Many Australians have researched a family member who served during wartime as a way to remember and honour their service and sacrifice, especially during the centenary years of the First World War.
There are also those who, without any connection to the people they were researching, spent countless hours honouring those who served.
One of those people was Clare Canty. A photograph at her school set Clare on a course of discovery and remembrance, about a man from Ardmona in northern Victoria she never knew.
“In 2015, while teaching at Ardmona Primary School, I stopped to look at some old photos in the corridor,” explains Clare. “One photo showed the school with its World War One memorial in the foreground.
“I noticed in the photo that there was a metal laurel wreath at the top of the memorial. I didn’t think I had noticed it on the memorial in its current state, so when I went to check, I discovered that the laurel wreath no longer existed.
“I made a decision to see if I could have the laurel wreath replaced on the memorial.
Clare’s first thoughts were just how the memorial could be restored, being in poor condition, before turning her attention to just who the men were whose names appear on the memorial.
“Understanding the grief of local families as their young men did not return home, I felt we should honour them by respecting the memorial and restoring it to a site for quiet contemplation and pride in those young, brave men.”
Clare sought help from various organisations including Shepparton City Council, Shepparton RSL and Legacy group, Shepparton Veteran’s Association, the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Department of Veteran Affairs, and the Tatura RSL, all of whom Clare says were “very helpful” over the months of her research.
But it was an email received out of the blue that would turn Clare’s project on its head, from Dr Morwenna Collins, a Cub Scouts Leader in Stockbridge, England. The Cub group had been looking after the Commonwealth War Graves in Stockbridge cemetery and researching each man buried there.
Seeing Clare’s project online, Morwenna contacted Clare hoping to find information on a Lt. Lachlan MacDonald. Their goal was to honour the nine Commonwealth airmen killed in training accidents in the First World War near the training grounds around Stockbridge.
“I had never heard of Lt MacDonald and he was not on ours or any local memorials,” said Clare. “I explained that to Morwenna in a return email. She said that his record said he was from Ardmona, so I told her I would research it.”
Clare immediately began her research into the two Australians among those Morwenna was researching. During the First World War, men travelled from around the world to learn to fly at airfields in England. Nine were killed during their training at Stockbridge and are buried in the cemetery there, including Lt. Lachlan MacDonald from Ardmona.
“Lt. MacDonald and another Australian, Henry Carr, are both buried in Stockbridge cemetery amongst other Commonwealth servicemen’s graves from Canada and South Africa.
“Although we knew that Lachlan had joined the RAF, which explained no Australian record, Morwenna could find nothing about him in any British War Records. He became our ‘mystery man’.”
Lachlan John MacDonald was a horticulturalist and lecturer at Dookie Agricultural College, “imparting a first-class knowledge of horticultural work to the numerous students who came under his care” when he paid his own way to England to enlist in the First World War.
Lachlan was a lieutenant with the Royal Flying Corps when he was killed in a training accident on 19 January, 1918, aged 37. He had two brothers who also served; Neil McDonald who died of wounds received in France, while Norman McDonald survived the war.
The other Australian in Stockbridge Cemetery, Henry Carr, had been injured in France, possibly joining the RAF as he was no longer able to serve as a soldier. He died doing a manoeuvre in training.
After months of research and constant communication between Australia and England, Clare received news in early 2018 that a plaque to honour the nine airmen killed at Stockbridge had been unveiled on the wall of Old St Peter’s Church.
Within two weeks of the news, a stonemason was at Ardmona adding the name of Lt. Lachlan MacDonald to their memorial.
"I thought that it was amazing that 100 years after his death, he was honoured on two sides of the world within two weeks of each other!"
Wreaths for both MacDonald and Carr were organised from Australia for the dedication ceremony and blessing at Stockbridge in April 2018, with Clare sending a wreath for MacDonald made from paper poppies made by local children.
Clare also collected soil from around Ardmona at various sites she thought Lachlan MacDonald might have visited all those years ago.
“Thinking customs might reject it, I wrote on the outside of the parcel that ‘it had been microwaved at high temperature to kill any organisms and that it was to be sprinkled on a WW1 grave.’ The soil arrived safely in England!”
By the time her research was done, Clare was able to pass on the histories of these two Australian airmen to the group in Stockbridge. But as with all research, sometimes the smallest detail can cause the biggest trouble.
“One of the things that confused me when I was trying to research Lachlan was that Lachlan’s name was spelt MacDonald and I discovered that his family was McDonald, without the ‘a’.”
However, discovering his brother who had also died in the war led Clare to find a handwritten letter from another brother to the war department, in which it explains that Lachlan liked to spell his surname, “MacDonald”.
An article announcing Lachlan MacDonald’s death described him as a good “good public-spirited citizen, and one whose loss will be regretted by all classes in the community,” also referring to him as “Mac, as he was known to his friends.”
“It may have been different from his family, but it was the way he liked it,” says Clare.
In October 2018, Clare and her husband, John, travelled to Stockbridge, visiting the cemetery where the graves are situated and holding a ceremony.
The soil Clare sent from Australia was sprinkled over each grave and gum leaves were burned, the ashes buried in each grave, honouring a tradition of Australian families visiting the graves of loved ones in the years after the war who would do the same.
“It was a touching and surreal ceremony after all that had happened. We saw the plaque Morwenna had organised and visited the old church,” with Clare saying that everyone they met were “All lovely, warm people, very happy to meet up with the two Australians!”
As Clare explained, “The men were resting in this foreign soil with a little of their homeland.”