Tim Whitfod: So, we went there.
I’d walked past this wood many, many times in my life and I never even twigged. There’s our mate Marcel, he’s somewhat of a local in Fromelles, his family’s only been around for 700 years. Marcel is standing on top of one of our pits and you can just see how easy it was for these pits to simply disappear into the background of France. An Australian officer actually went there looking for war dead. He walked in and around this wood, Major Allen in 1922, and he didn’t find anything. The army was convinced that even if these pits were burial pits that surely the army would have found such a significant burial site after the war. And even though we knew that Major Allen hadn’t found anything, the army was convinced there were others and we just hadn’t found the paperwork to prove that they’d found them.
Tim: So we went there. We were very happy that there wasn’t a Le Kmart or a Le Bunnings on top of this site and it was very much untouched.
We approached the lady who owns this land, Lady Marie-Paul de Masciet, and she was somewhat taken aback when we said, ‘Hey ma’am there might be some dead people in your field,’ and she said, ‘Well if they are there, then you must get them,’ and she was very supportive. That was a massive hurdle out of the way.
[Photograph of Lieutenant J C Bowden, B Coy, 59th Battalion]
Tim: Lambis is a bit computer-illiterate and he does the one finger typing thing so you have to understand what an immense job it was for Lambis to go through all 1,299 personal files, every last page, of the missing of Fromelles looking for any clue as to what might have happened to the missing. We didn’t find hardly anything, any clue, until we came across the file of this incredibly good looking man, Lieutenant Jack Bowden from Kyabram in Victoria, a bank manager who had disappeared during the battle of Fromelles, like so many others. The difference between all the other files and Jack Bowden’s file was this …
[Photograph of typed document titled Battle of Fromelles 19/20 July 1916. The first paragraph is typed in English, the second paragraph is typed in German. http://www.awm.gov.au/database/1drl428.asp]
Tim: … it had a German document in it. The army had asked the Red Cross to do an investigation, like so many others, but this particular investigation, because of the ardent nature of the Bowden family’s enquiries, had been very thorough. And you can see the Australian Red Cross had written to the German Red Cross and the German Red Cross had actually, through the Swiss authorities, written back during the war. This document was just waiting for us the whole time. You can see Leutnant Bowden in einem der 5 grossen englischen Massengräber vor dem Fasenenwaldchen bei Fromelles. Wow. Or in English: ‘Lieutenant Bowden was buried in one of the five large British collective graves before Pheasant Wood near Fromelles’.
How many pits had been backfilled and mounded up? Five. We looked at a German map from WWI and that little wood that kept on cropping up in our photos, we found out that the Germans had called it Pheasant Wood and we now got mega, mega excited, like excited but on steroids. We went back to the Australian army and said you know how you told us to go and get some real evidence? Cop this! No, we didn’t really; we were really nice.
We also found another document, well the army actually found one, from Germany, and it was from General von Braun, love the German names, General von Braun, the commander of the German soldiers. And he had said, you will prepare pits before Pheasant Wood for 400. Wow. Had we found the missing of Fromelles? We thought so. The army still couldn’t get past, I don’t think, the fact that Australian graves discovery units had been there after the war and surely this site had been exhumed, if indeed it existed at all.
[Photograph of a field in the process of having its grass cut for hay. Behind the field stands a wood. There is an empty tractor and trailer and three people standing in a group observing the tractor and area.]
Tim: So with that in mind, they didn’t have a big budget and not much time and so they sent this man here, Tony Pollard, a battlefield archeologist, and they said ‘Tony we want you to find out once and for all if this was a mass burial site but we don’t want you to dig. We want you to do a non-invasive survey.’ Tony’s an incredible archeologist. He went over that ground with ground-penetrating radar trying to get a picture of what was under the soil. He could clearly see our pits but couldn’t tell what was in them. So then he crossed that ground from four different directions with some of the best metal detectors in the world.
[Photograph of Lambis Englezos holding a shovel in a field. Dotted behind him are many white flags stuck into the ground, with the woods in the background.]
