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The Lost Diggers

22 December 2012 1,442 views No Comment

A TREASURE trove of recently discovered images bears silent witness to the tragedy of World War I.

Almost a century ago hundreds of Australian soldiers took their rest and recreation leave in the small Somme Valley town of Vignacourt, just north of the city of Amiens. During three years of bitter fighting, our Diggers gained relief from the horrors of the trenches – a mere day’s march away – flirting with girls from the village, playing with the children, drinking local wine and having their photographs taken by the talented local photographers Louis Thuillier and his wife, Antoinette.

A treasure trove of previously unknown memorabilia from World War I, discovered 95 years later in three battered chests, included glass plates of these precious photographs, stored and intact all these years later. As well as hundreds of poignant, revealing images of Anzac troops, the Thuilliers had also taken thousands of candid images of British, Canadian, American, Indian, French and other Allied soldiers. It’s a priceless archive that records a lost world and a lost generation.

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As Ross Coulthart points out, when news broke in Australia of the extraordinary find of photographs of Diggers behind the front lines of World War I, the public response was enormous. Indeed, it was because of this response that this moving and remarkable book of photographs and extremely helpful accompanying text has been published.

It is hard to disagree with the head of military history at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Ashley Ekins, that these photographs “rank as one of the most important discoveries from the First World War”. Yet, while many of the images depict jaunty young men larking about as they enjoyed a bit of R&R behind the lines, other Thuillier photographs depict young Diggers suffering from “shell shock”, gazing forlornly into the middle distance.

Coulthart usefully asks why these brave soldiers posed for their portraits “when so often they look so uncomfortable about their image being captured”. It is likely that many of the Thuillier photographs were the only ones of the troops at that critical time of their lives and, even more poignantly, that they were destined to be their final images.

I think Coulthart is on to something profound when he suggests that perhaps these men “stepped up to be photographed just for a lark or for a memento to keep or send home to their families, or perhaps they felt a deeper need”. Often, at a deeply unconscious level, I suspect it was the latter. This is because, for a soldier in the front-line trenches, there was, as Coulthart puts it, “so little he could control about his life, and it may have often felt that death or serious injury was almost inevitable”.

At a time when life was so precarious, when every moment on the front line was a battle to survive, many of these vulnerable Australian soldiers may have sensed that a photograph of them could well endure even if they didn’t survive themselves.

Towards the end of this exquisite book, Coulthart suggests that if their commanders “had stared into the eyes of these men, as it is now possible to do with the thousands of Thuillier photographs, they would have been less inclined to treat these soldiers as numbers and more inclined to see them as human beings.” Almost 100 years on, these stunning black-and-white photographs stand as mute, yet eloquent, witness to the courage of soldiers and to the horror of war.

Hopefully their stark and simple beauty means that we may never forget what the Scottish-Australian folk singer and songwriter Eric Bogle calls “man’s blind indifference to his fellow man and a whole generation that was butchered and damned”.

The reality is that hundreds of the Thuillier images are yet to be properly identified. An appallingly high percentage of the young soldiers featured in The Lost Diggers were destined never to return home. Hence it is more than fitting that, as a result of these haunting images, many Australians will now seek to trace some family connection with the brave young men who landed on the Gallipoli peninsula or fought on the battlefields of France and who are so prominently featured in these beautifully reproduced pages.

Most of the photographs featured in this book, and hundreds more, appear on Seven Network’s Sunday Night website sundaynight.com.au. Others are available on the Lost Diggers site on Facebook at facebook.com/lostdiggers.

As with this remarkably informative, beautifully illustrated and thoroughly researched book, they are well worth a look.

The Lost Diggers, by Ross Coulthart HarperCollins, 400pp, $70
Spectrum, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21-23 December 2012

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