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Australian War Graves Workers and World War One: Devoted Labour for the Lost, the Unknown but not Forgotten Dead

Reviewed by Christopher Kreuzer

Published in 2019 by Palgrave Macmillan, Australian War Graves Workers and World War One: Devoted Labour for the Lost, the Unknown but not Forgotten Dead, is a multi-author collaborative work between two university academics (Fred Cahir and Sara Weuffen) and three other authors (Matt Smith, Peter Bakker and Jo Caminiti). As such, it spans the academic and public history fields, with well-chosen archival photographs, biographical vignettes, and moving personal accounts giving an insight into the gruesome nature and psychological impact of this post-war work.

The subject matter of the book is the contribution by Australian forces between 1919 and 1922 to locating and clearing the First World War battlefields of the huge numbers of dead lost in the fighting (left where they fell, or not properly buried), and the concentrating of existing graves into the cemeteries being constructed. Attempting to locate and identify decaying remains from the former battlefields took its toll on those doing the work. This book highlights “the human face and feeling of that poignant commission” (Bart Ziino, foreword [v]), with its strongest elements being its coverage of Australian history, and the military and biographical narratives. The book would have benefitted in places from more careful editorial processes and copy-editing; for example, the Australian terms ‘spruiked’ [p.43] and ‘cobber’ [p.58] could have been glossed for an international readership.

Weuffen and Cahir, with backgrounds in Aboriginal Studies and Australian history, jointly author two introductory chapters plus the concluding overview chapter. Matt Smith, with an extensive knowledge of Australian war graves, writes two chapters on the leadership of the Australian war graves units by John Mott and Allen Kingston. Cahir and Bakker collaborate on a chapter about four Australian Aboriginal soldiers serving in these units, while family history is foregrounded in the chapters on two other war graves workers, grandfathers of Cahir and Caminiti respectively.

Chapter 1 provides the background to war graves organisations and modern practices of commemoration. However, the writing towards the end of this chapter is somewhat imprecise, showing a lack of familiarity with parts of the history of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC). While the authors rightly limit their scope to the Australian aspects of this history, more explicit reference in this chapter’s conclusion to the wider imperial context, and the distinction drawn between the battlefield clearance workers and the cemetery workers, would have been useful.

Chapter 2 (also by Cahir and Weuffen) introduces the Australian contribution to the Graves Registration Unit (GRU) at Gallipoli, and the Australian Graves Detachment (AGD) and Australian Graves Service (AGS) on the Western Front. The Gallipoli section is good and the details behind the formation of the AGD are excellent. There is a good overview of the AGS. However, the chapter’s conclusion is limited, with the cited works by Smart and Hodgkinson serving the reader better.

In Chapter 3, the first of the five biographical chapters, Matt Smith looks at the military career of Major John Eldred Mott MC, commander of the AGD, intentionally and favourably contrasting Mott’s legacy with the AGS story to come in Chapter 6. In Chapter 4, a direct family history link emerges with Fred Cahir writing about his grandfather, Staff Sergeant Frank Cahir DSM, MM. The focus moves here from the command considerations in the previous chapter, to the mental strain placed on the men digging up and reburying the dead of the Western Front, and the challenges of reintegration to civil society. There are also lovely biographical moments, illuminating the character and nature of service in the First World War from an Australian perspective.

Chapter 5 adds to a subject previously neglected by historians, that of the Australian Aboriginal soldiers that served in the war, showcasing what is known of four such soldiers in the Australian war graves units. This chapter, like the previous one, brings up the psychological elements of service in the ranks. The leadership perspective is revisited in the penultimate section (Chapter 6), with Matt Smith returning to write about Captain Allen Charles Waters Kingston’s role leading the AGS. Here, conflicting views from other historians are mentioned regarding the formal inquiries into the AGS that were held, with Smith characterising the 2016 work by Van Velzen as “tabloid” in nature [p.65].[iv] As well as Smith’s well-argued chapter here, more balanced coverage of these inquiries can be found in Ziino’s A Distant Grief (2007), and later scholarship by Sackville-West.

In chapter 7, family history comes to the fore again with Jo Caminiti relating how her maternal grandfather’s diaries and other documentary evidence were collated and preserved by her mother (Norma E. Harrison). Extracts from the diary and letters of Caminiti’s grandfather, Private William Frampton McBeath are often quoted by historians, providing the view of the ordinary soldier. Here, Caminiti adds new historical material in the form of personal memories from her mother [p.125].

The closing chapter articulates what Cahir and Weuffen see as the legacy of the Australian war graves workers. While this survey does draw together a number of strands (including modern forensic identification efforts), it remains centred on Australian history. A fuller appraisal would include the contributions of graves workers from elsewhere in the British Empire, such as Canada and New Zealand, a point made by the authors themselves in their suggestions for further work [p.134].

In its final sentence, the book reveals the origin of its subtitle (“the lost, the unknown, but not forgotten dead” [p.140]), citing the 1918 pamphlet by Sir Frederic Kenyon describing how the war graves abroad will be designed. This quote, from a foundational document for the IWGC, perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the ‘devoted labour’ described in this book, for while Kenyon was writing about the need to commemorate those where no body could be found (and a huge number were never found), each unidentified body (‘Known unto God’) buried by the war graves workers reinforced the need for remembrance for each name inscribed on the Memorials to the Missing.

Later work by Cahir and others on this topic is seen in public histories such as the 11-minute documentary film (2019) and the online exhibition (2021) of the same name (‘The Missing’)[vi]. This body of work can be compared with a succession of later publications by other authors about the evocative subject of the Missing of the Great War.

One of the strengths of this book is its extensive use of images from the collections of the Australian War Memorial, for both Gallipoli and the Western Front, showing graves, the battlefield clearing environment, graves workers at work, and the shroud-wrapped dead bodies. Service life is also shown, along with material culture and portraits of the men featured. As such, the images in this work complement photographic collections such as the more extensive 2017 publication by Gordon-Smith. A surprising omission is the lack of photographs of the graves as they appear today.

The highlights of the collection for this reviewer were the coverage of Australian Aboriginal history (Chapter 5), the poetry by Frank Cahir [pp.58-59], and McBeath’s letters (Chapter 7). The authors draw on a wide range of mostly Australian archival and primary sources, as well as recent scholarship in this area. As such, this book is a welcome addition to the literature on war graves workers and should help generate continuing interest in the topic.

Australian War Graves Workers and World War One: Devoted Labour for the Lost, the Unknown but not Forgotten Dead, by Fred Cahir, Sara Weuffen, Matt Smith, Peter Bakker and Jo Caminiti (Singapore: Palgrave Pivot, 2019; 143pp; £39.99 eBook; £49.99 print).

Christopher Kreuzer graduated with an MA in Modern History from the University of Kent in 2022, writing his dissertation on the subject of the cathedral war memorials erected by the Imperial War Graves Commission. He has recently published on ‘Kipling and the Public Reception of King George V’s Pilgrimages to the War Graves’ (Kipling Journal 396, Volume 97, September 2023).

Image Credit: An Outdoors Group Portrait of Officers of the Headquarters of the Australian Graves Detachment, AWM EO5947, Licence: Public Domain.

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