Saturday, November 9, 2013


The Great War changed this nation in so many ways- it's no surprise that the losses are commemorated everywhere.

Researching for my novel recently, I wanted to check what people at home knew about Australian casualties as of July 1915, three months into the Gallipoli campaign. I checked out the The West Australian newspaper from the time, and what I found there was a stunning statistic that brought home exactly the reason those days still echo down the through the years with such resonance.

On July 19th 1915, 85 days after the ANZAC landing and the start of Australia's war, the newspapers published the Fifty-Third Casualty List. And the totals at that point in the war, just three months in, were as follows:

That is:

2307 Australians killed
8418 Australians wounded
746 missing in action.

A total of 11,471 casualties in just three months. Eight-five days to take a whole nation from innocence, to utter devastation.

It's a stunning impact on a population of only 4.9 million, which included 2.58 million males. What it means, when you break it down into cold, hard numbers, is that nearly five in every one thousand Australian men had been killed, injured or lost in just three months.

One in every two hundred men in this nation, in three months.

It is a mind-boggling number, and the war was only just beginning. There would be another three-and-a-half devastating years to come, over the course of which close to 40% of the men of this country would enlist to fight, and of whom more than one in ten would never come home.

It's why we can't, and won't, forget. The sacrifice belonged to everyone in this country, and it still does today. Nobody was left unaffected.

Wherever I travel within the state of Western Australia or in the rest of the country, I make a point of stopping to see the local memorials. With Remembrance Day marking another point to pause and remember tomorrow, here are just a few of those.

Albany, Western Australia

The Desert Mounted Corps memorial (top left) in Albany sits at the top of Mount Clarence, and the Avenue of Honour leads up to it, lined with trees and plaques that commemorate local lives lost. The hill offers a view out across King George Sound, where many of the ships gathered before departing as the first Australian Imperial Force on November 1st, 1914, on their way to war. Most of Western Australia's troops departed from the port city of Fremantle to join the convoy, but Albany will always have a special place in our war history, and I plan to be there for the centenary of the departure next year.

Perth, Western Australia

There are multiple memorials to many different conflicts at Perth's Kings Park, which sits above the city centre. This is the principal state First World War memorial, with the Cenotaph at the far end, overlooking the Swan River, and the Court of Contemplation, the Flame of Remembrance, and the pool of reflection in the foreground. The largest ANZAC Day dawn service is held here every year; this year the numbers were some of the largest ever, with more than 40,000 people coming along to remember.

Blackboy Hill Commemorative Site, Greenmount, Western Australia

As a couple of previous posts have discussed, the great majority of Western Australia's 32,000 troops passed through the training camp at Blackboy Hill (now Greenmount) in the Perth hills over the course of the First World War. There's little left at the site now, but the memorial is very special- on the eve of ANZAC Day each year, the setting sun aligns with all parts of the memorial to create a unified shadow representing the spirit of the ANZAC soldiers whose legacy was born here.

Mingenew, Western Australia

Most country towns in Australia have a memorial to the Great War, and this one in the small mid-west town of Mingenew is one example. There was a high enlistment rate from the local population, and the losses are remembered today, there as in so many other small towns that lost sons, brothers and fathers.

Geraldton, Western Australia 

The regional city of Geraldton on Australia's west coast has one of the most glorious memorials I've ever seen. It commemorates an event of the Second World War, not the First, but I include it here because it represents the fact that the Great War was far from the only arena in which Australians died in battle. The memorial here is for the loss of the HMAS Sydney, an Australian battleship that was sunk by a German raider not far off the coast, with the loss of all hands. The location of the lost ship was a mystery for many years, until it was finally rediscovered through some fantastic maritime archaeology work in 2008. The dome you see in the picture below is made of seagull silhouettes- 645 of them, each one representing a lost life from the Sydney. As they take flight into the sky, the statue of a woman waits nearby, looking out to sea. There's a stele representing the ship's bow, and a pool with a final seagull marking the now-known location of the ship on a map.

Alice Springs, Northern Territory

This simple memorial sits at the top of ANZAC Hill in the central desert town of Alice Springs, commemorating the fallen from all wars.

Adelaide, South Australia

I just visited the Adelaide memorials last week, and there are several. The central memorial, known as the National War Memorial, is a stunning and imposing structure on the city's North Terrace, with two sides showing the before and after of war. The front side shows the before, with the youth of Adelaide- girl, student and farmer- laying down the tools of their everyday lives to reach for the Spirit of Duty. The reverse shows the aftermath, in which a fallen youth is lifted by the Spirit of Compassion.

This dramatic picture of the front side of the memorial was taken by the talented Melanie Michaels, a fellow war historian and author.

Sydney, New South Wales

One of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring war memorials in the nation is the ANZAC Memorial in Sydney's Hyde Park. The building and the sculptures it contains are extraordinary, and the museum housed within is also well worth a visit. The central sculpture, Sacrifice, is the most perfectly heart-breaking encapsulation of what the Great War meant to this country, depicting a fallen soldier borne aloft by his mother, sister, wife and child. From the memorial's website, where you can also see a picture of it:
'Thousands of women, although not directly engaged in war activities, lost all that was dear them - sons they has borne and reared, husbands, fathers of their children, friends, lovers.

