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 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.)
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.
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.)
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.
At the start of most books there’s a dedication page. It includes the name or names of people or things who have inspired the author.
Here’s what appears on The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan‘s dedication page. These names, the people and their work, hold a special significance for me.
It’s been 10 years since Private Kevin Elliott was killed in a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan. He was on foot patrol when he was killed in an explosion caused by a rocket-propelled grenade in the Babaji district, Helmand province. He was 24 when he died on 31 August 2009.
I learned about Pte Elliott’s death when I saw a photograph in an online media article. The image stopped me and my tracks and I found myself staring at it for ages. I clearly remember where I was and what I was doing when I saw it. The incredible photograph by Jeff J Mitchell said so much but left me wanting to know more.
Sobbing in a Scottish cemetery was Barry Delaney, a mate of Pte Elliott. The grief in the photo is palpable and the dress is hard to miss. You see, the year before the friends had made a pact. One would wear an outlandish dress to the funeral of the other. It was a novel but effective way those two friends approached a really tough subject. They had a conversation about their mortality, they expressed their fears, THEY TALKED ABOUT IT, and they drank vodka. And this really resonated with me (the conversation, not so much the vodka).
Inspired by the strength and friendship between these two mates, I delved deeper into the story and eventually contacted Pte Elliott’s family.
In subsequent correspondence with his grandmother, I learned Pte Elliott had also told his family what he wanted if he was killed on active service. He told them he wanted to be buried wearing the jersey of his favourite football team and white socks. His wishes were followed.
“Kev was like my brother – we would have done anything for each other,” Barry Delaney told the Daily Record newspaper.
We said that whoever died first, the other one had to wear a pink dress with green spots to the funeral – and we shook on it. It was mainly his idea and the more I think about it, I’m sure Kevin knew something was going to happen.
Barry couldn’t find a pink dress with green spots so he chose a green one and added pink socks to make the outfit look sillier.
He told the newspaper: “It’s what Kev would have wanted.”
Who was Private Kevin Elliott?
By all accounts he was full of mischief, a bit of a lad. His commanding officer called him a “lovable rogue”.
He didn’t really want to do that tour of Afghanistan and was due to quit the army. He’d already served in Iraq and Northern Ireland, but he didn’t want to let his mates down so he agreed to do one more tour.
Captain Harry Gladstone said, “I remember talking to him shortly before we left Inverness to deploy to Afghanistan in March. He was dressed in civilian clothes, having been de-kitted, and about to walk out of Fort George back to civilian life when he decided to sign back on. “
“When asked why he signed up again he simply said, ‘I didn’t want to miss the boys’.”
Full of cheek
Private Peter Fenton, Fire Support Group gunner called him cheeky:
But you couldn’t get annoyed with him. He was always able to get a laugh in any situation. He would bend over backwards to make sure everyone was all right. “He was hilarious, confident, loyal, and above all charming.
Private Kyle Russell, Fire Support Group gunner, said:
A story typical of Kev was on having a room inspection in Fort George, the Platoon Sergeant opened the fridge to see it full of beer. He told Kev to get rid of it; Kev proceeded to drink the contents of the fridge in front of him and continued for the rest of the night.
“Kev was kind and generous – he lived for the moment. If you asked for a fag, he threw you a packet of twenty. He was a terrible singer but my fondest memory of him was sitting in the back of a vehicle screaming out the words to ‘I got you babe’ at the top of his voice.”
Lance Corporal Ian Bruce, Fire Support Group gunner, said that Kev would stir people up:
Kev was a poser – he loved his body – but underneath he cared deeply about the other people in the platoon. He would try and wind people up but you couldn’t get annoyed with him, he was too nice. He wanted to be active the entire time.
He loved being in Afghanistan and had booked a holiday to Australia for our return. He also wanted a pair of white socks to walk down Dundee High Street pulling the birds! We will all miss him badly.
The photo of Barry Delaney in that lime green dress planted a seed in me that, several years later, sprouted The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan. I wanted others to be like Pte Elliott and Barry Delaney. I wanted people to have that tough conversation about their mortality and funeral plans, in whatever form that may take.
With the fantastic help of The Royal Regiment of Scotland, I was able to get in touch with Pte Elliott’s family. I wanted them to know that their son, grandson, brother, uncle and nephew had inspired something positive and I wanted them to know that, even though I was a complete stranger on the other side of the world, I was thinking of him.
Five years after Pte Elliott’s death, I sent the family my book. Written on the dedication page was “Private Kevin Elliott”. I didn’t know if it was the right thing to do so I asked the advice of the army’s bereavement officer. He gave a positive response.
I foolishly opened the card and read it on the steps of the Tamworth Post Office. It was so beautiful, I openly cried.
I didn’t really expect a reply but Pte Elliott’s grandmother, Joan T Humphreys, sent me a delightful thank you card.
While I will keep most of the contents of that card to myself, including the list of novel things that Pte Elliott wanted put in his coffin, I was so glad to know his family appreciated what I’d done.
Mrs Humphreys wrote, “Your book is delightful. Although it is a sombre subject, myself and many of my family and friends laughed many times during reading it.
“Thank you for sending the book and thank you for honouring Kevin by your dedication to him,” she wrote.
One of many
Private Kevin Elliott wasn’t the only soldier killed in that ambush on 31 August 2009. Fellow Black Watchman Sergeant Stuart Millar also died. Newly married and with a young daughter, he was 40 years old.
As you know, thousands upon thousands of people have been killed at war and their families live with their loss every single day.
Let’s not forget them. Lest we forget.
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. It is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage (Additional postage of AU$9 is payable for overseas orders). She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.
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.
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”.
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).
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.
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 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.