Some corner of a foreign field

Australian service men and women are buried or commemorated in locations across the globe.

12 December 2019

Commonwealth War Graves Commission war graves in St Mary’s churchyard, Harefield.

The village of Harefield, northwest of London, which was the site of an Australian military hospital during the First World War, is one of these. However, Harefield has some notable differences from other war cemeteries.

Harefield Park House opened as the No. 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital (AAH) in June 1915 and operated until early 1919. Originally designed for 50 patients, the hospital accommodated more than 1,000 patients at its peak. Many local volunteers also worked at the hospital in addition to military medical staff. Some assisted in the patients’ canteen, while others helped with splint making or arranging ward concerts.

Today, the connection between Harefield and Australian service personnel is not immediately apparent when entering the village, but the evidence is there – if you know where to look.

The first hint is a statue in a park in the centre of village – a globe representing the link between Australia and Harefield. The second is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery in St Mary’s Parish churchyard.

statute shows hollow globe with a hare inside it and Australia on the globe.

Statue in Harefield showing the link between the village and Australia.

The CWGC graves are nestled among the graves of local people. The headstones are one of the most striking aspects of this particular CWGC cemetery. Shaped like scrolls, they were designed by patients and staff. They pre-date the standard CWGC design and are unique to the cemetery. The 127 graves include First and Second World War burials.

An Australian nurse – Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) Staff Nurse Ruby Dickinson – is one. Born in Forbes, New South Wales, Sister Dickinson enlisted in July 1915. She was married when she enlisted.

As married women were not permitted to enlist in the AANS, Sister Dickinson used her maiden name, leaving the question regarding her marital status blank in the attestation form and listing her mother as next of kin.

After serving as far afield as Egypt and on the Western Front, she was working in the No. 1 AAH at Harefield in 1918 when she became seriously ill with pneumonia. She reported sick on the morning of 23 June 1918, and was immediately transferred to a hospital in London, but died that afternoon.

Sister Dickinson was buried in Harefield, where:

A large number of officers, orderly staff and patients from No. 1 A.A.H. marched in the funeral procession, and many Sisters, V.A.D.s and civilians attended the services at the church and grave side.

The Harefield community contributed to the commemorations of those who died in the hospital. The village school lent their British flag for use during military funerals and, at the end of the war, the flag was presented to the last commanding officer of the hospital. This flag was later donated to Adelaide High School. In return, the Australian Children’s Patriotic League donated Australian and British flags to Harefield School. The Harefield community continues to conduct annual Anzac Day services, during which children from the local school place flowers on each of the graves.