In 2010 Australian photographer Ross Coulthart became aware of a collection of photos from the First World War. They were the work of Louis and Antoinette Thuillier, photographers in the northern town of Vignacourt. Most of the photos discovered to that time featured British soldiers, but here and there Australian Diggers were seen in the background. Coulthart, with assistance from professional and amateur historians, was able to meet in 2011 with the descendants of the Thuilliers. They took him to the farmhouse attic and, for the first time in nearly a century, the glass plates that preserved the images of many hundreds of Australian soldiers saw the light of day.
The Australian War Memorial is currently touring an exhibition of images selected from the Thuillier Collection. Remember Me: The Lost Diggers of Vignacourt was on display at the Western Australian Museum during winter last year, and has since been travelling around regional centres.
Quoting from the exhibition’s handbook:
Vignacourt was distant enough from the fighting to be beyond artillery range but close enough to be an important billeting place, rail centre, base, and training area… For a couple of months in 1916, hundreds of Australians struggled down to Vignacourt from the Somme winter trenches. Here baths and laundries were set up and army stores issued fresh clothing. Most important of all, these were homes with women, children, and even pets…
Enterprising locals Louis and Antoinette Thuillier, who were interested in photograph, turned their home into an outdoor studio and advertised for soldiers to have their pictures taken. Thousands passed before their lens… Among them were many who would shortly die in battle.
The Thuillers printed the photos as picture postcards the Diggers could send home, with room enough for a few scribbled words on the back. Many of the soldiers they photographed remain unidentified; for more information visit the Facebook page The Lost Diggers.
The photos often show the Diggers in humourous moods. One group holds a sign that declares in forlorn capitals WE WANT OUR MUMIE. In the second photo above there appears to have been a swapping of uniforms. At times no doubt the Diggers were putting on a show for their families, masking their true feelings with good cheer. British war correspondent Philip Gibbs made this observation of the Australians in Vignacourt:
I liked the look of them, dusty up to the eyes in summer, muddy up to their ears in winter. They were as hard as steel, and finely tempered. Among them were boys of a more delicate fibre, and sensitive, if one might judge by their clear-cut features and wistful eyes.
The Diggers moved away from Vignacourt but were there again in 1918. When the Armistice was declared on November 11 the town erupted in wild celebration. Flags of both nations were hung in the streets. The dead were honoured with a march to the cemetery, and the mayor of Vignacourt called upon the children to tend the graves as a sacred trust.
At least one Australian soldier stayed on in Vignacourt. On 5 January 1918 Captain Harry Hartley married Simone Pecourt in the Church of Saint-Firmin.
The relationship between Australia and France has been difficult at times during the last hundred years, but the sacrifice of the young men from Down Under is still acknowledged by the people they fought for. A comment from Tim Blair’s old blog describes a visit in the early 2000s to Villers-Bretonneux – liberated by Australian troops on April 25th 1916.
We stopped in at the local bar and had a drink and got talking to the old guy who ran the joint. My girlfriend – who is French – explained that I was Australian and that in the afternoon we were going to visit the Aussie War Graves just outside of town.
Finding out I was an Aussie was enough. The drinks were on the house and – after a second round – that old fella shut up shop and took us on a walking tour of the town. He showed us the flagpole in the village where the Australian flag still flies. He showed us the square where ANZAC Day is celebrated each and every year, usually with a representative of the Aussie embassy from Paris. And then he showed us the local school with the plaque attached noting that it was rebuilt with funds sent back to France from Australian soldiers who had liberated it from the Germans. There is even a kangaroo carved into the stone. 90 years on, this old fella still remembered what his father probably would have told him: Australian soldiers aren’t about killing, they’re about saving; it’s not about destroying, it’s about rebuilding.
I can’t think of a better way for our men and women in uniform to be remembered.
Lest We Forget.