- Audio: Recovering the Australian war dead at Fromelles
Alistair Thomspson: Welcome to this and the last of this year's series of Making Public History seminars.
I'm Al Thompson from the Institute for Public History at Monash University and these seminars are intended to explore issues and approaches in making history in a wide range of public context, and they're open to anyone interested in historical representation in contemporary society.
The seminars are jointly hosted by the Institute for Public History at Monash University, by the History Council of Victoria, and by the State Library of Victoria, to whom we are very grateful for offering this wonderful venue.
This evening, we're going to be focusing on what has been a very public history issue and debate. Recovering and remembering the Australian war dead at Fromelles.
In a moment, I'm going to ask Sue Hamilton, who's the acting Chief Executive Officer of the State Library, to introduce our speakers. But first just a couple of housekeeping points.
The order of procedures this evening is that Bruce Gates is going to talk first and give a general context, and then Mike O’Brien is going to talk in more detail about his work in the field. And after that we'll have time for questions and discussion, and there will be a roving microphone. And in relation to that, I'm just asked to remind you of two things.
Firstly, these occasions are recorded and eventually will be podcast and added to the State Library website. So, by telling you that, when you have the microphone and speak, this assumes your consent to being on that recording. And second, I've been told that the roving microphone needs you to put it quite close for you to be able to be heard. So, and you really do need to use the microphone and not just speak from the audience, otherwise it doesn't get recorded and not everybody can hear.
That's enough from me, I'd like to now introduce Sue Hamilton who's the acting Chief Executive Officer of the State Library to introduce our speakers in this seminar. Thankyou Sue.
Sue Hamilton: Thanks Alistair. I'd like to begin this evening by acknowledging that we are meeting tonight on the land of the Kulin Nation and to pay my respects to the elders of that nation and any other elders who may be here tonight.
I'm really pleased to have an opportunity to introduce the speakers that we have tonight, Mike O'Brien and Bruce Gates. Mike, because he's a very old friend of mine, and his wife Margaret is a very old friend of mine too. And I've heard over the last few years a great deal about the work he's been doing with these excavations and earlier excavations. Often through Margaret telling me I have to say, rather than Mike telling me himself, which has been a bit of a blow to me, but it's been for some time an ambition of mine to get him to come here to the Library and talk about these things. So it's particularly pleasing for me to have him here tonight and to hear what he's going to say.
Bruce, I'm also delighted to have here, because…I hadn't actually met Bruce until a few weeks ago when we met. He was here for a book launch. And you can imagine that being working in the State Library as a director, and sometimes being the acting State Librarian, I get to go to an awful lot of book launches. And most of the speeches at book launches are extremely dull. Right. I really, you know, they are not the highest-quality speeches that I ever get to listen to.
And when I went to this book launch, where Bruce was speaking, this was the most amazing speech I have ever heard at a book launch. And I was particularly taken with it because Bruce, as I did this evening, began by acknowledging that we were on the land of the Kulin Nation. And sometimes when I'm saying that as part of what I'm doing to introduce an audience, sometimes, I feel awkward about it, because I feel people must think that's a terribly formulaic thing that public servants have to say, because they're told by government they have to say that. And I actually feel uncomfortable, because I think people will think that. Not because I don't genuinely want to acknowledge that.
Bruce gave the most authentic and thoughtful and moving acknowledgment of the indigenous people who were the original inhabitants of this land that I have ever heard anyone give. So I was delighted at the idea of being able to come and hear Bruce again tonight and I hope his speech is even half as moving as the one he gave on that evening.
Bruce is the Professor in History in Australian Studies and Director at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. And he's also the author of the forthcoming Cambridge History of Victoria's Shrine of Remembrance. And he served on the national committee, which confirmed the existence of the mass graves at Fromelles. And he's going to begin by reflecting on the significance of these events for Australian history.
And then Mike is going to follow. Mike was a Major General in the Australian infantry. He left four times service in 2001. He has written a history of his battalion in Vietnam and he was…he has worked for some years on the reburial of war dead in Europe. And he's been very closely involved more recently in the trial excavation and the exhumation and identification at Fromelles. So he's going to talk a great deal, I think, I hope, about both those processes.
So please join me, first of all in welcoming Bruce, and then Mike O'Brien. Thank you.
Bruce Gates: Thanks so much Sue. Today we're going to be discussing the recovery of human remains. The laying to rest of our dead, our war dead.
But I’m very conscience of where I stand this evening and that this place of course was once the site of the Museum of Victoria. And that that museum held and often displayed Aboriginal remains well into the 20th century. Most of those remains, of course, could not be repatriated to their communities, as indeed our war dead never came home. Most are now buried in a mass grave, a mass grave on the domain. So, again Sue, can I begin by respectfully acknowledging the traditional owners of this land, the Wurundjeri people and any of their descendants who join us today. And equally warmly, can I acknowledge all of you. Thankyou for joining us this very day after our Remembrance Day.
What an auspicious time to be discussing Fromelles. Now, like all of you, I'm very much looking forward to what Mike's got to tell us about the recent news of the excavations at the site and I'm going try and keep my talk tonight a little bit briefer because of that. And the way I'm going do it is to pin it around, I think, a very short but powerful quotation from Voltaire. What did he say? ‘To the living, we are respect. To the dead, we are only the truth.’
Can I begin then with the terrible truth about Fromelles?
The battle of Fromelles, as I am sure you'll know, was a costly, ill-planned diversion near the beginning of the Somme Offensive. It was the first time large numbers of Australians had gone over the top in France. And on that first day of fighting the first AIF suffered over 5,000 casualties.
I know that Mike is going to offer insights into that battle, which I think only someone who has seen the face of battle can offer us tonight. For now, what I want to do very quickly is to convey the essence of that battle through the eyes of contemporaries.
This is Charles Wheeler's monumental landscape entitled appropriately Fromelles. And this painting which is held, of course, by the Australian War Memorial, suggests the unrelenting carnage of that day. An artillery barrage that failed to cut the wire. A charge across open ground into well sited enemy guns. A failure to reinforce those unenforceable positions. The bleak, battered killing ground of no man's land. A line of men near the painting's centre seem to falter, their bodies consumed by shellfire. Or in that sparse, but I think very powerful soldier's idiom, what did they say? ‘Cut up. Cut up by shellfire’ that day. Well, this point was obvious, even to someone like myself who has absolutely no military training, far from it. Tiny figures of men frail, insubstantial, vulnerable, are lost on this canvas, just as those men are lost to this day.
Now, unlike the landing at Gallipoli, the bungled butchery of Fromelles has not entered Australia's popular memory, not until very recently. And I think perhaps when we do remember Fromelles, it's sometimes a quite partial and selective memory. Selective in that it's become very easy to blame just about everything on a callous and incompetent British command.
Now no-one, least of all myself, disputes the dismal failure of British intelligence work, the suicidal change of strategy, the criminal indifference to the waste of human life. And I'm sure Mike will tell us more about this. But the truth of Fromelles, let's face it, is that Australian commanders were also complicit in this bloodshed. It's an Australian general, after all, who failed to honour a truce to bring in our wounded, who left them to die in no man's land.
