Tim Whitford on identity & dignity
Speaker(s): Tim Whitford
Date recorded: 18 Sep 2013
[On-screen slide says: Identity & Dignity: Fromelles & Family History – Tim Whitford with photograph of Fromelles memorial.]
Tim Whitford: Ladies and gentleman, I’m not a historian and I’m not a family historian by any means but I was caught up in this big washing machine of history from a very early age. The story of Fromelles was kind of passed on to me by my grandmother.
[Photograph of Tim Whitford and Lambis Englezos with picture of war zone of Fromelles in the background.]
Tim: As Anne said, when I was just eight years old I was sitting on my grandmother’s knee, and nan said to me, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up, Tim?’
And I said, ‘Nan, I want to be a soldier.’ And what followed then changed me for the rest of my life. The colour drained out of my beautiful grandmother’s face and she got incredibly angry at me, an eight year old boy. She said, ‘Don’t you dare, don’t you bloody dare; you’ll get killed. You’ll get killed like my uncle. He went off to war and he disappeared, we don’t know where he is.’ And that moment sitting at our kitchen table in Yarram in South Gippsland when I was eight years old started me on a trail looking for and trying to do the right thing by this Uncle Harry.
I ignored my grandmother of course and I went off to be a soldier; like all young boys do when people will tell us not to do something, we do the opposite. And I found that I absolutely loved being a soldier and it took me all around the world and one of the places it took me was a posting in Europe. And while I was in Europe I used to nick off on the weekends and I went to this battlefield of Fromelles. I’d learned through this amazing thing that was invented somewhere in the ‘90s called the internet – you might have heard of it, I learned that if you pressed the buttons on this computer the information comes up and it’s just incredible – and I learned that this uncle, the one that had affected my grandmother so deeply back when I first learned of it in the ‘70s, he had been killed at this battle called the battle of Fromelles.
So I went to the battlefield of Fromelles and in the middle of the Fromelles battlefield there is a cemetery, a beautiful cemetery called VC corner cemetery. That cemetery is a unique cemetery in the world; it has no headstones and there is not a single identified soldier lying in that cemetery. Every soldier, every one of the 410 soldiers in that cemetery is unidentified. Along the back wall of that cemetery are the names of 1,299 Australian boys who died in that ten hour battle at Fromelles who still have no known grave. I walked up to that back wall knowing that I would find my uncle’s name there. I found his unit name, his unit, I ran my finger down the list of names and he wasn’t there; he’d been left off, a clerical error back in 1916 that compounded over the decades and one that shocked me when I was there in the 1990s. I think if I had of found his name on that back wall at Fromelles I would have been happy and walked away from it. But I didn’t find peace. I was looking for ownership; I was looking for a sense of, you know that American word, ‘closure’, but I didn’t find it there at Fromelles.
So I started researching, looking and I made my grandmother a bit of a promise there on that battlefield, and I said, ‘Nan, one day we’re going to do the right thing by this boy.’
I didn’t know when that was yet, but eventually it lead me in 2006 to meet this incredibly ugly man, that you’ll see beside me in this photo. His name’s Lambis, Lambis Englezos. Lambis had a theory that some soldiers from the battle of Fromelles had actually broken through the German lines and were not in fact truly missing; they’d been killed in battle and buried by the German army. We just didn’t know where their graves were yet. And I looked at Lambis’s theory and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, I thought this guy’s crazy but I think he’s got something, and so from that day on Lambis and I were joined at the hip; he was like the monkey brother I never wanted. We went forward and we started researching and advocating for the missing at Fromelles.
[Aerial photograph of battlefield of Fromelles.]
