The Lost Diggers

Ninety-five years ago, in a small French village a short march from the allied frontlines against the German army, a husband and wife team began a unique historical record of the First World War which has stayed hidden – until now.

For the first time in nearly a century, SUNDAY NIGHT viewers can see part of a massive collection of photographic glass plates taken during the First World War which eminent historians are now hailing as ‘priceless’ and as one of the most important ever historical discoveries from that conflict.

The sensational discovery was made by a SUNDAY NIGHT team in France in early February. After following up rumours of a secret collection of photographs they found over 3,000 fragile photographic glass plate negatives in the attic of a dilapidated farmhouse in the small town of Vignacourt two hours drive north of Paris, near Amiens.

Nearly 500 of the plates – donated by a relative of the photographers – have been brought back to Australia by SUNDAY NIGHT and carefully processed so that the images can be seen for the first time since the War.

All of the images are never-seen-before candid and often delightfully informal shots of Australian, British, American, Canadian and other allied soldiers enjoying time in the village, which was used during the war as a rest centre for soldiers who had recently survived the carnage of battles on the Somme and Flanders.

As Australian War Memorial head of military history, Ashley Ekins, told us, the ‘Thuillier Collection’ is an extremely valuable collection of images of Australian and other allied soldiers just behind the frontlines, one of the “most important discoveries from the First World War”.

“They are a character study of men under stress and in relaxation but men who are experiencing the First World War and coming back to areas where they can let off steam a little bit but they know they’ve got to back up the line, you can see it in the faces.”

- Ashley Ekins, head of Military History, Australian War Memorial, Canberra

AWM First World War expert Peter Burness joined the trail in France with reporter Ross Coulthart, producers Gareth Harvey and Max Uechtritz, cameraman Matt Koopmans and Soundman Dan Abbott. Burness was present when the plates were discovered in the old family home attic of a long-dead Vignacourt farming couple Louis and Antoinette Thuillier. Burness says that what makes the collection unique is what it shows of life for soldiers when they were able to let their hair down in the rest zone after losing so many friends in battles just a short distance away on the frontlines:

“Nearly two-thirds of the young men who came through Vignacourt would have gone on to be killed or wounded,” Peter Burness said. “The losses were appalling. In all likelihood these images are the last photographs taken of many of these young men before they died.”

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 were 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.

The breakthrough for the Australian SUNDAY NIGHT investigation came when they were pointed to a French amateur historian who had seen part of the collection over twenty years ago. Laurent Mirouze was so excited by the plates he saw that he tried to alert both Australia’s Embassy in Paris and British historians to their significance. He even wrote an article about the plates in a military magazine. But incredibly, his attempts to see the plates preserved and protected two decades ago were ignored by the authorities.

Mirouze had always passionately believed the photographs were extremely important because of the humanity shown in the images.

“We suspect many of the photographs were taken by Antoinette Thuillier, who was a good-looking woman, and you can see the soldiers are perhaps flirting with her as she is behind the lens,” Mirouze says.

“This is a real treasure. I’ve always believed that and I am absolutely delighted that Australians will now get to see these images.”

In 1916 Louis Thuillier had returned to his Vignacourt farmhouse from two years of military service in the French army when Australian soldiers began arriving in the town from Gallipoli as the Australian forces poured into the Western Front from the disastrous Dardanelles campaign. Thuillier and his wife Antoinette saw an opportunity to make a bit of extra money by offering passing soldiers photographs of themselves.

The Thuilliers shot their souvenir photographs of French, British, Australian, Canadian, Indian, and South African soldiers and even Chinese labourers as regiments from each country visited the village for rest and recuperation from the frontlines. The soldiers were often billeted with local families and some of the pictures show local children and mademoiselles posing with the Diggers and other soldiers.

For many of the soldiers the photo shoots were a brief happy lull before they went on to be slaughtered in subsequent battles between 1916 and November 1918 when the war finally ended. Many of the photographs are taken of Australian soldiers from the 1st and 5th Division in November and December of 1916 just after they survived the carnage of battles at Pozieres and Fromelles. At Pozieres alone, in just four days, 5,285 Australian soldiers were killed or wounded.

Intriguingly, only a handful of the positive photographic prints from these thousands of Thuillier negatives have ever surfaced in official collections in Australia. The War Memorial had long puzzled over a distinctive painted backdrop seen behind soldiers in some of the photographs they hold from the Somme fighting, but while historians suspected there was a much larger collection to be found, no-one expected the scale and quality of what has now surfaced.

One glass negative found in the attic revealed an image of one of Australia’s greatest military heroes, VC winner Joe Maxwell. Steve Martin, Joe Maxwell’s grandson, said the find was ‘extraordinary’ for his family because most of the pictures the family had of Joe were of him after the War.

“I think it will be extraordinary for anyone that’s got a link to that First World War – to be able to see a member of their family in action as it were, or at least close to where they were actually fighting…to actually see them, unedited, unrestricted, unsuppressed. I think it is going to mean a lot for a lot of people,” Mr Martin tells this week’s Sunday Night program.

The Channel Seven show secured nearly 500 of the plates from one of the Thuillier family relatives, Madame Henriette Crognier. When she heard of the passionate interest in the history of the plates she insisted on donating them to Australia. “Pour les Australiens!,” she declared, with a tear in her eye. Feeling for the Australians in this part of France is still very strong.

The remainder of the Thuillier collection – possibly up to several thousand plates of allied soldiers - are still sitting in the same chests in France, covered with dust and in serious danger of deterioration if not properly restored and stored. Sunday Night is hoping that with the help of a benefactor or with Government it might be possible to buy the rest of this extraordinary collection for Australia and other allied nations to enjoy.

As Ashley Ekins told the program: “I think it’s absolutely essential to our knowledge of the war and Australian military history that these are preserved. These are very valuable collection. Of course there’ll be a cost involved they have to be restored. They’ve been sitting in an attic for so many years they have there in need of some serious conservation work and I’m hoping that someone will be able to fund that because they are too valuable to see them lost.”

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