Private George Irwin went missing at Gallipoli in August 1915. We will never find him. Last seen plunging into the Turkish trenches at Lone Pine, George’s body vanished in the carnage. And without a body to mourn, his mother could not begin to accept his death. She begins writing to the Red Cross in 1916: ‘I have interviewed so many boys who were with mine in the enemy trench and were blown up that I have ... come to think that he might have been in one of these explosions, and been carried to some hospital in England suffering from loss of memory ... [I’ve been] told ... there were a number of cases like this …’
Sarah Irwin continues to ‘hope’, ‘pray’ and imagine until the very end of the war. She went down to wharves to interview returning soldiers, travelled to England to work for the Red Cross and wrote to anyone in authority who might know something of George’s fate, ‘I have never been able to think of him as dead. I feel he is still living somewhere. I write regularly to Turkey, but hardly expect a reply still something urges me to write and I will keep on trusting and hoping, until this dreadful war is over and all the prisoners are exchanged’.
Twelve years after his death, Private Irwin’s parents finally make their way to Gallipoli. Their journey had taken them 12,000 miles from Australia, first to Britain, then to Italy and finally across the Mediterranean to Turkey. They travelled in the company of 300 others, a ‘mixed party’ of grieving parents and returning soldiers determined to walk ‘the hallowed ground’ of the Peninsula. All were united in a common quest, ‘all were connected with the precious dead of Gallipoli’. In the blistering heat of September, the Irwins climb to the summit of Lone Pine and Australia’s Memorial to the Missing. Unable to lay the body of their son to rest, they take a rubbing of all that is left of him, a name.
Photographs published in the Sydney press captured that moment for many a mourning family back home in Australia. Mrs Irwin, whose long search for her son had finally ended, is crumpled at the base of the memorial. Her face hidden from view, her hands limp and motionless, her eyes fixed on George’s name as it is traced out before her. Beside her rests a formal wreath of paper poppies (carried by the pilgrimage party) and her own ragged posy of freshly picked flowers. It is Mr Irwin who kneels level with his son’s name, a firm hand holding the paper in place, stoic, solemn, reverent, as he takes a rubbing of the letters.
We don’t know what solace a pilgrimage to Gallipoli offered George’s family. We do know such a journey was well beyond the means of most Australians in the 1920s. The cost of travelling to Gallipoli was well over £100—a year’s wages for a skilled, white, male worker. And the Peninsula itself was a lonely and isolated place, there were no hostels, few roads, and an improvised fleet of horse drawn carts and ramshackle vehicles carried mourners like the Irwins to Anzac. We also know that pilgrimages like these were at once very private and very public occasions. The grief felt by the Irwins was shared by many other families and extensive reports of their journey abroad enabled others to imagine their ‘own’ distant grave. This then was a pilgrimage by proxy. It addressed the loss of a whole generation.
For full attribution of sources, suggestions for further reading and an extended version of the story itself see ‘All that is left of him: George Irwin’ in Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James, World War One: A History in 100 stories (Melbourne, Penguin/Viking, 2015) pp. 74-77; 356.