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). 

Kranji War Cemetery

A mass grave and tributes to our war dead: Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore

I’d never heard of Kranji War Cemetery, but I’m glad I stumbled on it during a visit to Singapore.

One of the first graves I noticed was that of Aboriginal soldier Private J Knox. Private Knox died of illness as a Prisoner of War in Changi in August 1942. He served in the 2/26th Battalion, a Queensland unit that contained several Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. They fought in Malaya and Singapore but were captured when the British Empire garrison surrendered. The prisoners endured shocking slave labour conditions, and several Indigenous men were among the many Australians who died in captivity.

More than 20,000 Australians served, with around 1,800 lives lost in battle during the fall of Singapore. Around 15,000 were captured as Prisoners of War.

Private J Knox lies in Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore
Private J Knox lies in Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore. He died as a Prisoner of War six-and-a-half months after allied troops were ordered to lay down their arms on February 15, 1942. His grave is in the first row on the left as you enter the cemetery. The flowers and flags laid on his grave just two days prior are a poignant reminder of the ongoing effects of war. A hand-written card said he was remembered by “his mob back in Australia”.

The Kranji War Cemetery is on the outskirts of Singapore. The Japanese landed just a few kilometres from the cemetery’s site on 8 February 1942, at the mouth of the Kranji River. The following night they launched an attack. Fighting continued for a few days, much of it hand-to-hand combat. Japanese troops had the numbers and lots of support from the air. Allied forces never stood a chance.

Names with no graves, and graves with no names.

The Kranji War Cemetery is the final resting place of more than 4,400 casualties of World War II. Among those graves are 850 without a name, only “known unto God”.

There are 850 graves of unknown soldiers at the Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore.
There are 850 graves of unknown soldiers at the Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore.

And then there are walls and walls and walls of names – names of land troops and airmen who don’t have graves. I can only assume many of those 24,000 casualties were left where they fell as they attempted to stop the Japanese during their surprise invasion through 200km of Malayan rainforest. Many would have been Prisoners of War who died in captivity, most notably during the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway. There is a memorial at the Kranji War Cemetery to the twenty-four THOUSAND people who have no known grave. (I needed to spell that out as I am still trying to come to terms with that number. Each of those men had families. Can’t. even. fathom).

The memorial to the 24,000 soldiers and airmen with no known grave.
The memorial to the 24,000 soldiers and airmen with no known grave. The wreaths were laid two days prior to my visit during the 75 year commemorations of the Fall of Singapore.
This memorial wall is littered with the names of Australians.
This memorial wall is littered with the names of Australians. There are many Commonwealth nationalities on the walls at the Kranji War Cemetery.

Mass hospital grave

There’s another memorial at Kranji War Cemetery which really put my heart into my throat. It relates to a mass grave that is located on hospital grounds in Singapore.

The Singapore Civil Hospital Grave Memorial at Kranji War Cemetery lists the names of 107 Commonwealth casualties buried in a mass grave alongside 300 civilians.

The Singapore Civil Hospital Grave Memorial
The Singapore Civil Hospital Grave Memorial commemorates 107 Commonwealth servicemen buried in a mass grave on hospital grounds. There are 300 civilians in that grave as well.

You see, during the last hours of the Battle of Singapore, hundreds of wounded civilians and servicemen taken prisoner by the Japanese were taken to the hospital. The number of subsequent fatalities was too great for the hospital and authorities to handle. The deceased were put into an emergency water tank that had been dug on the hospital grounds prior to the war. This mass grave holds more than 400 people.

After the war it was determined that identifying those within was an impossible task. So the grave was left undisturbed and enclosed, consecrated by the Bishop of Singapore. The site is marked by a cross, put there by military authorities.

The Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore
The Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore. The walls of the large structure in the background have the names of 24,000 servicemen who don’t have graves.

The Kranji War Cemetery isn’t far from the Kranji train station so I can highly recommend you pay it and our fallen soldiers a visit the next time you’re in Singapore.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is 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. The second edition is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage. Lisa’s passion is telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

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Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author.