[On-screen slide says: Identity & Dignity: Fromelles & Family History – Tim Whitford with photograph of Fromelles memorial.]
Tim Whitford: Ladies and gentleman, I’m not a historian and I’m not a family historian by any means but I was caught up in this big washing machine of history from a very early age. The story of Fromelles was kind of passed on to me by my grandmother.
[Photograph of Tim Whitford and Lambis Englezos with picture of war zone of Fromelles in the background.]
Tim: As Anne said, when I was just eight years old I was sitting on my grandmother’s knee, and nan said to me, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up, Tim?’
And I said, ‘Nan, I want to be a soldier.’ And what followed then changed me for the rest of my life. The colour drained out of my beautiful grandmother’s face and she got incredibly angry at me, an eight year old boy. She said, ‘Don’t you dare, don’t you bloody dare; you’ll get killed. You’ll get killed like my uncle. He went off to war and he disappeared, we don’t know where he is.’ And that moment sitting at our kitchen table in Yarram in South Gippsland when I was eight years old started me on a trail looking for and trying to do the right thing by this Uncle Harry.
I ignored my grandmother of course and I went off to be a soldier; like all young boys do when people will tell us not to do something, we do the opposite. And I found that I absolutely loved being a soldier and it took me all around the world and one of the places it took me was a posting in Europe. And while I was in Europe I used to nick off on the weekends and I went to this battlefield of Fromelles. I’d learned through this amazing thing that was invented somewhere in the ‘90s called the internet – you might have heard of it, I learned that if you pressed the buttons on this computer the information comes up and it’s just incredible – and I learned that this uncle, the one that had affected my grandmother so deeply back when I first learned of it in the ‘70s, he had been killed at this battle called the battle of Fromelles.
So I went to the battlefield of Fromelles and in the middle of the Fromelles battlefield there is a cemetery, a beautiful cemetery called VC corner cemetery. That cemetery is a unique cemetery in the world; it has no headstones and there is not a single identified soldier lying in that cemetery. Every soldier, every one of the 410 soldiers in that cemetery is unidentified. Along the back wall of that cemetery are the names of 1,299 Australian boys who died in that ten hour battle at Fromelles who still have no known grave. I walked up to that back wall knowing that I would find my uncle’s name there. I found his unit name, his unit, I ran my finger down the list of names and he wasn’t there; he’d been left off, a clerical error back in 1916 that compounded over the decades and one that shocked me when I was there in the 1990s. I think if I had of found his name on that back wall at Fromelles I would have been happy and walked away from it. But I didn’t find peace. I was looking for ownership; I was looking for a sense of, you know that American word, ‘closure’, but I didn’t find it there at Fromelles.
So I started researching, looking and I made my grandmother a bit of a promise there on that battlefield, and I said, ‘Nan, one day we’re going to do the right thing by this boy.’
I didn’t know when that was yet, but eventually it lead me in 2006 to meet this incredibly ugly man, that you’ll see beside me in this photo. His name’s Lambis, Lambis Englezos. Lambis had a theory that some soldiers from the battle of Fromelles had actually broken through the German lines and were not in fact truly missing; they’d been killed in battle and buried by the German army. We just didn’t know where their graves were yet. And I looked at Lambis’s theory and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, I thought this guy’s crazy but I think he’s got something, and so from that day on Lambis and I were joined at the hip; he was like the monkey brother I never wanted. We went forward and we started researching and advocating for the missing at Fromelles.
[Aerial photograph of battlefield of Fromelles.]
Tim: To tell the story I have to really tell what happened that day. The battlefield of Fromelles is in this photo, a unique photo, an amazing photo taken on that day in the battle. High resolution versions of this photograph are from the Australian Memorial collection. You can see the shadows of our men crossing no man’s land. You can see the Australian part of the front line here; you can see the German part of the front line. This little lump in the German front line is an important feature, it’s called a ‘salient’, the sugarloaf salient. And this little right angle bend in this salient gave the Germans the ability to place machine guns, each one of those German machinin gavier zero eight machine guns follows between 550 and 650 bullets per gun per minute, each bullet travels at 820 metres per second; just in that little right angle bend in the trenches there were five of those machine guns, and the Australian’s task at the battle of Fromelles was to leave the relative safety of our trenches, cross 410 metres of no man’s land and take out the German front line in the face of that machine gun fire. It was an impossible task. So just to orient you onto this battlefield, we have 420 metres of no man’s land here, and down on the left-hand side of the battlefield we have about 80 metres of no man’s land.