And the truth of the Fromelles is that these men fought and died, surely, for the British Empire. Increasingly, the first AIF is seen as the wellsprings of Australian nationalism, but I think we need to remember the deeply imperialist sentiments that sent these men to war. This was a very different generation to our own, or indeed to the generation that fought in World War II, and that of course in no way diminishes their sacrifice or their suffering.
But perhaps the most terrible truth to my mind about Fromelles is that all of this appalling sacrifice was in vain, and I'm not referring here just to the debacle of the battle itself. The men who died at Fromelles were promised that the Great War was the war to end all wars. Well what a great lie that has been.
I think the truths about Fromelles are painfully confronting, and I think our memory of the war should be just that, painful. For a moment though, let's turn to that first part of that great Falterian proposition. ‘To the living, we owe respect’.
I think it's difficult for us to imagine the trauma of the generation that lived through, that suffered the First World War. The forest of memorials that sprang up across our country. The size and grandeur of our Shrine of Remembrance here in Melbourne mirrors, I think, the magnitude of that generation's pain.
One in five Victorian families lost brothers, or sons, or husbands, or fathers during the Great War, and often that meant loss in a very literal way.
The hardest bereavements lacked what probably today we would call closure. The so called ‘missing men’ haunted a whole generation. Soldiers who simply vanished. Blasted to pieces, as you saw in Charles Willow's painting, swallowed up by the earth.
In the aftermath of Fromelles, the Red Cross initiated a series of inquiries, interviewing prisoners and survivors in the hope of determining what happened to those missing men. But for the most part these families were still left in a kind of limbo. Men died many times in the course of a single Red Cross inquiry. Families were told that they'd been bayoneted, machine-gunned, seen boarding a hospital ship, buried alive by a shell. So you live with not one death, but many.
Its six months after the charge at Fromelles that Private Baxwell's sister finally writes to the Red Cross. But her pain, I think, is no less real, and no less compelling, and no less urgent today. What does she say?
‘Please, I'm writing a few lines just to ask you, please, if you can find any trace of Private W.R. Baxwell. Please can you tell me if in any way I might be able to find my dear brother? He is all the world to me and this is driving me out of my mind. One of his mates came home and told me that he saw my brother on a stretcher wounded. And then it said in another letter that my brother had died. I've done all I can, but I can't find out anything about him. Is he a prisoner of war? How do I find out, please?’
Inquiries confirmed that Private Baxwell was killed instantly by a shell burst. Not a trace of his body was ever recovered from Fromelles.
But other deaths, I think, were far less conclusive. Annie Alton's son Henry was last seen going over the top and never really seen again. Again, some of his mates thought he was killed outright. Some thought they saw him taken prisoner. Others believed he was left wounded somewhere out there in no man's land.
Mrs. Alton continues to write to the military authorities year after year after year. ‘There must be a mistake somewhere’, she writes. ‘I'm sure my son is still alive’.
You could argue that we're still looking for Vivian Henry Alton. He was just 19 years of age when he went over the top at Fromelles.
We continue to search for the missing at Fromelles well into the 1920s. Indeed, the Australian War Graves Detachment, lead on the Western front by Major Alfred Allen, scoured battlefields like Fromelles time and time and time again. Their task is to recover and decently inter the remains of Allied soldiers, identify them if they can, bury them as unknowns if not.
It must have been horrific work. Dragging, what one account called ‘bags of slime from the mud of Flanders’. But it was an imperative, I think, in the 1920s to uncover those bodies. Families needed to know that their loved ones were, in the parlance of the time, laid to rest decently. They needed a place of real or imaginary pilgrimage, somewhere they could go to actually, or in their minds to grieve. And those bodies were buried, often reburied, in cemeteries; cemeteries that to this day mark the place of battles and hospitals and of course the old front line.
This pamphlet, folks, was issued in 1919. From as early as 1919, bodies like the YMCA, set up a chain of hostels and tour routes to guide pilgrims across the Western Front. Including, I’ve found several thousand Australians who, despite the cost, made that journey in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
The cost of the cemetery you can hear here. See here is the cemetery in transition. The cross of sacrifice dominates the picture. It serves as a focal point for visitors, right throughout the 1920s and right up to today.
By 1929, over 1,000 of these crosses had been raised in France and Belgium, alongside 560 stones of remembrance, and each of those stones of remembrance weighed a massive ten tonnes.
The cemeteries of the Great War were an enormous human labour and that was a labour, I think, designed to respect the needs of the living as much as to honour the dead.
The graves in this pamphlet are still marked by temporary wooden crosses. You won't see that now of course in Flanders in the swamp. There was a long and bitter debate over how we should mark the graves of our war dead. And there was actually a debate as to whether bodies that had been salvaged from the battlefield should in fact be sent home. The United States does repatriate bodies, and some Australians wanted, and some people in Britain wanted to do the same.
The process of recovering those bodies goes on right through the 1920s and, in a sense, it still goes on today.
When the dead of Fromelles are finally buried, or rather, re-buried next July, their cemetery too will be marked by cross of sacrifice. And this will be the last cross of sacrifice we raise for the Great War, so it truly is a historic moment.
There's one final point I want to make about this pamphlet folks. Its message I think is one of consolation. Cemeteries like this, strive to replace the chaos of the battlefield with dignity and with order. The setting sun there signals the end of a journey, finally laying that boy to rest.
Laying a body to rest, I think, was an imperative in the 1920s. But how do we respect the needs of the living today? As Sue has noted, I served on the National Committee, which recommended we search, yet again, for the dead of Fromelles.
For several months, committee members examined documents, photographs, assessed the relics that drift up still to this day from the earth.
As a historian, and one who's worked extensively with those Red Cross files and with War Commission records, I was never in any doubt that those rumoured mass graves existed. Even so, I would like to publicly commend Lambis and the Friends of the 15th Brigade for putting together so persuasive, so compelling a case. I actually thought it was a wonderful thing, when people took history in their own hands the way that that group did.
But I am also aware of the enormity of that committee's decision, the deep ethical issues that it raises and, in fact, the challenging precedent it has set.
You see, since those formal searches were suspended in the 1920s, the recovery of our war dead has really been an accidental and haphazard affair. When bodies were discovered, excavating road works, or for buildings, they were buried in much the same way their comrades were. They recorded military honours, they were identified if possible, they were buried as unknowns if not. That was and it is a promise that was made to past generations.
The difference with Fromelles is for the first time since the 1920s we've actually set out to find our dead. And once we find them, well we've got many more means of identification at our disposal. I'll be very interested to hear what Mike has got to say about how effective DNA testing might prove in identifying those remains.
Now this raises a number of questions, big questions, which were canvassed by that committee. And which we could admittedly never really hope to resolve. I want to raise these again today because I know you’ll want to return to them.
It's over 90 years since the fighting at Fromelles. The descendants of the dead, the living of today could never really have known these men as individuals.
Some historians have argued that recovering the bodies will serve no purpose. Can we really mourn the loss of someone we never knew? Can we lay a body to rest so long after the war that claimed them?
Recovering our war dead does seem to privilege one country over another. The fields at Fromelles are littered with bones. German, Portuguese, French, as well as Australian. Should we not also search for them?
