'Hidden jewels of the world': Push to protect 1.7 million war stories

London: "One day, one family, three sons, all dead."

Ros Kelly, a former Australian government minister, dedicated the launch of a new charity to further the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, to Fanny Seabrook from Sydney, who lost her three sons in one day of fighting in WWI. .

A whistle, last used 100 years ago on the Somme, sounded over London's Tower Hill memorial commemorating the deaths of the merchant seamen who lost their lives both world wars.

"That haunting noise was probably the last thing that Lieutenant William Seabrook heard when he was hit by a phosphorus shell that killed or wounded the full section of the platoon he was leading," Ms Kelly said.

As William was being stretchered from the battlefield, his brothers George and Theo, aged 25 and 24, were killed when they were hit by an artillery shell.

"William died a short time later. In the breast pocket of his tunic was a photograph of his mother, Fanny. The fragment that killed him had gone through the photo. He was 21," said Ms Kelly.

William Seabrook is buried at the Lijssenthoek??? military cemetery in Belgium but the bodies of his brothers were never found. Theo and George Seabrook are named on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, along with 54,000 soldiers.

Ms Kelly said Fanny Seabrook, from Five Dock, never recovered from the death of her sons. She never saw the Menin Gate but in 1928 was among the one million Australians who "clogged" the towns and cities to "glimpse" William Longstaff's Menin Gate at midnight painting.

"That was the closest she ever got to her dead sons," said Ros Kelly. "I believe that we owe it to those three boys and the 1.7 million like them to keep the memory alive of their sacrifice for us," she said.

"We owe today to yesterday."

Speaking to Fairfax Media a short time later, Ms Kelly, a Commonwealth War Graves Commissioner and chair of the foundation, described the war graves and memorials as "hidden jewels of the world" but she said they were at risk of being forgotten if not properly promoted.

The Commonwealth War Graves Foundation (CWGF) she launched on Tuesday will begin in the UK but spread globally, including to Australia next year. It will seek finance from the private sector as well from individuals via ??30 ($51) subscriptions.

The foundation will fund education programs, promotional campaigns and projects targeting younger generations.

The Commonwealth War Games Commission is backing the foundation and said it would fund work the Commission was not allowed to pay for itself. In 2015/16, the CWCG received more than ??61million ($104 million) in funding from the governments of the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India who contribute according to the proportion of graves holding the remains of their war-dead.

This means the UK pays the greatest share - around 79 per cent - with Australia accounting for 6 per cent of the overall budget.

But CWCG vice chairman Tim Laurence said under the organisation's royal charter, funding can only be used for the maintenance of war graves and not for their promotion.

"It's never been funded to tell the stories of these cemeteries - they're beautiful but not enough people know about them - so if we want to go out and reach out and tell our stories to people we've got to go raise a bit more money to tell those stories," he said.

He said without the extra work there was a risk that "as time passes the memories will fade".

Ms Kelly said overall visits to the war cemeteries was "patchy" but that the centenary of the WWI had raised awareness and visits to the graves. "We want to maintain that momentum."

"As WWI and WWII become a more remote memory, it is critical that [we] know the stories, appreciate the sacrifice and we learn from them.

"We owe that to Fanny Seabrook," she said.

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This story 'Hidden jewels of the world': Push to protect 1.7 million war stories first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.