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Think Piece: The Headstone Project

Thursday 18 May, 2017

Andrewa Gerrard_editedWalking through just about any of Australia’s older cemeteries, there are to be found spaces between graves, or whole areas, that seem blank. While in some cases it is possible to determine that the ground has been used, this is not always the case.

Buried in some of these unmarked spaces are possibly some of our First World War veterans. Just how many it is impossible to say, but it is estimated that there could well be around 12,000 such burials given the number of men who returned to Australia and based on research currently being undertaken in Tasmania.

In 2011, with the centenary of the First World War looming on the horizon, it was decided by a group of likeminded individuals from Hobart that something needed to be done about the veterans in unmarked graves here in Tasmania; that these men should no longer be anonymous and that their service needed to be recognised. Also that their families needed a place to mourn.

A simple pedestal headstone constructed from two pieces of concrete was designed, one that would fit across the head of the grave. On this would be placed a bronze plaque that included the service emblem and cross, the person’s number, rank and name; the unit they served with and some personal details.

From the very beginning of this work we have had the backing of Millington’s Cemeteries who control Cornelian Bay Cemetery, Hobart’s main cemetery. They have forgone their fees and helped with the provision of maps and other records to assist in helping us find the unmarked graves dotted throughout the cemetery.

Tasmanian graves are all in perpetuity and at no time is a family asked to pay further fees or have the grave re-used on non-payment. While this is not the case in other states we are aware that there are moves being made to ensure that our veterans at least lie in graves that are in perpetuity.

Despite carrying out our first group of unveilings in March 2012 the research work continued behind the scenes. This has taken many hundreds of hours of, at times, painstaking work ensuring that we don’t miss anyone as we moved through the cemetery section by section. A final figure of 316 was eventually reached. All these men had seen overseas service and had been awarded the British War Medal – which we set as our basic criteria. There have been one or two exceptions made.

To date we have installed all the bases etc needed at Cornelian Bay Cemetery plus some others. This has largely been due to the fact that we were able to get two Work for the Dole schemes up and running through the assistance of Senator, the Honourable Eric Abetz. The last group of workers were just fantastic.

A common question that I am asked as Chairperson of the group is why do we need to do such a project or why are these men lying in unmarked graves? The committee members have all made a personal commitment to honouring and recognising our First World War veterans, usually because we have a family connection.

In answer to the second question – there are a number of reasons, some social and others economic. When talking with families we soon started to realise that there was not one answer but many. Some of these related to family situations or lack thereof. In some cases family relationships had broken down post war. Education, or lack of, was another factor. Many families were not aware that they in fact needed to apply for a Commonwealth funded war grave if the veteran was actually eligible.

Those veterans who died in an accident often left a widow and/or children without any means of support. This meant the widow had to make the decision about keeping a roof over her head and that of her children or going to the expense of placing a headstone. It is only in the last 20 or so years that the level of benefits given to veterans has risen substantially.

While it supports veterans in many ways, the federal government’s priorities do not extend to supporting a project such as this. Its view is that it is for individuals. My view is that we are doing this for the ex-service community. A national register has been started and it is hoped that as we add more names we might eventually raise the profile of this endeavour sufficiently to attract federal government support.

In November 2018 we hope to have the last plaques in place at Cornelian Bay Cemetery and have moved the project to other cemeteries within the state. What we would very much like to see is this project or something similar rolled out in other states.

John Brownlie who attended one of our committee meetings last year is keen to start such a project in South Australia. To help with this myself and my Vice Chairperson, Mr. Harry Quick travelled to Adelaide a couple of weeks ago and met with Veterans SA the Chief Executive Officer from the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority who are enthusiastic about the project.

We are looking for people who could help form a committee with John to get the project up and running in South Australia. John is also looking for people to contact him with names and service details of anyone whom they know who may be lying in an unmarked grave in South Australia. If you can help in anyway please contact John Brownlie at

Lest We Forget

Mrs Andrea Gerrard is Chairperson of The Headstone Project. She is the granddaughter of two First World War veterans and had two great uncles who served and did not return. She is also passionate about Tasmania’s history in particular its First World War history. In 2015 Andrea completed her Master of Arts, focussing on Aboriginal Soldiers from Tasmania who served in the First World War. Andrea is also deeply involved in ex-service organisations in Hobart.

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