Rutherglen RSL on mission to remember soldiers in forgotten dirt graves

Rutherglen RSL's David Martin and Craig Williams at a war grave. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Erin Somerville)

After decades of lying in unmarked dirt graves, soldiers at Rutherglen's historical Carlyle Cemetery are finally recognised.

The Rutherglen RSL has recognised seven men who made it back to Australia after serving their country, but later succumbed on their home soil to the various glaring and hidden wounds of war.

Five completed war graves now stand over what just a few years ago were patches of neglected dirt, while another two graves boast shiny plaques commemorating service.

The men are just a few who were among the forgotten.

"It's disappointing, it's not just here," Rutherglen RSL Secretary David Martin said.

"This is replicated around Australia.

The Carlyle Cemetery in Rutherglen contains graves more than a century old. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Erin Somerville)

Helping put more to rest

The success of Rutherglen RSL's war grave restoration has given them a reputation, and now others are asking for help to remember their forgotten soldiers.

A war grave at Carlyle Cemetery. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Erin Somerville)

In November, a man who has been resting in a dirt grave since 1965 in Mitta Mitta, 120km away, will be recognised for his service, after Rutherglen helped the Kiewa RSL successfully get approval from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

The rural RSL's effort is even starting to cover ground overseas. 

It has begun working with a Melbourne family, who have been trying to bring home their loved one who was killed by a rogue elephant in 1965 while serving in Borneo.

He's now buried in Singapore, but his family want him in Australia.

Mr Martin hoped their successful streak with the CWGC would continue.

"When he was killed, it was a great shock to the family, " he said.

"They've been up against bureaucracy since then.

"I am confident we might be successful in having his remains brought home and he can be buried with his family in Melbourne."

The Rutherglen RSL has put new plaque on a smashed gravestone. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Erin Somerville)

In 2016 the remains of 33 Australians, who were buried in military cemeteries in Malaysia and Singapore, were returned to Australia, which buoys Rutherglen RSL's hopes.

"We think the precedent has already been set," Mr Martin said.

"We are talking about one man."

A healing passion

Mr Martin's father was a World War I veteran, and he is particularly passionate to see those who served remembered, after many families struggled to properly commemorate their loved ones.

"I don't think it's particularly the fault of anyone," he said.

"When a lot of these men died post World War I, the families didn't have the money to put headstones on graves, and a lot of the families were not associated with one another.

Rutherglen RSL president Craig Williams said it was rewarding to see servicemen in the local cemetery no longer in unmarked graves.

"It's gratifying that we are able to do something, and recognise and pay our respects towards our people who served our country and did pay the supreme sacrifice, whether it was on foreign soil or here in Australia," Mr Williams said.

David Martin and Craig Williams of the Rutherglen RSL walk through the Carlyle Cemetery. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Erin Somerville)

Uncovering wounds of war

Many of the men at rest under Rutherglen's new plaques died years after war.

The RSL must prove to the CWGC that their deaths were directly linked to the war in order to fund the graves.

It has proved a challenge, especially as mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder were not formally recognised a century ago, while paperwork trails on personnel could prove difficult to follow.

"Some of the stories with some of the personnel are very interesting," Mr Williams said.

"Some of the personnel enlisted under different names and different birth dates.

"[One of the men] enlisted underage and got sent overseas and got found out about, and got sent back to Australia and put under house arrest, and sort of escaped that and re-enlisted again.

Mr Martin and Mr Williams pay respect to a local soldier, whose grave they helped commission. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Erin Somerville)

Mr Martin said the restoration of the graves showed the lifelong battle many veterans endured long after they left the war zone.

"It's becoming obvious now that mental health has had a big influence because it resulted in veterans relying on alcohol, so they became alcoholics because of what happened in war to them," he said.

"Then there were the physical illnesses as well."

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