It also effectively privileges one generation after another, it's been argued. Private Aulton's mother, Private Black's sister, they suffered surely the most immediate loss. They had the greatest need to identify those remains. But for them, for them, there was no chance of DNA testing, just poor Major Ellen sifting through the rotting uniforms of the rotting dead.
Then of course there's the whole question of commemoration. Some would prefer that we leave the dead where they lie. Why unearth those remains to bury them yet again? Many bawk at the expense of this horrendously expensive operation. At a time when thousands of children die every day for lack of decent drinking water, we will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars reclaiming our dead. And perhaps, perhaps it's been argued we should question our motive for doing so. Why sanitise, why cover up, what Maria Tumarkin would call a trauma scape. Tidying up the killing fields with rows of roses and clean white slabs of stone. Fromelles is a haunted place. Perhaps haunted it should remain.
Now, I don't have time to answer any of those questions this evening and I must admit I feel deeply divided about most of them. But I'd like to return, if I may, to that opening proposition from Voltaire. ‘The living deserve respect.’
I, for one, respect the fact that the descendants of soldiers who fought and died at Fromelles still feel the need for what we might call closure. Grief, I'm convinced, can take on a trans-generational form. It can be passed down through family stories, collected memories, the tangible physical reminders of the past.
Many of the people I've spoken to in the course of my research, the living of today, bear the symptoms of what you might call a secondary trauma. And can I just quickly give you a couple examples of this?
Tim's earliest memory of his childhood is the unresolved grieving of an aging aunt and that picture of a great uncle, of course, he never knew. I remember a reaction very vividly. It was at our dinner table, she said to me, ‘Don't you ever be a soldier, you'll be shot, just like Uncle Harry’. That's all she ever knew, her generation, of Uncle Harry's fate. It left an indelible mark on my Nan, and that emotion I can remember as if it were yesterday.
Tim sifted through those Red Cross records to find some trace of Uncle Harry. ‘The poor bugger, he was shot through the jaw. He must have bled to death suffering a terrible wound. No worse way to die, just can't think of, alone, scared, bleeding’.
And in search of Harry, Tim has visited the battlefield of Fromelles no fewer than four times. ‘Walking in the ground they fought on and died on gives me the little bit of empathy with them. It's important to me. It's no longer they, it's we to some extent. I would love to leave a sprig of Gippsland wattle on the grave of my great uncle, if only he had one. It's about making tangible links. Even if he can't come home, maybe home can come to him’.
And that same afterlife of memory, if I can use that phrase, also affects the descendants of the survivors. Graham's grandfather went over the top with Harry and he didn't get very far. With an arm severed by shrapnel, the young private dragged his broken, bleeding body back to the Australian lines, an ordeal in itself.
Graham has visited Fromelles three times now. And each time he has walked the ground where his grandfather was wounded. ‘There's blood in the soil’, he wrote to me, ‘blood that can never be washed away’.
Graham remembered, and it's a very powerful account I think, he remembered an old man who drank and smoked far too much, whose body gaped with wounds, his lungs were splintered by shrapnel, who coughed his life away. ‘My grandfather’, he wrote, ‘lost much more than an arm in that war’. And those who survived the Great War, and we remember that yesterday, lived all their lives with its scars.
Tim's reference to ‘we’ and ‘they’ is, I think, instructive to historians. Pilgrimages to sites like this one offer descendants what's called a transformational arena. They invite these custodians of memorial culture into an experiential cult-relationship with events, which they themselves have not lived.
Let's just think about that for a moment. Both Tim and Graham's account of their journey describe the battlefield in intricate detail. As they've walked the terrain, they retraced the steps of men who fought and who died that day. This is part, I think, of an emotional as well as an intellectual archive. It invites these pilgrims to relate to history in an effective and empathetic way. In short, Tim and Graham take on what Allison Lance Berger calls a prosthetic memory, and I quote here ‘they're learning to wear the memories of past traumas, so that they can become imaginable, thinkable and speakable. In short, they're learning to lay those ghosts to rest’.
Personally, I don't think the ghosts of Fromelles will ever really be laid to rest. I think the pain of that conflict has echoed down from one generation to another, but I do not doubt for a moment that the great work that Mike and his colleagues have commenced in France will help families, will help communities, and indeed, will help a nation with the ongoing work of grieving. And maybe, I hope, Tim will be able to lay that sprig of wattle on his great uncle's grave.
This closing image, as I'm sure you know, is a cast of people have called its most power statue, they called this Cobbers. The original was raised on the battlefield of Fromelles. This exact replica, of course, has been placed on the grounds of our shrine.
As the statue was being forged in a foundry in Fitzroy, family members threw barbed wire and badges from the battlefield into that molten mixture, connecting themselves with the memorial and transferring, if you like, the front back to Australia.
I think this may be an invention of what my colleague Jay Winter has called a new language of mourning and maybe, maybe we need a new language of mourning to express the terrible loss at Fromelles.
Mike Obrien: By coincidence, I spoke to Tim this morning. Despite his mother's warning, he’d joined the Army. And I've been with him several times at Fromelles and I'll delve into that a little in what I'm going to say. But first of all, perhaps, I can use the words of others.
‘This is National Nine News with Mike. A ceremony begins at Fromelles as digging at the site ends.
‘The missing Australian soldiers of Fromelles have been honoured in a ceremony to mark the end of an exploratory dig, which uncovered bones and Australian army vessels. As argument grows over what to do with the remains, the owner of the land has been so moved by their sacrifice, she's given the land to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
‘Well, 92 years after they fell, Fromelles' missing diggers were finally honoured at the place where they were buried. Prayers were said, in wreaths lay before a crowd of officials, descendants and about hundred townspeople. A small memorial stone was also unveiled.
‘At the going down of the sun and in mourning, we will remember them.
‘Then without warning, the elderly French owner of the site announced she's donating it to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Their official report could be months away, but the archaeologists are convinced this site holds the bodies of 100s of Allied soldiers. Inevitably, the fate of these men will now switch from a 90 yearlong political cover up to a modern day political fight. The question of whether they should be left where they are or given their own graves is drawing extremely strong feelings on both sides. John Guest’s great uncle Eric is buried here and he wants the bodies kept where they are. “By working and simply perhaps on three sides open to the village”.
Tim witnessed great uncle Harry is here. Tim has viewed the remains and says they must be moved. “Believe me, they're not at rest. They've, they've just been thrown in the trash and it should not be that way.” And the man who found them agrees. “During the room search I saw their photographs, I read the letters from the mothers and fathers and we can't leave them like that, we've got, we've got to finish the job”.’
‘James Tallee. Nine News. Fromelles, France.’
Nice to have Tim appearing, as well.
Australian soldiers served under this badge in the First World War.
Did the bugles play the last phrase in chorus? Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest?
Were these soldiers at Fromelles properly honoured? And I suppose that's the question that's in the back of my mind.
There is no doubt in my mind that the battle of Fromelles was the worst night in Australian history, not only in Australian military history, but let me place it in the context.
