Project seeks to honour SA soldiers' war service

Project seeks to honour SA soldiers' war service


A group of volunteers is taking the time to find former WWI soldiers buried in unmarked graves throughout SA.


MORE than 1000 returned World War I soldiers could be lying in unmarked graves across SA, but a group of dedicated volunteers is taking the time to find and honour these men.

Headstone Project SA president John Brownlie said it was a "labour of love" to help honour the service of these men who have ended up in unmarked graves for a wide number of reasons.

"These men, they served and they deserve to be remembered," he said.

"Soldiers who fall in battle are quite rightly honoured in war cemeteries across the world.

"Soldiers who return to Australia but whose subsequent deaths are able to be attributed to their war service can get a fully-funded war grave.

"The men we seek are those who've fallen through the cracks."

He said there were many reasons why men could end up in unmarked graves, including illiteracy meaning families did not know what assistance they could seek, while others might have not married and been the last of their family line.

These men, they served and they deserve to be remembered. - JOHN BROWNLIE

The Headstone Project began in Tas in 2011, coming to SA in 2017. It locates the final resting place of former WWI soldiers, verifies military credentials and erects a headstone, with a bronze memorial plaque.

John said several soldiers had been found after their family got in contact, but there were more labour-intensive methods.

"Using the map, we walk the cemetery and mark every bare dirt plot, then cross-reference those to maps to see who is in the grave," he said.

"We're looking for males of the right age and if we get a hit, we start to delve deeper."

John said there were several good databases, including the Australian War Memorial or the University of NSW, but it could be very time consuming.

He said the archives needed to indicate these men had received a British War Medal, given to those deployed overseas.

John said the focus on men who served in WWI was not to downplay the role of the many women who served, but as many of the nurses who served subsequently got married and changed their surname, they could be harder to trace.

We're looking for males of the right age and if we get a hit, we start to delve deeper. - JOHN BROWNLIE

He said it was also limited to those serving in WWI because there were so many unmarked graves.

"WWI won't be completed in my lifetime, so I'll leave it to another to think about WWII," he said.

He said the Tas-based organisation estimated there were more than 12,000 returned soldiers in unmarked graves nationally, and he expected at least 1000 of those lay within SA.

So far the SA group has located more than 60.

While still seeking tax deductible status, the group has received support from the state government, and there is a federal government pilot scheme that reimburses some of their costs.

He said within the past year, they had linked with Volunteering SA, which helped them find people with a wide range of skills.

They also work closely with local history groups.


THE first Headstone Project SA dedication ceremony was on November 11, 2017 at Port Pirie, for returned World War I soldier Archie McVicar.

Organisation president John Brownlie said Archie's family had attended from as far as Darwin, Cairns, Qld, and Perth.

"To give a family a place to go, from our point of view, is immensely satisfying," he said.

Since then another 25 men have been located at the Port Pirie cemetery, with another dedication planned for July 27, from 1pm.

It's important that it's not just a name on a headstone - there is a story behind every name. - JOHN BROWNLIE

Four men will be recognised with a new headstone, constructed at the Mobilong Prison.

Albert Julius Sjostrom was one of five brothers to serve in and survive WWI.

He is also a former president of the local RSL club, with his plaque to be place on the cenotaph.

Andrew O'Flaherty was wounded on four occasions and returned to work at the smelter.

Clifford Victor Price was born in the United Kingdom and served in the English Navy before eventually ending up in SA. On his return from service in the Australian Army, he married and served in the fire brigade and died on duty.

Leslie Thomas Simpson won a military medal for valour.

John said where possible, they liked to source a biography.

"It's important that it's not just a name on a headstone - there is a story behind every name," he said.

Another dedication for three men at Kimba will be held later this year.

Planned archeological research by the Berri-Barmera Council and Flinders University is expected to find more returned soldiers in the Riverland.

  • Those with information of possible unmarked WWI graves should contact John on

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