History should be a brutal warning to today’s politicians: ‘60,000 dead’
Office of n War Graves. Photo shows, War graves iin Sydney War Cemetery at Rookwood Sydney. Photo by Peter Rae pmr Tuesday 1 April 2008. SMH News story by John Huxley.Amid all the centennial fanfare and celebration of the Anzac sacrifice, Office of n War Graves director and former n Army officer Ken Corke says there are pressing reasons why we should remember the tragedy of World War I.
“This year, we have sabre-rattling going on, on and around North Korea,” he says. “That’s clearly a war no one would want to happen and could start bringing us around the sort of casualties which we thought, after the last 50 years, had long been gone.”
The endless war cemeteries and grim memorials maintained and managed by the War Graves office should stand as a warning to politicians.
“It’s useful for people to go back and see the outcome of decisions that were made back then – 60,000 dead,” he says. “And pretty much every single n was in some way affected by that war. We just can’t comprehend that now.
“We have a far more aware and educated population now than we did at the beginning of the 20th century,” he says. “And it’s useful for governments, in thinking about what they’re going to do, to know that they’ve got a population who has some understanding of what that could mean.”
The Office of n War Graves is a branch within the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and I first met Corke on a DVA-sponsored trip to the battlefields of the Western Front.
I was impressed by his sincerity, and his endearingly anxious bonhomie, but disturbed by the thought that the Anzac commemoration had become less about remembering the devastation of global wars and more about applauding the idea that ns were pretty good at fighting them.
A month or so later, we get together again, over lunch in the ACT, to talk about his life and the meaning of his responsibility to preserve Commonwealth war cemeteries and manage the memorialisation of n war dead.
We lunch at Kokomo’s, a wildly colourful trans-Pacific restaurant and cocktail bar in the centre of Canberra. Corke arrives in a Ted Baker suit that is slightly more formal than our beach-party-themed surrounds.
Corke was born into an air force family. His father and mother met in Werribee, Victoria, in 1956, when they were both in the RAAF. Like most service kids, Corke moved around a lot. The family spent four years living in Darwin in the early 1970s, “in a little hut, really, at the end of the airstrip at Darwin air base”. After they left, Cyclone Tracy went through and a tree fell on top of it.
Corke enjoyed the base, loved the idea of the RAAF, and was thrilled by the sight of planes, but remembers a life lived apart.
“We went to a local primary school and the primary school was a mix of Caucasian kids and Aboriginal kids,” he says. “We grew up with Aboriginal kids, but it was frowned upon if you would go back to their settlement and they certainly weren’t welcome on the air force base. There was a clear division.”
His father took a posting back to Victoria to give the family some stability, and Corke finished school in Werribee. He had always planned to be a pilot, but the recruiters at the RAAF had him pegged as an engineer. Instead, he ended up training as an army officer at the Royal Military College, Duntroon.
He graduated into the Royal n Armoured Corps and spent his 23-year military career working with tanks and the “tankies” who crew them. He loved both the men and the machines, he says.
He completed his basic tank training at Puckapunyal, Victoria, and in Melbourne he met Karen, the woman who was to become his wife.
“She’s a dietician,” he tells me, as his lunch arrives – a mushroom pizza.
What would a dietician think of mushroom pizza?
“Mushroom pizza goes back a long way for us,” says Corke. “It’s one of the first meals we shared.”
My lunch is chargrilled yellowfin tuna loin, with hot and sour herbs and yellow curry sauce. It would be very hard to assemble more of my favourite foods in a single dish. I love it more than Corke loves tanks, but probably not as much as he loves Karen.
He and Karen had a son and a daughter, then in 1991, Corke was posted to a British tank regiment in Germany. They had only been there a short time when Corke’s squadron was posted to Kuwait, just before the ceasefire in the first Gulf War. They weren’t involved in offensive operations but helped enforce the terms of the ceasefire and provide protection for engineers.
He describes this as “very professionally rewarding. For my wife, less so. I spent several months in the Middle East, and she was snowed in in Germany with a five-month-old and a two-year-old, the only officer’s wife out of the regiment who was actually still in Germany”.
He left the full-time military in 1999. “The operational tempo for the army was starting to change,” he says, “and I was starting to see the impact on some of my colleagues.”
He was reluctant to subject himself or his family to the strain of repeated overseas deployment but also, he says: “I felt that they’d want us to do something that I probably may not agree with. We would commit to operations that I wouldn’t be comfortable with telling soldiers they should be risking their lives to be there – and, as a professional soldier, your job is to do it and not question it. Once I found that I was a bit conflicted, I thought, ‘That’s it. I’ve got to go’.”
Is he talking about Iraq?
“Iraq came later,” he says, “but it’s a classic example: I look at Iraq and say, ‘Well, was that necessary? And is the world a better place since we got involved, for doing that?’ I wasn’t predicting it would be Iraq, but I just had a feeling that was where it was going to end.”
He worked for the private sector then the public service before he was approached about the position at the OAWG, which he has held since January last year.
appears to be committed to maintain “in perpetuity” the cemeteries that hold most of the more than 100,000 n service people – and many other Commonwealth troops – who have died at war.
“What does ‘in perpetuity’ really mean?” asks Corke. “Clearly they’re not going to be there forever. That just can’t happen.”
For Corke, the graves of the fallen of 1914-1918, in particular, will be looked after only for as long as governments feel the political imperative to do so. Therefore, it is vital to preserve and encourage public interest in, and knowledge of, their war.
The motives of governments themselves may be murkier – Corke does not hazard an opinion – and there are arguments that all the money used for the memorialisation of dead veterans might be better spent on helping living veterans (although Corke says less than 1 per cent of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs huge $11.7 billion budget goes towards commemoration).
But the upkeep of war graves, for Corke, is about more than just honouring the dead. Throughout all the pageantry of patriotism, the warning from World War I must continue to be heard.
The war should not have happened, says Corke, and a war like that must never be allowed to happen again.