A sorrow unsaid

On 2 December 1915, Major G.F. Stevenson, Commanding Officer of the 6th Australian Battery at Gallipoli, wiped the grime from his hands and wrote a letter home to Australia. The letter began in the way so many others did, bearing the most personal of messages to a woman he would never meet. ‘It is with extreme regret that I find myself called upon to write to you giving details of the death of your son...’

Brian Lyall had been killed on 29 November. That day, Turkish artillery swept the gullies and the ridges, pounding the Anzac position and breaking crucial communication lines with the beach. Major Stevenson detailed Gunner Lyall to find the break in the telephone wire and to mend it. Though ‘fully aware of the danger’, the young soldier went on his mission ‘without hesitation or complaint’. Somewhere in the trenches, Lyall was ‘struck down’ by a shell and buried alive.

It took them several hours to prize Gunner Lyall from the earth, and several hours more to carry his body to the beach. And although Major Stevenson broke the news as gently as he could, it was clear that it took Mrs Lyall's son several hours to die: ‘[I] … was informed that the poor lad had passed away at [two o’clock] that morning ... This news, I assure you, was a great shock to me, as [I thought] his wounds would soon mend and that he would in all probability be sent home. However God's will was otherwise’. 

We don't know if Mrs Lyall found much comfort in the thought that God had taken the life of a loving son. But we can conclude, from that sheet of frayed and worn paper, that she (and probably those close to her) read the Major’s letter time and time again. Somehow, knowing how her son died offered some consolation. And the Major was careful to choose words a grieving mother longed to hear. Gunner Lyall was ‘the best liked man in the Battery and though one of the youngest he was the manliest of them all … the way he did his duty will help to sustain you a little in your grief’. 

Much of Lyall’s kit was ‘sold by auction to his comrades who brought them up eagerly as mementos of one they all admired’. But personal and precious things—a watch, some letters and a soiled pocket diary—were carefully set aside by the Major. ‘I am [also] sending you a silver brandy flask with his name engraved thereon’. It was dated with the week that Lyall enlisted, ‘you would value it more than anyone else [possibly] could.’

No doubt Mrs Lyall also valued the description of her son’s funeral, or what passed as a funeral on the shell-swept shores of Gallipoli. The boy from Victoria was ‘buried in a cemetery close to Ari Burnu on the beach’. The chaplain read a service and ‘a wooden cross [was] erected’. Brian’s mates stood quietly beside the shallow, sandy grave on the edge of the Aegean Sea; their last farewells laid that battered body to rest.

Today, Brian Lyall’s remains lie in a peaceful corner of Ari Burnu Cemetery. All year round, the graveyard is tended as if it is a garden. But Brian’s tomb also poses a question: this much loved man, admired by his mates, treasured by his family, honoured by all, has no personal epitaph on his grave. 

In some ways this is not so exceptional. The graves of many soldiers killed in the Great War are marked by the barest of inscriptions; they record name and rank, date of death and sometimes an age, but nothing more. There is evidence that some families found the cost of inscribing a final message prohibitive. The Imperial War Graves Commission charged families three pence halfpenny for every letter and every space between each letter. The standard inscription could cost as much as much as nineteen shillings, and many families in the 1920s had not a penny to spare. To this day, the ‘debtors’ files can be found in the National Archives office in North Melbourne. Vigilant officials pursued families who had failed to pay. 

Nor were families entirely free to choose the inscription they wanted. The number of words allowed was strictly limited: sixty-six letters minus the spaces between each word. The Commission also reserved the right to veto any epitaph it deemed inappropriate. Suggested inscriptions were routinely sent back to families; grieving mothers, fathers, wives told their last message was too long, too cumbersome, ‘inartistic’, even sentimental. In such cases, the Imperial War Graves Commission sent families a list of approved epitaphs—comforting words plucked from the Bible, a passage from Binyon or Kipling, or the big words carved on memorials across the British Empire.

Perhaps some families baulked at this state-sanctified grief. Perhaps for some, ‘King and Country’ no longer said enough.

There was a third reason why families chose no parting message. The cemeteries of the Great War took over thirty years to complete. Indeed the last memorials, at Vimy Ridge and Villers-Bretonneux, were not finished until 1938, on the eve of a new world war in Europe. Most families were invited to choose an epitaph in the early 1920s, and by that time many next-of-kin could not be found. Some no longer lived in the towns where their men enlisted, some had remarried and changed their names and lives accordingly, and some had simply passed on. The Register of Births Deaths and Marriages confirms that Mrs Lyall died in 1917, a year before the end of the war, two years before the task of bringing in the dead at Gallipoli began, five years before the cemetery at Ari Burnu was actually completed. 

The Lyall’s story reminds us of the long, protracted and unresolved process of mourning that followed the loss of loved ones in war. For some, the cemeteries of the Great War came too late to offer any kind of comfort, for many words carved in stone were not enough to state their grief.

For full attribution of sources, suggestions for further reading and an extended version of the story itself see ‘A sorrow unsaid: Bryan Lyall’ in Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James, World War One: A History in 100 stories (Melbourne, Penguin/Viking, 2015) pp. 6-9; 354.