There was no acknowledgement of them in casualty lists of wounded, maimed and killed. They endured all men's sacrifice quietly'.
'In this spirit I have shown them, carrying their load, the sacrifice of their menfolk.'

In modern times, we've seen that load passed down to us, and we carry it still.

This Remembrance Day and all others, we remember them.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Gallipoli Dead from Western Australia

Earlier this year, a group of Western Australian historians and genealogists came together to answer what should have been a simple question: how many Western Australian men were killed at Gallipoli during the First World War?

The answer, as it turned out, was not so simple. Though we have the figures of how many men signed up in each state throughout the war, it appears there has been no previous calculation of exactly how many died from each state in the various arenas.

Part of the complication comes from how to work out who could be considered Western Australian in the first place. Plenty of men signed up here who just happened to be in the state at the time and had no other connection, so the embarkation rolls do not provide a perfect answer. The project set criteria for Western Australian identity, and volunteers then tracked down all kinds of records to verify connections and come up with a final answer.

Project coordinator Shannon Lovelady gave a great interview on ABC Radio last week to talk about the project and the final outcome, which is worth a listen.

I came in on the tail end of the project and assisted in tracking down a few of the trickier cases. Their stories and many others can be found on the Facebook page for the Gallipoli Dead of Western Australia, where Shannon hopes the process of sharing information will continue as we approach the centenary of the ANZAC landing in 2015.

Revisiting the Past- the Archaeology of Blackboy Hill

 In my previous post, I mentioned that I'd be expanding on the Blackboy Hill story with a little detail on the archaeology work currently being done in the area. As an archaeologist myself, I tend to see landscapes in many layers- present and past- and Blackboy Hill is no exception, though there's not a great deal left to see above the ground.

Beneath the ground, there's not a great deal left either, but there is enough to provide some new information. Historical archaeologist Dr. Shane Burke, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Notre Dame, was kind enough to answer some questions for me about the results of his investigations in the wider area.

 1. Can you tell me a little about your work at Blackboy Hill? What are your aims for the project?

The project has many aims – the first to determine if any archaeology of the 1914 to 1918 camp exists. Today it is mostly a school and residential area, but careful survey discovered a few areas containing artefacts with distinct early 20th century characteristics. The main aim is to test the identity of the Australia soldier portrayed in numerous sources with the archaeological record.
2. What was the extent of the original site, and how much of it remains today? Were there any significant features in the preserved area?

The project is on-going. The original site was large but larger than the original maps and photographs show. Areas now occupied by houses had trenches as late as the 1980s; the site of the hospital is now fancy homes built in the 1990s. When I went to school in the area during the 1970s, mates of mine who lived nearby often brought objects to school like rising sun hat badges. The ‘site’ is extensive if one includes the Helena Vale racecourse grandstand where troops practised rappelling down the structure’s wall.

However, for the project, we are keeping to the map from the Commonwealth showing tents, parade ground and hospital. Much of this area is under the nearby school, but the area of excavation provided an extensive range of artefacts. Maps showed buildings, but they often do not show the rubbish pits, and it is these features we discovered during the excavations in 2011. Nearby are most likely brick hearths for the kitchen, but we intend testing this hypothesis in the near future.

The area near the memorial has a row of trees planted in 1914.

3. How has the landscape changed, and how has it stayed the same? What, if anything, would be familiar now to the soldiers who first marched into camp in 1914?

The general feel of the place is unaltered, while the topography of the Darling Range has remained the same. The railway line has gone, but the highway retains a similar route. The hills are the hills, whether 1914 or 2014.

4. What kind of results have you seen from your excavations? What types of material culture are you finding? Have you encountered any surprises?

Much of the material unearthed has passed through cultural and natural filters. Beer bottles of bottle green colour were very common, which was surprising because the camp went through both ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ phases – but we did not expect to find so much. There were a number of personal objects, like harmonica reed bases. The soles of army issue boots, with their distinct copper studding, were also found. Very surprising was the discovery of a few French perfume bottles. Blank .303 ammunition was also common.

5. What conclusions have you drawn from your results so far?

The interpretation of life at the camp is altering as more material comes to hand. The perfume bottles could mean women at the camp contrary to army regulations, or it could mean that the men were attempting to overcome body odour. This was the first time many of the men at the camp had ‘roughed it’, and some may not have appreciated certain aspects of army life. The alcohol could be a site-specific find, for officers were permitted to drink while general ranks were not, but it could also mean an obvious flouting of camp regulations.

The ammunition is contrary to secondary sources that state that firearm’s practice was never done at the site.

One must remember that the camp was used in the 1930s during the depression and the 1940s during the second war. However, the green beer bottle glass dates to pre-1922 when the king-brown was introduced, while the .303 cartridges are date stamped to 1908.


A huge thank you to Shane for taking time out from his busy research schedule to share those fascinating details.

And to finish, a sadly necessary reminder: to anyone who goes out to have a look at the Commemoration Site at Greenmount, please remember that Western Australia's heritage laws forbid the removal of culturally significant material from sites like Blackboy Hill. Not to mention, the story can only be told if the material remains where it fell. So, as I tell my kids- look with your eyes, not with your hands, and please respect our ANZAC history.