Tim: To tell the story I have to really tell what happened that day. The battlefield of Fromelles is in this photo, a unique photo, an amazing photo taken on that day in the battle. High resolution versions of this photograph are from the Australian Memorial collection. You can see the shadows of our men crossing no man’s land. You can see the Australian part of the front line here; you can see the German part of the front line. This little lump in the German front line is an important feature, it’s called a ‘salient’, the sugarloaf salient. And this little right angle bend in this salient gave the Germans the ability to place machine guns, each one of those German machinin gavier zero eight machine guns follows between 550 and 650 bullets per gun per minute, each bullet travels at 820 metres per second; just in that little right angle bend in the trenches there were five of those machine guns, and the Australian’s task at the battle of Fromelles was to leave the relative safety of our trenches, cross 410 metres of no man’s land and take out the German front line in the face of that machine gun fire. It was an impossible task. So just to orient you onto this battlefield, we have 420 metres of no man’s land here, and down on the left-hand side of the battlefield we have about 80 metres of no man’s land.
The Australian part of the battle – there were British soldiers at the battle of Fromelles as well, but I’m not here to talk about them, we haven’t got time – the Australian part of the battlefield is broken up into three sectors: this little bit here is the area of operations of the 15th brigade, men from Victoria; beside them we have the 14th brigade, men from NSW; and over on the left-hand side we have the eighth brigade, these are men from all over Australia. We’ve got the 31st battalion, part of the eighth brigade; half Victorians, half Queenslanders. Can you imagine it, ladies and gentlemen, having to go to war with Queenslanders?
Tim: The horror. Also in with the eighth brigade we’ve got the 32nd battalion, an amazing battalion; 120 Western Australians but mostly South Australians, South Australians from the Adelaide hills and the Barossa Valley region of South Australia. Barossa Valley, not only do they make excellent wine, those family historians among us will instantly know that the Barossa Valley was settled by German people. And so in the 32nd battalion we have young privates with names like Schmidt and Floume crossing 80 metres of machine-gun-fire-swept space, attacking young German privates called Schmidt and Floume.
This is a bad day for our country. Just ten minutes to six on the 19th of July zero hour, the 15th Victorian brigade steps out into no man’s land. We know what happens because people wrote it down, the survivors wrote it down. One fellow, Hewk Nevitt from Bendigo records that if you took the contents of a thousand butchers shops and you threw it on the ground, that would give you some idea, just a little bit of an idea of what no man’s land looked like about seven minutes after zero hour. The Victorian men of the 15th brigade never even got close to the German trenches. Sadly the dead and wounded were forced to lie out there, the wounded in the next eight days slowly but surely dying, and the dead remained there until the end of the war, two years later.
I’m going to show you some photos of the results of the attacks at Fromelles later; some of those photos are quite disturbing, I’ll make no apology about that but I do want to warn you now.
The 14th brigade, off they go as well. The right-hand battalion of the 14th brigade they get mauled by these German machine guns firing along the length of no man’s land. So many men from towns like Bathurst and Orange they die that day. The 19th of July is remembered with horror in towns like that.
On the left-hand side of the 14th brigade, no man’s land is much narrower and they get across in significant numbers. For the first time in the battle of Fromelles we have Australian soldiers entering the German front line and killing or capturing German soldiers.
The eighth brigade, with such a small distance to cover, get across in quite significant numbers. But they are going out the frying pan and into the fire. The British general who’d planned this battle, his name was General Sir Richard Bourne Haking and he was, I’ll use a military term, he was an idiot. He had said to his men, to the soldiers attacking that day, ‘Men, I don’t want you to just simply take the German front line, I need you to take the second and third line of German trenches.’ Now I challenge anyone in this room to identify that second or third line of German trenches because they did not exist. What that did was show confusion into an already chaotic situation and it would doom many Australian soldiers to die.
Many Australian soldiers see that there is no second or third line of trenches and they decide to dig in and hold what they’ve captured, this little section of the Australian front line, sorry the German front line. Others follow their orders to the letter and they go off looking for a second and third line of German trenches. The machine guns and confusion of battle divides these groups of Diggers and they cannot support each other. Some of them decide when they come across a muddy ditch or a shell hole that ‘this will do us and we’ll start our war from here, the rest can catch up later.’ So what we have is what Burt Bishop from NSW describes later on as little islands of Australians, islands of Australians in a sea of Germans.
