The Lost Diggers come home

Reporter: Ross Coulthart
Article by: Ross Coulthart
Date: 13 November, 2011
Go to transcript

28 March 2012: Latest update from the Australian war Memorial: http://www.awm.gov.au/blog/2012/03/28/update-on-the-lost-diggers-photographs/


In February Sunday Night aired its original story on the Seven Network in Australia revealing the discovery of the Thuillier photographic collection of World War One soldiers in a French farmhouse attic.

Go to the original The Lost Diggers story.

Until now, we had uploaded only a fraction of the extraordinary, candid, and often delightfully informal images of Australian and other allied soldiers at rest in a small French village of Vignacourt just behind the horrors of the frontlines of the western front.

The public reaction to even those few hundred images was and remains overwhelming. The number of page views from hundreds of thousands of viewers on both our website and Facebook pages is now well into the many millions. So many people have taken the time to search among the images for a possible glimpse of a loved one – a grandfather, father, great uncle, uncle – and we are delighted that the power of social media has worked so well to bring families in touch with a piece of history that they did not know about.

Join the thousands of others following The Lost Diggers Facebook page


Join the thousands of others following Sunday Night Facebook page

The outpouring of emotion at this discovery has humbled and thrilled us as journalists. There was a strict ban on any other photography other than that authorised by the British military forces on the western front and so the thousands of Thuillier images have filled a gap in our history. But what makes the pictures so special is their intimacy. Vignacourt was where these soldiers came to let their hair down on their way to and from the frontlines. Shot by a husband and wife team, Louis and Antoinette Thuillier (pictured below), many of the photographs show a larrikin, playful, side to the soldiers that you rarely see in more formal posed military photographs.



Now, Sunday Night begins the unveiling of the entire Thuillier collection. After negotiations with the Thuillier family in France, and with the generous support of Seven Network chairman Kerry Stokes AC, the Thuillier collection of 4000+ images of Australian Diggers and other allied soldiers has been brought back to Australia. Every single glass plate recovered from the family farmhouse attic has been cleaned and professionally scanned by Sydney-based photograph restoration experts [http://www.oscans.com |Oscans]. The Australian collection will eventually be gifted to the Australian War Memorial for public exhibition and research.


High resolution scans of these extraordinary images will be uploaded on to this website and our Lost Diggers Facebook page over the next few weeks, starting with the Australian Diggers. We encourage anyone with relatives who served in the First World War to take a look because so many people – not just from Australia, but from around the World – have already found images of loved ones in the collection online. We would love to hear back from you if believe you have identified someone in the images.

Sunday Night is also undertaking an ambitious and ground-breaking project to attempt to identify the men who appear in the Lost Diggers portraits. Melbourne facial recognition security software experts COMPUTRONICS have kindly agreed to assist us in using their high-end proprietary program to cross-match the thousands of Lost Digger images with images from a range of different collections of portraits held by the National Library of Australia (the NLA), the Australian War Memorial (AWM) and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The facial recognition software developed by COMPUTRONICS is used by police and security agencies both here and overseas and we thank John Hansen, manager of the biometrics division for Computronics, for he and his team’s kind cooperation with this exciting research.

Paul Hagon, senior web designer with the web publishing branch of the NLA, deserves special mention here for his extraordinary work in isolating thousands of identified portrait images from the NLA’s Trove database, which can be used in the data-match.

The National Library of Australia's discovery service Trove provides a search over 4.5 million photographs from libraries, museums and archives throughout Australia. This provides an excellent starting point for research as it is one reference point to many institutions, both metropolitan and regional, that people may not think of searching. Paul has extracted nearly 40,000 images that were taken between 1910-1929 whose title or description contained certain search terms. These terms were a list of military ranks (eg: General, Private, Sergeant, Lieutenant etc), and relevant photographic terms like ‘Portrait’, that would hopefully return a shortlist of photographs of people from the military that might be useful for matching purposes. Once this initial selection had been made he sifted the images through a custom built program to detect if the image contained a person. This would differentiate between a photograph titled "General Monash" and a photograph titled "General view of Sydney Harbour". He then manually sorted the remaining photographs to eliminate those images that were portraits of civilians, women or children that were not relevant to the final search. It has been a mammoth undertaking by Paul and one for which we are extremely grateful – and we’re very excited by the prospect that it might allow us to identify some of the Lost Diggers.

