Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Remember Me: Forgotten pictures

Remember Me: The Lost Diggers of Vignacourt
National War Memorial
November 2012 - July 2013

Apparently a picture is worth a thousand words, and actions speak louder than them, but the small, sentimental exhibit at the National War Memorial references words, pictures and deeds.

For much of the First World War Vignacourt was just behind the front lines; a staging point, casualty clearing station and recreation area for troops of all nationalities moving up to and then back from the battlefields on the Somme. Passing military traffic came from the British, American, Chinese, Indian, Scottish, Nepalese and French as well as Australian diggers.

An enterprising French couple, Louis and Antoinette Thuillier, established a business taking portrait photos. They took the photos in their stables and turned them into postcards so the soldiers could send them home, and maintain a fragile link with family and loved ones back home in Australia.
“Enough of war, we are now resting in a peaceful little village and it is lovely to lay in the sweet grass under the apple trees and forget the trials of war and think of home sweet home. Bill, Ern and myself had our photos taken today and I will send you one when I get them.” – Horace Arnold Parton, 5th Battalion, 1916
The negatives of these photos were discovered years later in the attic of a dilapidated farmhouse by a relative of the photographers, who generously donated many of them to the Australian War Memorial. There were over 4,000 pictorial records of soldiers on leave, tired and battle weary but having fun with their mates. AWM World War I expert, Peter Burness, says that two-thirds of these men would go on to be killed or wounded. “The losses were appalling. In all likelihood these images are the last photographs taken of many of these young men before they died.”

“By Jove! Australians! Those clean-shaven, sun-tanned, dust-covered men, who had come out of the hell of the Dardanelles and the burning drought of the Egyptian sands, looked wonderfully fresh in France. Youth, keen as steel, with a flash in the eyes, with an utter carelessness of any peril ahead, came riding down the street.” – Peter Gibbs, British War Correspondent, 1916
Members of a television news programme reprinted these pictures in a dark room, using traditional techniques on fibre-based paper. They saw the soldiers emerge from the darkness, and cleaned and silvered the images with selenium toning to create the silver gelatine photographs. This exhibition features 74 of these prints and 800 digital negatives, fleshed out with written diaries and letters as part of the museum’s collection. Many excerpts are from letters written to sisters, mums or sweethearts, asking for photo-mementos and news from home. It’s noticeable and slightly sad that there are so few letters written to dads.

Although the photographers did not record the names of these men, several researches have attempted to identify them through their uniforms. Other clues to their identity can be found in their epaulettes, colour patches, badges, rank insignia on uniforms, medal bars, ribbons and wound stripes worn on uniforms, and any kit or equipment they may be carrying. In many cases the battalion is known, as men for a battalion posed together, even though they knew their battalion would be disbanded.

British censorship on the Western Front meant that few such informal photographs exist outside the official record. Australia did not have its own official war photographer until 1917 and soldiers were not able (as they ewer in the Gallipoli campaign in the Dardanelles) to sneak their personal cameras into the war zone. The Thuillier collection fills a hole in the historical record. It covers many of the significant aspects of Australian involvement on the Western Front, from military life to the friendships and bonds formed between the soldiers and civilians.
“The brightest memory of the lot is that I have known real men. Men with the cover off. Men with their wonderful nobility of character, of mateship, revealed. It’s a glorious memory to have. To have known men as men... My mates! Memories of men! Memories of mates!” – Edward P. Francis Lynch, 45th Battalion, commenting after the war

Some men were members of the newly formed (1916) cyclist battalion who traded horses for bikes and pose proudly with their metal steeds. Perhaps there might be special sympathy for them from the riders of the Paris-Roubaix or Tour of Flanders as they clatter over the greasy cobbles? There are pictures of bands playing instruments and some delightful images of people shyly celebrating the armistice.

A few of the photos have snowfall as a backdrop – between 3rd and 13th January 1917 heavy snowfalls hit the region. The Commander of British unit in Vignacourt issued an order to his men: “No snowballs are to be thrown at the drivers of passing vehicles.” That they could consider such amusements is evidence that they are really still just lads. It makes it all the more poignant to consider, “It is a poor land rich with crosses. A troubled land where brave men rest forever.”

“Many things perforce remain unrecorded. The friendships, strong and clean as new steel, forged in the desert sand or the Somme mud that will savour life for us to the very end.” – Albert William Keown, 5th Battalion, commenting after the war

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