The line that snakes over France and Belgium is the frontline that moved little during the First World War. And the area of Fromelles is the area highlighted there. That's the area of the Battle of the Somme, which followed Fromelle and was associated with it. I'm always reminded by the small amount of Belgium that exists, in that the Belgium at that stage was some ten miles wide and that's all that existed of it.
I'd also like to compare the casualties in the First World War and the Second World War, to place them in some sort of context. That first column shows the comparison between those, first of all killed in the First World War and in the Second World War. Australia lost some 60,000 in all, about 50,000 on the Western Front killed in action, and a much lesser number in the Second World War.
For other reasons, there were many more killed in the Second World War for other reasons, mainly prisoners of war as it happens, in particular the 8th division.
The number of wounded in the First World War is recorded at well over 120,000 Australians and a much smaller number in the Second World War, to which you need to add those gassed, considered a different type of work, and none in the Second World War. If you then add the prisoners of war, and there happened to be many more in the Second World War again, because of the 8th Division, you get an idea of the magnitude of the trauma that 600,000 Australians suffered that number of casualties, which is a great underestimate, because the psychological wounds are not measured there on that.
Sorry, I pressed the wrong button there, so let me continue.
I think also that the prisoners of war are often forgotten, particularly in the First World War. Few of those died as prisoners of war. And of course in the Second World War, many of those soldiers, predominately again from the 8th Division, were killed. Those that died in the First World War in Belgium, and have no known grave, are commemorated on the Menin Gate, where 6000-odd, and I hate that word, 6195 of the 54,000 approximate names are Australian. Almost exactly the same number as Canadians. Their names, as individuals without graves, fill all that archway on the side of the Menin Gate and beyond through the gateway and surrounding it. It's a most impressive memorial. And that covers the Australian servile in Belgium with unknown graves.
Those who fell in France with unknown graves, I commemorated the Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, and some 10,000 Australian names are there. It's a huge number. But to Fromelles, if I may, where is Fromelles? Fromelles was a name not particularly well known during the First World War, but it is quite close to the town of Lille, which is a major centre for railway, and you can catch the channel train directly to Lille from London.
Australian troops were billeted at the town of Fleurbaix, which was on the allied side of the line, and often the battle was called the Battle of Fleurbaix for that reason. And another close town up is one of Amiens, also a garrison town, and one that gained a certain notoriety in Somme.
There's a photograph of some of the soldiers in a particular battalion, which is supposed to have been taken, and I believe it was, just before they went into battle. And only one or two of those soldiers were neither killed nor wounded. The nervousness shows on their face. I'm not going to go into the tactics of this, this battle particularly, but let me take some of the elements at what I might call the operational level of war.
Both a British division, the 61st Division, and the 5th Australian Division took part in this battle. The red line is the front line of the Germans, approximately. The blue line, the Allied front line, with varying width of no man's land between. Just to give you a landmark, the Cobbers statue is right in the middle of the German frontline. A certain Adolph Hitler was a runner during that battle. And his bunker is still there. He visited it during the Second World War.
The town of Fromelles is on a ridge called the Aubers Ridge, a prominent ridge by the standard of the First World War. It looks about 20 metres higher than the surrounding countryside. It's hardly significant, but it was very significant. The Germans had fortified the line on this flat country, particularly the places that they call salients, and particularly at the Sugarloaf. And that's where there was a lot of strongly entrenched machine guns. And the purpose of those machine guns was to enfilade any attacking troops. So the troops, attacking across open ground, towards that position, would be fired on with devastating effect if those machine guns had not been neutralised effectively during the artillery.
And that shows the boundary between the two divisions in the battle. And from my perspective, that's exactly the worst place to place a boundary, because neither division had the job of taking out the key tactical feature of the battleground and, if anything, caused the debacle that followed. Perhaps that was a major contributing factor.
This remarkable photograph was taken by the allies and it shows the area of the front line. There's the village of Fromelles, and it’s seen from the allied side. There's the Sugarloaf that I referred to earlier. It was actually nicknamed by the allied, because he'd have the shape of a loaf of sugar seen from the end. The white line there, that it's on, is clearly the German frontline and here's the allied frontline. And forgive me, but I'm going to concentrate more on the Australian effort.
There's the divisional boundary. And the three brigades from Australia that took part in the battle, the 8th brigade from New South Wales, the 14th brigade from Victoria and a mixed brigade, the 13th brigade, were approximately in those positions. Prior to the battle, there was an artillery bombardment on either side, and I'd have to say that the German bombardment was far more successful than the allied.
The Australians were successful in penetrating the German line. And just to confuse matters, this map taken from the official history alters the colours a little. In the blue, in this case, it's the German frontline. The red portion is the portion captured by the Australians, and let me highlight that to show you the portion of the line captured. And during an evening attack that started at 6pm…light was there until about 10pm in July…they were able to penetrate that far. But during the night, were forced back by concerted and well-rehearsed German counterattacks, more of those later.
The battle took place on the 19th and 20th of July. It was the first major engagement on the Western Front, originally planned as an artillery demonstration. And I've gone a little far there, so I go back. I mentioned that the British took part in that battle. And there are the casualties. Some 5,533 Australian casualties, some 1,500 British casualties. And no ground was lost by the Germans as a result of that attack and the battle was over by the next morning. It was part of the Battle of the Somme, in a sense.
The Somme battles had actually commenced on the first of July, some 19 days earlier, and they went on until late November, 1916. To place it in the context of the Western front, I feel obliged to say that more Australians were killed around Pozières, in the battle of the Somme, than in any other portion of the Western Front, because they fought concerted battles over six weeks and three of the Australian five divisions, the first, second, and fourth, had 19 separate major attacks and lost the almost unbelievable figure of 23,000 men killed, wounded or missing.
Fromelles is an important battle, but not, perhaps, as important as Pozières. The core commander, that is the commander of the two divisions, the 61st British division and the 5th Australian division, and I guess the chap responsible for setting up the divisional boundary between the two divisions was General Sir Richard Haking. And I was…I found it very difficult to find photographs of Haking. When I found this photograph I rather hoped that he'd be the chap on the right. But he turned out to be the chap in the middle. And that's one of the very few photographs that you can find of General Haking. I think Haking had commanded a similar attack about a year earlier in the same spot with much the same results. And I wonder what conclusions can be drawn from that. I'll leave that up to you.
On the Australian side, the divisional commander was General James Whiteside McKay, a difficult personality who'd been Defence Minister in 1904 to ‘05. He'd commanded the brigades successfully at Gallipoli, and he commanded the fifth Australian division during this battle, and bluntly was removed as soon as could be afterwards. He was a man who wasn't liked by his soldiers, although that's not necessary a good or a bad thing. He was somewhat, he was a very difficult man to deal with, and he gave the impression that he didn't value human lives.
The brigade commanders were Brigadier General Tivy, from the 8th Brigade in New South Wales, the great Victorian Commander Pompey Elliott, Brigadier General Pompey Elliot, and Colonel Harold Pope. Tivy remained a brigadier general during the war. Pompey Elliot remained a brigade commander during the war although he had ambition for higher rank.