Tim: There’s my ugly mate Lambis there. We always had plan 27B which was to go there in the dark with that shovel …
Tim: …and the number of a French lawyer. But we didn’t have to, because Tony … each one of those little flags indicates where the metal detector went ‘beep’ and he found 772 metal objects, almost all of them from the WWI-era. Now, you could find that anywhere around Fromelles. The place was fought over for the entire First World War, but it was the way they were lying. If these pits had been dug up after the world war, Tony figured that any metal on the surface would have been moved and put in piles, but the metal was evenly scattered. These little bits of shrapnel balls and bullets had come from a long way away, 1200 meters away from the battlefield. They were just evenly scattered across the surface, there was no grouping of metal objects. So, he said, whatever is below the surface of these pits is still in there. Now, that still isn’t enough evidence to convince the Australian army and it was on, I think, the second to last day of Tony’s non-invasive survey that he hit real pay dirt.
[Photograph of two medallions: one in the shape of a horseshoe, the other in the shape of a heart.]
Tim: The metal detector went ‘beep’ and they came across these two significant artefacts. You can clearly see ANZAC. No Australian had ever got this far during the war; we had never captured this ground. So the only way this Australian artefact with a kangaroo and an emu and the word ANZAC, given to a soldier by someone who loved him, the only way it could have got to that site was on the body of a dead man, and fallen off him. That was significant. But this one blew it all out of the water. This was the key to the missing of Fromelles. You can see the lucky horseshoe, the letters AIF for Australian Imperial Forces, but more importantly – Shire of Alberton. We knew exactly where this had come from. We then went to the Shire of Alberton and there is a wonderful archivist in the town of Yarram, her name’s Kay Patterson, and I sat there for three days with Kay Patterson going through all their WWI archives. Slowly, but surely, we found out that 75 men had died from the Shire of Alberton during the entire war. Five of them had died in that horrific ten hours at Fromelles and through a process of elimination – some of them had joined elsewhere, others had joined before the Shire were giving out these medallions – we were able to eliminate who could have possibly been the owner of this medallion.
[Photograph of a soldier, Private Harry Willis D Company, 31st Battalion.]
Tim: It was this fellow, young Private Harry Willis from D Company of the 31st Battalion and here’s where it got really, really freaky for me, because Harry Willis is that great uncle that my grandmother told me about when I was a little boy. And so you can imagine I nearly fell out of my chair. And so, you know, don’t ever let anyone tell you that family history is just history. It’s living and it’s breathing and has connections breathing down the ages. With the finding of Harry’s good luck medallion the lid was off. The army was now in with both feet and they said, ‘we’re going back and this time we’re going to dig’.
[Photograph of a young soldier, Private Harry Willis, number 11372.]
Tim: Harry was never meant to go to war. He got a white feather in June 1915. That was part of that – Patrick Lindsay calls them family Dreamtime stories, that’s not written down anywhere – but my nan told me about the white feather and this entire different branch of the family had the same story, passed down that oral history, don’t discount it anywhere, it’s real. Harry had got a white feather, he’d been shamed into joining the army, he was never supposed to join.
[Photograph of large unit of soldiers; most standing in rows, some seated at the front.]
Tim: This is his unit; I know you can pick him straight away here. These are Darges photos from the Australian War Memorial collection; this crazy guy Elgin en Darges takes thousands of photos at Broadmeadows and Seymour camps during the war and there are some of the finest visual records of our First World War soldiers. There he is way up there, third from the left, up there where you need oxygen. D Company of the 31st Battalion; a fine body of men. Some of the finest, most well equipped, most well trained, motivated men Australia’s ever sent overseas and they were butchered, butchered in just a few hours.
[Photograph of Private Harry Willis standing with his rifle held upright.]
Tim: This is the last photo taken of Harry; again from our family collection, passed down from grandmother to me. This was taken in Tall al Kabir in Egypt before Harry sailed. When this photo was taken we think he had about three and a half, four weeks to live and it really shows what these boys looked like at the battle of Fromelles. Give him a steel helmet and a gas helmet as it was called, a gas mask, this is pretty much what these men would have looked like as they attacked at Fromelles.
He goes to France. They land at Marseilles, they jump on trains. One 31st battalion soldier reports again in his diary – again, these wonder primary sources we get – he says ‘finally we’re out of Egypt and we’re in a country worth fighting for,’ and off they go. They’re dropped off near Harsbrook and they march up to the battlefield. They’re in the area of Fromelles for about three days before they go into attack and Harry’s killed, shot in the face in his first battle, and disappears in a paddock in France.
