Rookwood’s ‘Old Army’ Anglican Section refurbished

A historic military graveyard in Sydney has undergone a major refurbishment.

28 October 2020

Over the past year, the ‘Old Army’ Anglican Section of Rookwood General Cemetery has received new headstones and bronze plaques, horticultural and irrigation works, improved access, signage and seating. The work was undertaken as part of a longstanding partnership between the Office of Australian War Graves and Rookwood General Cemetery.

The heritage-listed site, containing the graves of 112 personnel, was established in 1888, soon after Rookwood opened in 1867. It catered for a growing military presence in the Colony of New South Wales.

Mortuary trains would pull up at the cemetery, often followed by an elaborate military funeral, including a firing party and a bugler sounding The Last Post. With the advent of motor vehicles, the railway line was not used after 1948 and one of the stations was dismantled, taken to Ainslie in Canberra and rebuilt as All Saints’ Anglican Church. Mortuary Station, near Sydney’s Central Station, also remains a reminder of this era.

One of the mortuary stations at Rookwood General Cemetery, Sydney (State Archives of NSW)

The historic graveyard is laid out uniformly and conforms with the principles of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, where no individual is more important than, or treated differently to another, regardless of race, rank, religion or status.

Collectively, the graves in the ‘Old Army’ Anglican Section offer a unique insight into Australia’s military and social history.

The stories of service and sacrifice range from the Sudan Expedition (1885) to the Vietnam War. In fact, ‘Old Army’ has one of the most significant concentrations of Australian soldiers from the Vietnam War, with 11 soldiers who died during the war and two veterans who died in Australia soon after they completed their tours of duty.

One of the mortuary stations at Rookwood General Cemetery, Sydney (State Archives of NSW)

Private John Campbell (d. 1968)

One of these soldiers was Private John Campbell, 21, from Campsie in south-western Sydney.

John Campbell was working for the Repatriation Department (now DVA) in Sydney when he was conscripted and deployed to serve Australia.

Private Campbell served with the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment. He joined the Australian Army in July 1967 and died a year later in Biên Hòa Province, Vietnam.

Brave Lads, 3RAR’s published history, described the fatal attack: ‘At approximately 10 am, Private John Campbell moved out of the company patrol base to relieve the 10 Platoon sentry and gather a claymore cord. A Viet Cong sniper with an automatic weapon fired, wounding Campbell. An evacuation helicopter was called in … Several Viet Cong engaged the section … [and] Private Campbell later died from his wounds.’

Private John Campbell (d. 1968)

John’s next of kin, Janice Collins, remembered him as a kind and fun-loving kid who did well at school and loved music and football.

‘John was my uncle but he was just five years older than me, so we were more like cousins or siblings,’ Mrs Collins said. ‘We used to spend school holidays together in my hometown of Deniliquin, New South Wales. It was a very simple life in a country town; we knew everyone and they knew us.

‘We’d take off in the morning, on our bikes, return for lunch, and then be gone again until night-time — swimming down the river, playing in the sand-hills, digging tunnels, going to the movies and getting up to all sorts of mischief. We loved John and he loved us.

‘My nan (his mum) adored him and she never got over his death. He was so young, he hadn’t even started a life.

‘For me, as a 16-year-old, I never quite understood her grief and I’d ask: ‘Why is Nanna always so sad?’. Also, in those days, we didn’t talk about our loss. You couldn’t go to school and mention ‘my uncle was killed in Vietnam’. There was no recognition, not even by teachers.’

Mrs Collins said the refurbishment of the ‘Old Army’ Anglican Section had helped heal some of her family’s grief.

‘We didn’t visit the gravesite very often. Deniliquin was a long way from Sydney in those days. Nan became very anti-war and the site was hard to get to, especially for a woman by herself.

‘This project has been an amazing journey. It’s quite emotional, seeing all the [refurbished] war graves. The recognition of these men and women is beautiful, very special. There are still a lot of [Vietnam War] mums alive and they will want to visit Rookwood.

‘I can’t believe how much it’s brought us back in tune with John and what he went through. John has never been forgotten in our family. We still love him and we’re very proud of him. We feel that, with this restoration, John has finally come home.’

The refurbished ‘Old Army’ Anglican Section at Rookwood General Cemetery, Sydney

The refurbished ‘Old Army’ Anglican Section at Rookwood General Cemetery, Sydney