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Final Salute – Headstone Project South Australia

Monday 29 July, 2019


Armed with a cemetery map and burial records, a growing battalion of South Australian volunteers is scrutinising hundreds of unmarked graves across the state in search of World War I soldiers lying forgotten in possibly more than 1000 burial sites. They are soldiers who served in some of the bloodiest of battles and returned home to confront high unemployment, wives who had abandoned them and parents and siblings who had passed away from old age and illness, or who were casualties of war themselves.

They had no welfare support and died alone, many with the burden of physical and mental illnesses that war brings. Without close kin, or a penny to their name, they were buried in unmarked plots without a visual trace of who they were or what they had sacrificed.

Some died at the height of The Great Depression, leaving behind children and wives, or elderly parents and siblings, who had to choose between bread on the table or erecting a headstone.

It’s a heartbreaking history that is today being corrected by 30 South Australian volunteers.

They are young and old, amateur historians, husbands and wives, servicemen and women, retirees and RSL members who form part of The Headstone Project South Australia.

More, however, are needed as the number of unmarked graves identified in SA rises.

“I had no idea that so many of our soldiers had been left without recognition of their war service,” says Rachael Manda, a 19-year-old Bachelor of Archaeology student who joined the group this year.

“It is a massive injustice. It is very important that we remember everyone who served, regardless of how or when they died. Everyone took the same risk when they signed on, nobody should be dismissed or denied proper recognition.”

The Headstone Project SA has so far identified 70 unmarked graves of World War I servicemen who were posted overseas. They are scattered across 30 cemeteries, from Port Pirie to Kimba and Cheltenham to Berri.

Once a grave-site is identified and service credentials verified, The Headstone Project SA team erects a pedestal headstone and memorial plaque and runs a commemorative service to honour the soldier’s service to country.

Six unmarked graves have been dedicated since 2017. The most recent headstone dedications took place yesterday at Port Pirie Cemetery.

Four World War I soldiers buried there up to 91 years ago were properly recognised and remembered.

Among the crowd of 100 at the special service was Robert Sjostrom. The 59-year-old mining contractor from Port Pirie and his son, Kristofer, came to commemorate his great-uncle Private Albert Julius Sjostrom.

Relatives of Private Albert Sjostrom, Robert and Kristofer Sjostrom.

Robert was born seven years after his great-uncle’s death.

“I knew that he was single, that he never married and spent a considerable amount of time in and out of hospital – but I don’t know whether it was war-related,” says Robert.

Private Sjostrom was one of five brothers who served in the war – and all of them returned from the battlefields. He worked at the smelters in Port Pirie from 1919 to 1925 as a labourer. Robert says his family is grateful to The Headstone Project SA for giving their ancestor the military memorial he deserved.

Port Pirie RSL president Malcolm Bond says the fate of these WWI soldiers “makes me feel so sad.”

About 25 unmarked WWI soldiers’ graves have been identified at Port Pirie.  “People have fallen through the cracks” he says.

Macclesfied RSL President Dennis Oldenhove says it’s important to remember “that ‘Lest We Forget’ is not a catchphrase but a commitment”.

In 2017, the Macclesfield RSL and the local community raised funds for the headstone of WWI soldier Private August Julius Nicolai after learning of his tragic end.

“Men like August Nicolai returned from the war to no family members, no employment and no fixed address as well as no welfare following their war service,” Mr Oldenhove says.

“It’s no surprise then that with The Depression years a soldier down on his luck could not be afforded a neat grave-site with a head- stone that honours his service to our country,” he says.

“Organisations like The Headstone Project are a way in which the community can ensure those who have served and suffered for their country, and our way of life, are truly remembered by those who owe them so much.”

The volunteers of The Headstone Project SA, some with no connection to WWI, are driven by one purpose: “They served. They deserve to be remembered.”

