Our Gift to The Empire

The John Laffin Memorial Lecture, held on Sunday 13th July 2008, was presented to a packed audience of nearly seventy people by FFFAIF foundation member Ross St.Claire, author of Our Gift to the Empire: 54th Australian Infantry Battalion 1916-1919. Ross, who spent more than 10 years researching the 54th Battalion’s history, contrasted aspects of the Battle of Fromelles of July 1916, with its disastrous outcome, with the factors that contributed to the victories in the Battles of Mont St Quentin and Peronne in September 1918, before answering questions on the battles.

Photo: Our Gift to The Empire

If you are interested in obtaining a copy of Our Gift to the Empire: 54th Australian Infantry Battalion 1916-1919 contact Ross at indelec@bigpond.net.au

Following the annual John Laffin Memorial Lecture,  FFFAIF member Chris Bryett, and founder of Recovering Australian Overseas Missing (R.O.A.M), gave an insight into how assembling a team of eminent mass grave and battlefield archaeologists and specialists, with financial backing, contributed to the momentum for the Army to engage the Glasgow University Archaeological Research Department (GUARD) to investigate the Pheasant Wood site in 2007.  Chris also outlined the logic of the presentation that Lambis Englezos made to the Panel of Investigation established by the Department of Defence in 2005 and highlighted the procedures, protocols, permissions and frustrations involved in campaigning for an investigation of the site.  Chris was supported by mass grave expert and archaeologist Professor Richard Wright and with input from forensic biologist Allison Sears answered a series of questions relating to forensic test using DNA profiling and Strontium ratios.

Guest speaker, Lambis Englezos, supported by FFFAIF member Tim Whitford and John Fielding, provided a first hand insight into the recent archaeological excavation at Pheasant Wood that has confirmed the location of five large burial pits dug by the German Army after the Battle of Fromelles, 19th July 1916.

Lambis outlined the orders from the German Army to clear their trenches of the dead from the battle and to remove their identity tags. The Germans Army kept meticulous records – recording the names of those they buried and returning this information and their identity tags through the Red Cross to the Australian families.

Lambis outlined how his dedicated team of supporters including John Fielding, Ward Selby and Tim Whitford collated the names of the diggers buried at Pheasant Wood from World War 1 documents.  The Fromelles Descendant Database lists 175 soldiers as missing from the 5th Division of the AIF, believed to be amongst those buried at Fromelles, along with the remains of about a further 230 British soldiers.

Lambis emphasised that they may be missing but they are not unknown. Names such as Private Ross, Corporal Murray, Lance Corporal Bennett, Sergeant Hill, C.Q. Sergeant Ralston, Lieutenant Burns … the list continues ,…. a full list of the names can be seen on internet at Fromelles Descendants.

Tim Whitford and Lambis told the audience of their feelings on seeing the soldiers’ remains and how this has shaped their views as to what should happen next. Tim elaborated on the graphic descriptions that were included in the contributed article in the Sydney Morning Herald and featured in the RECENT NEWS item Dignity for Diggers.

Tim and Lambis indicated that all of those involved in the archaeological dig, while being highly professional,  were deeply moved by the nature of remains, and an number of distinguished visitors to the site were also very moved by the experience.

Photo: Mrs Janet Howard, Patrick Lindsay and John Howard, Pheasant Wood, June 2008.

One of those who visited the site of the arecheaological dig and were permitted to view the pits was former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard and his wife Janet.  Mr Howard had previously indicated his view in regard to the possible existence of war graves containing the remains of Australian soldiers killed in France during the Battle of Fromelles, when as Prime Minister, in September 2003 he wrote to the Premier of New South Wales, Mr Bob Carr, advising that “I strongly agree, that if the reports can be substantiated and a mass grave containing the remains of Australians does exist, every effort must be made to identify and appropriately honour these soldiers.”

Photo: Major-General Mike O’Brien accompanied Mr & Mrs Howard to view the pits uncovered during the excavation at Pheasant Wood.

Mr Howard had been invited to attend the John Laffin Memorial Lecture but was unable to attend and sent his apologies in the following letter to FFFAIF President, Russell Curley, that was read to the audience:

Dear Mr Curley,
Thank you for your kind invitation to attend the John Laffin Memorial Lecture Day. Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend but I do want to send my good wishes for a successful function.

I note that Lambis Englezos, that wonderful man, who worked so hard to discover “the missing diggers” and who I had the privilege of meeting at Pheasant Wood recently, will address the meeting. Please convey my warm regards to him.

Lambis is an admirable Australian. His persistence has produced a most remarkable discovery. I can testify to that. It was a very moving experience to view, what my wife and I did, on our visit to Fromelles a few weeks ago. ………………………………………

I admire what you have done as a group to keep alive our recognition of the amazing contribution Australia’s 350,000 odd volunteers made to the Great War.

Warm regards.
Yours sincerely
John Howard

Between presentation sessions, Families and Friends of the First AIF President Russell Curley made the following joint media release with Recovering Overseas Australia’s Missing Inc (ROAM – Chris Bryett, President [FFFAIF member]) statement during the media conference held at the Memorial outside the Ashfield RSL.  Accompanying Russell and Chris were:   Neville Kidd (author of An impression that will never fade, the biography of Major Roy Harrison, Ross St.Claire, Professor Richard Wright (mass graves archaeologist), Lambis Englezos, John Fielding and Tim Whitford.

1. Allowing the fallen of the Battle of Fromelles to rest with dignity:
We believe that every Australian soldier who gives his or her life for our country deserves every possible chance to be identified before receiving a decent and honourable burial by Australians in an individual grave beneath an individual headstone in a cemetery.
We will campaign for and support any and all efforts to have the diggers at Pheasant Wood exhumed, separated, identified and reburied individually with an individual headstone bearing his name or as an Australian Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God.
What we as a Nation did for the Zonnebeke diggers last year must be done for these 50 or so diggers exposed by the recent excavation at Fromelles.

2. Inscription of ‘Fromelles’ on national and state memorials:
We believe that appropriate and prominent recognition must be given to ‘Fromelles’ on or at the national and state memorials in Australia. Fromelles deserves primacy on any list of world war one western front battles.
We will campaign for and support any and all efforts to have the sacrifices of those brave young diggers who fought at Fromelles, properly and permanently recognised on the nation’s primary memorials.
“Fromelles” appears on our memorials in France and England. The sacrifices of so many gallant young Australians should not be discounted and ignored here any longer!

The debt we owe them is not diminished by the passage of time.
Lest we forget.

Read the report in The Australian by clicking here

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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