Called the war to end all wars, it only ended empires. World War I changed the world forever, and Australia left the battlefields with a new national identity. The cost was high and the sacrifices are still remembered.
Sometimes you don’t really see something until you’re ready to see it. Dr Philip Creagh (BVSc ’73) had walked past the war memorial in Narooma, on the New South Wales south coast, many times. But somehow, on a day in 2006, it was like he was seeing it for the first time: the memorial and the names of the eight Narooma men who had fallen in World War I.
“As a parent, and having experienced many things over my life, I finally saw the sacrifice that these men made and how they’d missed all the things that might have been ahead of them,” he says.
From his time as a junior student at Sydney Grammar School, Creagh remembers the school memorial, which honours the 1500 members of the Grammar community who had served and survived, and the 300 who fell. His moment of insight in Narooma crystallised something for him and made him want to visit as many graves as he could of the Grammar boys who never came home.
As Creagh started researching this history, he found another connection with his own life. Some of the fallen students from Sydney Grammar had also studied at the University of Sydney. Their names were in the University’s Book of Remembrance: among the University of Sydney men who had lost their lives in the Great War were 46 Grammar boys.
Creagh and his wife, Julie, have now made five trips to areas of significance, taking in the UK, France, Belgium, Turkey and Egypt. “The first time I walked into a cemetery in France and found the boys from Narooma, I was overwhelmed with emotion,” Creagh recalls. “It is virtually impossible to put into words the feelings of finding a boy who has looked out from Narooma to Montague Island, as I have, felt the waves on the same beaches … and here he is, so far from Australia, in a most beautiful, respectful and sacred place.”
The cemeteries Creagh visits were established after the war by what was then the Imperial War Graves Commission. ‘Imperial’ is now ‘Commonwealth’ and part of the function of this intergovernmental organisation is to maintain the graves and places of commemoration of Commonwealth military service members who died in the two World Wars.
Roughly half of the WWI gravestones have inscriptions. Families were allowed to use just 66 letters, including spaces, but the brief wording is often loud with grief. The Adelaide Cemetery at Villers Bretonneux in France has 864 graves, 519 of them of Australians. Two brothers who went to Grammar were killed there five days apart and buried side by side.
Their gravestones read:
Hugh born 23/4/99
Noble and loving
may God be thy portion beloved
Ronald born 5/7/92
Pure and Beautiful
God be thy portion beloved
Creagh is deeply affected by what he has seen. “It has been said the family inscriptions are a silent and intimate whisper from the past,” he explains. “They truly bring home the obscenity of war, the ultimate failure of civilisation.”
Creagh and Elizabeth Evatt (LLB ’55 LLD ’85) have never met, but they share a similar sense of loss around World War I. Like Creagh, Evatt came to these feelings later in life. They started in the early 1990s when she became aware of two diaries written by her Uncle Frank. They had been filed away in a library for decades, but as she read them, she felt a growing connection with the uncle she never knew as he was lost to the war as a young man.
“Losing family members to war was a common experience in Australia,” she says matter-of-factly. “Every week the casualty lists were coming out and everyone was looking at them. Everybody knew somebody who was there.”
Piecing together her family’s war history and gathering the documents and photographs that tell the story has taken many hours across years. Evatt also educated herself about the war so she could have a more global view of what the soldiers went through.
Evatt is a distinguished reformist lawyer and jurist who, among many other achievements, was the first female judge of an Australian Federal Court. Her family includes a number of prominent Australians, including Herbert Evatt (BA 1915 MA ’17 LLB ’18 LLD ’24 DLitt ’44 DSc ’52 DSc(Honoris Causa) ’52), who co-authored the UN Declaration of Human Rights. But like it did to so many other families, the war took its toll. Two of her father’s five brothers were killed: Frank, but also Ray, who is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, Belgium, because he has no grave.
Today, Evatt sits in her apartment surrounded by just a fraction of what she has collected. One of her most precious items is an ageing photograph of Frank, young and handsome in his uniform. He had been at the University of Sydney for just a year, studying medicine, when he went to war. Evatt notes that he was no warrior but he had a strong sense of duty and wanted to share the experience with six of his University friends who had enlisted. And since his older brother, Ray, had gone, he felt he should too.
“I remember transcribing Frank’s diary and I came to the last entry,” Evatt says. “That really struck me. I’d been living with Frank, day by day, through the war, then there’s the last entry. I felt the loss terribly at that moment, because I’d come to know him.”
Frank’s last letter was dated 17 September 1918. He was killed at the end of that month, aged just 20. The War ended that November.
“He nearly made it,” Evatt says sadly.
Evatt has turned her years of research into a book, The Evatt Family in World War I, which she has given to all family members. Like Creagh, she has also submitted material to the University of Sydney’s Beyond 1914 project.
The project, started in 2014, aims to extend and enhance the University’s Book of Remembrance, which was compiled from 1915 and finally published in 1939. It listed those who fell but also those who returned, a total of more than 2000 University men and women who served in World War I. Now the University is working to find any missing names and add to what is known of these people from before, during and after the war. Information collected is being put online so anyone seeking answers can learn more.
For Creagh and Evatt, what they do is much more than a historical project. “This is an intensely personal journey and will always be a part of me,” says Creagh.
For more information or to contribute material to the Beyond 1914 project, please contact the team via the website at: beyond1914.sydney.edu.au
Written by George Dodd
Photography by Sarah Rhodes (BA ’96 MPub ’09)