The Australian part of the battle – there were British soldiers at the battle of Fromelles as well, but I’m not here to talk about them, we haven’t got time – the Australian part of the battlefield is broken up into three sectors: this little bit here is the area of operations of the 15th brigade, men from Victoria; beside them we have the 14th brigade, men from NSW; and over on the left-hand side we have the eighth brigade, these are men from all over Australia. We’ve got the 31st battalion, part of the eighth brigade; half Victorians, half Queenslanders. Can you imagine it, ladies and gentlemen, having to go to war with Queenslanders?
Tim: The horror. Also in with the eighth brigade we’ve got the 32nd battalion, an amazing battalion; 120 Western Australians but mostly South Australians, South Australians from the Adelaide hills and the Barossa Valley region of South Australia. Barossa Valley, not only do they make excellent wine, those family historians among us will instantly know that the Barossa Valley was settled by German people. And so in the 32nd battalion we have young privates with names like Schmidt and Floume crossing 80 metres of machine-gun-fire-swept space, attacking young German privates called Schmidt and Floume.
This is a bad day for our country. Just ten minutes to six on the 19th of July zero hour, the 15th Victorian brigade steps out into no man’s land. We know what happens because people wrote it down, the survivors wrote it down. One fellow, Hewk Nevitt from Bendigo records that if you took the contents of a thousand butchers shops and you threw it on the ground, that would give you some idea, just a little bit of an idea of what no man’s land looked like about seven minutes after zero hour. The Victorian men of the 15th brigade never even got close to the German trenches. Sadly the dead and wounded were forced to lie out there, the wounded in the next eight days slowly but surely dying, and the dead remained there until the end of the war, two years later.
I’m going to show you some photos of the results of the attacks at Fromelles later; some of those photos are quite disturbing, I’ll make no apology about that but I do want to warn you now.
The 14th brigade, off they go as well. The right-hand battalion of the 14th brigade they get mauled by these German machine guns firing along the length of no man’s land. So many men from towns like Bathurst and Orange they die that day. The 19th of July is remembered with horror in towns like that.
On the left-hand side of the 14th brigade, no man’s land is much narrower and they get across in significant numbers. For the first time in the battle of Fromelles we have Australian soldiers entering the German front line and killing or capturing German soldiers.
The eighth brigade, with such a small distance to cover, get across in quite significant numbers. But they are going out the frying pan and into the fire. The British general who’d planned this battle, his name was General Sir Richard Bourne Haking and he was, I’ll use a military term, he was an idiot. He had said to his men, to the soldiers attacking that day, ‘Men, I don’t want you to just simply take the German front line, I need you to take the second and third line of German trenches.’ Now I challenge anyone in this room to identify that second or third line of German trenches because they did not exist. What that did was show confusion into an already chaotic situation and it would doom many Australian soldiers to die.
Many Australian soldiers see that there is no second or third line of trenches and they decide to dig in and hold what they’ve captured, this little section of the Australian front line, sorry the German front line. Others follow their orders to the letter and they go off looking for a second and third line of German trenches. The machine guns and confusion of battle divides these groups of Diggers and they cannot support each other. Some of them decide when they come across a muddy ditch or a shell hole that ‘this will do us and we’ll start our war from here, the rest can catch up later.’ So what we have is what Burt Bishop from NSW describes later on as little islands of Australians, islands of Australians in a sea of Germans.
And one by one, after the sun goes down at about 9.30, ten o’clock at night, the Germans come down from the village of Fromelles, from their deep bunkers and dugouts and they’ve identified these little islands of Australians during the daylight hours and in the darkness they surround them and one by one, they destroy them.
It’s easy to stand here in Melbourne and talk about islands of Australians and one by one destroying them; does that mean that if you’re a Digger lying in a filthy, muddy ditch in Fromelles in the dark, you can only imagine it? Four or five mates desperately fighting for their lives, hearing nothing but grenades, rifle fire, machine gun fire and German voices all around them, knowing that their time is about to come and come it will because by 4.30 in the morning all these little pockets of Australian resistance have been cleaned up, the men killed or captured, the Germans have re-entered their front line trenches in force and they’ve moved along pinching the Australian gains off, throwing thousands of hand grenades in front of them. A bombing duel goes on well into the night but the Australians run out of ammunition and gradually they run out of men and the call goes up, ‘Get back if you can.’ It’s a disaster for our country.
When the rolls are called over the next few days we find that 5,533 young Australians have been killed, wounded, taken prisoner or simply disappeared from the face of the earth. The single, bloodiest day in Australian history; the day remains so today. I hope it’s a record that’s never beaten.
[Photograph of scattered human skulls, boots, helmets on rough ground.]
Tim: This is what remains of the Victorians of the 15th brigade when the Australians find them at the end of the war. It was a wound on our soul. The Germans took many photos following the battle. These men had laid out here in the weather for two years; these are the men that populate cemeteries like VC corner, and it’s no wonder why not a single man could be identified in that little cemetery VC corner.