And one by one, after the sun goes down at about 9.30, ten o’clock at night, the Germans come down from the village of Fromelles, from their deep bunkers and dugouts and they’ve identified these little islands of Australians during the daylight hours and in the darkness they surround them and one by one, they destroy them.
It’s easy to stand here in Melbourne and talk about islands of Australians and one by one destroying them; does that mean that if you’re a Digger lying in a filthy, muddy ditch in Fromelles in the dark, you can only imagine it? Four or five mates desperately fighting for their lives, hearing nothing but grenades, rifle fire, machine gun fire and German voices all around them, knowing that their time is about to come and come it will because by 4.30 in the morning all these little pockets of Australian resistance have been cleaned up, the men killed or captured, the Germans have re-entered their front line trenches in force and they’ve moved along pinching the Australian gains off, throwing thousands of hand grenades in front of them. A bombing duel goes on well into the night but the Australians run out of ammunition and gradually they run out of men and the call goes up, ‘Get back if you can.’ It’s a disaster for our country.
When the rolls are called over the next few days we find that 5,533 young Australians have been killed, wounded, taken prisoner or simply disappeared from the face of the earth. The single, bloodiest day in Australian history; the day remains so today. I hope it’s a record that’s never beaten.
[Photograph of scattered human skulls, boots, helmets on rough ground.]
Tim: This is what remains of the Victorians of the 15th brigade when the Australians find them at the end of the war. It was a wound on our soul. The Germans took many photos following the battle. These men had laid out here in the weather for two years; these are the men that populate cemeteries like VC corner, and it’s no wonder why not a single man could be identified in that little cemetery VC corner.
[Photograph Stasse in Fromelles of a deserted street in Fromelles with partly demolished buildings and a lot of debris.]
Tim: Lambis and I, we conducted our search for the ones that had broken through, those little islands of Australians; we conducted our research using a number of methods. We didn’t have a clue when we started, we really didn’t; we’re just a couple of smutches really, but we started looking at photographs. We found that the Germans had taken thousands of photographs after the battle and many of them contain little clues and this one’s no different.
You can see this photo says ‘Strasse in Fromelles’; it’s the main street of Fromelles and it’s taken about the time of the battle. You can see the main street of Fromelles needs a little bit of renovation work, high explosives tend to do that, but there’s no clue in that. You can see where the wagons have gone up and down the main street; there’s no clue in that. The clue runs down the left-hand side of the street; can you see it? It’s a little railway track. What we found was that the Germans had a whole network, like a spider’s web or a lattice of these little light railway tracks running all behind their lines. And quickly and efficiently using these little light railway tracks with little push trollies, you know like the ones that miners use, they could quickly and effectively resupply and re-equip any part of their battlefield. One fellow pushing a trolley could do the work of 20, 30, 50 men and Lambis had figured that maybe this light railway network had actually been used to take things the other way – maybe after the battle the dead were loaded onto this light railway network and taken back somewhere for burial.
[Photograph of German soldiers preparing trenches for burial of dead Australian soldiers. Caption reads Angriff b. Fromelles 17.7.16]
Tim: Thousands of photos were taken after the battle. This one’s, it illustrates what happened after the battle very well. You can see the caption Angriff b. Fromelles 17.7.16; Attack near Fromelles17.7.16. And you can see already just the day after the battle, Germans are starting to process our dead. They had to get them buried; they had to get them underground quickly. This is high summer in France, you can’t leave these people on top of the ground just to stop the spread of disease among your own troops. So they went about their work.
[Photograph of dead bodies of Australian soldiers, scattered on the ground in amongst dirt and rocks and barbed wire fences which are part of the German front line.]
