The Lost Diggers of Fromelles
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Mat: Hello everyone. Welcome to Living History and to an episode that I have really been looking forward to bringing you for quite a while. My guest today is Mr. Lambis Englezos, and Lambis you would probably all know is famous for the work he did discovering the missing diggers of Fromelles. He joins me now in Melbourne. Lambis, thanks so much for coming on the show.
Lambis: Hello, Mat. Thank you.
Mat: I’m really looking forward to this, mate. We’ve spent over many years, we’ve discussed Fromelles and the importance of what went on there, and I’m talking of course for people who don’t know, about the mass grave that was discovered at Pheasant Wood with about 250 Australian bodies in it, who were killed during that action in Fromelles in July 1916. Take us back …how did you get involved, because you are not an academic historian, you are not an archeologist? How did you start getting an inkling that something was amiss at Fromelles?
Lambis: I’m a retired art teacher with an interest in history and military history, and through our association through the Friends of the 15th Brigade, I got to meet survivors of the Battle of Fromelles. The 19th of July men, as they were called, and that was just wonderful to share time with them, not just for the provenance that they could provide, but it was my great privilege to share their company and their companionship. So I had a long interest in military history, and with the Battle of Fromelles, and we came quite associated with…I knew the men, I asked the questions and the figures didn’t add up.
19th of July 1916 – the very first time Australians joined the battle on the Western front, one night’s battle, 5,533 casualties, 2,000 killed so it was a disastrous battle, and I just wanted to learn more about that particular battle having met the survivors of it, and as an association, we hold a commemorative service every year for the 15th Brigade, but also to commemorate the Battle of Fromelles.
So having done the research into that, I went there in 2000. All of this Fromelles momentum is due to author, historian and founder of the Friends of the 15th Brigade and friend, Robin Corfield. He has left us with a wonderful legacy through his research, his books and his friendship. He wrote the initial book on the Battle of Fromelles in 2000, Don’t forget me, Cobber, and he happened to choose a particular soldier to profile, Jack Bowden of the 59th Battalion and in the end, it was his father, the only one in all 1,332 missing from that one night’s battle that mentioned a place called Pheasant Wood.
Mat: Before we get into that, I want to talk a little bit more about the Battle itself, because there is something about Fromelles, isn’t there? This is an action that in the horrors of the 1st World War really stands out, as you say Australia’s first action. I’ve always found from the earliest days that I was researching the Western Front and walking the ground, there’s something special about Fromelles, isn’t there, so it’s fitting that that we had this great discovery of all these missing Australians at that site. You sound like you were always interested in the Battle of Fromelles long before you got into this research. What is it about that battle do you think?
Lambis: I hadn’t heard. It was a little-known battle. The first I heard of it was in Charlton’s Book of the Year. There was a couple of paragraphs so I tried to learn as much as I could about that particular battle, and as I said I met Tom Brain and other survivors and Bill Boyce, the wonderful Bill Boyce, but the first battle, an absolute disaster. Had we not attacked because the whole premise was to try and hold German troops in place there so they couldn’t go down to the Somme where a major battle had already begun, and where Australians were to attack at Pozieres on the 23rd of July, so had we not attacked it would have been a complete success because the Germans would have waited and waited for something to happen. So in that sense it was very hasty battle. Brigadier General Pompey Elliott, he tried his best to get the battle at least postponed because we weren’t ready. The Germans were there for a year and a half. we’d been there for one week. The battle was meant to happen on the 17th of July but because it rained they postponed the battle, but it was very badly planned, hasty and met with disastrous results and General Haking in charge of the battle, Butcher Haking as his own soldiers called him, was in charge of the battle. He dropped the battle lines so without a plan, hasty and futile, with absolutely disastrous results.
Mat: So you’re a member of the Association. You talked about Robin Corfield’s wonderful book “Don’t forget me, Cobber”, which is on the table in front of us and in fact I read as probably a 19-year old and was one of the things that got me most interested in this this passion for walking the battlefields. What was the journey then from reading that book? I think the important thing about that book as it lists all the casualties, doesn’t it in the book? So he’d done the research into one specific soldier. Where did that lead?
