By Max Uechtritz
Sunday Night’s Lost Diggers series has so galvanised the town of Vignacourt that it will establish a permanent exhibition of the photographs in the local youth centre and rename the building “The House of the Australians”.
The Vignacourt youth group is also seeking a “sister” Australian school for an ongoing project to research the stories of the soldiers and their French hosts during the Great War.
The town will push for Vignacourt to be added to the official battlefield tour routes as the big 100-year WW1 anniversaries roll along from 2014 through to 2018. Already a tour led by Australian War Memorial historian Peter Burness will visit Vignacourt next April.
Despite being such an important headquarters in WW1 – site of a big Allied R&R and training centre, field hospital, vital rail link and base HQ for the RAF – Vignacourt was as lost in history as were the diggers’ images lying neglected in a local attic for 93 years.
That’s all changed in the wake of the Sunday Night films and subsequent phenomenon of social media spreading news of the amazing photographic cache around France, Australia and the globe.
Visitors to Vignacourt cemetery – expected to increase from a trickle to a flood – will be directed by signs to “The House of the Australians”. There’ll be a permanent roster of youngsters and listed phone numbers so travellers can have access and hosted visits.
“Your Lost Diggers stories have changed Vignacourt forever,” said Valerie Vasseur (left) who runs youth affairs at local Mairie or town hall.
“People are so excited and fascinated to learn of this incredible history and connection with the Allied soldiers, most of all the Australians, and they are learning an important part of their past that seemed to have been lost forever.
“Families have been in tears seeing – for the first time – photographs of their fathers, grandfathers, great uncles or aunts mixing with the soldiers. Most of them have never seen their ancestors as children and are only now finding out how close they had been to the soldiers who came to Vignacourt.”
At a special town hall meeting and exhibition organised by Sunday Night on a recent filming trip, there were emotional scenes as people recognised loved ones. Four generations of the Theot family were overcome by an image of their ancestor Abel Theot as a young boy, holding a pastry basket. Young Abel used to sell cookies to the Diggers to put money on the table for his mother, who’d seen three other sons go off to war and only one return.
The youth group and local adults enthusiastically dressed in period costumes for our filming of re-enactments of the Thuillier photo sessions and the celebrations on Armistice Day.
They were thrilled to meet legendary Australian entertainer Rolf Harris and sang for him – in English – his hit song “Two Little Boys”. Rolf reciprocated with his own surprise, a rendition of Waltzing Matilda sung in French!
In a poignant scene, history was repeated as the children lay roses on the gravestones of the soldiers – 425 of the total 525 graves are Australian. Back in 1918 after Armistice, the Vignacourt children had originally flowered the cemetery. Each child then was given a grave to tend for life, a fact referred to by Senator of the Somme and Mayor of Vignacourt Paul Thuillier-Buridard in his speech at the post-war ceremony.
“Their ancestors were urged never to forget the sacrifice of these men who came to fight for France and, now, the Vignacourt children of today will carry the memory to the next generations,” said Lucile Werkin who helps run the youth group.
“There is a bond between France, Vignacourt and Australia that will never be extinguished. It is still incredible to think that the Australians came all the way around the world to defend France and, in such dreadful numbers, sacrifice their lives.
“We hope we can find a sister school in Australia who can join us on a journey of discovery to pay tribute to all the people – soldiers and civilians – who shared life and death in those terrible years from 1914-18.”
The current Mayor of Vignacourt Stéphane Ducrotoy was among those who watched and were moved by a sub-titled version of our first two Lost Diggers episodes. He has embraced the chance to unearth and chronicle the story of his town in the Great War and during our visit gave the green light to the establishment of “the House of the Australians”.