The Lost Diggers back with their mates
Picture believed to be of an indigenous serviceman. Picture: Courtesy Kerry Stokes Collection, The Louis and Antoinette Thuillier Collection

They are two mates who like thousands of young Australians answered their country's call to arms during World War I.

But of the 800 photos in The Lost Diggers collection, this one moved Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes more than most.

"We have this whole understanding from history that indigenous soldiers didn't fight in the First World War and they weren't allowed to," Mr Stokes said.

"Well here is this one soldier in full kit, full badge and everything. That proves beyond any question they made a contribution."

Mr Stokes yesterday donated the collection of fragile glass plate negatives to the Australian War Memorial.

A French farmer, Louis Thuillier and his wife Antoinette, took the photos at their makeshift outdoor studio in Vignacourt, a village behind the frontline where troops would spend a fortnight to rest between time in the trenches.

For a few pennies or francs, the Thuilliers would turn the photos into postcards for the soldiers to send home. About 4500 photos were taken of allied troops, including the 800 of Diggers.

But the plates - which cover the northern winter of 1916-17 and the end of the war in late 1918 - had been locked away in a farmhouse attic for decades until being uncovered by Channel 7's Sunday Night program last year.

Enthused by the discovery, Mr Stokes bought the plates for an undisclosed sum after long negotiations with the Thuilliers' grandchildren. He oversaw the logistical effort to get the precious cargo back to Australia.

War memorial senior historian Peter Burness said it was a miracle the photos had survived for almost 100 years.

"No soldiers on the Western Front were allowed to have cameras so there are no personal shots," he said.

Seven West Media Chairman Kerry Stokes with one of the plates from the collection. Picture: Penny Bradfield.

Mr Burness said many of the soldiers had not been identified but the memorial was considering using facial recognition technology.

The Lost Diggers will be exhibited at the Canberra memorial from November and will also be put online in the hope people may recognise their ancestors.

Mr Stokes said: "We are going to know these stories. There will be families out there.

"These poor guys, most of them have been to Gallipoli, now serving on the Western Front, and they are here knowing they have got to go back.

"I look at these photos and wonder how they could have done it."

The West Australian

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