Lambis: Well he tried to get the book published and the publisher said you can lose some pages by getting rid of the honour roll at the back, so Robin just turned around and left. It’s all about the soldiers. we tell a soldier’s story and the honour roll in the back of his book lists the soldiers who were killed during that one night’s battle, and there are many, many stories to be told there, but for his book he chose Jack Bowden of the 59th Battalion to research, and in the end it was Jack Bowden’s father, the only one in all 1,332 Red Cross we wonder[ 5:36] missing files which I read through that mentioned the place called Pheasant Wood.
Mat: What did you think that meant when you saw it? So give us a little bit of context. We’ll talk about what actually happened. What did you think at that time? You’ve got Bowden’s file. You see a mention of a place called Pheasant Wood. What alarm bells rang in your head?
Lambis: Well, I went to Fromelles in 2002 and I went there with the question – where the unaccounted for, missing from the battle of Fromelles?
Mat: So that was your question from the start. There are guys missing here that we can’t account for.
Lambis: Yes, and there was that reference to a place called Pheasant Wood. none of us knew where or what a Pheasant Wood was, but when I got back, I sent away for aerial photographs of the ground behind the German line looking for anomalies in the ground, and a series of images began to emerge for us, pre- and post-battle, and we thought they were very strong and compelling because …
Mat: Tell us about those images what you saw in aerial photos, because this was crucial, wasn’t it?
Lambis: That was a critical part, yes
Mat: What did you see in the aerial photos?
Lambis: Well, we found a wood with a light rail cutting through it, because there was a photograph of bodies on a light rail, and before that wood, ten days before the battle no digging at all, then ten days after the battle, clear evidence of sustained earth work. The ground had been dug and…
Mat: So you could see that from the aerial photos?
Lambis: Oh yes, it was quite evident and the Germans didn’t care who saw it. Clearly they didn’t care. No attempt at all to camouflage it so we proposed that the ground before this particular wood Pheasant Wood was of interest. Now we had to apply a lot of political and press pressure because they said go away, your amateur schmucks! You don’t know what you’re talking about but I mean we couldn’t have missed a site that big after the war, but we persisted with it.
Mat: So your theory at this stage was that – which turned out to be true – was that the Germans after the battle the critical part was that the Australians had broken into the German lines. for people who don’t know the specifics of the Battle of Fromelles, the Australians had successfully broken into the German lines, but then been repulsed and so in that situation a lot of dead bodies remain behind in the German trenches. When the Germans reoccupied their trenches, they had a lot of enemy dead to deal with and these were the Australians and so they created burial pits to dispose of those Australians. So you had that theory from the earliest days?
Lambis: Because there were the missing and the unaccounted for missing, that is those who got into and beyond the German line were killed, gathered by them and buried somewhere behind their lines, so we went looking for aerial evidence of anomalies behind the line, and as I said those images began to emerge first before the wood which ended up being Pheasant Wood.
Mat: Well, I’ve seen those pictures and it’s quite clear, isn’t it? That there are clear half a dozen big pits that you had been dug, and as you said, no effort to camouflage them or hide them so they’re not going to be artillery positions or mortars or anything.
Lambis: Interesting you say that, because after we applied political and press pressure because they said, go away, eventually we were invited to Canberra to make our case to an expert panel of historians and military people, the gatekeepers, the owners of history and John Fielding, Ward Selby and I made our case to this expert and I know opinions varied but some of them said they were gun pits. We were completely wrong about this proposition and I think high officials were badly advised because we were told right through the process, there’s nothing here. All the missing are accounted for, but having been to Fromelles and seen and travelled to those cemeteries, there was that figure of unaccounted for, that is those that the Germans buried because what they did they took the ID discs off the bodies and anything not of any military value, cigarette cases, watches and the like. They bagged them and through the Red Cross they sent them back to Australia, which is a remarkable…
Mat: That’s incredible! thank God we were fighting… you know if this had to happen, thank God it was against the Germans who are just meticulous in their record-keeping, including of enemy dead. It’s unbelievable. We wouldn’t have done the same in return.
Lambis: There’s a certain irony in all of that because there are burials behind our lines and we buried them and we’ve lost them. the V6 and honor roll is a flawed document but I mean the process was that’s what they did. In the end that gave us the names of the soldiers that they had buried and in the case of Jack Bowden, the only one where that absolute chance serendipity
Mat: Just coming back to that point, you’re suggesting that the Germans did a better job of burying our dead than we did, that we didn’t keep as good records as we should have of casualties at Fromelles.
