Remorseful of a grave error

“I was very remorseful”.

Those are the words Ron Horsfall owner of the Cowra War and Rail Museum used regarding the sale of the headstones of Private Benjamin Hardy and Private Ralph Jones at the museum’s recent clearing sale.

Ron has since apologised and offered to return the $325 paid by the Australian War Memorial to purchase the headstones.

“They have been there for 30 years and I honestly wasn’t aware of the situation. I am now,” he said.

“Thousands of people have been there over the years and through the museum and it’s just one of those things.

“I’ve rang the secretary of the Australian War Memorial and apologised and offered to return their fee.”

In a press release Australian War Memorial Director, Dr Brendan Nelson, said it was disappointing someone would seek to profit by selling the headstones of two men who died in the service of their country.

“The headstone of any human being, let alone highly decorated Australian soldiers, should be handled in the most dignified way. Why on earth they would end up at an auction is something I find irritating at best and disappointing,” he said.

“We paid $325 for the two, which is $325 more than anybody should have paid because common decency would suggest a man’s headstone, particularly a George Cross recipient’s, should not be sold.”

The headstones were removed from Cowra Cemetery during the 1970s in order to be replaced with new markers displaying the insignia of the George Cross, however instead of being destroyed, the original headstones were deposited at the local tip where Ron said they were offered to him.

Media reports stated the Australian War Memorial sent a staff member along “undercover” to purchase the headstones, however both Ron and former museum curator Trevor Davidson, both told the Cowra Guardian that Australian War Memorial had attended the museum in the weeks before the auction to take note of the lots they would be attempting to buy.

“They did come a fortnight before, a couple of their staff came and checked everything and wrote down everything they were going to buy and take back with them,” Ron said.

“The Deputy Director of the War memorial and two staff were up here and got the lot numbers for anything related to the POW camp and are adamant they are going to buy the lot,” Trevor said.

In a further statement the Australian War Memorial supported the claim saying, “The Memorial attended the auction as it would any other. The claims of people operating “undercover” were created by the media and other commentators”.

Cowra Council Mayor, Bill West, said the purchase of the headstones by the War Memorial was done with the full support of the council.

“Following the awarding of the George Cross to the two men, the original headstones were replaced with corrected headstones sometime in the 1970s with the originals eventually coming into the collector’s hands after that,” Cr West said.

In a Facebook post Member for Hume Angus Taylor said the headstones sale was brought to his attention by the members of the Crookwell RSL Sub Branch.

“With the help of my team in Goulburn, these historically significant and sensitive items were acquired by the AWM at a public auction last weekend after Crookwell RSL Sub Branch raised concerns they would be sold to a private collector,” he wrote. 

The Australian War Memorial also purchased a number of other items during the clearing sale however refused to make further comment on the purchases as it was not their normal practice to buy items.

Both Private Benjamin Hardy and Private Ralph Jones were posthumously awarded the George Cross in the 1950s for, “outstanding gallantry and devotion to duty” in resisting the mass breakout of Japanese prisoners of war at Cowra on August 5, 1944. Hardy and Jones were killed by escapees while manning their machine-gun post.

Second only to the Victoria Cross, the George Cross was awarded for “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger”.

The markers are a poignant reminder of the loss of life that occurred on both sides during the Cowra Breakout.

The Australian War Memorial has now scheduled the headstones for conservation work, after which a decision will be made about their display at the Memorial.