Gionni Di Gravio, archivist from the University of Newcastle describes the Birdwood Flag as a ‘big bag of confetti’.
“It’s a bit of a shock when you first see it, but it’s thanks to Bronwyn Orrock that we knew about the Birdwood Flag. We knew of its existence but we’d never seen until late last year.”
On a visit to Newcastle’s Christ Church Cathedral to inspect various items in the collection of the Diocese, Gionni asked about the flag.
“They brought out a shoebox – I opened it and my heart sank. I was distraught. But Bronwyn (Orrock) explained that (the state of the flag) it was part of a ritual.”
Historian Bronwyn Orrock was researching the fine art items held by the Cathedral.
“It was while I was researching in the Diocese archives that I found out about this flag but it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I realised how important it was,” she said.
But the flag which had once flown over General Birdwood’s headquarters at The Somme was now just a bag of tiny fragments.
When Bronwyn asked what had happened to it, the former Dean of Newcastle told her how flags are supposed to be treated when they’re put into a cathedral.
“He said, ‘They’re hung until they drop and then the pieces are supposed to be quietly and reverently collected and disposed of. I picked up the pieces because I thought one day someone is going to think this is really, really important. Someone will be looking for this; it will be important for Australia,'” she recounts.
“So he just quietly put the pieces in a box, put it at the back of a big old safe they have, and it was forgotten.
“Of course then the Cathedral went through the earthquake and restoration. All those things in the Cathedral were packed up, taken away and stored, and so the flag was just forgotten about,” she said.
“It’s only because I was doing this research and saw this lovely 1930s black and white photograph in a cardboard mount and thought, ‘Why has someone gone to the trouble of taking this photograph?’. I then found out a little more about the Birdwood Flag. When Gionni told me it had been found, I broke into tears. I couldn’t believe it was still there,” said Bronwyn.
General Birdwood was the British head of the Anzac troops, so all Australians serving during WWI served under him. Bronwyn says this is why they didn’t serve under an Australian flag.
“Our troops all served as part of the Empire, so they didn’t serve under an Australian flag. They had Australian commanders at the lower levels, but the ultimate person they reported to was a British general.”
This flag flew over Birdwood’s headquarters at the Battle of the Somme and while there haven’t yet been any photographs found of the flag flying, there are detailed newspaper reports of the making of the flag and the presentation of the flag to Australian soldiers in France.
“When this flag was first made, done by public subscription, there was a young lady named Miss Dora Sparke from Waratah, daughter of William Sparke. Dora was in her early twenties and her two brothers had gone to war. She decided with a group of friends to start making gifts to provide comforts to the soldiers in the field,” said Bronwyn.
“She then heard that British women had presented a flag, a Union Jack, to the Australian troops in France. She decided this wasn’t good enough and that we should be sending our boys an Australian flag, but not just any flag. She wrote and got permission for it to be an official flag.
“It was received by General Birdwood in a ceremony at the battleground where his headquarters were, and it was hung there. When he came back from the war, he returned it to Newcastle and it was stored here until he came [for] an official handing over ceremony.”
These days, the flag is in thousands of tiny pieces and now carefully stored by the University of Newcastle, but there is strong desire to have the flag restored.
Bronwyn thinks restoration may be possible to at least get the flag back on public exhibition, but it will be expensive.
“Perhaps we’ll need the public to help again!”
With the centenary commemorations of World War I, there are hopes that the funds necessary to restore the flag will be made available.