Tim: These men would be among the missing of Fromelles, they’re lying just in front of the German front line, in amongst the barbed wire. These men have been killed trying to negotiate that barbed wire entanglement. These men would have been dragged in during the night and loaded, we thought, on these little light railway carriages. These men are among the missing of Fromelles. These men are the ones that we wanted to give them their dignity back.
[Photograph of a soldier in the action of being thrown face down into the barbed wire and mounds of dirt.]
Tim: This poor fellow has died face down in a wire entanglement. He is among the missing of Fromelles. How can you possibly return dignity to a man like this?
[Photograph of a soldier lying face up dead on the ground, with the caption Angriff b. Fromelles 17.7.16]
Tim: This photo, it still moves me. This is the German front line trench; you can see boxes filled with earth in the background. This would have been a fire storm that night and yet some young Australian soldier has tried to save his mate’s life by putting a bandage on his neck wound, on his mate’s neck wound. He has risked his life to try and save his friend, there is something very Australian about that. It’s this forensic analysis of photographs that started to put little pieces into this jigsaw and illuminate the picture of what had happened in the days following the battle of Fromelles. This man from the eighth brigade is among the missing of Fromelles.
[Photograph of a soldier lying on his side, dead, clutching a bag or clothing, surrounded by a high stone wall.]
Tim: This fellow, this photo from the Australian War Memorial collection, he looks like he’s resting peacefully. He is among those little islands of Australians that perished in the night; surely his mother would have recognised him. Thank god she never saw this photo. He is among the missing of Fromelles.
[Photograph of German men standing beside the light rail carriages stacked high with dead Australian soldiers.]
Tim: This photo originally came from Germany and a wonderful historian, Robin Caulfield just happened to publish it in a book, Don’t forget me cobber: an enquiry into the battle of Fromelles and you can clearly see this German light railway set up, this German light railway stacked high with our dead. But there’s another clue in this photo, it’s the way the German soldiers in this trophy shop are standing. They’re not worried about being shot at; they feel quite safe and at their ease. This is obviously somewhere well behind the lines, a place of safety away from the front line. So it starts to illuminate what happens. We thought the Germans process our dead, they load them onto a light railway train, they take them back somewhere behind the line and there’s a lot of them.
[Photograph of many dead Australian soldiers lying on the ground with some effort to be covered with blankets or material.]
Tim: I found this photo in a private collection in Germany and the fellow who was selling it, he sensed that I wanted it and he sensed that I wanted it very badly and so he charged me accordingly. I paid, or my beautiful wife paid many, many Euros for this photo. I got it back and we started examining it and you can see why we needed it; it introduces yet more clues into the picture. Now we have large numbers of dead; you can see them going all the way back there and we have a new element, we have a wood. And so now we were looking for somewhere near a light railway, large numbers of dead near a wood and the theory really started coming together.
It’s interesting that after I received this photograph from Germany I started working on it and I’d been looking at it for about two days and then I thought I’d have a break and I jumped on the website, you know you have a break by jumping on the website of the Australian War Memorial, and I searched for more photos of the battle of Fromelles. And you know what I found in there for free?
Tim: My poor wife.
[Photograph of a deep trench with dead soldiers lying on the bottom, being covered with dirt while German soldiers look on.]
Tim: We found this photograph, it was on the internet and the caption said this was Germans burying dead at Fromelles. This page, it shows you’ve just got to cross-check things because it’s not. That photo had been doctored; there were multiple different versions of this photograph circulating on the internet and what we actually found, it was German soldiers burying Canadian dead over 12 months later at the battle of Vimy Ridge. But it was still a clue because it showed we weren’t just looking for a lost cemetery, you know a grave with a little white cross on it, and another grave with a little white cross on it, etc etc. This would have been a collective burial, a mass burial; an act of hygiene, less dignity, so even though this photo wasn’t of our dead at Fromelles and it had taken us down a false trail it still helped in building up a picture of what we thought we were looking for.
