Four sons killed in war and a pull-down blind to hide their names

There are six Whitelaws on the ‘Honor Roll’ in the community hall in Briagolong, a small town in Victoria’s central Gippsland. The roll lists 62 local men who fought in the Great War.

The Whitelaws were brothers. Sadly, three didn’t come home from the war; another was wounded and died from ongoing complications a few years after returning to Australia. Two survived.

Honour rolls are found in every country hall in Australia; a reminder of the huge contribution rural men made to the war effort. But this honour roll in Briagolong is different. Above it is a frame for a pull-down blind. I noticed it as I was taking part in the local ukulele strum session. My mind soon wandered from Bad Moon Rising to the six Whitelaw brothers.

I noticed the Honor Roll during a ukulele class in the Briagolong Hall.

I wanted to find out more about the Whitelaws and why the blind frame was above the honour roll so I met with Dennis Browne from the Briagolong RSL. Dennis’ grandfather, Lionel Whitelaw was one of six brothers who served in the Great War.

Lionel married Martha (Mattie) Eyre Hood in 1917. (Dennis tells me Martha was the first white woman born at Lake Eyre.) Lionel and Martha had twin sons who they named after two of their uncles killed in action, Ivan and Robert. Sadly the twins died in infancy. Martha died of tuberculosis in 1933. Lionel died a few months later (According to the Gippsland Heritage Journal, number 30.)

Dennis Browne is the grandson of Lionel and Martha Whitelaw.

The Whitelaws on the Honour Roll

There are six Whitelaws honoured in Briagolong. Four of the eight Whitelaw brothers, Angus, Ken, Bob, and Ivan, made the supreme sacrifice during World War I. Lionel and Donald were wounded. There are no known graves for Bob, Angus and Ivan.

Left to right: Bob, Ivan and Ken Whitelaw
  • Angus (24th Battalion, killed in action in 1916 at Mouquet Farm at Pozieres in France, aged 17).
  • Robert (21st Battalion, killed in 1917 at Bullecourt aged 32),
  • Ivan (12th Battalion, killed near Meteren in 1918, aged 24),
  • Kenneth was wounded in 1918, returned to Australia, but died of his wounds in 1922.
  • Lionel was wounded and returned to Australia in 1916. He died in 1933 – his family believe his death was due to his war service.
  • Don was wounded and gassed at Messines in 1918 and returned to Australia. (Sadly, his toddler daughter Pearl, and Annie’s first granddaughter, died after drinking petrol.)
Don, Rob, Ivan, Lionel, Angus and Ken via: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article242674264

A pull-down blind was used to protect a grieving mother from the sight of the names of her four sons who made the supreme sacrifice.

Dennis Browne confirmed local folklore that a blind was fixed above the honour board to hide the names of his grandfather and his grandfather’s brothers. The blind was pulled down when Annie Whitelaw, the boys’ mother, was near the building. It was to protect her from the sight of the names of her sons who never came home. Dennis told me the original, dusty blind has recently been found in a store room.

It’s reported that “every year Annie would sit crying in her horse and jinker watching the Anzac Day march from a distance, because she could not bear to go any closer”.

Annie Whitelaw, the mother of nine children, six of which served in the Great War, rests in the Briagolong Cemetery. Despite losing five brothers, Annie and husband Bob’s youngest son Kelvin enlisted in the RAAF in 1941. According to the Gippsland Heritage Journal, it looks like he didn’t serve overseas. Annie died in 1927. He husband died in 1945, aged 91, and is apparently buried in Annie’s grave.

On her headstone is a quote by Conan Doyle: “Happy is she who can die with the thought that in the hour of her country’s greatest need she gave her utmost.”

I felt uncomfortable when reading that on her gravestone. It will take a lot to convince me that Annie Whitelaw was happy about the sacrifice her sons made in the Great War.

Lest We Forget.

Anzac Day 2021: If you’d like to pay your respects to the Whitelaw brothers and others who served, the dawn service gets underway at 6am at Briagolong’s Anzac Park, followed by a free gunfire breakfast at the RSL Log Cabin. The main service is at 0930 at Anzac Park, followed by morning tea at the RSL Log Cabin. Two-up starts at 2.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a death literacy advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. It is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage (Additional postage of AU$8 is payable for overseas orders). 

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