The brave young men look down the lens of the camera after staring death in the face in the bloody trenches of France.

These Australians have survived the initial horrors of the Western Front and are in the village of Vignacourt for some brief respite.

A shrewd French farmer, Louis Thuillier and wife Antoinette, decided to make extra money by offering to take pictures of the soldiers with their mates as souvenirs for loved ones back home.

The Thuilliers took 3000 photos of Allied servicemen but the treasure trove of original photographic plates remained hidden for decades in an attic in the Somme before being revealed by Channel 7's Sunday Night program in February last year.

Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes will donate more than 800 of the fragile plates featuring Diggers to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra today.

Mr Stokes said it was an honour to present the "extraordinary collection" - which has become known as The Lost Diggers - to the memorial.

"We acknowledge the efforts of Sunday Night on Seven and also wish to offer our special thanks also to the Thuillier and Bacquet families, Louis and Antoinette Thuillier's relatives, for allowing the collection to be brought to Australia and to historian Laurent Mirouze, whose persistence in tracking down the hiding place of The Lost Diggers was key in bringing these images to public attention," Mr Stokes said.

The photos capture the men in a variety of poses and expressions.

Some look relaxed, enjoying a drink, a smoke or the company of local mademoiselles.

Others are solemn, haunted by war.

One photo shows hundreds of men in the town square on Armistice Day, survivors of the war to end all wars.

Another group of soldiers holds a sign "We want our mumie" - an image that typifies the larrikin nature of the Diggers yet is all too poignant when one realises it is unlikely all of them came home.

Les Makin is one of the few soldiers in the collection who has been identified.

Though the photo freezes him at a moment in time, war records and letters back home to his family flesh out his story.

The Melbourne man was one of the first Anzacs, enlisting as a 20-year-old on August 18, 1914, less than three weeks after war was declared.

He did his training in Egypt and fought at Gallipoli and Pozieres.

Lt Makin was leading his men in an attack at Bray-sur-Somme on August 25, 1918, when he was shot in the legs.

One leg was amputated as doctors tried to save his life in the following fortnight but he died just weeks before the war ended.

Australian War Memorial senior historian Peter Burness said the collection was amazing and broken into two periods: 1916 and Armistice Day.

He said going to Vignacourt had been a chance to recuperate away from the battlefield. Men would be billeted to local families and usually slept in barns for two weeks.

Days would be spent on military drills or training but at nights the soldiers would enjoy a "feast" of chips and eggs washed down with beer or wine at cafes.

"These men had fought in the big battles and were stuffed. Morale was low," Mr Burness said. "Some of them have still got ammunition in their belts and mud on their boots. Those men with pictures taken in 1916, they've still got two more years to go and are still going to see more of the biggest battles. Probably a quarter of those men might have been killed."

The photos go on public exhibition at the war memorial from November 2.

The West Australian

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