Australian Diggers more likely to have fought as heroes and for king than

AUSTRALIAN soldiers from World War I were more likely to have died on the battlefield as “heroes” and for “king and country” than any other Allied nation according to new research of what families wanted recorded on the headstone of their loved ones.

And this was despite families limited to only 66 characters on a headstone — less than a modern day tweet — to capture the life and hopes of their fallen.

In what has surprised British researchers from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in London, new analysis has found Australian families post war were more likely to pay tribute to the king on the headstone of their fallen sons than British families were.

The Australian headstones were also the most likely to mention, heroism, honour and duty.

“The historians were quite surprised to see that,” CWGC spokesman Chris Anderson said yesterday of the analysis of millions of graves.

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The grave stones of soldiers killed in the Battle of Somme at the Pozieres Memorial. Picture: Getty

The grave stones of soldiers killed in the Battle of Somme at the Pozieres Memorial. Picture: GettySource:Getty Images

“One of the things, it was giving Australians a place in the empire, they were the ones more likely to have that sense they were part of the empire. You get the sense from notes carved on the headstone, that sense of pride to have been part of a wider cause, might have been more prevalent.

“Your first reaction would have been the Brits were going to be the first ones to think of king and country but the understated nature that we still talk about the Brits today, words like heroism and duty were not really appearing in those messages. It was again the Australians that had the highest proportion of those words heroism and duty which on its own gives you an idea the kind of the mental state or idea of how they were trying to think about their fallen.”

French children at graves in the Adelaide Cemetery of Australians killed in battle on the Western Front. Picture: Australian War Memorial/Supplied

French children at graves in the Adelaide Cemetery of Australians killed in battle on the Western Front. Picture: Australian War Memorial/SuppliedSource:Supplied

At the end of the war in November 1918 and into 1919, the war graves commission was incredibly receiving between 600 and 3000 letters a day from families seeking information about the burial of their loved ones. But from this figure, only about 10 letters a day was requesting repatriation of the body.

A decision — based on discussions with military commanders of the day — was that the rich and high ranked should not have it over the poor and lowly ranked in terms of affording to have bodies returned and that for solidarity they should all be buried where they fell, including generals side-by-side next to privates.

Researchers were also surprised about the mini personalised messages from Australian families on headstones like Lance Corporal George Henry Hills from the medical corp and son of George Henry and Mary Hill from Brunswick in Victoria — “A stretcher bearer he saved many lives tend our darling’s grave”.

Lance Corporal Harold Gilkes’ headstone. Picture Supplied

Lance Corporal Harold Gilkes’ headstone. Picture SuppliedSource:Supplied

Lance Corporal Harold Gilkes, of Woollahra in Sydney, killed in Pozieres June 1918, whose headstone reads: “An only son killed in action on his way to his leave and wedding” or Lt Harold Hill whose parents Harry and Margaret wrote “I’m all right mother cheerio”.

“You can pick any personal inscription and you can get the hairs standing up on the back of your neck because that’s 100 years ago, they were the words people were trying to pick in the middle of their grief to summarise a person on a stone that they might never see in their life because specially the ones from Australia and Canada and further away in the Commonwealth and it’s a lot less likely they would be able to get back and see them in France,” Mr Anderson said.

“I mean that’s less than a tweet.

“Seeing these words people have picked out and knowing why they picked them out it really does bring the stories to life. One of the things the guys found out was a very high proportion were addressed to a visitor rather than a person under the ground. A lot were written to his loving wife to his loving family so it’s quite spooky to think that people in the middle of their grief were writing this stuff not to their loved ones but future generations that would be coming back and standing in front of that headstone 50 or 100 years later. It’s quite remarkable to think people were already viewing these as a way for the public to engage with these sites.”

Previously unseen documents and online exhibition can be viewed on the commission’s website.