[Photograph Stasse in Fromelles of a deserted street in Fromelles with partly demolished buildings and a lot of debris.]
Tim: Lambis and I, we conducted our search for the ones that had broken through, those little islands of Australians; we conducted our research using a number of methods. We didn’t have a clue when we started, we really didn’t; we’re just a couple of smutches really, but we started looking at photographs. We found that the Germans had taken thousands of photographs after the battle and many of them contain little clues and this one’s no different.
You can see this photo says ‘Strasse in Fromelles’; it’s the main street of Fromelles and it’s taken about the time of the battle. You can see the main street of Fromelles needs a little bit of renovation work, high explosives tend to do that, but there’s no clue in that. You can see where the wagons have gone up and down the main street; there’s no clue in that. The clue runs down the left-hand side of the street; can you see it? It’s a little railway track. What we found was that the Germans had a whole network, like a spider’s web or a lattice of these little light railway tracks running all behind their lines. And quickly and efficiently using these little light railway tracks with little push trollies, you know like the ones that miners use, they could quickly and effectively resupply and re-equip any part of their battlefield. One fellow pushing a trolley could do the work of 20, 30, 50 men and Lambis had figured that maybe this light railway network had actually been used to take things the other way – maybe after the battle the dead were loaded onto this light railway network and taken back somewhere for burial.
[Photograph of German soldiers preparing trenches for burial of dead Australian soldiers. Caption reads Angriff b. Fromelles 17.7.16]
Tim: Thousands of photos were taken after the battle. This one’s, it illustrates what happened after the battle very well. You can see the caption Angriff b. Fromelles 17.7.16; Attack near Fromelles17.7.16. And you can see already just the day after the battle, Germans are starting to process our dead. They had to get them buried; they had to get them underground quickly. This is high summer in France, you can’t leave these people on top of the ground just to stop the spread of disease among your own troops. So they went about their work.
[Photograph of dead bodies of Australian soldiers, scattered on the ground in amongst dirt and rocks and barbed wire fences which are part of the German front line.]
Tim: These men would be among the missing of Fromelles, they’re lying just in front of the German front line, in amongst the barbed wire. These men have been killed trying to negotiate that barbed wire entanglement. These men would have been dragged in during the night and loaded, we thought, on these little light railway carriages. These men are among the missing of Fromelles. These men are the ones that we wanted to give them their dignity back.
[Photograph of a soldier in the action of being thrown face down into the barbed wire and mounds of dirt.]
Tim: This poor fellow has died face down in a wire entanglement. He is among the missing of Fromelles. How can you possibly return dignity to a man like this?
[Photograph of a soldier lying face up dead on the ground, with the caption Angriff b. Fromelles 17.7.16]
Tim: This photo, it still moves me. This is the German front line trench; you can see boxes filled with earth in the background. This would have been a fire storm that night and yet some young Australian soldier has tried to save his mate’s life by putting a bandage on his neck wound, on his mate’s neck wound. He has risked his life to try and save his friend, there is something very Australian about that. It’s this forensic analysis of photographs that started to put little pieces into this jigsaw and illuminate the picture of what had happened in the days following the battle of Fromelles. This man from the eighth brigade is among the missing of Fromelles.
[Photograph of a soldier lying on his side, dead, clutching a bag or clothing, surrounded by a high stone wall.]
Tim: This fellow, this photo from the Australian War Memorial collection, he looks like he’s resting peacefully. He is among those little islands of Australians that perished in the night; surely his mother would have recognised him. Thank god she never saw this photo. He is among the missing of Fromelles.
[Photograph of German men standing beside the light rail carriages stacked high with dead Australian soldiers.]
Tim: This photo originally came from Germany and a wonderful historian, Robin Caulfield just happened to publish it in a book, Don’t forget me cobber: an enquiry into the battle of Fromelles and you can clearly see this German light railway set up, this German light railway stacked high with our dead. But there’s another clue in this photo, it’s the way the German soldiers in this trophy shop are standing. They’re not worried about being shot at; they feel quite safe and at their ease. This is obviously somewhere well behind the lines, a place of safety away from the front line. So it starts to illuminate what happens. We thought the Germans process our dead, they load them onto a light railway train, they take them back somewhere behind the line and there’s a lot of them.
[Photograph of many dead Australian soldiers lying on the ground with some effort to be covered with blankets or material.]