[Photograph shows a photo of a green, grassy field with a green wood at the back with the caption in red The 2008 dig. In front of the wood there is a temporary fence set up with white shelters behind.]
Tim: The archeologists return in 2008.
[Photograph shows two archeologists in a muddy trench.]
Tim: They dug and they dug and the media of the world were there and they had their cameras in my face. And I remember Liz Hayes from 60 minutes, she said, ‘Are you sure they’re there?’ And I said, ‘Of course I’m sure they’re there. Look at the evidence we’ve got now: they’re there.’
And they dug and they dug all day, and do you know what they found? Nothing. And I was going, uh-oh, what if the army was right, I’m to look like a real goose. But Lambis was pretty confident the whole time; he believes in mysticism and all that sort of rubbish. They dug, they dug.
On the second day they dug all day and at about ten to five in the morning Paola Totaro from Fairfax, she poked me in the ribs and said they’d found something. I said, ‘How can you tell?’ and she said, ‘They’re taking photos of a phone call.’
Tim: I went, ‘Yeah, I reckon they’ve found something.’ And about ten minutes later it was discovered: one of the forensic anthropologists was about to throw out what looked like a stick out of the pit, or collect a stick out of the pit, and Gail McKinnon, a girl from Euroa, one of the finest bones people in the world, forensic anthropologist, she said ‘Stop, that’s not a stick, it’s a man’s arm.’ And that was the first of our soldiers found at Fromelles. It ends up we found 250; it was the first of 250.
[Photograph shows a trench dug out to different levels with little white flags sticking out at various places.]
Tim: And …
[Photograph shows Tim sitting on some cement blocks with his eight-year-old daughter with her hands around his neck and her eyes closed.]
Tim: … that moment hit me like a ton of bricks. You know I was a big, brave soldier; I’d served overseas. What a lot of crap. I was just my nanna’s little boy again for a little while. The first thing I had to do was get on the phone to my beautiful grandmother and say, ‘Nan, I think we’ve found him.’ And my daughter was there, my eight-year-old daughter, and I was so lucky to have my family there because now generation after generation they can return to that spot and say ‘I was there when’. It hit me like a ton of bricks: 250 men we found in the end.
[Photograph shows archeologists in white suits kneeling and working through the mud with buckets nearby for their finds. The caption in red reads 2009 recovery operation.]
Tim: In 2009 they returned. The archeologists were digging up these men now. We’d advocated, we’d said we want these men out of there, we want them identified and we want them reburied with full military honours just like they deserve.
[Photograph shows archeologists working in a trench partially covered by corrugated metal.]
Tim: And so they returned in 2009; they started that huge process. Each man was lifted out of the ground; as each man was lifted out of the ground a DNA sample was taken and that’s where family historians all over Australia went to work. These families wanted their boy, they wanted him named, they wanted his dignity returned to him. And so little historical societies and family history groups, they went to work. They found the relatives, sometimes so distant a trail of the relatives, mitochondrial DNA trails.
[Photograph shows gloved hands examining a belt and buckle.]
Tim: They examined the artefacts. That little belt’s been in the ground, green wool, been in the ground for a hundred years almost and it’s in such wonderful condition.
[Photograph shows a small metal vial of iodine.]
Tim: This is a vial of iodine a soldier would have carried. He was supposed to crack it open and pour it on his wound, but he never got the chance. The iodine’s still sealed in there ready to go.
[Photograph shows a gloved hand holding an Australian metal rising sun badge.]
Tim: A rising sun badge from a collar of a uniform; we hardly found any of those in the pits. We found that the soldiers had given them to the French girls, bless them.
[Photograph shows a leather boot, mostly intact.]
Tim: You can see the condition these men were in. I saw things that day that will be with me for the rest of my life when I went down to look at those pits. There was one young fellow lying on his back with his arms outstretched and his head back, his mouth wide open and he looked like he was screaming. I saw another young boy still with telephone wire wrapped around his ankles where he’d been dragged across the field and into the pits. These men were in incredible condition and we found it necessary to give them their dignity and identity back.
[Photograph shows a page out of a Bible, with some passages underlined.]
