The men who scoured the battlefields for our war dead

NEW GUINEA, GRAVES IN THE SOPUTA WAR CEMETERY. IN THE FOREGROUND ARE THE CROSSES OF PRIVATE HARVEY AND LANCE CORPORAL SEARLE.

You probably won’t have heard of them, but their work was incredible.

They were the soldiers who scoured the battlefields and makeshift cemeteries in far flung countries looking for the bodies of our war dead.

They were the Australian War Graves Unit who, according to Victorian historian Lisa Cooper, “would arrive, often during ongoing fighting, and exhume, identify, and document what they found.”

In an interview with the ABC, she said, “The work these men had to do in order to make sure our men and women were laying somewhere with some dignity and some honour was gruesome but necessary.”

Burying their mates

After fighting, soldiers would do their best to bury their own men from their units, using whatever materials they could find to mark the graves – often a wooden cross or a piece of tin. If those killed hadn’t been buried and were ‘surface remains’, the War Graves Unit would find them too, and give them a proper burial.

It’s hard to fathom how awful the work was, so it’s no surprise that when those men returned to Australia, they didn’t want to talk about their service. That’s why not much of the work of the War Graves Units has been documented.

SOPUTA, NEW GUINEA. 1944-06-14/02. CORPORAL T.L. WHITE OF THE 7TH GRAVES REGISTRATION UNIT WRITING THE NAMES OF DECEASED PERSONNEL ON CROSSES AT THE WAR CEMETERY. (Copyright expired – public domain) https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C59749

Documenting the units

Lisa Cooper has recently finished her PhD at Deakin Uni on the work of Australia’s war grave units in caring for the dead of Australia’s war against Japan. She’s written a great article in this month’s Remembrance magazine.

From the article: “War grave units were small, usually made up of one officer and seven or eight other ranks. Units were reinforced by local villagers or, in some areas, Japanese POWs after Japan’s surrender.”

“Once located, remains were wrapped in blankets and were often lashed to bamboo poles and carried out of the jingle to the nearest temporary cemetery or nearest road for transport to a cemetery.”

This standing orders excerpt is from the ‘how to’ guide used by the units. And a warning, it is graphic and contains language now deemed offensive.

An excerpt from: Standing Orders – War Graves:] Australian War Graves Service – Technical Instruction to War Graves Units in Operational Areas (n.d.) https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2698064

Research difficulties

Lisa tracked down two men who worked in the war graves unit, but they didn’t want to talk about their experiences. (Who can blame them?) Lisa was, however, able to interview an infantryman, Arthur, who, with his battalion, was sent to the island of Ambon (now part of Indonesia) with the belief that they were to find missing but living prisoners of war, members of Gull Force 2/21st Battalion.

But it wasn’t a rescue mission after all. Arthur told Lisa,

“It didn’t take us long to realise that these men were dead”.

Infantryman Arthur

The men were mostly buried in mass graves, in pits. According to the Australian War Memorial, most of the men captured at Laha in Ambon “had their hands bound before execution”. There were four mass graves from the Laha massacre. After the war, the bodies were moved to Ambon War Cemetery.

If you have a relative in an overseas war cemetery, or have visited a war cemetery, it’s the work of the War Graves Unit that laid the foundations of those cemeteries.

 The last of the Australian War Graves Units were disbanded in 1947. Their work continues through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Australia’s 90,000 war dead lie in war graves in at least 78 countries around the world. May we remember them. And to quote Lisa Cooper’s article, “Eighty years after their work began in the Pacific War, may we remember the men of Australia’s war grave units”.

If your family has a connection to the Australian war graves unit, Lisa Cooper would be keen to hear about it: L.cooper@deakin.edu.au

About the author

Author Lisa Herbert

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist and audio producer, and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan – an informative, modern, and quirky workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The third edition is available in Australia for $29.95.  For international buyers, The Bottom Drawer eBook is AU$11.99 on Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo, Booktopia and Google Books. To purchase, click HERE.

2 Responses

  1. Lisa, I’m not sure if you’re aware of the Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery at Fromelles in Northern France. After the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916 the Germans buried 250 (mainly/all Australians) who were KIA in German lines/trenches., behind their lines/
    The mass grave of 250 was not discovered until 2008 by a private team led by Lambis Englezos. After convincing both British & Australian Govts, they were individually buried in the new cemetery in 2010. Now 168 of them have been identified & work is continuing to identify more.
    The Battle & later discovery of the mass grave is aptly detailed in Peter Barton’s book “The Lost Legions of Fromelles”/

    1. Thank you Mick. I didn’t know this. It’s wonderful to know that this work continues. I appreciate you taking the time to share this. Lisa

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