Such a small favour

Emily Luttrell first approached the Minister of Defence in June 1922. ‘Please pardon me for taking the liberty of writing,’ she began, ‘if you could see your way to help me ... I would deem it the one of the greatest favours of my life’. Mrs Luttrell longed to see the grave of her son Arthur. He was wounded on the Somme, and died within a month of the war ending. His name is one of many marked by a golden cross on Hobart’s Honour Roll.

By any criteria, Mrs Luttrell must have seemed deserving. At sixty-six years of age, her husband deaf and blind, there was no way she could afford the fare on her own. Mrs Luttrell had lived in Australia forty-nine years and raised fifteen children. Of these, seven were sent to war. In October, she writes again: ‘I am not asking much from you’. By March the following year, the letters become both more pathetic and more insistent

I ... Beg that your Government will take into consideration my appeal and help me to visit my dear ones resting place there was seven of our sons went to the war ... surely I have won the right to ask such a small favour which was promised by the state government.

But the government wasn’t about to do Emily Luttrell any favours. 

... it would be rather dangerous to [agree] to these requests. [a crisp memo to the Prime Minister declared] The deaths overseas numbered 58,854 and burials took place in many different countries. There is a danger of such privileges being abused. 

Just how these grieving women planned to abuse this privilege was never explained by the Prime Minister’s office. 

Emily Luttrell died in Hobart in 1931. She was seventy-five years of age. She never visited the grave of her son. Mrs Luttrell’s story reminds us of the unresolved mourning that afflicted a generation. The decision by the Australian government not to repatriate the war dead denied families a body to bury. And the refusal to fund pilgrimages overseas meant time honoured rituals of laying a body to rest were the privilege of very few. Across the country, war monuments would provide a kind of surrogate grave for the absent dead. Clearly they offered little comfort to women like Mrs Luttrell.

For full attribution of sources, suggestions for further reading and an extended version of the story itself see ‘Such a small favour: Emily Luttrell’ in Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James, World War One: A History in 100 stories (Melbourne, Penguin/Viking, 2015) pp. 30-31; 354.