[A collage of five small aerial photographs is captioned Battle of Fromelles – 19/20 July 1916. Each of the photos also has its own caption. The first is captioned Pheasant Wood just before the battle 17 June 1916; the second After the battle. 29 July 1916; the third 1 August 1916; the fourth At the end of that year 20 December 1916; and fifth More than 2 years after the battle 16 September 1918. Each photograph in turn shows how the terrain changes over the intervening years.]
Tim: The Imperial War Museum in London is a treasure trove of primary source evidence. We were pretty naïve. We had a friend go there and ask the Imperial War Museum if they had any aerial photos from the First World War, and they said we’ve got 330,000, which one would you like? And so we narrowed it down a little bit. We gave them a map reference; had to learn a whole new language: how to read First World War maps. They’re different from modern maps. And we gave them a First World War map reference of the area behind the front line at Fromelles and they came back with some amazing photos. And here we have a collage of photographs taken throughout the entire period of the war by these brave men in wood and canvas aeroplanes.
This one on the top left is taken about a month before the battle and you can see a little rectangle shaped wood. We knew we’d been looking for a wood. You can see this white line here, guess what that is? Light railway. And now you can see one month before the battle a little field in front of that wood is absolutely undisturbed and empty.
Now let’s go to nine days after the battle; the same wood, the same light railway and what has appeared? You can see one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight pits. Eight pits have appeared nine days after the battle with lots of foot traffic and earth being trodden down between the railway and the pits. And we started to get very excited when we saw that photo.
Now let’s go to the bottom left, five months after the battle, just before Christmas in 1916 you can the same wood, the same light railway and you can clearly see those eight pits, but one, two, three of them are still open. See the little black bits in the middle? They’re still empty but five of them have been backfilled and mounded up and we got very excited.
And you can see here just at the end of the war, the same spot with the three empty pits still there, but what has happened to those five pits that had been backfilled and mounded, they have virtually disappeared into the background of France. It’s a very fertile country, the grass has grown; we thought the earth had sunk down and it’s like they were never there. The French people returned to Fromelles after the war. They’d been evacuated during the war; they find these three empty pits and no trace of any other pits, they fill in the pits and get on with their lives and this area is forgotten.
When we found these photos we got very excited. Our group, there were four of us, took this evidence and the photographic evidence that you saw before, to the Australian army and we put our case forward. We thought they would be excited and engaged; they weren’t. They said, ‘What you’ve got here is some nice photos’ – I’m paraphrasing – ‘but there’s no chain of evidence. We can’t see bodies in any of these photos and the photos that have bodies we can’t guarantee that it’s the same place. Go away and find some real evidence.’
And we were gutted. We thought they would, didn’t take a giant leap of imagination to reach the same conclusion as us. We were gutted by that. So what we did was we went away, as they said, and we tried to find some, in inverted commas, ‘real evidence’. We also went to the media and 60 Minutes did a story about us, the ABC’s 7:30 Report did a story about us, a bloke called Patrick Lindsay wrote a bestselling book about us and people started writing letters to the government. The army was under immense pressure, but you know what, the army resists pressure for a living. They said no, they’ve got nothing. Not until they come up with some corroborating evidence will we act. And fair enough I suppose.
[Photograph of local man, Marcel, standing in long, lush green grass on the edge of a wood.]
Tim Whitford: 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.]
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.
'One fellow, Hewk Nevitt from Bendigo, records that if you took the contents of a thousand butchers shops and you threw it on the ground, that would give you some idea.'
- Tim Whitford
About this video
In this moving talk, Tim Whitford recounts his long and emotional journey tracing the missing Australian soldiers of the WWI battle of Fromelles.
Tim's search was driven by the idea that some Australian soldiers had actually broken through the German lines and were not in fact missing – they’d been killed in battle and buried by the German army.
This lecture was part of the 2013 Family History Feast.
Tim Whitford is an education outreach officer at the Shrine of Remembrance.