Dignity for Diggers

The John Laffin Memorial Lecture, held annually on or near the anniversary of the Battle of Hamel – 4 July 1918, is being held today at Ashfield RSL, Sydney.

This year the lecture will focus on the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Mount St Quentin and the recent archeological excavations for the missing diggers from the Battle of Fromelles.

One of those participating in the presentation will be Families and Friends of The First AIF member Tim Whitford , who has recently returned from Fromelles, and has contributed the following article published in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald.

Give the Fromelles diggers their dignity

I am the great nephew of Private Harry Willis. I grew up with stories about him. He was a good-looking boy, under-aged when he enlisted. He was killed in his first battle, disappearing forever. Well, not forever.

Photo: Private Harry Willis [Tim Whitford]

Now we know where Harry is. Thanks to the amazing detective work of an amateur historian from Melbourne, and a whole lot of dedication from historians, soldiers, archaeologists, defence civilians and politicians, a dig has confirmed Harry is buried in one of eight unmarked pits in the shadow of Pheasant Wood at Fromelles.

Photo: Pheasant Wood ‘Dig’, May 2008.

Harry has been there ever since the Germans tossed in his body and covered it with clay after he was killed in battle in July 1916. His mother never knew that, nor did his brothers or sisters, nor his nephews or nieces down through the generations. He has never been forgotten. But there’s a big chance that Harry might remain anonymous and missing, through a lack of imagination and uninformed sentiment.

There are those who have called for the Fromelles diggers to be “left in peace with their mates”. All I can say to those who are calling for anything less than a complete exhumation, processing and reburial on-site is that, if they had seen what I saw during the dig, I know they would change their minds.

Let me illustrate it for you. It’s not a pretty picture. In pit numbers one, two and three, the soldiers have been laid out in rows, similar to sardines in a can. There appear to be multiple layers of our men in each of these pits and they might have been buried with some care.

Photo: Germans burying allied soldiers in pit. (Vimy 1917)


Now let’s go to pits four and five. Our men have been thrown in like yesterday’s rubbish. There’s a digger slumped in a sitting position with his handless arms raised above his head. Another is in a semi-foetal position with a man tossed over his chest. One man has the remnants of the telephone wire the German troops used to drag him into the pit still wrapped around his limbs. Another still wears the tourniquet some friend attached in a vain attempt to save his life. In pits four and five there are no neat rows, no order, and no dignity in death for the diggers. They are a sight of abject horror and it would be nothing less than a travesty to leave these fine men like that.

Many of the injuries sustained by these men are distinct and will, in many cases, have been recorded in the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau files by their friends. This information can be of great assistance in identification. Without professing to be a qualified archaeologist or forensic scientist, I can confidently say that the remains are in excellent condition. Each man is readily discernible having been locked in place by the glutinous and oxygen-free blue Flanders clay. Each set of remains is frozen in the final pose in which the man was thrown into the pit and tells its own very moving story.

Copious amounts of chloride of lime is evident in all the pits. After speaking with members of the archaeological team at the site, I was informed that many of the preconceptions about lime being destructive to human tissue and bone are totally false and, in fact, in some cases lime may assist preservation.

The German troops who buried our boys at Pheasant Wood recorded their names and sent their identity discs back to the families in Australia through the Red Cross. They may have thrown many of our lads in holes like rotting silage but they had the decency to tell us they had done it and whom they’d done it to. I don’t blame them. They had an abhorrent job to do. Many of the diggers had been in the sun for days and were well on the way to putrefaction. I was a soldier once and couldn’t think of a more unpleasant job, especially considering that they also had to care for their own dead and wounded.

Photo: German ‘death voucher’

As a result of the Bavarian regiment’s very efficient paperwork, we know who these men are. These men aren’t in a sunken ship kilometres below the ocean surface impossible to get to; they are just a metre under the ground in a friendly country. They are close enough to reach out and touch.

Leaving these men in this horrific way is just plain wrong. I understand the wonderful sentiment of some descendants and the national executive of the RSL to say “leave these men with their mates in peace” but it’s uninformed sentiment. There is no peace and certainly no dignity in leaving heroes the way they’ve been discarded. The last person to handle the Fromelles diggers shouldn’t be a German if we have the ability for it to be an Australian.

By simply covering them and placing a memorial on the site, we will deny our diggers any chance of regaining their identity and individuality. We may not be able to give all of them their names back but we can bloody well try. I agree wholeheartedly that they should remain at Pheasant Wood in the long term. It’s a beautiful location, inexorably linked to them, and they will be in the care of a village that knows their sacrifice and loves them.

They should finish their journey with their mates who fought and died with them, but they should not remain there without being granted the basic right of an attempt at individual identification, a soldier’s funeral, and an individual grave. Every other Australian soldier found since the end of World War I has been afforded these basics, why change now? Is it because more years have elapsed? Is it the money? I’d hate to think our war dead were inconvenient.

Photo: 31st Battalion Headstones at Rue Petillon Cemetery with Alexandra and Elizabeth Whitford [Tim Whitford]

FFFAIF Policy Statement

The Families and Friends of the First AIF believes that the Australian Government through the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs should commit the to re-burial of the “missing of Fromelles” with individual graves and headstones in a new Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Pheasant Wood after DNA testing.



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