A Response to Neil McDonald

Neil McDonald wrote an opinion piece on Fromelles in the Sydney Morning Herald on February 5. Neil is, of course, entitled to his view that recovery of the Fromelles Missing “sanitises what was always a brutal and bloody business” and that it’s a pity that the battlefield burials on the Kokoda Track “could not have been identified and marked, then left to tell their own story”.

I think Neil is misguided in both cases. There are a number of practical reasons not to leave the Kokoda dead in their original graves: first, they were on private land; second, who would care for them (the admirable Commonwealth War Graves Commission could not be expected to constantly maintain graves scattered over hundreds of square kilometres); third how would loved ones, descendants and others pay their respects by visiting the isolated graves.

In the case of the Missing soldiers of Fromelles, to my knowledge the only descendant to see them as they were found was Tim Whitford, whose great great uncle Harry Willis lies amongst them. Tim is a former Australian Army tank commander with a deep understanding of the Australian Digger and his heritage.

Before he saw the Fromelles Missing in the pits, Tim was open-minded about leaving them where they lay. But not after he saw them:

“And that’s what changed things for me. If they were all laid out carefully, buried in groundsheets it may have been different but some of those men didn’t have that privilege. Some had been laid there with the utmost care but others had been thrown in there like yesterday’s fish and chips.

“In Pits 4 and 5 it is a scene of abject horror. Men have been thrown in on top of each other without any care or reverence. There are men lying in grotesque positions … if we leave them like that it is a travesty.”

The real point is that if we left the Fromelles Missing as they lay, we would not be able to identify any of them. Their descendants would, to all practical purposes, be in the same position they were when they received that chilling telegram telling them that their son, brother, husband, father, uncle or loved one was “missing presumed dead”.

By disinterring them, taking DNA samples and trying to identify them by matching with their descendants we can help ease 94 years of pain and silent suffering.

Like most of the loved ones and descendants of those lost in war, Tim Whitford’s family has waited for almost a century to find out the final resting place of their loved one. Tim’s great grandmother never recovered from the loss of her brother and asked after him on her deathbed. Like hundreds of others, Tim’s family seeks closure by having somewhere to visit and mourn.

We certainly won’t be able to identify all of the Missing Diggers of Fromelles. But I believe it’s our sacred duty to do everything we can to identify as many as possible. They were individuals – not numbers – and their mates would expect nothing less from us.

(I tried many times to post this response to Neil's article on the SMH site without success.)