Matt Keogh lays a wreath at a Commonwealth war grave.
Veterans Minister Matt Keogh at a grave carrying a marker that will be used on survivor headstones. Image by HANDOUT/DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS' AFFAIRS
  • war

Once-forgotten WWI veterans honoured a century later

Kat Wong December 23, 2023

They went to war as chipper young men, only to find themselves in regional Australia a handful of years later: shattered, isolated and haunted by memories of the trenches.

World War I soldiers who died in combat and were laid to rest in official Commonwealth war graves, but no one has similarly honoured the survivors – until now.

Five veterans organisations across Australia have received federal government funding for gravestones to commemorate veterans who returned home and died of causes unrelated to service – including 20 former soldiers who lived out the rest of their days in Orange.

Forgotten Diggers founder John Thomas says many of them came from other countries such as England, Ireland, Scotland and Canada and after the war they ended up in the regional NSW town suffering from “shell shock”.

The condition, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, was not medically recognised.

Wrongly, it was considered a coward’s disease linked to weakness of mind and caused many veterans to be ostracised and isolated when they finished serving on the frontline.

“They went away to war as happy, cheery young men and came back shattered,” Mr Thomas said.

“They wound up spending their lives – or what was left of their lives – in an asylum with families in other parts of the world.

“There’s no one to think about them, no one to commemorate them, no one will acknowledge them, no one will even recognise that they existed – and that to us is an affront.”

Forgotten Diggers has received $9000, which Mr Thomas said will help pay for 20 grave markers to honour the Orange veterans.

“(Veterans) should never be rejected as official war deaths,” he said.

“Everyone who came back (from war service) should be entitled to Commonwealth war graves, because they did what they did, and they deserve to be rewarded after placing their lives in jeopardy.”

Although WWI is often brushed off as a needless war from a different era, Mr Thomas says it remains integral as a coming-of-age event for the nation and a warning against future violence.

“World War I was really the first time that mechanised mass murder came to a war,” he said.

“If we forget that, all we’re going to do is repeat it.”

And in some ways, Mr Thomas says, “all wars are fairly pointless”.

“Ideally, those who decide they want to have a war – put them in a cage, let them punch it out, and whoever comes out on top, comes out on top,” he said.

“Everyone else gets to live a life.

“But that’s not going to happen because it’s much easier to throw away young lives.”

The Waroona Historical Society and the 10th Light Horse Organisation in WA, the South Australian Headstone Project, and the Friends of Balmoral in Queensland will also receive grants for WWI graves, which will be arranged by, paid for and maintained in perpetuity by the government.