Possibly the quickest introduction to the book is a synopsis.
Over time I will be posting articles about the project – the research and writing of it – and then transferring the links to this page.
The Kapooka Tragedy: remembering 21 May 1945 examines the aftermath of the worst training accident in Australian military history. With the end of the war in sight, 26 sappers of the Royal Australian Engineers were killed in an explosion whilst learning the skills of demolition. The military funeral that followed is still the largest on Australia’s home soil. After the initial flurry of shock and resolutions to remember in the churches, parliament and newspapers, however, memory of this incident disappeared from public consciousness. It was left to families, friends and those who were present to carry the memory and to grieve in isolation and silence until, finally, a formal memorial was opened 65 years later.
This book honours the sacrifice of these men and acknowledges the grief of their families and friends. Drawing on the Court of Inquiry and the reminiscences of witnesses, the author begins with a reconstruction of the events of the week beginning 21 May 1945. He does not attempt to solve the mystery of the cause of the explosion. The narrative highlights the extent of the tragedy and describes the response to it from around the nation. From the pulpit to the national parliament it was roundly proclaimed that these men had died in the service of King and country as truly as if they had died in battle, and their sacrifice would honoured as such.
It didn’t happen. In the second chapter, I present the extent to which the events were forgotten and canvasses a number of reasons why it happened. Chief among them are that the war was dragging on and this was just one in a long stream of horrors. To dwell on it may have damaged morale on the Home Front and called into question the Army’s competency. Losing so many men to an accident was not something to be proud of, especially with the end on sight. The memory sank from sight and was allowed to stay there.
In researching this event, I made contact with a number of relatives and friends of the 26, and some of the surviving eye-witnesses. These people’s stories show the enduring aftermath of the silence. Their experiences are indicative of what happens when grief goes unacknowledged, when history is swept out of sight.
The fourth chapter contains 26 pen portraits. Some are lengthy; some are arrestingly brief. Here, I have honoured the memories of these men by showing the reader who they were and, consequently, what the world missed out on in losing them. Each left a uniquely shaped gap. This is what, for many, has endured.
Then there is acknowledgement of the experiences of those who were there on the day – the witnesses, officers, medicos and the two survivors of the blast – who were also impacted by the explosion.
The book concludes with a look at the relationships between memory, acknowledgement, forgetfulness and memorials. The narrative of the development of the official memorial to the tragedy that was unveiled in 2010 acknowledges the efforts of those who kept the memory alive, who supported and worked for what is a fine, engaging memorial, and an annual gathering of remembrance. An essay on the history and place of war memorials in Australia suggests reasons why the construction of the memorial to the Kapooka Tragedy is important, and not only for those directly affected. What we remember, and what we forget, helps to define who we think we are.