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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Gary’s “obsession” to ensure Australian Diggers are not forgotten

Gary Mitchell is dedicated to ensuring that no Digger is forgotten.

The 61-year-old applies for headstones and plaques for World War I servicemen who lie in unmarked graves.

His interest in the plight of Australia’s Diggers started back in 1995 and, since then, he has since become “quite obsessed”.

“I’m still doing this work every day – my main focus is now locating those who served in the First World War, and are resting in unmarked graves,” Mr Mitchell said.

He is a frequent poster in the Facebook group Lost Newcastle, in which he helps to commemorate a soldier that died on a given day and to find the descendants of soldiers in unmarked graves through social media.

Mr Mitchell explained that he has received “fantastic information” about servicemen, which has allowed him to come together at Sandgate Cemetery with a forgotten soldier’s relatives and commemorate their lives.

In Mr Mitchell’s posts, he writes that the soldiers are “not resting peacefully”, which, he believes, is due to the lack of a headstone highlighting their service.

“My interpretation is that any soldier, servicemen or women, who served and are resting in an unmarked grave – they’re not resting peacefully,” he said.

“They have not been recognised in any way, there’s no official commemoration for them. If they are entitled to that, anyone who is resting in a bare patch of ground is not resting peacefully, in my opinion.”

So far, he has located 203 former servicemen in unmarked graves through consulting military databases, national archives, and cemetery records to ascertain whether someone in an unmarked grave served in World War I.

Initially, he places a cross for the soldier in the unmarked grave and applies for official commemoration from the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) for a Commonwealth war plaque, who assess whether the soldier is eligible.

Of the 81 applications Mr Mitchell has submitted, he said he was “blessed” that 50 have been approved by the DVA for a headstone and plaque celebrating the service of forgotten Diggers.

A headstone provided by the Forgotten Diggers organisation for a soldier previously in an unmarked grave.

If applications for official commemoration are rejected, the Forgotten Diggers organisation makes arrangements to secure private funding for a headstone and plaque to remember the soldier.

One such rejection is Private Patrick Alfred Fitzgerald, who died in 1940 at the age of 58.

Mr Mitchell discovered the former soldier’s burial site in Sandgate Cemetery.

Forgotten Diggers founder John Thomas said an estimated 12,000 former World War I soldiers lie in unmarked graves across Australia.

“None of them who came back from World War One ever came back the same as they went away, and many of them turned to alcohol and had what we call today post-traumatic stress disorder,” Mr Thomas said.

“When they died, their families may have not even known where they were, particularly in the time of the [Great] Depression in the 1930s. They may have left the family home to go and find work.

“Conversely, someone in the family may have had to make a decision: ‘Do we put a headstone on Uncle Fred’s grave, or do we put a meal on the table?’ And, they obviously chose to put a meal on the table.

“Over time, poor old Uncle Fred’s just been forgotten, and families have died, families have moved, Uncle Fred hasn’t, he’s still in the same dirt plot that he was buried in.”

For more information or to get involved, visit the Forgotten Diggers website.  

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