Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 40

Soldiers’ journeys: returning to the battlefields of the Great War

Associate Professor Bruce Scates

Bruce Scates is Associate Professor of History at the University of New South Wales. His work on the history of Australian pilgrimages to war graves overseas was funded by both the Australian Research Council and the Australian War Memorial. His book, Return to Gallipoli: walking the battlefields of the Great War, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2005.

The Great War claimed the lives of over 60,000 Australians. They were buried, if at all, not far from where they fell, in cemeteries scarring the landscapes of Gallipoli, Egypt, Palestine, Belgium, and France. Pilgrimages to these sites began in the 1920s when mothers, fathers, wives, and children crossed the seas to visit the graves of their loved ones. Theirs was a long, difficult, and extremely expensive journey.[1]

In contrast, a visit to Australian war graves today is usually part of a recognised tourist itinerary. Every year young backpackers make their way from England or Australia to Istanbul and in three- or four-day tours they sample history, belly dancing, and remembrance. The Western Front, too, is fast becoming a rite of passage for Australians, both young and old. One can stay at “Hotel ANZAC” and dine at “Café Canberra” or “Restaurant Le Kangaroo”. The consumption and commodification of our past is apparent in any number of tourist activities. For example, on ANZAC day eve backpacker hostels screen the iconic film Gallipoli almost continuously; “Lest we forget” tours entice travellers to explore a landscape made “legendary” by war. The slippery distinction between travel, tourism, and pilgrimage is something scholars do well to explore.[2] The focus of this particular paper is rather more specific.

I aim to chart what I call “soldiers’ journeys” – journeys across time, space, and memory. Given the format of the conference, where each speaker has only 15 minutes to deliver a much-compressed paper, I will focus on three discrete episodes: one from the 1930s, one from the 1960s, and the last from today’s generation of travellers. Of course, today’s soldier-pilgrims aren’t First World War veterans. Nonetheless, they relate to the phenomenon of pilgrimage in a distinctive, almost custodial way. Mindful of Peter Stanley’s opening instructions to the conference – “be bold, be expansive, and be provocative” – I’ve chosen to address three themes within each period of analysis: commemoration, nostalgia, and heritage.

Let’s begin with commemoration. Buried in the family papers of the State Library of Victoria is a much-handled photograph of General Monash and his daughter Bertha. They stand, grim and steadfast, beside the makeshift graves of Australian soldiers killed at Mont St Quentin. One suspects the date is somewhere around February 1919, after the end of the war. Like many soldiers, Monash made the journey for the sake of families back home. His task was to locate, tend to, and photograph the graves of young soldiers.[3] Studies of family bereavements reveal how soldier pilgrimages acted as a conduit for memory: soldiers raised makeshift crosses over the graves of their mates, scavenged floral tributes from the wastelands of war, and prayed on behalf of distant families.[4] But these acts of private pilgrimage were also caught up in the official fabric of commemoration. And nowhere is this better illustrated than in J.J. Talbot Hobbs’ remarkable journey.

Lieutenant General Hobbs served as a commander of the First Division Artillery, both at ANZAC and Pozières. His military service spanned the first three decades of the twentieth century and, to this day, Hobbs’ name is emblazoned across his regimental parade grounds in Perth, Western Australia.[5] In the early 1930s Hobbs set out to honour the names and memory of other soldiers: “I have corresponded with Colonel Hughes Imp [of the War Graves Commission]. … As an outcome of his request I have decided to visit as many cemeteries and War Memorials as I can during the course of my holidays.” He began his year-long journey in February 1930, travelling to the Middle East, Gallipoli, France, and Belgium. Hobbs made personal notes at each cemetery: “native labour here unreliable”; “dirty and untidy”; “best cemeteries in the care of ex-Imperial Army men”. At times, his entries sound like realty descriptions: “a well-situated memorial”; “good aspect”; “solid stone”; “in need of some repair.”