Colonel Pope was sacked a few days after the battle by his divisional commander, probably unjustly. The battlefield was wet, and indeed, there weren't trenches. There were embankments that were built up because there's a high water table around the area.
And these are some of the photographs taken by Allied and German soldiers to indicate the ferocity of the fighting and the effectiveness of the artillery bombardment. Because the theory at least, is that troops attack over open ground when the enemy fire has been suppressed by artillery. Sadly the artillery used in this instance, predominantly Australian, was not well practiced, and not well employed, and certainly the artillery lessons learned later in the First World War weren't applied in this instance.
To analyse the casualties at Fromelles a little more closely. There were something like 1,780 Australian deaths and a huge proportion of those were not found after the battle. Why was this so? Quite simply, because most of the Australians, and indeed, most of the British, died on the German side of the line. And when they withdrew back to their positions, the great majority of the casualties lay in German hands.
The British deaths of 503 had a similar proportion of unknown soldiers buried after the war. This is one of the postcards that German soldiers sent home, I guess rather triumphantly, and it…though it says English soldiers at Fromelles, they're very probably Australians…and it's a testament to the ferocity of the fighting in that area.
There were several hundred Australians taken prisoner of war in the battle, and through cooperation of the Germans we have a great series of photographs of them being marched off to their prison camps where they were pretty well looked after by their opposite number, the Bavarians. After the battle, there was a communiqué issued by General Hague, which read as follows.
‘Yesterday evening, south of Armentieres, some important raids took place on a front of two miles, in which Australian troops took part. About 140 German prisoners were captured.’
This communique did not help. And it was something that was viewed with close to hate by Australians. Both at the time, and subsequently.
I'm not here to apologise for General Hague, but I would say that during war, you probably don't publicly admit your casualties. However, the understatement by the communiqué is gross, and subsequently, at the end of the Somme battles, he included the line in his dispatch as follows.
‘In the period of four and a half months, from the first of July, some 360 raids were carried out, in the course of which the enemy suffered casualty, many casualties, and some hundreds of prisoners were taken.’
The largest of these operations was undertaken on the 19th of July in the neighbourhood of Armentières. He wasn't avoiding using the word Fromelles, he was using Armentières as a well-known town. ‘Our troops penetrated deeply into the enemy defences, doing much damage to his quirks and inflicting severe losses on him.’ Well, I'm sorry, I can't agree Sir Douglas.
In a unique memorial in France, at VC Corner, are buried Australians, and that's what makes it unique. Most war cemeteries have both Australians and British or many other nations. This is the only cemetery in France with Australians only. And it has no headstones. It has the remains of 410 Australians killed in this battle. 410 of them, unidentifiable, are buried in this place. And on the wall in the background, there are 1,294 of the names of the missing from this battle.
After the battle, the Germans collected the dead. The Bavarians, and that was a Bavarian Division as I'd mentioned, had light railway lines on wooden tracks. And these were railway tracks that they pushed. Later on they become small steam engines behind Auber's Ridge and then they joined the main rail lines. So these railways were used to resupply and to bring up ammunition, and in this case, to transport the bodies.
Because the bodies in the heat of July 1916 started to deteriorate and were populated by blow flies, the 21st Bavarian regiment received these instructions about the burial. Each of the bodies that's registered as to be laid immediately in one of the graves excavated. The medical officer in attendance, who will direct the operation, is to ensure that each layer of bodies is immediately covered by a layer of a mix with chloride of lime. The civilian population is to be prevented from loitering and staring at the bodies. There weren't many civilian population, they were just indentured labourers. The village had long been depopulated. The taking of even the most insignificant item from a body constitutes robbery of the dead and will be severely punished.
There is ample evidence I think that the Bavarians, the German soldiers, did as good a job as they possibly could to collect and bury these soldiers as reverently, but as quickly as they could. How did they do that? Well, prior to the battle they dug some eight pits.
And here is one of the series of aerial photographs that my friend, Lambas found in the Imperial War Museum, which shows the shadowy figure of five of them filled in after the battle and this is actually dated the 29th of July, so ten days after the battle and three pits still open.
That's the railway line and that is Pheasant Wood. And there he is looking at that photograph and I think Bruce is part on that combined committee was particularly influenced by the evidence of a series of air photographs that showed these holes open before the battle and closed immediately afterwards.
Now Lambas had also done the mathematics and worked out that there were still more men missing and he had convinced on a long but torturous period of investigation that this was the location for those bodies. The location was Pheasant Wood and, courtesy of Google Earth, we can zoom in on it. And that's Pheasant Wood. And this area here is an area of land that had never really been cultivated as the land to the south had. That's a crop of probably sweet corn and this, this area was too wet to be properly ploughed and had been housed at once or twice a year to collect hay, so it has never really been disturbed. And that's approximately the location of those eight holes and the railway line crossing the corner.
I'm going divert and tell you what Australian responsibilities there are in relation to the recovery of dead bodies. The army…and I serve in the army still, I'm not retired, I'm still serving…is to find and recover the bodies and, if possible, to identify them and to rebury them. And that's exactly the same responsibilities as we had in 1916 or 1919 for that matter, and we hoped by the construction and maintenance of Wood Cemetery, by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and in Australia by its representative part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the office of Australian War Graves.
Following on Lambis’ information, a surface investigation was done by Glasgow University on that site. And that surface investigation looked at, without disturbing the soil, what was there. What was in exactly the sort of top layer and did that indicate whether the site had been disturbed. Because in every instance where there's been a burial in France or Belgium, there are two questions. Was the burial here? And was it later recovered by the Graves Recovery Unit?
In the case of Frommelles, the record of the Graves Recovery Unit was ambivalent. It was very hard to tell, and so the step that we took is a slow and methodical step to see whether there was any evidence of later recovery. We backed that up by archival searches in Munich and in other places and I'll talk more about those archival search. The result of it was that it appeared that the site was undisturbed, because as well as finding an even distribution of relics on the battlefield indicating a lack of disturbance on the site, several medallions were found, including one that can be attributed to Tim's uncle.
Tim seems to come up quite a lot in this. So the next step was to do what we described as an investigative dig, and despite what you'll read elsewhere, the Australian government or the Defence Department, if you like, commissioned by itself and paid for by itself an investigative dig on this site, which took place in June 2008.
It was also done by Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division. And yet, I'm to confirm the presence of bodies on the site or human remains on the site, to workout perhaps how many there might be and to recommend to governments a course of action. That investigative team did sample cross sections of the burial area.
It's a principle that we have, that we do not show bodies, the photographs of remains of bodies. What I'm going to show you is stuff that indicates that investigative day in the only section that went down in this particular hole to the level of human remains, is that their unhuman remains were found in five of those holes, as perhaps we expected.
And those remains were then left there, awaiting the decision of governments, in the course of which we found Indications that the soldiers were definitely Australian, that's the rising sun badge. The badge that I shared at the beginning of the presentation. And if you're really good, that's a British general service button and, I'm afraid you're going have to take my word for it, indicating that there were British soldiers there as well.
So two, no, three governments were suddenly involved, because this actually is France and we were operating on French soil. And, therefore, a range of careful permissions were required to get to this stage and indeed to proceed further.