Tim: This soldier carried a Bible; you can even see where he’s underlined passages. I’m often told by people, you know they try to make you feel better I suppose, and they say, ‘Oh, they laid their life down for their country’. I’ve never heard such rubbish in all my life. I was a soldier once and neither me or any of my mates ever would have ever laid down our life for our country. You know, these men had their lives ripped from them violently in the night; they never got the chance to live their lives. This fellow obviously wanted to read his Bible again.
[Photograph shows several fragments of a second-class railway ticket from Perth to Fremantle, pieced together.]
Tim: This is one of the most moving artefacts they found; little keys to the identity. That’s a second-class railway ticket from Perth to Fremantle. Obviously he wanted to use it as a good luck charm; you know he could use it when he got home, or it could be absolute proof that all Western Australians are really tight.
Tim: Who knows? I don’t know, I don’t know. You be the judge.
[Photograph shows two women and three children standing outside a house. The caption in red reads The search for Mitochondrial DNA.]
Tim: Mitochondrial DNA was important. These family history connections, little groups all over Australia, were so much help and they are still helping. Of our 250 men we’ve now got 124 of them with positive identification, in a grave of their own, with their names on it. Mitochondrial DNA comes from your mother; my Uncle Harry received it from his mother. Men cannot pass it forward; we can receive it but we can’t pass it forward. It’s absolute proof that men are useless.
You can see Harry there, that’s Harry holding the hand of his mum; his older brother who would also die in the war; and his oldest brother Sid. Sid has the same mitochondrial DNA received from his mother as Harry had. His oldest sister, my nanna’s mother; she receives that mitochondrial DNA also from her mother. Because men are useless, when Sid dies that DNA dies with him, but Harry’s sister passes it on to the next generation – my grandmother. And my grandmother gave a sample, that little essence of life, the same as this boy who was lying in a pit in France – and that becomes the key to giving him his identity back. It’s amazing. Isn’t it clever, DNA? Thank you, genealogists.
[Photograph shows Tim with his beaming grandmother, holding a framed photograph of Harry in his uniform.]
Tim: The sixteenth of March in 2010, the result of all that work came to fruition. I got a phone call from the army; it was my old commanding officer of all people, he said, he was very formal, he said, ‘It is my honour and my duty,’ those are words you don’t hear every day, ‘it is my honour and my duty to inform you that among those positively identified at Pheasant Wood are the remains of your great uncle Harry.’ And again I nearly fell off my chair, and the first thing I had to do was get in my car and I drove past Melbourne heading to South Gippsland at about 200 kilometres an hour, because I wanted to be the one to break the news to my beautiful grandmother. You can see the pure joy in nan’s face there. Nan died just a month after this photo was taken, but she died with something that so many families from the First World War never got the chance: she got to know where that boy was, something she had carried with her her whole life. She was able to draw a line under it for that last month and it was just beautiful.
[Photograph shows soldiers carrying a coffin, followed by Prince Charles and the Governor General.]
Tim: These men got buried with full military honours; you can see Prince Charles and our Governor General following these men to their grave, their final resting place. It was a privilege to be a part of it.
[Photograph shows military cemetery with rows of graves and people looking on.]
Tim: These are our 250 men from Pheasant Wood; the identity of these men is down to thousands, literally thousands, of family historians all over Australia. One hundred and twenty-four of them have been given their names back. We still have 12 months left of this project to try and find them, so get out there and find the Fromelles missing from your communities.
[Photograph shows Tim standing behind his great uncle’s gravestone.]
Tim: I was able to close loops that day. For the first time I was able to walk up to a grave with this uncle’s name in it. I’ll be able to take my daughter there, my wife there. My daughter, if I ever let a boy near her, will be able to take her own kids there.
Tim: It’s a real privilege.
[Photograph shows silhouettes of children playing in the foreground, with the military cemetery in the background.]
Tim: I always close this presentation with this photo. Remember that cemetery VC corner with no identified people in it; 410 roses, the back wall there with the missing. It’s got two young Australian girls doing cartwheels on the final resting place of the missing. Some people would say that’s disrespectful; I think those young Diggers from Fromelles would love to hear the sound of young Australian children laughing in their final resting place. I think they would love it.
I loved talking and telling my story here today. Thank you.