A trained architect, Hobbs was professionally disposed to commemoration and designed five divisional memorials raised on the Western Front. He became concerned about the disrepair of private memorials, including those erected to his former comrades. British and dominion governments may have been unwilling to repatriate their dead but Hobbs thought a case could be made for transplanting these memorials in Australia: “Private monuments … rather spoil the general effect as a military cemetery. These might all be relocated to the hometown the dead soldier comes from.” Certainly this was an extraordinary proposal on Hobbs account and underscored the sanctity otherwise associated with Australian war graves.[6]

The most difficult part of Hobbs’ pilgrimage was his visit to Gallipoli. Leaving Egypt in March 1930 he finally reached the Dardanelles via Athens on a Rumanian steamer. Hobbs complained the journey “involved a good deal of trouble, annoyance, and expense”. Visitor facilities in Canakkale were limited and Hobbs was thankful to share a modest cottage, provided by the Imperial War Graves Commission, with Major Tasman Millington: “I don’t know where else I could have stayed in this half-ruined, poverty-stricken town.” For the next three days, Millington escorted Hobbs over gullies and graveyards. The Peninsula was “a silent and desolate place”, tended only by Millington and his ragged staff of “peasant women, Greeks, and White Russians”. Hobbs left Gallipoli “with a feeling of deep sadness”, firmly advising intending travellers: “Go to Gallipoli, if you must, with a properly organised party… It is not easy to get into Turkey … and it is not too easy to get out.”[7] It was the first of many such travel warnings issued to would-be Gallipoli pilgrims. Of course not all soldier pilgrimages were as exacting, which brings me to my second theme – nostalgia.

Surprising as it may seem, nostalgia has been fiercely marketed by the organisers of so-called battlefield tourism. No sooner had the mud settled in Flanders, than men were invited to return to the trenches. One advertisement reads: “Just imagine the thrill of it … exploring the old saps and dugouts.”[8] A newspaper muses over the stark encounter between place and memory for soldiers, who ironically complained about the obliterated landscape of war:

Can this be the old Salient? As we stand on the wall [of a] ruined canal I trace the Menin Road out towards that … death trap, “Hell Fire Corner”. But very soon the view is broken by neat farm houses – red roofed, white-walled, and homely … a patchwork of tilled fields, early crops, industry, and comfort. Where are all the signs of the ghastly inferno? [9]

In Turkey it would take 80 years for nature to cleanse the stain of war. However, on the Somme and in Flanders it was completed in less than a decade. Peace returned with indecent haste, leaving the pilgrims with no time for mourning:

Many soldiers stood on the site of their old dugouts, and wondered whether it was all a dream. … they went to [find] their old headquarters and found shops selling camisoles and silk “nighties”. There were even cheap little [stalls that] had sprung up, selling souvenirs of the Great War.[10]

It is difficult to say what the returning soldiers found more puzzling and offensive – the crass commercialisation of war or the surrender of their old front line to lingerie.

But soldiers don’t always seek only the front line. In 1968 a group of 30 diggers travelled to the Western Front for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. Like most military operations, a successful pilgrimage depends on realistic, resourceful, and totally committed leadership. The organisers of the “Operations Amiens” pilgrimage, Fred Cahill and Les Irwin, served as officers with the 9th Brigade and witnessed the brunt of fighting. Both became politicians after the war – few professions could have better equipped them with the diplomatic and logistical skills to organise a pilgrimage. Their most valuable resources were, by far, knowledge and patronage. In particular, Irwin used his political connections to negotiate a steady stream of subsidies and concessions, including medical aid for the party, whose average age was in the mid 70s.[11] Friends in high places opened many doors and the pilgrims were received by royalty, feted at Australia House, and honoured at around twenty civic receptions.[12] Though their journey was organised as a private undertaking, the group behaved and were treated like Australian ambassadors.[13] It was a remarkable achievement, by any standards. At a time when authority was being challenged by youth across the world, the “old men” organised themselves along the lines of small platoons and drilled in familiar formations. The lame, the blind, even the totally incapacitated, rallied to what the organisers called espirit de corps – the sense of male fraternity that had languished out of uniform.