The identification of remains, and I would describe the remains that we found as skeletal, the skeletons are pretty whole. Although, of course sadly, each of those soldiers died on the battlefield. And there's strong evidence of their death-wounds in many, if not all cases. Do I, there's a little remains of their uniforms and equipment. But it turns out that there are slight differences between the British uniform on the left and the Australian uniform on the right.
Tough, they both wore to battle the same set of web equipment, and it turns out that small items such as the buckle on the Australian uniform, or in some cases the badge that's worn on the lapel could determine whether a soldier was likely to be Australian or British, or in the boots which were found in several incidences.
This is actually Harry Willis, Tim's uncle. He doesn't have his buckle on, he doesn't have his badges on. I'm afraid many of the Australians that were buried there were in the same set of circumstances because it was their first engagement in France.
In a field near the French village of Vermeille, a service is being held to honour the hundreds of Australian troops whose remains were recently found in mass graves.
After the…Oh, Madame de Marseilles, a solid citizen if ever I met one Madam de Marseilles. You saw her kissing me earlier. She is a remarkable woman. She lost two of her brothers in the First World War and that's her field. And she gave it to us after that investigative dig or she gave it to the, she actually gave it to me, but that was a mistake, we gave it to the World War commission.
And there is also that investigative dig, which to backfill the site and return it so the government's. To look at the vexed issue that was raised in that very first clip. What do we do? Do we leave them as they are? Or do we exhume the bodies and bury them individually? The decision was made by both governments to exhume the bodies.
I don't think any decision is clear-cut. I wish life was that easy. I wish things were either black or white. But shades of grey were involved in this. But on the side of that decision, I would say the following, we now know how many were buried in that site and by implication how many may be elsewhere. In most cases, we'll be able to identify the nationality and I hope in many cases to be able to identify individuals. And I suppose the other thing would be that we're treating these soldiers exactly as if they had been found in, say 1919, by the great recovery unit. And I don't really see why 93 years should make a difference. Perhaps cost is a factor, but that's on the other side of the grey.
You saw a ceremony at the end there. And let me give you the relative positions of these things. Here is another aerial map of the area. The German front-lines, where that statue is currently. The village of Fromelles, you see down there at the bottom of the map, and there's Pheasant Wood, where the bodies have been found. A new cemetery is to be constructed for them on the other side of the road. And, I'll enlarge that just to show you what it really looks like. Again, the recognisable shape of Pheasant Wood. By the way, Pheasant Wood was named by the Germans. It wasn't a French name.
It's funny how some names stick. It's a bit like the western front, when you think about it, should have been the eastern front, but the Germans called it the western front.
There's the new cemetery in the village of Fromelles. It would've been impossible to build that new cemetery in the site where the bodies were recovered because it would've been underwater for about six months of the year. And I think to have the new cemetery on the Australian objective, if you put it that way, is a good thing.
Some timing is about what's going to happen, and then I'll describe some of it.
From May to September this year the bodies were exhumed. And Oxford University Archaeological, was the contractor for both governments and it was supervised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Between May and September this year, they exhumed a total of exactly 250 sets of human remains. So that exhumation is complete. But it's not just taking them out of the ground. It's a careful archaeological, forensic and anthropological exercise, and I'll try and show you that.
Those remains are reverently stored at the present, and we're in the process using another contractor to extract DNA from those remains, something that wasn't available in 1919. But something available, I suppose the principle is that in 1919, I take the view that every reasonable means of identification was used. Just happens that we have more reasonable means available to us now. And at present, a new cemetery is being constructed. I won't show you the actual exhumation, but I'll show you the facility that was set up on the site, just below the village of Fromelles, close to the site of the investigation. It was a full forensic criminal laboratory of a very high standard indeed.
Here is a facility for automatically photographing the remains. Adjacent is a DNA storage area and an area to look at the artefacts and so on. Each of the artefacts found is x-rayed. For example, there's an x-ray of a shoulder, flash Australia upside-down and a rising sun branch.
Amongst the artefacts found are some quite unusual ones. In a wallet attached to a soldier's wrist were these coins, some of which were Turkish. We could deduce perhaps that that's an Australian, a soldier, sorry, who served at Gallipoli. And that might mean that he's Australian, or it might mean that he's a British soldier who served at Gallipoli. We need corroborative evidence.
Several devotional books were found on the remains, including this Book of Psalms. And boots, these identifiably Australian. I suppose the most remarkable artefact is a paper return ticket from Fremantle to Perth. An article was in the Fremantle bulletin, I think it's called, a few days ago surmising that the soldier kept this to guarantee his return once he got back to Australia.
In February next year we will commence the reburial of those soldiers in that prepared new cemetery. Indeed the first burial will be on the 30th of January. Sorry the 30, yes, the 30th of January. But by the end of February 2010 next year, we will have buried those soldiers in individual graves with individual funerals.
In March next year I will chair the Australian part of a joint identification board in the UK where we'll bring together at least three threads of evidence, hopefully to form a fabric. Those three threads of evidence will be Anthropological evidence that comes from the archaeology of the site.
And the artefacts found on individuals, the historical evidence and there's much in Australian archives and elsewhere that will assist us in that. For example, the heights, and weights, and pre-existing conditions of soldiers. And the third thread, and perhaps the most valuable in this instance, is where the DNA matches have allowed further information to come.
And I'll get back to the DNA issue, because it's a very large undertaking, perhaps the largest of its time that they'd undertaken since. Then in April next year, as a result of that joint identification rule, we were announced to those relatives, those people that we'd been successful in identifying.
And Berlin changed the headstones from unknown to the known identification. We'll do that in Maine next year and on the anniversary of the battle next year there will be a dedication ceremony with VIPs from both Britain and Australia. The VIPs in my minds and the relatives, and there will be some other people as well. That's jointly planned and undertaken with corporation and jointly funded, I might say by the British.
I've got to move on swiftly at this stage. I mentioned the archival research. That's some of the 42 kilometres of World War I archives existing in Munich that had not been previously visited until we sent a researcher to look at them.
Amongst the many records there is this map of a German counterattack which actually takes place to knock back the Australians just near Pheasant Wood. There is the railway. There is the burial site. These are some of the German records in Munich. They are very extensive and sometimes very artistic. That's the front page of a German-Italian's war diary, you might say. And listed there are everybody that they recovered and buried, although there's no unique identification of those who might be buried at Pheasant Wood that we've been able to find because 42 kilometres is a lot of documents.
We continue to look and we've also researched the Red Cross records in Geneva that showed the Geneva records during the First World War. And in an office in Geneva we've looked at something like 4 million individual cards sent by the German army to Geneva, recording the burial of every soldier of every nationality other than German. And they're filed away in some order or other, and the Red Cross in Geneva is about to digitise them and over the next three or four years. They may add some information.
I should say at this stage that we in Australia are very fortunate because records of our soldiers are almost as complete as we could imagine. And despite the amount of research we've done in Munich and Geneva, we've not been able to find more information that adds to the record of what's held in the Australian War Memorial or Australian archives, particularly, the Red Cross wounded and missing soldier’s bureau records that Bruce referred to earlier. That showed the depth of the search done by independent Red Cross people during and immediately after the war.
