It is becoming more evident during the course of my research that sometimes the Australian War Memorial (AWM) Roll of Honour records, by virtue of the data provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), do not correctly state the: 1) place of death; 2) date of death; and/or 3) cause of death, for those who have died during wartime and were buried at sea.

I have written previously about the burials of those who die whilst at sea and in those cases the “official” record matches the historical record. However, there has been discovered an instance where these two versions of recorded events differ quite dramatically.

In research material published by Heather Ford, in issue No. 40 (September 2012) of Digger magazine, published and distributed in Australia by the Families and Friends of the First AIF Inc, she writes about the burial at sea of No. 2093 Pte. DONOVAN Patrick whilst being repatriated home wounded to Australia on-board H.M.A.T. (also H.M.A.H.S.) Kanowna. Now normally this would not be such a significant event as many soldiers, sailors and civilians during WW1 where upon their death were buried at sea when the distance to a port of call was too great. But as is the case with Pte. DONOVAN the “official” record of his place of death is significantly different to that of his actual place of death.

Pte. DONOVAN had suffered greatly during his short time in service. He was sick twice, in quick succession, whilst stationed at Gallipoli with Abdominal Pains (19/6/15) and Rheumatism (30/6/15). He was then medically evacuated to Cairo with a G.S.W. (gun shot wound) to his groin on 13/8/1915. In March 1916 he rejoined the Battalion and was posted to France where very quickly he was again medically evacuated, this time to England, and admitted to hospital due to “insantiy” in June 1916. After many months in a mental hospital in England Pte. DONOVAN was discharged from the AIF as suffering from “Delusional Insanity” and embarked on H.M.A.H.S. Kanowna on 9/9/1916 at Southampton.

The Kanowna sailed from England down the cost of Europe, through the Mediterranean Sea and Suez Canal, and on to the port of Suez, where more patients were embarked before their journey onto Colombo (Sri Lanka). It is during this leg of their journey to Colombo that Pte. DONOVAN dies on-board the Kanowna on 27/9/1916 and is buried at sea. Disturbingly, in his service record there is no information to state how he actually died or what he actually died of, although the role of honour “official” record states illness. Also, it would appear that his death was not reported until 31/10/1916 when the Final Voyage Report was submitted in Sydney. Interestingly, even ‘The AIF Project‘, a source I’ve often come to rely upon in the past, only states his “fate” as Returned to Australia 9 September 1916.

The really disappointing outcome from his death is that in his service record there are numerous letters and reports backwards and forwards between his family and officials, and between officials themselves inquiring about his personal possession (whilst still important) but none of these inquire as to his outcome (what he died of or where he was “buried”). To confuse the matter even more his name appears on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial in France even though he didn’t actually die in France, and the location of his “burial” is known, albeit at sea.

Interestingly, this appears to not be an isolated problem. I have found another example of a 3rd Battalion soldier (i’m sure there are probably more) who was “buried at sea” but the official record states otherwise: Lieut CADELL, Thomas Leonard – Buried at sea on 22 June 1915, but official record states Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey as place of death and his name appears on the Lone Pine Memorial.

In Chapter XIV, Section IV, Volume III – Special Problems and Services of the Australian Army Medical Services Office History, Colonel A. G. Butler records details of the transport of soldiers by sea. He writes in the section titled Mortality “of the 5,444 members of the A.I.F. who died from disease or accidental injury outside Australia, 482 died at sea”, now this does necessarily mean “buried at sea”, just that succumb to their wound, injuries or illness at sea. Whilst there are quite details records of the causes of death of soldiers for Kanowna’s sister ship Karoola, Colonel Butler records specifically that “[f]or the Kanowna detailed statistical records are non-existent” so this means the cause of Pte. Donovan’s death may never been known.