The nostalgic return to the mateship of war was nowhere better seen than on ANZAC Day. Operation Amiens began with an ANZAC Day Service in Britain and organisers were keen to make it a genuinely Australian occasion. Herein lay a telling illustration of the tension between nostalgia and commemoration. Wreath laying at Whitehall was all very well but organisers asked if it would be possible to host drinks, perhaps a little stronger than “tea and cakes”? Above all: “Speeches are not our favourite pastime and, for God’s sake, please no women.”[14] One pilgrim wrote to Cahill: “Confidentially, the very last thing we want is the help of the Women’s Auxiliary. Leave it to the Poms and ANZAC Day would be more like a ‘Mothers Union Tea Party’. All that cake and sympathy really gets the chaps down.”[15] Commemorative pilgrimages have a tendency to be decidedly depressing, with too many speeches at too many cemeteries. Operation Amiens, in contrast, blurred the boundaries between pilgrimage, sightseeing, and nostalgia. Several of the soldiers threatened to “wag it” if the trips to the cemeteries weren’t balanced by time in bars, cafes, and other “dives” the “diggers once frequented”[16]. Reg Biggs proposed his own itinerary:

In England, why not a [nostalgic] trip to Salisbury Plain. In France, [let’s do] a round trip through our old rest areas. … Then we’ll have a couple of days doing Paris. I wonder whether the Hotel All Nations brothel is still functioning?[17]

Though well into his 70s, it seems Biggs was fully functional. For “a good time in Paris”, he would happily forgo all but a day’s rest on the homeward journey. Biggs and several others on Operation Amiens called their pilgrimage a “sentimental journey”. Battlefield feats were far less memorable than youthful exuberance and sexual adventure. In 1968 nostalgia definitely got the better of commemoration.

And now let’s turn to the latest generation of battlefield travellers. I’ve been surveying and interviewing pilgrims for almost ten years. Former and current servicemen and women make up a large part of the sample. The reasons for their journeys vary but almost every participant has great reverence for what they call “military heritage”. For example, "David" served with the Royal New South Wales Lancers during the Second World War, travelling to New Guinea, Sinai, and Palestine. He has marched with his regiment every ANZAC Day since repatriation and is still marching at 80 years of age. For David, the regiment embodied traditions of “pride, loyalty, and duty”. What better way to nurture those traditions than to visit the Somme and Flanders? Several veterans have described themselves as “amateur historians” and many belong to military history associations and are writing their memoirs. For young travellers, going to Gallipoli is seen a rite of initiation and part of the induction into military service. A young female recruit told me: “We are … soldiers, this is our ‘Hajj’”.[18]

The sense of a shared heritage is also deeply personal. A large number of respondents came from what one young officer called “military families”[19]. Several Second World War veterans were named after uncles lost on the Somme or “buried at sea”. They had grown up with the wounds of war – “nervy uncles” crying into the night, strangely unfamiliar fathers, and great-aunts who grieved away a lifetime. And the “horrors of war”, as one respondent aptly put it, often “shadowed” several generations. “Conrad’s” brother was lost on HMAS Sydney. His stepbrothers died in the Middle East and his father was “disabled permanently by four years overseas”. His mother’s first husband was killed in 1917[20] and another family member was killed in Vietnam. For him, going to Gallipoli or the Western Front was a way of “honouring all these men”, a chance to “admire”, “salute”, and “represent them”.

Often these journeys were made for others. “VXER” went to France for a friend, an old army mate who was dying:

He asked me … if I would visit Villers Brettoneux and see and photograph his uncle’s name on the panel. I found myself photographing graves for no fewer than a dozen men of my father’s old battalion. Often, as I stood in front of a grave, I would [wonder] if the soldier knew I was there, that I was thinking of him. [Surely, just by doing that, that cold place] would be a little warmer.[21]

I was surprised by how warmly soldier pilgrims responded to my survey, writing with a level of trust and an intimacy that humbled me as an historian. Their journeys were based as much on the “familiar and intimate past” as the mythic narrative of “nation and history”. They involved what public historians call “the blurring” of private pasts with “larger historical stories”.[22] And nowhere is that more clearly expressed that when it comes to issues of gender.

