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Ravaged by disease and shell shock, these forgotten young WWI soldiers died as paupers in Orange

July 7, 2022

A cross to mark the burial site of WWI veteran William White. Copyright: Chris Colvin.

By Peter Holmes

Some of them returned to Orange from World War I with shell shock. Some with severely damaged lungs, after being gassed in the trenches. They'd all seen things they'd never be able to erase from their minds.

Some weren't even from here. They just ended up in Orange or surrounds, homeless itinerants seeking work. They had no family, or none that they kept in touch with. Here is just where they happened to die.

It has been discovered that 92 WWI veterans have been buried in unmarked graves at Orange Cemetery.

Young men who fought in the trenches at Gallipoli could be among them.

The exact location of the graves is known for about two thirds of those veterans, sub-branch president Chris Colvin told The Orange News Examiner ahead of today’s official publication of the veterans’ names.

Other veterans are known to have been buried at the cemetery, but nobody knows exactly where.

A multi-year research project by the Orange RSL sub-branch cross-referenced databases to nail down the names of all 92 veterans from World War I who lie in unmarked graves in the cemetery.

While the vast majority are men, there are also unmarked graves of women who served in WWI, including a nurse who is thought to still have family in the area.

They are mostly Australians, but Colvin said among those who were born elsewhere and served under another flag were a Russian, a Swede and a number of Englishmen.

“We know their names, when they died,” Colvin said of all 92. “We have [copies] of the death certificates, and in most cases those tell you what they died of, and if they were servicemen.”

The sad truth is that the reason many of the 92 veterans were buried in unmarked graves is that they had likely not fared well since returning from the 1914-1918 war.

Colvin says many either spent time, or died, at Bloomfield, where an infirmary had been built “for the mentally insane”.

It was known in those times as a lunatic asylum and Orange & District Historical Society said that by 1932 there were 1,100 patients.

“A lot of [the veterans] were suffering from PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder], or shell shock as they called it then,” Colvin said.

When they died they were buried at the cemetery, but if there were no family members or others to pay for a gravestone then the site remained unmarked.

Bloomfield would have known of the veterans' service history, Colvin said, but in the era they died - the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in the lead up to the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression - there was simply no money to cover such costs.

Others were immigrants. Or itinerant workers, who just happened to be in Orange when they died.

“In those days they called them tramps,” said Colvin.

“A lot of them came back [from the war] and became tramps. A lot of them didn’t have families. One old bloke [who has been found to be buried in Orange cemetery] was a rabbit trapper. Nobody had seen him around for a few days, so they went looking for him and found him dead in his sulky [a light, two-wheel horse-drawn vehicle]. That was out near Molong.

“Another guy they found with his throat cut by an old butter knife. He’d had enough. It's just sad.”

Desperate for money, any such veterans with medals would likely have long-since sold them, Colvin said.

Asked if it was known in which theatres of war the veterans served, Colvin said: “No, all we know is they served in the First World War. A lot of them, we know what their unit was.

“You could trace it if you really wanted to [but] we didn't want to do that. Our main concern was that we had veterans in unmarked graves.

“Some of these guys could have been at Gallipoli, they could have been in the Middle East, anywhere in France or on the Western Front.”

The discovery of the 92 unmarked graves of WWI veterans only came to light through the dogged research of Orange resident Sharon Jameson, who has worked with the sub-branch to investigate the possibility of unmarked graves of WWI veterans.

She began with the names of the 30,000-plus people buried at Orange Cemetery, whittling down the list to those who might possibly have served in World War I.

Cross-referencing with data from the Australian War Memorial allowed Jameson to further shave the number of names on the list. Purchasing copies of scores of death certificates at $18 a piece again narrowed the possibilities.

By the time she and Colvin were done, some three years after starting, there were 92 names on the list. Ninety-two veterans resting without fanfare, or even acknowledgement.

That is about to change.

If it can be shown that the veteran died from injuries sustained during WWI they will be given an official war grave.

“A lot of these guys died from lung problems, their war records said they were gassed in the trenches," Colvin said. "They would get a war grave. It’s a very fine line [as to who receives one and who doesn't] and it’s a very hard line to get over sometimes.”

Colvin said all of those who served should have a war grave “but there is a limit to what they can do”.

“The teams we’re working with have applied for [a war grave for some of the veterans] and some of them have been granted already.”

His main concern right now is that all the graves be marked with at least a hardwood white cross.

Inspired by a movement in Newcastle at Sandgate Cemetery, and with advice from the Forgotten Heroes group, Colvin is arranging for white crosses to be made and placed at the known unmarked gravesites.

Local businesses are chipping in to cover the significant cost, and each cross will carry the name of the veteran and other details.

“Funding to continue to mark the last known resting places of our World War I veterans was an election commitment of the previous Coalition government,” Andrew Gee, Calare MP and former veterans’ affairs minister, told The Orange News Examiner.

“I hope that the new government will also now commit to fund this vitally important national project. The Diggers who fought for our country deserve nothing less … the dignity of a marked grave should be a bipartisan national priority.”

A memorial service to honour those who lie in the unmarked graves is planned for early November in Orange, ahead of Remembrance Day.


According to the American Psychological Association, “By the winter of 1914–15, ‘shell shock’ had become a pressing medical and military problem. Not only did it affect increasing numbers of frontline troops serving in World War I, British Army doctors were struggling to understand and treat the disorder.

“The term ‘shell shock’ was coined by the soldiers themselves. Symptoms included fatigue, tremor, confusion, nightmares and impaired sight and hearing. It was often diagnosed when a soldier was unable to function and no obvious cause could be identified.

“Shell shock took the British Army by surprise. In an effort to better understand and treat the condition, the Army appointed Charles S. Myers, a medically trained psychologist … to offer opinions on cases of shell shock and gather data for a policy to address the burgeoning issue of psychiatric battle casualties.

“The first cases Myers described exhibited a range of perceptual abnormalities, such as loss of or impaired hearing, sight and sensation, along with other common physical symptoms, such as tremor, loss of balance, headache and fatigue.

“He concluded that these were psychological rather than physical casualties, and believed that the symptoms were overt manifestations of repressed trauma.”


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