National Archives of Australia

Issue 10 April 2013

The common grief of Empire: early Anzac Days in Britain

Many Australians consider Anzac Day as their national day and, as we approach the 2015 centenary of the Gallipoli landing, Anzac Day observance continues to grow. Historian and Archives Advisory Council member Professor Bruce Scates discusses the first Anzac Days in Britain, and explains how they united an Empire in mourning – and changed the way we commemorate war.

In 1915, John Francis Naughton, a 28-year-old baker from Charters Towers in Queensland, sailed for Gallipoli. His war was soon over. Thrown into bitter fighting near Walker’s Ridge, Naughton was severely wounded, carried down to the beach and eventually evacuated to Lemnos. By the time he received proper medical care, wounds to his legs and hands were flyblown and septic.

Naughton was sent to Britain, where his hands were amputated. For a time, he did the rounds of hospitals in the south of England. Then complications set in. Naughton died of kidney disease in November 1916, more than a year after he had been wounded. A pathetic parcel of personal effects was sent home to his mother in Australia.

In many ways, Naughton’s story is similar to thousands of others found in the service files kept by the National Archives of Australia. But there is one important difference: Naughton became a cause célèbre in death. His body was placed in an open grave in Kensal Green Cemetery in London. Exposure to the elements led to consequences ‘better imagined than described’, in the words of one report. It was several weeks before the plot was filled in and then only after formal protests by the London Branch of the Australian Natives Association (ANA). In 1921, Naughton’s body was exhumed and placed in a separate plot for Australian soldiers.

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List of personal effects of John Francis Naughton, circa 1917. NAA: B2455, Naughton John Francis

Honouring the fallen

The treatment of this one soldier’s body had far-reaching consequences. As late as 1917, the protocols of remembrance, in particular how British and dominion troops were to be buried, had yet to be fully established. Before this, troops killed overseas or who died from wounds or illness in England were only entitled to individual graves if they were officers. Enlisted men were often buried in common plots with as many as 20 corpses. Naughton’s grave was intended to receive other bodies in this way and hence was left uncovered.

Honouring the graves of the fallen was one of the great innovations of World War I. The Prince of Wales National Committee for the Care of Soldiers’ Graves was established in the year Naughton died and included representatives from Britain and the dominions. The authorities moved slowly but resolutely towards the adoption of certain principles that ended the age-old anonymity of the war dead and dictate the charter of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to this day.

Every man, regardless of rank, was to be buried in an individual grave, each honoured with a standard memorial, and their families at home entitled to choose an epitaph. Such graves were to be cared for by the state ‘in perpetuity’; the well-tended rows of glistening white tombstones stretching across fields of Flanders and the Somme are the product of the Commission’s tireless labours.

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Buttes New British Cemetery, near Polygon Wood, Belgium. Of the 2048 men buried here, 1703 are unknown. Photograph courtesy of Nick Hughes

Records held in the Archives confirm that Australia played a key role in determining these protocols. Well before the war had ended, organisations such as the ANA lobbied for better treatment of the dead, particularly in the case of burials in Britain. The Australian Government offered to meet the cost of individual plots and argued tirelessly for separate Anzac cemeteries. Both played the part of ‘surrogate mourners’, advocating the interests of the bereaved whose loved ones were buried oceans away.

The dignified treatment of the war dead was the most enduring consequence of this agitation: the treatment of Naughton’s body seems scandalous today. But it also had more immediate ramifications, effectively shaping the way Anzac Day was marked in Britain.

The first Anzac pilgrimages

Pilgrimages to the graves of Australians buried in Britain began as early as 1916. Historians preoccupied with the spectacle of marching troops in Anzac Day processions have overlooked these private acts of mourning. The first large-scale pilgrimage to Anzac graveyards took place in 1918. In March that year, a call went out from Australia House to ‘honour the brave representatives of the Commonwealth who have died in our midst’:

it is felt by the members of the London branch of the ANA that it would be very fitting if a pilgrimage was undertaken on Anzac Day … and floral tributes placed on various graves … Seeing the burials have taken part in so many localities it may perhaps be difficult to carry out the scheme absolutely, but much may be done.

Australian and New Zealand expatriates rallied around Anzacs’ graves, bedecked them with springtime flowers, and weeded and tended them. It was a massive undertaking. By the end of the war, 2135 members of the First AIF were buried in common or individual plots in some 343 graveyards scattered across England. By 1921, Anzac Day pilgrimage had extended ‘the length and breadth of the old land’ with a floral tribute placed on ‘practically every [Anzac’s] grave’ in Britain.

Among these surrogate mourners were British families whose sons had served alongside Anzac forces in Gallipoli, nurses who had cared for them in Britain, townsfolk with fond memories of ‘the distinctive slouch hats of the colonials’. Supporting the Anzac pilgrimage assuaged the common grief of Empire, as letters to the organisers testify:

One is from the widow of a [British] soldier who … also took part in the landing at Gallipoli. He was subsequently killed but as she cannot put flowers on his grave, she intends visiting some Australian graves on Anzac Day thereby honouring his memory.

Another was from a mother whose son was buried in France: ‘[she] wishes to “adopt” a lonely Australasian grave in England, and keep in touch with the relatives overseas. People in France are doing the same for her.’

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Original grave and marker of Private John Henderson in Belgium, circa 1918. Photographs of graves marked with temporary wooden crosses were sent to grieving families. NAA: B2455, Henderson J 2383

Scholars of commemoration have explored how the front was ‘transplanted’ to Australia. Flanders poppies and Gallipoli pine were planted near memorials, soil carried from one country to another, the metal name plates on original wood crosses ‘returned’ to a dead soldier’s loved ones. The commemoration of Anzac Day in Britain suggests that this traffic also went in the opposite direction. Waratah, pohutakawa and wattle were stowed in the ‘freezing chambers’ of ocean liners; dried sprigs of rosemary and the ashes of wreaths laid at Melbourne’s Shrine and Sydney’s Cenotaph were duly despatched from Australia to London.

This was clearly an attempt to link the bereaved with the far-off graves of their war dead. ‘There is a great space of water between us’, one mourner remarked, and few could afford to make that journey.

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Anzac Day in London, 1920s. Bouquets of wildflowers were frozen and transported to Britain for ceremonies on both Anzac Day and Armistice Day. NAA: M3614, 12

Today, coverage of Anzac Day observance focuses on the big ceremonies: the massed crowds that gather around memorials in Hyde Park or the media spectacle at Anzac Cove. But the history of Anzac Day reminds us of other ways of remembering. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Australians lobbied for the dignified burial of their dead and gathered quietly around the graves of their countrymen, mourning another’s loss as if it were their own.

The Archives will be marking the Anzac Centenary 2014–2018 with a range of activities, including a new website, Wartime Australia, and workshops on the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the defence of Australia.

Want more?

View the service record of John Francis Naughton

Find out more about World War I service records

Visit Mapping our Anzacs

Explore Shell-shocked: Australia after Armistice

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