Rewrite history or preserve the past?

THIS week’s centenary of the start of World War I poses a dilemma for the keepers of dozens of soldiers’ memorials scattered around south-west Victoria bearing the names of hundreds of servicemen. 

Warrnambool RSL historian David McGinness says the centenary of the First World War has revealed more local servicemen and women who need to be commemorated — but where? 
140805DW08 Picture: DAMIAN WHITE

Warrnambool RSL historian David McGinness says the centenary of the First World War has revealed more local servicemen and women who need to be commemorated — but where?  140805DW08 Picture: DAMIAN WHITE

They were built at a time when battle-weary nations thought the bloodshed of what was known as the Great War would be the last global conflict.

The inscription under  Warrnambool’s marble statue of a soldier with a downturned rifle reads “Hallowed to the memory of the gallant men and women who fell in the great war for the freedom of the world”.

Unfortunately that optimistic sentiment was shattered by the Second World War and other subsequent conflicts.

Now there’s an intriguing heritage dilemma emerging as communities face pressure to alter and expand the name rolls etched into war memorials.

Warrnambool RSL sub-branch historian David McGinness said inquiries often came from relatives of former service personnel with requests for spelling corrections or additions.

However, there’s not much space left for more names or enthusiasm to take a chisel to the ornate letters.

“I think there’s a general misunderstanding about the origins of our Great War memorials,” he said. 

“They were built following World War I by a generation who thought it would be the war to end all wars. These are unique and to make substantial alterations, I think, would be to change the original design.

“Any name changes need to be well researched and have approval from several members of the particular families.

“My advice is to produce a separate register recognising all who served their country in conflicts.”

Warrnambool’s memorial was officially opened on Anzac Day 1925 and bears 1100 names of local district World War I soldiers killed in action and those who returned. 

About than 150 other names were added of district soldiers who died in the next world war and two fatalities in the Vietnam War.

“The list from World War I was inscribed after local people were asked to submit names,” Mr McGinness said.

“I think it was a call for names of all who were born or enlisted in Warrnambool in the Great War. We now know there are a few spelling mistakes, some double-ups and probably omissions, but the issue is, do we try to change it or leave it as it is?

“To inscribe the names of every local person who served in all modern wars would need a separate wall created or to use the southern side of the existing memorial wall.

“At some stage the RSL and the city council will have to make a decision.”

One of the calls for change is from Christopher Whitehead, of Clifton Hill, for recognition of Second Lieutenant Henry Eric Whitehead, of Caramut, who was killed in action at The Nek, Gallipoli, on August 7, 1915.

Mr Whitehead says he is the great-great-great-grandnephew of the fallen soldier and is puzzled why his relative is not on the Warrnambool honour wall.

According to Mr McGinness the name G. E. Whitehead etched on the wall was probably incorrectly transcribed and should have read H. E. Whitehead.

Warrnambool RSL sub-branch president John Miles said he would be reluctant to approve etching corrections on the memorial.

“These names have been there for a long time now,” he said.

However, there is some precedence in altering the memorial design. Two gates on the southern side were removed in the mid-1950s and replaced by a new wall recognising Second World War personnel. 

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