Hunter students in bid to find lost soldiers' families

As schools return and mark Anzac Day, we meet five Hunter schools helping find the families of ‘untraceable’ WWI soldiers. Sven Wright reports.

Image: Students and staff of Thornton Public School who have been involved in researching the life of WWI soldier Private William King.

World War I history is coming alive in a uniquely personal way for the students of five Hunter schools.

The schools are taking part in the trial program ‘Find Them, Remember Them: Creating Citizen Historians’, developed by educators and historians Yvonne Fletcher and John Gillam in association with the Directorate of Defence Honours and Awards.

As part of the trial, 16 World War I medal sets belonging to soldiers who died in battle and who had no traceable family members were approved for issue to eligible schools.

Students across Australia will research the background of these soldiers and attempt to locate their families. If they are not successful, the school will be granted custody of the medals.

Mr Gillam said the program had a number of aims.

“It’s really important that communities understand as much as possible about those who gave their lives, so we are able to honour them and recognise their sacrifice,” said Mr Gillam.

“By applying the ‘Find Them, Remember Them: Creating Citizen Historians’ research process, the students will be able to share their research of their soldier with their community.”

Ms Fletcher said the program was an innovative, authentic, project-based learning activity.

“It’s driven by the students’ own historical inquiry, guided by their teacher,” said Ms Fletcher.

“The aim of the program is to enable students to work as historians would, hence the name ‘Creating Citizen Historians’.”

The project is relevant to young people as they are able to have a personal connection to the soldier and pursue avenues that might lead to locating living relatives.

“As the program has been developed to address the national curriculum, we are hoping that the trial schools will demonstrate the program’s national application,” Ms Fletcher said.

Thornton Public School applied for custody of the medals of Private William King, an Indigenous soldier born in Maitland, who died in the Third Battle of Ypres in October 1917. His file was marked ‘Untraceable’ as his widow, Katie King, could not be found.

The students of 6A, led by their teacher, Ms Jess Allan, are researching Private King as historians would, guided by the ‘Find Them, Remember Them: Creating Citizen Historians’ research process. Because of Private King’s Aboriginal heritage, the students will also be engaging with the local Indigenous community.

The research will create a historical narrative of his service and sacrifice and form part of a school ceremony in which his medals will be officially presented to the school, symbolically welcoming him home.

Mr Gillam and Ms Fletcher’s other project titled “Untraceables” seeks to unite the descendants of soldiers whose files were marked Untraceable and whose medals remain uncollected.

One of these soldiers was Hinton-born Lance Corporal Keith Griffin. The historians were able to locate an eligible family member, Mr Roger McFetridge.

Running concurrently with the program, Year 5 and 6 students at Hinton Public School have researched his life. He fought with the 1st Battalion and died in Etaples Military Hospital on July 29th, 1916, after being wounded in battle.

The class has created a timeline of his life, which will be presented at a school ANZAC ceremony. His medals will be formally presented to the school leaders by Mr McFetridge.

Other Hunter schools in the trial are Fern Bay Public School, researching Private Theodore Chambers, Lochinvar Public School, researching Private Henry Crowley, and Stockton Public School, researching Private Frederick Greenland.

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