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September 29 , 2007

A Crowd of Witnesses

Epitaphs on First World War Australian War Graves


During World War I, 'patriotic sacrifice' was the observable public rhetoric of the war years in relation Australian service men and women who died in service. Newspapers, churches and politicians espoused it as the virtuous ideal that embodied the true Australian citizen. Mothers and wives who lost sons and husbands were celebrated for their willingness to offer up their men. Historian Colin Bale has found a different story. He read quite a number of the personal inscriptions on the headstones of identified Australian graves when visiting Europe in 1986 and patriotic death was not the significant theme he found. This led him on a five-year research crusade to review and record the inscriptions from sixty-three Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in Belgium and France, comprising all the 'known' headstones of Australians buried in them. The cemeteries he visited were a good cross-section of burial grounds with regard to size, numbers of unknown graves and location, and represent all three years that the AIF fought on the Western Front. In all, he recorded the details of 11,832 Australian headstones - just over 42% of all identified Australian war graves in the two countries. Historians had largely overlooked these inscriptions, yet they represent the words chosen years after the deaths occurred and as such, they give us a glimpse into what families wished to express about their loss at a later date. What his work reveals is quite a different story to the one commonly remembered - he presents a touching story that shows the emotions of those left behind after the death of their loved ones.
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