Inventing Anzac Day in England

On the eve of the Great War, Alfred Sharp was appointed the Victorian Immigration Officer in London. He sailed off to ‘the old country’ in 1912.

In England, Sharp advocated the cause of Australia. It was not just his work assisting emigrants to take up a new life in Victoria or his part in establishing the first branch of Australian Natives Association in England. Alfred Sharp was at the centre of a vibrant expatriate community nestled then (as today) in the heart of London and a patron of every Australian artist, writer and celebrity to visit the city.

Then came the war. Too old to serve in the regular Army, he joined the British Volunteer Regiment and served in Middlesex with the Willesden Battalion. But being a weekend soldier was not enough for Alfred Sharp. In addition to his duties on the home front, and his demanding office at Australia House, he threw himself into volunteer work. In 1916, he helped establish the Anzac Buffet, opposite AIF Headquarters on Horsferry Road. ‘A great centre for the Anzacs’, it served hot meals, boasted a reading, writing and billiard room and hosted a live concert every evening. 

Sharp’s own home was thrown open to his countrymen. Known as ‘the diggers’ friend’, Mr and Mrs Sharp hosted visits from several hundred servicemen, Albert Jacka VC and Hugo Throssell VC amongst them. By 1918, he was corresponding with around two hundred soldiers a week, in particular wounded men convalescing in England. 

As if caring for the living was not enough, Alfred Sharp devoted himself to the dead. In early 1917, he revealed the scandalous treatment of the bodies of Australian servicemen buried in Britain. When a push was on in Belgium or France, hospital mortuaries in the south of England were stacked high with corpses; there was neither the space nor the time to bury them ‘decently’. As many as twenty men were piled in a single grave, and graves were often left open awaiting the next fatality. Driver J.F. Naughton was one such case.

A baker from Charters Towers, Naughton died of war wounds and kidney failure a year after leaving Gallipoli. Largely forgotten in life, he became a cause célèbre in death. Naughton’s body was placed in an open grave in Kensal Green Cemetery. Exposure to the elements led to ‘consequences’ (as Sharp’s anxious report to the authorities put it) ‘better imagined than described’. It was several weeks before the plot was filled in and then only after formal protests by the London Branch of the Australian Natives Association. In 1921, Naughton’s decomposing body was exhumed and placed in a separate plot for Australian soldiers. 

Sharp’s protest shaped the protocols of remembrance; it set down the simple principle that made the cemeteries of the Great War possible. In time, the Imperial War Graves Commission would guarantee each soldier an individual grave, undertake to preserve each tomb in perpetuity, and ensure families that all men were honoured equally. A forest of glistening white tombstones would rise up on Flanders and the Somme, ending the age-old anonymity of the war dead. But not in 1916. When John Naughton was buried, troops killed overseas or who died from wounds or illness in Britain were only entitled to individual graves if they were officers. Enlisted men were often buried in common plots, usually with nothing to mark their graves and certainly no epitaph from grieving families.

The decent interment of the dead was the first task Alfred Sharp set himself, honouring the graves of Australia’s fallen sons the second. Few would contest the Chronicle’s claim that Sharp was ‘the originator of Anzac Day pilgrimage in Great Britain’, which began long before the war had ended. In March 1918, Sharp called on Australian expatriates to honour those of the Commonwealth who had died in their midst: ‘It is felt by the members of the London branch of the ANA that it would be very fitting if a pilgrimage was undertaken on Anzac Day (25th April) and floral tributes placed on various graves and, if possible, arrangements will be made whereby such tokens of remembrance will be renewed from time to time. Seeing the burials have taken part in so many localities it may perhaps be difficult to carry out the scheme absolutely, but much may be done.’

Much was. Australian and New Zealand expatriates rallied around Anzacs’ graves, bedecked them with springtime flowers, weeded and tended them. It was a massive undertaking. By the end of the war, 2135 members of the First AIF were buried in common or individual plots in some 343 graveyards scattered across England.

Peace hastened the pace of what Sharp liked to call ‘the pilgrimage movement’. It was not just that the cessation of hostilities signalled the end to much other volunteer work, freeing time and resources for Anzac commemoration. Or that marking Australian war graves on Anzac Day laid our country’s claim on hard won British victory. As early as 1919, Sharp warned of ‘the inevitable pilgrimage’ from ‘down under’, and by 1921 thousands of Australians were touring French and Belgian battlefields. That same year, with ‘the heartiest support of Australasian residents here and many others who do not hail from the Sunny South’ a floral tribute was placed on ‘practically every [Anzac’s] grave’ in Britain.

Today few Australians would know the name of Alfred Sharp. But neither Anzac Day in Britain, nor indeed the cemeteries of the Great War, would have been quite the same without him.

Alfred Sharp’s story reminds us of the contested nature of commemoration. Many disputed the form the Great War’s cemeteries took, many (though not Sharp himself) favoured the repatriation of bodies.  The decision to honour all equally was not made immediately. Older commemorative practices and the exigencies of war itself, resulted in the mass and unmarked burial of soldiers. Most important of all perhaps, it were the dominions that led the call for the decent treatment of the Fallen. Australia’s sons had travelled thousands of miles to die for Empire. Families took some comfort from the thought their graves were cared for. And many followed in their children’s footsteps, embarking on pilgrimages to war graves overseas even before the fighting had ended. 

For full attribution of sources, suggestions for further reading and an extended version of the story itself see ‘Inventing Anzac Day in England: Alfred Sharp’ in Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James, World War One: A History in 100 stories (Melbourne, Penguin/Viking, 2015) pp. 22-25; 354.