves Services. However, there is no getting around the fact that two inquiries were held into the graves services division, which highlights not only the troubles and conflicts within the units themselves, but the political sensitivities over graves work back here in Australia, something that Bart Ziino’s A Distant Grief captures well. The individual stories told in this book underline the physical and psychological difficulty that soldiers- not just graves workers- had when re-adjusting to life in Australia, as highlighted in Marina Larsson’s Shattered Anzacs.

The book closes by enumerating the enormity of the task undertaken by the graves workers. Between February and August 1919 nearly 70,000 Allied (not just Australian) soldiers were located, exhumed and reburied by the AGD. One hundred years on, the stark beauty of Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries have washed clean the sheer drudgery and horror of their creation.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: SLV as an e-book. Read in preparation for a talk on George Lort Phillips at the Heidelberg Historical Society.

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