I didn’t intend to add to the ink spilt over this year’s Anzac Centenary, but I just have to share these words from the current Griffith Review, which I bought last week at the History Writers’ Festival held at Readers’ Feast Bookstore. There is much wise and thoughtful writing in this issue, and editors Julianne Schultz and Peter Cochrane deserve congratulations for sourcing diverse perspectives and original thinking about so many different aspects of military history.
Amongst many fine pieces of writing, it was Cory Taylor’s brief memoir, ‘Claiming the Dead’ which arrested my attention with her words about the Cowra cemetery. She relates how, at the time of the Tokyo Olympics, Japanese diplomats negotiated for the gathering together of all Japanese who had died on Australian soil either during their internment or during the Cowra breakout. It was agreed that the Japanese government would contribute to the upkeep of the graves, and the remains of the civilian internees would be brought for reburial to Cowra from various camps in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Taylor, visiting the cemetery decades later for the unveiling of an interpretive board, reflects on the way Japanese who had been working in Australia for most of their lives were rounded up and incarcerated for the duration of the war, and how some died in internment – far away from their homes in Darwin Broome, New Caledonia, Mackay and Sydney.
It has been half a century since the Tokyo Olympics . I don’t imagine the Cowra Cemetery has changed much in that time. Certainly, the war graves appear to be exempt from the normal signs of age and neglect that give the cemetery for the ordinary citizens of Cowra its special melancholy. The ordinary cemetery is a reminder of the democratic nature of peacetime death. Babies who died a hundred years ago are buried in little, crumbling fenced allotments next to octogenarians who died last year. Some of the dead lie beneath unadorned slabs of concrete; others beneath elaborate and expensive granite monuments, daubed with gold lettering; still others beneath marble angels frozen in mid-flight. There is nothing fair or uniform about ordinary graves. In this they are a reflection of the unfairness and boundless variety that exists among the living.
Not so with military graves. Fenced off in their own paddock, the graves of the war dead at Cowra illustrate an order – something fixed and immutable. The races are separated. The victors are quarantined from the vanquished. The dead are buried in straight rows with identical headstones to mark the graves. The lawns surrounding the headstones are lush and neatly trimmed. Banished are the wild grasses and weeds that flourish in the surrounding countryside. But for the telltale gum trees, we might be somewhere in Europe, on one of the countless battlefields where millions of soldiers are buried in similar fashion and where the global style of military memorials was presumably forged. That civilians are buried in among the soldiers at Cowra makes their deaths seem inevitable – part of the military order. It would seem that even in death these pearl divers and laundrymen, cane cutters and shopkeepers remain interned, cut off from the general population, denied ordinariness even in the afterlife.
There are 234 Japanese POWs buried at Cowra, and 300 who were internees or members of the Japanese airforce who were shot down in raids. I have been to the Cowra Memorial Gardens, twice, but I did not know this…
Cory Taylor is the award-winning author of My Beautiful Enemy, which I reviewed a year or so ago.
Editors: Julianne Schultz and Peter Cochrane
Title: Enduring Legacies, Griffith Review 48
Publisher: Griffith University in conjunction with Text Publishing, 2015
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readers’ Feast, $ 27.99