In the Bavarian archives is perhaps the most remarkable photograph of all, it's a panorama taken of the frontline and it's dated the 20th of July 1916, day after the battle. Trees of pheasant wood, you can actually see German soldiers and railway-line there. It's a little faint but you can see why they buried them because there was sufficient to the wood, despite the artillery bombardment, to hide from direct allied observation.
I will gloss over the sort of information that we have in Australian archives because Bruce has read a letter that's just…every one of them tears you apart. This one from Fitzroy. Her son and on the lower half of the page her other son, killed a few days later, and an example of the Red Cross where searches are done for the missing.
Well, after the 250 bodies were recovered that site was again returned to, I guess, its original pre-war state. And the cemetery that's going to be constructed on the other side of the road is going to look like that, right?
I'll show you the progress at the moment. It's a remarkable undertaking. It's a cemetery that I described inevitably as being built upside down. It's the first to be done since the Second World War, because all the cemeteries in the area were full and they couldn't take 250 extra bodies. It has it there, some of the artillery shells, the bone is actually a tell you.
There's where the cost of remembrance will be in this particular incidence. And when I say it's been built upside down there are actually the burial sites they have built from the ground, below a level upwards. Because we'll be burying these soldiers in January next year, and February next year, and that's the worst part of the year in France, it's not going to be lovely weather. And this particular innovative design of the cemetery means that the holes are pre-dug and it won't be a muddy affair. It's very cleverly done and I have a lot of praise for the ingenuity of the Colonial War Graves Commission doing this for the first time in, in their living memory literally.
So that's almost all I need to say. A lot has been written about this battle and I think the best account is that one in the official history written by Charles Bain. Fromelles was not a hidden battle, as some say. There are two explicit and beautifully written chapters in that. But more recently Robin Corfield has done two editions of a book on Fromelles that have great detail, including the names of all those killed and wounded on both sides.
And for some reason, the other references have jumped, so I'll go back to them.
There's a book talking about the biography of the Divisional Commander which I strongly recommend, a difficult character but a very interesting tale. An Australian, Peter Patterson has a book published on the battle which is available mainly in Britain and I recommend it as a short guide to the battle. A Brit, Paul Cobb, has written, strangely only the British side of the battle. He had proximity, I guess, to Munich but didn't find what was there. And Patrick Lindsay has written a popular book, which is described as a best seller but probably not as scholarly or as informative as the others on that list.
I'd also like to refer you to two of the chief internet sites, and there are many. The army site on Fromelles is informative and factual, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site is also. And I realise both the references and the sites are things that you might like to get from me a little later on.
Ladies and gentlemen, I'll leave it at that and we can move on to questions.
Al: Thank you Mike and we have a roving microphone in the back. I wonder if the lights could go down on top of this, technician out there just so we can see the audience a bit more easily.
And while that's happening, please indicate if you'd like to either make a comment or ask a question and the microphone will come to you.
Yes, one there and then over there.
Audience 1: Hello Mike.
Mike: Hello, Lams.
A1: I think you may know my question. I think I know your answer, however, for the record, if LGC forensics do not get viable DNA from particular bodies. In order to maximise the result for the soldiers at Pheasant Wood, will we go back to those particular bodies, re-sample, taking femur and load-bearing bone, and send those samples elsewhere, not be restricted by process, professional pride and the dollar? Do we go back to those bodies and re-sample?
Mike: Well that's a bit of a loaded question I think, Lams. And it doesn't come as a surprise to me. The two governments, British and Australian, have contracted the firm that you mentioned, LGC Forensics to recover DNA from the bodies and indeed to match it with relatives. And I didn't really go into the matching operation. But you can imagine that in, first of all, finding the relatives of those soldiers, analysing which ones are more likely to give viable DNA samples, looking at their family trees, and collecting those samples. And that's actually happening this very day. People have sample kits and they're sending them to LGC in Britain for matching.
But to come directly to your question. First of all, I'd have to say, please let's not get too involved in the myth that you mentioned. Things like load-bearing bones and so on. It's a complicated matter, DNA and I think that I’m done no favours by television shows that imply that you take a sample, press a button and the answer comes up within the 40 minutes of the CSI program. It doesn't happen that way. It is a complex and repetitive process and it's governed by factors like soil chemistry, moisture, age of remains, proximity to bits and pieces, and I could go on.
LGC happens to be one of the largest forensic firms in the continent, and their expertise is good and recognised. I'm in the fortunate position of knowing how far they've gone. But I can't really release that information at this stage until it's brought together with the other information, and then we might get an answer.
But to come directly to what I think is the nub of your question. Will we send samples to other contractors? The answer is no. Both the British and Australian government have set a set of criteria, and set a contract, and performance measures, and outcomes, and we are satisfied with that contract and with the contractor, and we're going stick with LGC. But I might say, in their methodology, what they're doing is taking samples to the extent that they possibly can so that they would get a successful result.
Now, how can I be more explicit than saying in several instances they have taken teeth samples, or samples from teeth. And where that hasn't been successful on a particular set of circumstances, they'll then look at other parts of the remains to take samples. And they've been back time and again, until they're successful. I think it shows the determination of both governments to use every reasonable means of identification, but we'll stick with one firm to do that.
Al: I think there was a question just here behind. If you'd pass the microphone just behind you actually. Thanks. Thank you.
Audience 2: My question's a bit broader. I'm wondering how typical or how atypical Fromelles was compared with other battles in the First World War? In particular, the comment about the artillery not decimating the wire, as was expected.
Mike: Well, I think that there are many gross simplifications that are made in describing battles and I don't want to fall into that trap, but the battle in 1915, an entirely British battle, the battle of Aubers Ridge, had a roughly similar result. And battles around that period of time, particularly in 1916 and in the Somme for example, with Australians or with British, sadly, had casualties of about that magnitude.
If you look at the progression of the First World War, one model of looking at that progression is to say that the Allies learned how to fight more effectively. And that's perhaps why they eventually won against a formidable foe. The Germans were better at defence. The allies learned how to use their artillery far more effectively, and in particular to neutralise not just the wire but also the entrenchments in which Germans sheltered during the bombardment and then re-emerged to fire on advancing troops.
So I think it was not atypical. And it's certainly easy to criticise what happened there. It was a disaster. Similar to many of the disasters over that period of time, and though the slaughter continued, it continued at a proportionately lesser rate as the war went on.
Al: Yes, again, you can pass the microphone.
Audience 3: Can I just ask a supplementary question, I guess, to Lambis’. Have you actually been able to get DNA from the 250 bodies?
Mike: Well, I don't want to give a quantitative answer to that, but yes DNA has been recovered. You, you all understand, I'm sure, it's a two-part process. One might get DNA from the remains. What happens if there's no surviving relative to match it with? We'll be successful in one half, but not the other. So we are dealing with a series of probabilities. The probability of recovery of DNA from the 250 sets of remains. The probability of getting 250 sets of matching relatives. And we're not going to get that many I'm afraid. But there's a very significant number of Australians that we think we have, but not 100%, because some of them didn't have survivors. And at each case, there's a measure of doubt. Does somebody know that they're a step-brother? Sometimes no. There are many doubts along the way. All I can say is that we're going to make the best effort that we can to identify. But what we can't do is guarantee identification of course.