“That’s our motto,” says The Headstone Project SA president John Brownlie. “These men had no recognition when they died and we feel it’s time that they did.”

Mr Brownlie says the project has opened his eyes to the sad realities of war for many of the men found in the unmarked graves.

“We are finding that a number of these men took their own lives,” he says. “Others came back pretty knocked about and took to the drink and became estranged from their family and ended up in paupers’ graves.”

“A lot of them died in the 1920s and 30s when there was no money around and family were unable to afford a memorial.”

Mr Brownlie, a retired two-way radio communications consultant from Valley View, and former fireman Neil Rossiter, from Sefton Park, founded The Headstone Project SA in 2017.

“I’m driven to honour my father’s service and by an interest in history,” Mr Brownlie says. His father, Bob, served in the 2/40th and 2/43rd Infantry battalions and was posted to Darwin during the Japanese bombings in WWII.

Mr Brownlie first became aware of the issue of WWI soldiers in unmarked graves after being invited to a special meeting in Hobart while visiting family in Tasmania in 2016.

The meeting revealed the work of Hobart historian Andrea Gerrard and her husband, Ron, who, with volunteers, had located hundreds of unmarked WWI soldiers’ graves across the state since 2001. 

The group had conducted a study approximating that up to 12,000 of these graves existed nationwide – with at least 1000 in SA. The Tasmanians wanted to expand their project to the mainland and Mr Brownlie felt compelled to take up the cause.

On November 11, 2017, South Australian WWI soldier Archibald John Kenneth McVicar was the first in mainland Australia to have his unmarked grave dedicated with a headstone under the project. That dedication ceremony, also at Port Pirie Cemetery, drew a crowd of 150 people, including up to 30 of his relatives from as far away as the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Victoria and Queensland.

His granddaughter, Adelaide- based chief financial officer Geraldine Cox, says The Headstone Project SA not only honours the dead but has the power to connect the living.

“It became a family reunion that lasted all that weekend and hasn’t stopped,” Ms Cox says.

She says the dedication service brought together family members who had not seen each other for years and who were now connected for life.

“It gave me an experience I could never imagine – reconnecting with people I knew very little of through a man none of us had never met,” she says.  “It really is difficult to find the words to explain how amazing this project is and the passion and dedication of its volunteers.”

The ripple effects of Private McVicar’s headstone dedication in 2017 ran far and wide.

“Mr McVicar is the start of a very long journey,” Harry Quick, the former federal MP for Franklin, from The Headstone Project in Tasmania, said at the time.

Plans are now afoot to establish a national Headstone Project organisation, with representatives from Tasmania, SA, WA, NSW and Victoria having met in April.

In February, former governor- general Sir Peter Cosgrove called The Headstone Project “a nation- leading scheme” and a “labour of love … one headstone at a time.”

Mr Brownlie says The Headstone Project SA has grown from two volunteers to about 30 in the past seven months, but many more are needed, as are funds.

The group has attracted grants from the Marshall Government and Federal Government up until 2020 and relies on donations, with each dedication costing up to $800, including the headstone, travel and the service.

With 70 unmarked graves identified for dedication so far, they’ll need to raise more than $56,000.

“We don’t currently have the funding or the volunteers needed to do the work,” Mr Brownlie says.

New volunteer Clive Huggan, a retired Royal Australian Air Force Wing Commander of 25 years, says The Headstone Project was of national importance. He and wife Hilary – a retired education officer for the Australian War Memorial and the Office for Australian War Graves – offered their services and experience to the group in January.

The couple say it’s been one of the most rewarding and poignant community projects they have been involved in.

“I know first-hand the camaraderie and devotion of men and women who serve their country and knowing these soldiers lie in unmarked graves has really resonated with me,” Mr Huggan says.

“It’s a real tragedy. Everyone says ‘Lest we forget’. By definition these men have been horribly forgotten.”



Story written for Sunday Mail Insight by REBECCA DIGIROLAMO


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