Australia’s Buried and Then Forgotten Soldiers

The Australian governments from the 1920s broke a promise that led to many ex-soldiers being buried without any recognition at all. As another Anzac Day has come and gone, heralded by the words ‘Lest We Forget’, let us not forget Australia’s un-commemorated Anzacs.

There is a rural cemetery called Queensland, located in Longreach, that is likely home to at least a dozen unknown and forgotten soldiers. A Longreach historian named Kaye Kuhn said, “The dead don’t die until they’re forgotten. Well these guys well and truly died and they’ve been well and truly forgotten, so let’s start to remember them.”

In Queensland alone there are about 600 unmarked graves. Often there is just a pile of rocks marking the resting place, topped off with a simple grave plot peg. Others are marked by a simple stone or rail edging that lacks any kind of inscription.

Kuhn has researched these men for four years to uncover the identities of those veterans who survived the dangerous trenches of World War I, but eventually died from wounds they incurred or committed suicide after the fact.

Gallipoli veteran Private Leo Daniel Dyball has a grave with no name or headstone, just a sandstone edge. He was gassed on the battlefields of France and returned home in 1918. Within three short months of his return, he died. In the North Queensland Register his obituary read, “A returned soldier… died from ‘the effects of gas poison’”. He received three medals and was a former Queensland mounted police officer. Before the war, he had lived through being speared by an Aboriginal man at work.

Private James Patrick Clancey is buried in another part of the cemetery. He is believed to have suffered greatly from the aftereffects of being gassed while actively fighting, and he succumbed in 1923. All he has at his grave site is a pile of rocks, a simple cemetery peg with a ‘C’ for Catholic and the plot number 505.

Close by to him lies Private Martin Riley, who was also gassed fighting in France. He died at the age of 65 in 1928. The grave site is a pile of rocks and it too is marked ‘C 621’.

When World War I concluded, the Australian government promised that all ex-soldiers’ graves would be properly marked. In the Brisbane Telegraph (April 20, 1922) it was announced, “Arrangements now have been made for the Commonwealth Government to undertake this work on behalf of the Imperial War Graves Commission.” Furthermore, it reported, “Headstones will be erected on the graves of those who died from wounds received, accidents occurring, or disease contracted while on active service, whether discharged or not on the date of death, and on whose graves no private memorials have already been erected other than kerbings or iron railings.”

The research Kuhn conducted also includes soldiers who died from drowning, inexplicable accidents or took their own lives through suicide. Today it is suspected that these men were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In those days, it was called being ‘shell shocked’. Kuhn explains, “They just had enough, hung themselves or just cut their wrists or shot – a lot tried and didn’t succeed and then faced court because suicide was illegal in those days. There’s just no recognition, they didn’t want the recognition, so I suppose that’s how it goes.”

It was not quite that simple. Under the headline “Lest We Forget, Neglected Graves, Promised Headstones” the Daily Mail of Brisbane reported the Queensland Returned Services League’s frustrations back in 1923. To them it was a sordid thing for a government to tell widows and grieving mothers something it had no intention of fulfilling. They had promised that headstones would be provided over the graves of ex-soldiers who had died for their country. “Pardon us getting a little irritated at the governmental delay, but we think this grave question is being treated with callous indifference, and the dead are not being honored.”

The Longreach Leader had recorded at least six burials that lacked any kind of marker by 1926. The local RSL sub-branch said at the time, “The futility of approaching the government further in the matter was realized.”

Stewart Cameron is the current president of the Queensland RSL. He explained that if he went back to the 1920s now in his current position, he would be quite frustrated. When World War I ended, there was a huge regional campaign to mark the graves of those who lost their battle to war injuries, but it seems to be something that Australians in the main have become cognizant of only of late. World War I alone saw about 62,000 battle deaths. Shortly after that a similar number of men died due to injuries, gasses or suicide.

This was at a time when the government was not very proactive, but that should not impede forward progress in today’s world. It has been nearly 100 years since the RSL was originally founded in June 1916.

Cameron has ensured that the RSL will provide markers on the graves in Longreach and in other locations. He stated, “Where we become aware of unmarked graves, of those men and women who have served their country, we are obligated to mark them accordingly. So my clarion call to the community is not just across Queensland or Australia, if you know of an unmarked grave of a serviceman or woman, come and tell the Returned Services League.”

The Office of Australian War Graves (OAWG) has the official responsibility for war graves today. Any deaths believed to have been a result of the war are eligible to have applications submitted on their behalf to the Department of War Veterans’ Affairs. According to the OAWG, the application is the first step to request that a death is investigated and a determination rendered by the Repatriation Commission. Any interested party can make this type of request; it does not have to be done by a family member. However, the Office of Australian War Graves does not make the final determination.

The process welcomes all veterans who served in the Australian Armed Forces. They are all “entitled to have the relevant service emblem displayed on a privately arranged memorial, the cost of which is borne by the family, estate or interested party”.  To go forward, obtain a permission letter from the OAWG, and be prepared to show proof of service such as discharge papers or service documents.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE