Missing in Action – new book lifts lid on Australian war graves

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Missing in Action

Australia’s World War I Grave Services, an astonishing story of misconduct, fraud and hoaxing

By Marianne Van Velzen

Published by Allen & Unwin
RRP $32.99 in paperback • ISBN 9781760632809

Each Anzac Day, many Australians gather at memorials in France and Belgium built to commemorate the fallen from the Great War. Visitors search graveyards, looking for grandfathers, great uncles or other relatives to pay their respects. These people assume that the name on the headstone is in fact the grave of their family member.

But after reading this revealing account of the Australian Grave Services, one could never be certain that this is the case.

Some 45,000 Australian men died on the Western Front and it was the responsibility of the Imperial War Graves Commission in concert with an Australian War Graves Detachment to locate, exhume if necessary, identify and then register where all the men were buried.

By the end of 1919, this had merged into the newly formed Australian Grave Services. But, as Marianne Van Velzen details, beneath this veneer of respectability, many of the Australians charged with performing this grizzly task were deeply flawed men. She also highlights the shortcomings of the officers in charge.

Allegations of ‘body hoaxing’ emerged from this chaos. In fact some graves, upon being opened, were found to be empty. There was gross misappropriation of money and army possessions and the sharing of quarters with ‘women of ill repute’.

The situation came to a head after complaints from the French resulted in two official enquiries. The results were damning and the guilty were quietly shipped back to Australia. Eventually the AGS was disbanded and the IWGS took over responsibility for locating missing Australians. A very dark chapter in Australia’s war history was effectively closed.

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