Federal Member for Mayo Rebekha Sharkie has welcomed the announcement from the Federal Government of a $420,000 two-year pilot program to identify and commemorate the unmarked graves of WWI veterans.
The Unmarked Graves of the First World War Funding Assistance Program aims to fund organisations including the Headstone Project which work to identify unmarked graves across Australia and properly acknowledge the service and sacrifice made by previously unknown veterans.
Ms Sharkie has previously written to the Minister of Veterans' Affairs, Darren Chester about the issue and has also spoken in Parliament about local efforts to recognise WWI veterans, as well as the importance of establishing a national program to fund headstones for WWI veterans lying in unmarked graves.
Rebekha raised the issue again last week when she hosted a visit by the Minister in Strathalbyn and organised a roundtable discussion with veterans, RSL sub-branches and other community groups.
“I’m pleased that the Minister has listened to the feedback from our roundtable discussion as well as the lobbying of other organisations around Australia and has introduced this pilot program,” Ms Sharkie said.
“It’s estimated around 12,000 WWI veterans are lying in unmarked graves in Australian cemeteries and, with the assistance of dedicated individuals who volunteer at our RSL sub-branches and community groups, these veterans will finally receive the acknowledgement that they deserve.
“The individual grants of $450 offered under the pilot program will enable applicants to cover the most significant costs associated with unmarked graves, the brass plaque."
Minister of Veterans' Affairs Darren Chester said the project was an important step to ensure every veteran who died after the First World War Armistice is remembered for their service.
“I would like to encourage communities right across Australia who are aware of unmarked graves to consider making an application,” he said.
“Australians owe all First World War veterans an enormous debt of gratitude and acknowledging their final resting place with a marker recognising their service is a demonstration of that respect.
“While the number of unmarked graves of First World War veterans is unknown, there are many individuals and special interest groups who are passionately committed to ensuring they are identified and commemorated.”
An estimated 331,800 Australian personnel were deployed during the First World War, of which over 60,000 were killed or are listed as missing in action. This leaves approximately 271,800 service men and women who returned to Australia at the cessation of hostilities, of which approximately 137,000 were wounded.
“Sadly some of those who returned from the Great War ended up estranged from their families and may have struggled with day-to-day living,” Mr Chester said.
“We know that many were buried in unmarked graves across the nation.”
While welcoming the project, Ms Sharkie identified some concerns regarding the eligibility criteria for the pilot program.
“I am disappointed that the initial criteria do not extend to the graves of those veterans who have died within 20 years of the end of the First World War, and I hope in time the program will be extended to cover all graves,” Rebekha said.
“We don’t put a deadline on ‘Lest we forget’ on Anzac Day so why start now?”
The program will be administered through the Office of Australian War Graves which has the responsibility for official commemoration of eligible veterans who died during, or as a result of war.