Al: Yes, this question down here.
Audience 4: Thankyou. Now Bruce mentioned earlier that this was going to be the last Cross of Sacrifice erected. But, that assumes that there will be no more Pheasant Woods. What’s the theory of other or suspected pheasant woods?
Bruce: Well, of course, the Cross of Sacrifice is always for a major cemetery. I can't remember the exact figure, it's over 500, isn't it? So it's only for the largest cemetery. So, and of course, the practice is that if we discover individual remains they'll simply go into one of the, what are called concentration cemeteries, that are strung right across the western front.
To have another Cross of Sacrifice raised, we would need to have another find on the scale of Pheasant Wood. Now I know that Lambis is already out there looking at some other sites. I don't know of the numbers involved in those sites, but quite possibly it wouldn't involve building a new cemetery. And even if it did involve building a new cemetery, it wouldn't necessarily involve raising a Cross of Sacrifice.
And, I guess I should emphasise as a historian, that all of these things were carefully thought about in the 1920s. And there were great debates about the form the cemeteries would take and they set a template. I can call it that for commemoration. And we've respected that template, not just for the Great War, but for the Second World War as well. There have been practical modifications to that, and indeed, Gallipoli's a case. The graves are marked at Gallipoli in a very different way. No cross on the skyline, because it was felt that in a Muslim nation that might be offensive. But for the most part, we’ve subscribed to the template that was set down.
Audience 5: I guess my question follows a bit from that one. My great uncle died at Pozières in July of 1915 and I wonder what chance of finding him?
A5: He has no known grave.
Mike: As do 10,000 Australians out of the 50,000 that died on the western front, and I'm using rounded figures, forgive me. So in the Great War on the western front, one in five has an unknown grave. The chance of finding is low. From time to time, bodies are found by, and Bruce mentioned, road making. I buried five soldiers in Belgium a couple of years ago. And, adventures like that will occur, but that's just a very small percentage. And even the 250, of which probably the majority are Australians, it's just a drop in the ocean of that 10,000. So I…we'd have to say that the likelihood of finding the missing is low.
Why is that so? So many were buried in graves very close to where they fell temporally, and very frequently that's close to the surface. And over the 90 or more years since the battles, those fields have been ploughed and as well as the harvest of steel, 10 French farmers get blown up every year.
There's the harvest of bones in pieces, and it occurs around Fromelles and all over the Western Front, and that accounts for many of them.
Bruce: If I might add to that there was great debate over how we would commemorate the missing, as Mike's told us the Australian's missing are commemorated at Millibreck now and of course the Menin gate. But our Prime Minister at the time, Billy Hughes, argued that that was not enough, and he put this case very sternly in London. He said that the missing two should have a surrogate grave. And the reason he said that was that the Australian government took the step of, of course, allowing the families to write an epitaph. So you would've in fact had a surrogate grave, if you like, with a tombstone with an epitaph chosen by the family.
One of the great inequalities of commemoration of the Great War is that the missing are just names. Nameless names, as Siegfried Sassoon called them, whereas of course the men who were recovered and identified can have an epitaph from a family.
The New Zealand government actually, decided that there would be no epitaphs at all for their soldiers because they didn't want the inequality of that. Everyone would be equal in death. That was the argument that was used.
Al: Yes, just stand here.
A6: The burial at Pheasant Wood by the Germans, I'm guessing they would be a lot of those sorts of burials during the war. What actually happened with all of those that the Germans had buried? What was the process immediately after the war in order to find them, move them, create the grave sites at the cemeteries we have now.
Mike: Well, Bruce has alluded to that. And what, what happened was that after the war had ended, volunteers were called for from both the British army and the Australian army to form the graves registrations units.
I reflect on the, that job and you described it as, very vividly. It went on until about 1921 or 1922. Can you imagine what a dreadful job that was? Where, the war was over, people wanted to get back to Australia.
The answer is this. That in every case, an effort was made to note where people were buried, on both sides. And there were groups of Germans buried on the Allied side, and groups of Allies buried on the German side, and many in between. The record, however, was imperfect. And the record of the Graves Recovery Unit, because I pointed out, it's a two part thing. You're buried. Do we know where you were buried or was there a mistake in that description? Often there's a mistake. Then was it recovered? In theory an effort was made to recover all bodies, German or Allied, but that was imperfect, and the records of recovery are also imperfect. The Australian records are not good, and many of the British records were destroyed during the Second World War.
So, you're dealing with uncertainty in every instance. But you can say just by the numbers that, let's take the Australian side of the equations, that 40,000 were found and identified. A huge undertaking and a great achievement. The fact that one fifth weren't was to some extent a failure, I suppose, but I can understand that failure.
And in the Pheasant Wood case, I think it's more likely to be across the Western Front an exception, rather than the rule. Perhaps there are more such group burials around Fromelles, but they'll still be an exception rather than a rule. Most definitely were recovered. And most amazingly using the technology at the time were identified and I have great respect again for the soldiers who did that dreadful job.
Bruce: To be added I guess here that many of those cemeteries, of course, were established so close to the front line and as such they were bombarded. So, even if they were decently buried, even if the grave was marked, often subsequently the grave was lost. And indeed in many Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries you'll actually see something believed to be buried in this cemetery we no longer know where that body actually is.
Al: Thank you. Look, I think at this point we need to close up. I'd like to just make three points about why I'm closing. Firstly, as I mentioned at the outset, this is the last of the Making Public History seminars for this year. We are putting together the program for next year right now. If you're not on the mailing list and would like to be, there are some sheets on the desk just outside the door. Please fill in your contact details so that you'll get those details. Secondly, I'd like to thank each of you for coming along this evening and joining us in this discussion. Thirdly, I think it's been a fascinating and stimulating and challenging, and also a troubling set of presentations, both excellent in their own ways. And I'd like you to join me in thanking both Bruce and Mike.
'I would love to leave a sprig of Gippsland wattle on the grave of my great-uncle, if only he had one.'
About this recording
Hear insights from an ex-soldier and an academic as they look into the reburials of Australian soldiers killed on foreign soil during WWI.
Mike O'Brien arranged the reburial of five World War I Australian soldiers found in Belgium in 2007, and more recently oversaw the exhumation, identification and reburial of the remains of several hundred Australian soldiers at Fromelles, France. Bruce Scates served on the committee that confirmed the existence of mass graves at Fromelles.
In this seminar, Mike outlines the process and outcomes of the Fromelles exhumation, and Bruce reflects on the event's significance for Australian history.
Making Public Histories
This Making Public Histories seminar was held at State Library Victoria on 12 November 2009. The Making Public Histories series explores public history, contemporary society and heritage with discussions framed around topical issues. It is a joint initiative between State Library Victoria, the History Council of Victoria and Monash University Institute for Public History.
Mike O'Brien was a major-general in the Australian infantry. He left full-time service in 2001 and has written a history of his battalion in Vietnam.
Bruce Scates is professor of history and Australian studies, and director of the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.