Headstone Project 2017
Wednesday 21 June, 2017
I rise today to speak about the solemn work of an organisation called the Headstone Project. This organisation aims to find the final resting place of returned soldiers from the First World War who, for a variety of reasons, now lie in unmarked graves. The reasons may be that the soldier does not qualify for a commonwealth-funded war grave, the lease on their grave may have expired and often the soldiers run out of family to maintain their grave, or the families simply lack the funds to pay for the plots. Many returned soldiers from this era do not qualify for perpetual war graves, as their death was not directly related to their war service.
The Headstone Project was established in Tasmania about five years ago by local historian Andrea Gerrard, after discovering that there were dozens of unmarked graves of returned soldiers. Mrs Gerrard then formed a committee and undertook a systematic survey of the cemetery. These words of Mrs Gerrard best explain the origins of the project:
In 2011, with the centenary of the First World War looming on the horizon, it was decided by a group of like-minded 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… 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 reused 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.
The project has since memorialised 150 out of the 316 identified graves at Cornelian Bay Cemetery in Hobart, the criterion being those men who were awarded the British War Medal. Unfortunately, as a voluntary organisation with little to no revenue stream, the remainder of the memorials are yet to be funded, but this has not stopped the enthusiasm of those involved. Work for the Dole schemes have been instrumental in ensuring that many of the Tasmanian graves could be completed, something that Senator the Hon. Eric Abetz was intimately involved in.
Since 2012, there have been ceremonial unveilings performed by Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Wilkie MP, federal member for Denison, the Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO, Director of the Australian War Memorial, and Lieutenant General Angus Campbell AO DSC, Chief of Army. The Governor‑General, His Excellency the Hon. Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC, has agreed to unveil a newly‑memorialised grave in November of this year. The project certainly has its supporters, and rightly so, given the nature of the good work it does.
As news of these finds became widespread, inquiries came from throughout Tasmania, with 70 graves identified in Launceston alone, and this is expected to rise once a proper study can be done. Thirteen graves have been memorialised in Ulverstone and nine in New Norfolk. Based on initial proportions, it is predicted that there may be up to 12,000 of these unmarked graves throughout Australia. It was at this point that the committee felt it necessary to expand its operations to the mainland.
This is where Mr John Brownlie comes in, who was invited by the Tasmanian committee to become the South Australian representative. I met with Mr Brownlie recently, and I was encouraged by his commitment to this noble project. Mr Brownlie is in the process of establishing a committee in South Australia, where a similar survey may be done of our cemeteries.
Channel 7 aired a story in April in the lead-up to ANZAC Day, which led to at least five families coming forward and identifying soldiers who were relatives with unmarked graves in the Port Pirie, Kimba, West Terrace and Centennial Park cemeteries. I encourage families who believe they have relatives in such graves, or indeed those who are keen to join the project's committee in South Australia, to contact Mr Brownlie via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I acknowledge the support of Veterans SA and the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority for this project, and I hope the committee can achieve similar results to those in Tasmania. I wish the Headstone Project every possible success.