We love the idea that the use of high-tech software, some clever sifting through public research databases, and the community of interested folk on social media might help add to the history of a war from one hundred years ago.

Read the stories behind Edward Martin: The Forgotten General and why the local youth centre was renamed “The House of the Australians”.



Thanks also to Courtney Page-Allen, the Editor of Commemorations and Programs with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Using funding from a Churchill Fellowship, in 2009, Courtney travelled to the Imperial War Museum in London to research the portraits stored in a collection known as the Bond of Sacrifice collection. The Bond of Sacrifice collection is a collection of First World War service-men which was compiled at the end of World War One by a very prescient group of citizens who recognised that the images might one day be of enormous historical significance. Many of the portraits came from unclaimed images of service-men who had been photographed in London photographic studios on their way to the western front, including many Australians. Courtney was able to isolate 1535 portraits of Australian Diggers and she has digitised about 500 of them. You will be able to view that collection when it is uploaded at: mappingouranzacs.naa.gov.au/



You can read more about Courtney’s research, and the history of the Bond of Sacrifice collection, in her Churchill research paper report at: http://www.churchilltrust.com.au/site_media/fellows/2009_Page-Allen_Courtney.pdf

We will bring you the results of our data-match when Sunday Night returns with a great new season of exciting stories in 2012.



The story behind a picture. A child searches for her digger father

During our research into the Lost Diggers pictures, we wondered about the story behind this delightful image of a little boy sitting on the shoulders of two diggers.

The cute little lad also appears in another Thuillier pic alone, but it was his sad expression that made us want to know more:

We asked our friend and Lost Diggers investigation colleague, historian Laurent Mirouze, to to see what he could find out from Vignacourt locals. Eventually we were able to put a name to this little boy – Henri Duboille. At the time this photograph was taken, his father was in a German prisoner-of-war camp, never to return. No wonder he was so sad. We do know Henri kept us his sense of fun because this is him a little older:



As happens in so many historical investigations, the story of Henri Duboille was to lead us into another even more fascinating tale, featuring the woman he married. When we tracked down Henri’s wife and surviving family to learn more about him, we met the delightful Christiane Duboille and her daughter Marie-Christine. We learned the story of 92 year old Christiane, who only recently discovered that her father was an Australian Digger who died during the war after a brief love affair with her French mother. She now wants to find her Australian family before it is too late.

Ross Coulthart with 92-year-old Christiane Duboille, who would like to find the family of her Australian Digger father Samuel.

Blanche Harmand, who went to her grave never to reveal the full name of the Australian father ‘Samuel’ of her child Christiane Duboille.





Battlefield Guide

If you’re travelling to France to tour the western front battlefield locations, then there is an excellent new book out that details not only the exploits of VC winners in each battle they fought, but it also features extremely well-rendered maps and photographs of each location.

Armed with Peter Pedersen’s ANZACS ON THE WESTERN FRONT – THE AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL BATTLEFIELD GUIDE you can quite literally hold the book up in front of what is today often just an open French field and be taken back in time to when Australian or New Zealand soldiers were fighting for their lives in the face of German artillery and machine gun fire. This beautifully illustrated book allows you to see exactly where each side in each battle was located.

A video detailing more on the book can be viewed at: YouTube


TOUR DETAILS

If you’re interested in a battlefield tour to the Somme battlefields then the Australian War Memorial’s senior historian Peter Burness and other senior historians offer excellent tours to France through Boronia Travel. You can read more about Peter at: www.boroniabattlefieldtours.com.au/historians/peter-burness/

The website for Boronia battlefield tours is at: www.boroniabattlefieldtours.com.au