Marianne van Velzen has written a compelling narrative of the aftermath of WWI. The exigencies of the brutal trench warfare on the Western Front meant that while some soldiers had been hastily buried, many were simply listed as ‘Missing in Action’ and at war’s end there were many calls to discover what had happened to them.
The Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) was established in 1917 and the Australian Graves Service (AGS) was in place by 1919, charged with the gruesome job of finding and providing a fitting burial for some of the 45,000 Australians who had died in France and Belgium. The AGS was run from Australia House in London with officers in charge of various sections of the previous battlefronts, all of whom operated more or less independently. van Velzen draws in the reader with wonderful word portraits of the AGS personnel, with detailed chapters on the main protagonists.
I enjoyed this way of structuring the narrative such that individual personalities are highlighted and the reader is able to see how the antagonisms and disagreements blew up into epic proportions. For example, Major Allen was not liked or respected by the other officers as he had not been a member of the AIF. As a Quaker he was a conscientious objector and had worked with the Red Cross. Allen was estranged from his family and never returned to Australia, abandoning his wife and only child. It seems many members of the AGS did not want to return home having found comfortable billets, female companionship and relatively good pay.
The sad tale of Lieutenant Robert Burns detailed in Missing in Action exemplifies the corruption and venality which came to permeate the AGS. Lieutenant Burns was the youngest son of James Burns, a powerful businessman and a former colonel in the Australian Army. He was reported as missing, near Fromelles, in 1916 and after the war his father tried desperately to find out what had happened to his son. The ‘not knowing’ and the terrible hope that persisted for so many after the war is portrayed sympathetically by van Velzen.
James Burns, by now a sick man, left the search to Cecil Smith, his niece’s husband while he returned to Australia. Smith’s letters were ignored in London and by Major Allen in France. Allen had made a name for himself by discovering bodies in areas which had already been searched by other teams and suggested he knew where Robert Burns’ body could be found.
Smith was suspicious and questions were also being raised in the Australian press. Defence Minister Pearce insisted that London hold an inquiry into the workings of the AGS. Maladministration and corruption on a vast scale were revealed with entire shipments of equipment being stolen and sold off; official cars being listed as stolen when the drivers had arranged for their shipment and resale in England. Even Red Cross parcels were being diverted and sold on the black market.
The most serious allegations concerned deliberate misidentification of bodies or graves with no bodies and these were vehemently refuted by Major Allen. Nonetheless he could not explain how he came to believed Lieutenant Burns’ body had been moved and reburied by the Germans. The exhumation actually revealed the bodies were British. It was not until 2009 that Lieutenant Burns’ body and 250 others were recovered from Pheasant Wood, Fromelles.
van Velzen has written a moving and fascinating account, enhanced by period photographs which, while highlighting the inevitable flaws of the men of the AGS, also reminds us that these men were still facing the horrors of WWI many years after the fighting had ended.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 9
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: June 2018