A special ceremony was held at the British War Cemetery section of the New Cemetery in Belgrade, Serbia, on ANZAC Day this year in the presence of the descendants of Australians who served in Serbia during the First World War.
At the invitation of the Australian Embassy in Belgrade, Kathy Hancock, Richard Cooke and Captain (Retd) Bojan Pajić participated in the ANZAC Day ceremony which was organised by both the Australian and New Zealand Embassies in Belgrade.
Despite Australian and New Zealand service personnel serving in Serbia or alongside Serbian personnel during the First World War, little is known by the wider community about Australia’s wartime involvement in Serbia.
Buried at the New Cemetery in Belgrade are 28 Australians and 15 New Zealand serviceman. Of the 28 Australians, nine are soldiers and the remainder airmen. All but one are identified, the unknown burial being that of an airman.
It proved an emotional experience for the Australians during their visit to Serbia, each with their own personal connections to the war. Kathy Hancock’s great aunt, Dr Mary de Garis, served as Chief Medical Officer of a field hospital in support of the Serbian Army during the First World War, while Richard Cooke’s grandmother, Ethel Gillingham, had served as a nursing sister also in the First World War serving as a nursing sister to Serbian soldiers. Bojan Pajić’s grandfather and great uncle served as officers in the Serbian Army in the same war.
For Kathy, it was her first ANZAC Day ceremony outside Australia.
"I felt privileged to be invited to participate in the ANZAC Day service in Belgrade. To speak with local Serbians and members of other defence forces after the service was quite moving."
“I was especially honoured to lay long stemmed white roses on the graves of Australian and New Zealand servicemen at the war cemetery in Belgrade.”
Learning of how the Australian and New Zealand soldier died was a special moment for Richard, saying it “made these soldiers more real and the ceremony more poignant than I had expected,” while Bojan commented, “I think we all felt very humbled in front of the graves of so many young Australians and New Zealanders.”
After the Australian Ambassador in Belgrade, His Excellency Daniel Emery, opened the ceremony, Bojan gave the ANZAC Day address while Kathy and Richard read out a commemorative poem and prayer.
In his ANZAC Day address, Bojan, author of three books about Australians and New Zealanders who served in Serbia or alongside the Serbian Army in World War One, read out a statement requested by family members of Bernard Hough: "Bernard Austin Hough sacrificed his life for the greater good, that we now have the privilege to enjoy."
Bojan also recited a prayer requested by the family of Geoffrey Parker, one which could apply to each serviceman buried in Belgrade: "Eternal rest grant unto him Oh Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen"
In the lead up to their trip, the group searched for relatives of those Australians buried there, making contact with family members of behalf of the Australians buried in Belgrade. With the relatives in mind, the group spent time at the grave of each Australian and New Zealand serviceman buried in the cemetery.
Poppies had been placed on each grave by both the Australian and New Zealand Embassies, while the group laid flowers of their own upon each grave on behalf of relatives of the fallen. Photographs were also taken to be passed onto relatives of the dead.
"When we laid flowers on each of these graves, knowing that in certain cases, these actions were being very much appreciated and valued by relatives and descendants."
For Kathy, it was “especially moving reading the email responses of their descendants knowing that we had visited each grave.”
Also in attendance at the ceremony was Prince Aleksandar, the Crown Prince of Serbia, who laid a wreath along with representatives of the Serbian Government, Serbian Army, City of Belgrade and Military Attaches of several countries.
“I was surprised and grateful that Serbia’s Crown Prince attended the ANZAC Day ceremony,” explained Bojan. “He later invited us to tour his palace complex and have tea with his wife and himself. It symbolised what we found everywhere we went, that the Serbs were very grateful even today for the assistance that Allied nations like Australia provided in both World Wars.”
The group then visited the places and battlefields where Australian and New Zealanders had served alongside the Serbian Army in World War One. One such place was a memorial built by Serbian authorities in the town of Mladenovac during the First World War to the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service in which Kathy Hancock’s great aunt, Dr Mary de Garis, had served as Chief Medical Officer of a field hospital in support of the Serbian Army.
For Kathy, their visit to the shores of Lake Ostrovo was especially poignant as it was here that her great aunt served as a medical doctor.
“Being a field hospital, no infrastructure remains; it is now an orchard. Although we visited on a mild spring afternoon, and were surrounded by fruit trees and wildflowers, I know of the harsh winters they endured, bouts of malaria and the difficulties of performing medical procedures under canvas.”
Thinking of two of his grandparents, Richard explained how moving his experience was visiting sites where they had served.
“It was very emotional to see the buildings in which my Australian born grandmother, nursing sister Ethel Gillingham had worked and lived in at Vrnjacka Banja, as part of the Second British Red Cross Mission to Serbia in 1915-16. Ethel was one of the first Australian women to be interned in World War One when German forces invaded Serbia in November 1915.
“The unexpected highlight of the trip for me was to visit areas of and learn about the Salonika Front. The sheer scale and height of the mountain range which formed the front was amazing. I reflected that somewhere there for a period in 1917 was my grandfather, Lieutenant Theophilus Richards Evans, as Australian Army Pay Corps paymaster, most likely for Australian nurses embedded in British hospital units.”
With attendees from many nations present at the ceremony, Richard summed up the importance of commemorating the service and sacrifice of all those who came before us: “Having only observed local ANZAC Day commemorations in Australia, the impact of seeing military uniforms worn by Military and Defence Attaches from at least 12 countries created an unexpected multi-national tone, which led me to hope that war would be less likely in the future.”