"I wish we could have saved him for you": Australia's experience of death and bereavement in war, 1914-1918



Publication Details

Roberts, J. (2020). "I wish we could have saved him for you": Australia's experience of death and bereavement in war, 1914-1918. In P. N. Stearns (Ed.), The Routledge History of Death since 1800 (pp. 388-405). London: Routledge.


From a population of just over 4 million, the new nation of Australia sent over 330, 000 young male volunteers to fight in the First World War between 1914 and 1918. One in five would never return home, while over 166, 000 were wounded. The catastrophic scale of loss of fit, healthy young men in a brutal war on the other side of the world would transform Australian society. Traditional mourning rituals - centered on access to the body of the deceased and definitive information as to the circumstances of death - were rendered useless in the face of the chaos and carnage of the front lines. Although Australia shared the consequences of trench warfare with Europe, it differed in one fundamental aspect: distance. Not only were the Australian bereaved denied the physical presence of the body, they were mostly denied the chance to visit any gravesite, no matter how simple it may have been. The absence of a body, details of burial, and a grave, created ongoing fears that loved ones had not died but rather were still lost, injured, or helpless. The trauma of not knowing often meant that death could never be fully accepted. Conversely, the manner in which death was first notified, the amount of information subsequently conveyed to the families, and the return of personal effects, was a significant determinant in how the bereaved would cope with their loss. The First World War fundamentally altered the way in which Australians negotiated death, moving it from public acclamations of loss to an emphasis on stoicism and private grief. These motifs defined that generation most directly affected by the war and continue to influence our mourning behaviors to this day.

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