Tim: I found this photo in a private collection in Germany and the fellow who was selling it, he sensed that I wanted it and he sensed that I wanted it very badly and so he charged me accordingly. I paid, or my beautiful wife paid many, many Euros for this photo. I got it back and we started examining it and you can see why we needed it; it introduces yet more clues into the picture. Now we have large numbers of dead; you can see them going all the way back there and we have a new element, we have a wood. And so now we were looking for somewhere near a light railway, large numbers of dead near a wood and the theory really started coming together.
It’s interesting that after I received this photograph from Germany I started working on it and I’d been looking at it for about two days and then I thought I’d have a break and I jumped on the website, you know you have a break by jumping on the website of the Australian War Memorial, and I searched for more photos of the battle of Fromelles. And you know what I found in there for free?
Tim: My poor wife.
[Photograph of a deep trench with dead soldiers lying on the bottom, being covered with dirt while German soldiers look on.]
Tim: We found this photograph, it was on the internet and the caption said this was Germans burying dead at Fromelles. This page, it shows you’ve just got to cross-check things because it’s not. That photo had been doctored; there were multiple different versions of this photograph circulating on the internet and what we actually found, it was German soldiers burying Canadian dead over 12 months later at the battle of Vimy Ridge. But it was still a clue because it showed we weren’t just looking for a lost cemetery, you know a grave with a little white cross on it, and another grave with a little white cross on it, etc etc. This would have been a collective burial, a mass burial; an act of hygiene, less dignity, so even though this photo wasn’t of our dead at Fromelles and it had taken us down a false trail it still helped in building up a picture of what we thought we were looking for.
[A collage of five small aerial photographs is captioned Battle of Fromelles – 19/20 July 1916. Each of the photos also has its own caption. The first is captioned Pheasant Wood just before the battle 17 June 1916; the second After the battle. 29 July 1916; the third 1 August 1916; the fourth At the end of that year 20 December 1916; and fifth More than 2 years after the battle 16 September 1918. Each photograph in turn shows how the terrain changes over the intervening years.]
Tim: The Imperial War Museum in London is a treasure trove of primary source evidence. We were pretty naïve. We had a friend go there and ask the Imperial War Museum if they had any aerial photos from the First World War, and they said we’ve got 330,000, which one would you like? And so we narrowed it down a little bit. We gave them a map reference; had to learn a whole new language: how to read First World War maps. They’re different from modern maps. And we gave them a First World War map reference of the area behind the front line at Fromelles and they came back with some amazing photos. And here we have a collage of photographs taken throughout the entire period of the war by these brave men in wood and canvas aeroplanes.
This one on the top left is taken about a month before the battle and you can see a little rectangle shaped wood. We knew we’d been looking for a wood. You can see this white line here, guess what that is? Light railway. And now you can see one month before the battle a little field in front of that wood is absolutely undisturbed and empty.
Now let’s go to nine days after the battle; the same wood, the same light railway and what has appeared? You can see one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight pits. Eight pits have appeared nine days after the battle with lots of foot traffic and earth being trodden down between the railway and the pits. And we started to get very excited when we saw that photo.
Now let’s go to the bottom left, five months after the battle, just before Christmas in 1916 you can the same wood, the same light railway and you can clearly see those eight pits, but one, two, three of them are still open. See the little black bits in the middle? They’re still empty but five of them have been backfilled and mounded up and we got very excited.
And you can see here just at the end of the war, the same spot with the three empty pits still there, but what has happened to those five pits that had been backfilled and mounded, they have virtually disappeared into the background of France. It’s a very fertile country, the grass has grown; we thought the earth had sunk down and it’s like they were never there. The French people returned to Fromelles after the war. They’d been evacuated during the war; they find these three empty pits and no trace of any other pits, they fill in the pits and get on with their lives and this area is forgotten.
When we found these photos we got very excited. Our group, there were four of us, took this evidence and the photographic evidence that you saw before, to the Australian army and we put our case forward. We thought they would be excited and engaged; they weren’t. They said, ‘What you’ve got here is some nice photos’ – I’m paraphrasing – ‘but there’s no chain of evidence. We can’t see bodies in any of these photos and the photos that have bodies we can’t guarantee that it’s the same place. Go away and find some real evidence.’
And we were gutted. We thought they would, didn’t take a giant leap of imagination to reach the same conclusion as us. We were gutted by that. So what we did was we went away, as they said, and we tried to find some, in inverted commas, ‘real evidence’. We also went to the media and 60 Minutes did a story about us, the ABC’s 7:30 Report did a story about us, a bloke called Patrick Lindsay wrote a bestselling book about us and people started writing letters to the government. The army was under immense pressure, but you know what, the army resists pressure for a living. They said no, they’ve got nothing. Not until they come up with some corroborating evidence will we act. And fair enough I suppose.
[Photograph of local man, Marcel, standing in long, lush green grass on the edge of a wood.]