On the plinth of the substantial Celtic cross in Dromana Cemetery are words put there by grieving parents. Some aspects of the psychological damage wrought by the Great War on service men and women are well known. The trauma inflicted on their families in all parts of Australian society is less conspicuous in studies of the war. However, those who returned with ‘shell shock’ probably affected more communities than is generally acknowledged.
The effect of the loss or maiming of a loved child was something that thousands of Australians had to bear and which touched all parts of society. Sir Henry Bournes Higgins, an Irishman by birth, was one of the Fathers of the Australian Federation, a judge of the High Court of Australia, architect of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and (according to Australia’s second prime minister, Alfred Deakin) a champion of the Commonwealth literary fund. Higgins’ only child, Mervyn, died in the Great War after distinguished service, though this proved little consolation to his parents. A member of the 8th Light Horse, he saw action at the Nek, famously depicted in Peter Weir’s 1980 film Gallipoli.
Mervyn, an officer with the 8th, was lucky enough to survive that action but, in another campaign where his Light Horse regiment fought dismounted, he was fatally shot in the head at Magdhaba in Sinai on 23 December 1916. He was buried on Christmas Eve, close to where he fell, and the report of his death reached his family on New Year’s Day 1917. HB Higgin’s biographer, John Rickard, notes that members of the Higgins family were devastated by the news. Mervyn’s fellow officer in the 8th wrote to his family speaking of Mervyn’s bravery ‘to the point of fearlessness’, but his parents never recovered.
In 1924, Justice Higgins, aged 72, and his wife made their last trip to Europe. It included a pilgrimage to the war graves at El Kantara where their son’s body was interred, followed by a journey to Magdhaba, where Mervyn had died. This augmented their regular attendance at the memorial to their son at Dromana Cemetery, which they created and beside which both were eventually buried.
John Rickard, HB Higgins: The Rebel as Judge, George Allen and Unwin, Australia, 1993
Australian Dictionary of Biography, Henry Bournes Higgins: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/higgins-henry-bournes-6662
Film & Sound
With the Australian Forces in Palestine, Frank Hurley: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/F00084/