100 years ago today the first ANZAC day was celebrated to honour the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) who had the year before landed at Gallipoli at the start of the disastrous Dardanelles campaign – an attempt to capture Constantinople and force Turkey out of the war.
The landing and the bravery of the troops who fought there is sometimes said to have forged the national identity of both nations. ‘Australia was born on 25th April 1915’ may still be a common ANZAC myth.
Another is that of the ‘donkey man’, 202 Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick, a stretcher bearer with the 1st Australian Division. Following the landing at Anzac Cove Simpson commandeered a donkey – several, in fact – to help in the task of rescuing the wounded.
He continued this odd journey under fire for over three weeks. until he himself was killed during the Third attack on Anzac Cove. His CO wrote that Simpson’s bravery under fire had been so frequent that it was ‘hard to pin down one act for which to award him the Vicoria Cross.’
So they didn’t bother.
A hero, nevertheless.
It can’t have escaped your notice that this year marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. That huge, wasteful diversionary tactic (the French were being ‘bled white’ at Verdun) which lasted 141 days and gained virtually nothing (unless, as Keegan says, you count the destroyed terrain which slowed the German advance in Spring 1918) began 100 years ago this year.
Thousands of people will mark the occasion by going the the battlefields and visiting the cemeteries. There are plenty of them, on all sides. With over one million casualties, the Battle of the Somme has been called the bloodiest in human history.
But across the UK, in churchyards and municipal cemeteries, there are random war graves some of which are undoubtedly of men who fought – and in some cases were mortally wounded – on the Somme. There was no repatriation of bodies in World War One. These are the graves of the men who either survived that battle (lived to fight another day) or were wounded, invalided home and subsequently died of their injuries. Some, even, will be the tragic victims of the 1919 Influenza epidemic.
Who will visit their graves?
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is keen to make sure these men are not forgotten, as well as to gain wider recognition for all the UK’s war graves. They’re easy to identify. All servicemen (and women) who in military service who died between 4th August 1914 to 31st August 1921 were entitled (and their families strongly encouraged to accept) the iconic white Portland headstone.
Finding them can be a slightly harder proposition. They’re inevitably in the oldest, often overgrown, part of a large cemetery and unlike in France and Flanders (as well as further afield) they’re not always grouped together. Here are a few I found in Boston Municipal Cemetery yesterday…
There are fifty-three first war graves in Boston cemetery. I have no idea whether any of them contains the remains of a Somme veteran. But with a little but of detective work, it should be possible to find out.
Watch this space!