Of course, the survey had to have a gender question. Like all the questions in the survey, it “set the scene” in the hope of evoking both memory and response. The question read:

The overwhelming majority of Australia’s war dead were men. Gender identity (like national identity) is a theme of many epitaphs: they did their duty not just as soldiers but also as men. How did you respond to this appeal to manhood? Can you say how it affected you as a woman or a man?

It was perhaps fortunate this was the last question in the survey. Several respondents told me that they didn’t believe in gender (or were simply “too old” for it); many railed against what they called “feminist political correctness”. Perhaps I hadn’t understood the ethos of the time and, worst still, had a poor grasp of biology. “Men fight wars”, an old nasho told me, “and women make babies”.[23] By far the most vigorous response came from a retired major general: “I’m really not sure what this question is getting at. If you’re suggesting that women should have gone to war, either you don’t understand the nature of trench warfare or you don’t understand women.”[24]

Women, on the other hand, were quite responsive to the gender question. In particular, nurses emphasised men’s fragility in war, sometimes drawing a clear nexus between war, masculinity, and violence: “What happens to manhood when you are suddenly reduced to depending on someone for the rest of your life and we saw many such cases. I say the male of the species has a lot to answer for.”[25] And, indeed, a few brave men were inclined to agree with her. “Paul” and his Dutch family became prisoners of the Japanese in 1941. His mother died of exhaustion and malnutrition in the women’s camp in Java; his father also perished. As a young man, Paul served with the Dutch navy; as an old man (and survivor of the Nagasaki bombing) he still lives with war’s “terrible consequences”. A pilgrimage to war graves helped Paul unburden himself of an “impossible history”. The first graves he visited were, in fact, those of Japanese soldiers. He answered the gender question for his family: “I don’t think it particularly manly for men to fight in wars trying to kill each other. It does not appeal to my manhood. … No father, no mother admiring their newborn baby son hopes that he will die a hero in a future war.”[26]

I suspect the reader understands my intention. A neat typology of pilgrimage, spanning commemoration, heritage, and nostalgia, might well be a logical way to arrange a short paper. But it also simplifies and misrepresents an incredibly complex process. In fact, every pilgrimage spans an enormous emotional spectrum – in the 1930s, the 1960s, and certainly no less today. Indeed, even old reprobates like Biggs, more keen on brothels than battlefields, found himself crumbling with grief at the graves of so many unknown soldiers. Understanding pilgrimages to the cemeteries of the Great War requires sophisticated “emotional geography”, to borrow Peter’s Stanley’s telling phrase. And soldiers’ pilgrimages are, of course, but one facet of these extraordinarily complex journeys.[27]

© Bruce Scates


[1] For a general introduction to the literature of war and pilgrimage, see Ian Reader, Tony Walter (eds), Pilgrimage in popular culture (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993): 3, 63; Victor Turner, Edith Turner, Image and pilgrimage in Christian culture: anthropological perspective (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978); this paper is based on oral history and archival research funded by the Australian Research Council, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, and the Australian War Memorial. I gratefully acknowledge this assistance and the generosity of all contributors. For a discussion of my methodology, see Bruce Scates, “In Gallipoli’s shadow: pilgrimage, memory, mourning and the Great War”, Australian historical studies 33.119 (April 2002): 3

[2] Paul Fussell, Abroad: British literary travelling between the wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980): 38; for a useful review of this literature, see the special “Pilgrimage issue” of Annals of tourism research 9.1 (1992) and Michael Pearson, “Travellers, journeys, tourists: the meanings of journeys”, Australian cultural history 10 (1991): 127–29

[3] J.G. Roberts, diaries and correspondence, MS 8183, State Library of Victoria

[4] For studies of wartime bereavement, see Bruce Scates, Raelene Frances, Women and the Great War (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997): chapter 5; Ken Inglis, Sacred places: war memorials in the Australian landscape (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1998); Joy Damousi, Labour of loss: mourning, memory, and wartime bereavement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Pat Jalland, Australian ways of death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Tanja Luckins, The gates of memory: Australian peoples experience and memories of loss and the Great War (Fremantle: Curtin University Books, 2004); Bart Ziino, “A distant grief: Australians, war graves and the Great War”, PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 2003

