Why do we have honour boards? It seems almost too obvious. They are a way to remember those who fought and died for us in past wars. But what do we really know about those men and women whose names appear in columns of neat gold lettering? What can we ever know of their lives or the community from which they came?
The answer is surprisingly little – not through ignorance or indifference, but because in seeking to immortalise those men and women, their individuality is subsumed and they become part of a whole. Like a cenotaph or tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it is the plurality that resonates and commands our respect.
Honour boards present unique challenges for local historians. While they may appear to be a definitive statement of who was living in a particular community at the time when the memorial was created, this was often not the case. Attestation papers completed at the time of enlistment show the address of the next of kin, the applicants’ place of birth and where they enrolled. These are not necessarily the same as where they were living when they signed up.
Honour boards displayed in workplaces, churches or sporting clubs are more reliable indicators of a recent association with a particular locality. Less so school honour boards, as it may be some years since those listed left the school and district. It is important to note there were very few high schools before World War II and most of those enlisted would have left school at the age of 15.
There is a tendency to assume a list of names on an honour board includes all who served from a particular area. This assumption stems from a misconception of how honour boards came about. They were initially organised by local committees, rather than by government fiat. There was no official prescription as to how the lists were compiled, how they were set out or who was included. Some arranged names in order of rank others alphabetically or in some instances names were added as more men enlisted.
Some communities commissioned honour rolls through public subscription. Families paid to have the names of their loved ones included on the list. An example of this is the memorial in Balmain’s Loyalty Square, dedicated to those who served in the Gallipoli campaign. Unveiled on 23rd April 1916 it predated ANZAC day commemorations, which were not widely marked until the late 1920s. The honour roll lists 37 names, although of course there were a great many others from Balmain who served in this and other campaigns of the war.
Mortlake Public School’s jubilee history, published in 1937, lists 31 alumi who served in World War I. Unfortunately, only the initials of the first name are provided and some of the surnames listed are either misspelt or absent from the National Archives service records. Prior to these records being made available to the public or being accessible on-line they would have been difficult, if not impossible to check. The list would have been compiled from memory and it was not uncommon for men to enlist under a different name from that they may have been known as when they were at school.
Workplace records may be more reliable. AGL maintained a register of employees who enlisted so as to guarantee their positions would be held open until the end of the war and they would not be financially disadvantaged by signing up. In 1926 the names of those who were reported missing or killed in the war were inscribed on a metal plaque attached to a column at the entrance to the gasworks. This has since been removed, but the names have been inscribed on another metal plaque and attached to a sandstone plinth at the high point of Breakfast Point’s village green. Interestingly, there is a digital link that provides a short biography and photograph of the men named on the honour roll. https://bpwarmemorial.wordpress.com/names/a-c/ackling/
The first honour boards were the initiative of local committees and remained so until well into the 1920s. State and Commonwealth Governments were reluctant to become involved fearing that as the full impact of the war became apparent the mood of the public might turn against them. At least 60,000 Australians were killed in World War I, a figure that doesn’t include those who died of war-related causes in the years immediately following the Armistice. The sense of loss was compounded by the Spanish Flu pandemic brought back to Australia by returning soldiers. In 1918-19 it resulted in the deaths of a further 15,000 Australians.
While there was a strong desire in 1919 to put all the war’s horrors behind them, there was, nonetheless, a need for Australians to grieve and to try to make sense of what they had endured, reconciling their pain with the hope of a better future. Australians needed to feel their sacrifice had a higher purpose; that it meant something and would be remembered for all time. Unable to visit the graves of the fallen diggers, honour boards became something tangible that was a foil for their grief as well as a public statement validating the soldiers’ heroism. Honour boards served two purposes, to declare public pride while allowing private grief. The two seemingly contradictory emotions became inseparable. – Andrew West
“Their name liveth for evermore” is a phrase from the King James Version of the Bible, forming the second half of a line in Ecclesiasticus or Sirach, chapter 44, verse 14, widely inscribed on war memorials since the First World War. Rudyard Kipling recommended this inscription be added to stone memorials. He also penned a simple tribute for the headstones of the unidentified dead: “A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God”.