[5] J.J. Talbot Hobbs, diary, April 1930, 4618A/12, State Library of Western Australia; “J.J. Talbot Hobbs”, Australian dictionary of biography,, sited 8 August 2006

[6] I thank Professor David Horner for his advice on Hobbs’ military service and acknowledge the very useful website fielded by the Australian Defence Force Academy, sited 8 August 2006

[7] Hobbs, diary

[8] The British Australian and New Zealander (8 May 1930)

[9] Australasian traveller’s gazette (June–July 1920); P. Brendon, Thomas Cook: 150 years of popular tourism (London: Secker & Warburg, 1991)

[10] West Australian 23 October 1928

[11] Evening News 6 August 1928

[12] Leslie Irwin, letter to Paul Hasluck, Minister for External Affairs, 5 December 1967 in “Papers relating to 1968 remembrance pilgrimage …”, 3DRL/6037, Australian War Memorial. All subsequent references to Operation Amiens are taken from this reference.

[13] A.J. Kennedy, letter to Fred Cahill, 10 April 1968; J.A. Piper, letter to V.D. Robinson, 23 April 1968

[14] “Minutes committee meeting”, 18 August 1967

[15] Fred Cahill, letter to Air Commodore B. Roberts (Ret’d), 29 January [1968]; Fred Cahill, letter to Frank Kennedy (Returned and Services League Representative in Blighty, NSW), 14 October 1967; Frank Kennedy, letter to Fred Cahill, 9 October 1967

[16] Frank Kennedy, letters to Fred Cahill, 9 October 1967, 9 February 1968

[17] Postscript appended to Reg Biggs, letter to Fred Cahill, October 1967

[18] Biggs also modified the American itinerary suggesting a visit to Niagara Falls instead of “the waste of time at the United Nations joint”. Reg Biggs, letter to Fred Cahill, 5 September 1967

[19] Questionnaires completed by David C. (Duffy, ACT); Paul G. (Griffith, ACT), David Ch. (Fisher, ACT); Harold F. (Runaway Bay, Qld); Gary B. (Gawler, SA); Michelle S. (Sydney, NSW). All questionnaires held in the School of History, University of New South Wales awaiting transfer to the Australian War Memorial.

[20] Questionnaires completed by Mandy A. (Potts Point, NSW); D.R. (Melbourne, Vic.); Dick W. (King River, WA); Greg R. (Everton Hills, Qld)

[21] Questionnaires completed by Frank P. (Mitcham, Vic.), James M. (Cottesloe, WA); T.E.N. and H.T.N. (Blacktown, NSW); Conrad P. (Rockhampton, Qld)

[22] Questionnaires completed by VXER (NHTP); see also Graham’s journey “to honour a dear friend of mine” killed in the futile advance on Kritihia, Graham G. (Merrijig, Vic.)

[23] Roy Rosenweig, David Thelan, The presence of the past: popular uses of history in American life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Australian cultural history 22 (2003)

[24] Questionnaires completed by Jack M. (Brookfield, Qld); James M. (Cottesloe, WA); Don H. (Lower Mitcham, SA); D.W.R. (Lane Cove, NSW); Alfred M. (Yass, NSW)

[25] Questionnaire completed by Gordon M. (Warrawee, NSW). The respondent added he did not intend to offend.

[26] Questionnaires completed by Sarah H. (Campbell, ACT); Gabrielle C. (Duntroon, ACT); Helen S. (Pearl Beach, NSW); see also Jan M. (Seymour, Vic.)

[27] For the unburdening of impossible history see Cathy Caruth “Trauma and experience” in Cathy Caruth (ed.), Trauma: explorations in memory (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1995): 3–5; questionnaire completed by Paul C. (Belrose, NSW). For an excellent Australian study by Christina Twomey that bears on Paul’s experience, see Joy Damousi, Robert Reynold, History on the couch: essays in history and psychoanalysis (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003): 155–65. See also Rosalind Hearder’s contribution to this publication.

[28] These journeys are the focus of my forthcoming study, Bruce Scates, Return to Gallipoli: walking the battlefields of the Great War, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)