Lambis: There are many battles of Fromelles and that part of it is trying to get acknowledgement for those who were killed and buried. There are soldiers behind our line that we buried and we lost. Downie of the 29th, at the time he was buried in a grave with three other sergeants and they remain lost. Their names are on the honor roll. we buried them, but we lost them. captain our blaster did a soldier’s work that night and was badly wounded. Died of wounds. take him back to a German hospital and he now has a headstone into our cemetery so you know the Germans did take very good care of our soldiers. They had to clear their line for health reasons alone. Had to clear their line but they prepared the pits, buried the soldiers, documented their burials. In the end there were 196 documented German burials and Jack’s was the only one that said where they were.
Mat: What year was it that you presented your case to the panel?
Lambis: We made our case in 2005 to the expert panel. Opinions did vary. We went away to try and disprove our own case. We never, ever could. We went through the grave registration unit records, gave them the map reference for Pheasant Wood. Eventually got the reply there was a nil return for that site so we were trying to be as thorough as we possibly could, but everything suggested that that ground was a burial ground, nothing else and late in 2006, Dr Lothar Saupe in the Munich archives found a German document, the smoking gun document if you will, the pivotal document dated two days after the battle in which it said you will dig before Pheasant Wood for 400, so there was no more evasions. The ground had been used for burial purposes so our circumstantial case was getting stronger and stronger. 60 Minutes did a story on it in 2006, so people are starting to ask why don’t you go and dig?
Mat: Well this resistance I understand from an official perspective, there was resistance from it and that the reason for that is this policy that we, unlike the Americans for example, we don’t look for our war dead. If a farmer is ploughing his field in France and uncovers a grave and it’s got an Australian soldier in it, we will then do what we can but we don’t actively go out and look for war dead. Was that attitude impeding what you were trying to do at Fromelles?
Lambis: Well, there was a lot of active discouragement from high officials who denied the possibility there was a burial ground, but we persisted when we got that result. Bodies are found on the Western Front and then the role of Commonwealth War Graves is indeed a reactive one in as much as they will recover a body and bury it. they do excellent work but no, we were just an amateur group trying to push a proposition in the belief that you should look for and recover your war dead. It goes back to the original question, the moral dilemma. Do you do this sort of work? I believe you do, and it can’t be seen as a financial or logistical inconvenience. Pheasant wood was a precedent. We were always anxious about it but eventually they did go and engage Tony Pollard and his team to do a non-invasive investigation in 2007.
Mat: Well, part of that came directly from the 60 Minutes report, didn’t it? I saw Ray Martin last week. We were discussing… just talking about days gone by and I was discussing with him how what a turning point that was, and I knew you back then as well, because you did a very good job of telling anyone who had an interest in this what was going on. So I was keeping up with the story from you as well and I do recall that it was obstacle, obstacle, obstacle. 60 Minutes report on TV, and then the doors opened up. Was that how it worked from your perspective? Was that 60 Minutes report a pivotal moment?
Lambis: It was pivotal and the fact that questions were being asked in Parliament and so there was a growing momentum for something to happen at this particular site. You know Ray and his team, they went there and they walked the ground at Pheasant Wood in 2006, and it was put on the public agenda then because as I said, we had to fight a fair bit of active discouragement but we put forward that proposition. we believed strongly that that ground before Pheasant Wood was of interest, and with Ray’s story, questions were being asked more broadly and to the point where eventually after the Dr Lothar Saupe document, the von Braun document which dated two days after that said dig before Pheasant Wood, so there was growing evidence and that momentum led to the non-invasive investigation of 2007 by Tony Pollard from Glasgow University…
Mat: Because we should throw in here as well, just to talk a little bit about archaeological practices, the other question that came up in terms of the obstacles before this discovery was that even if they had been a burial pits there before, there’s no chance that Graves Units after the war would have missed them. you know they would have cleared the ground and taken them away and so even if the bodies were there for a period of a couple of years after the war, they would have been cleared in the 1920s and would now be in the cemeteries, and obviously from an archaeological perspective, it doesn’t take much to demonstrate that’s not the case because if you stick a shovel in the ground and when that ground comes up it’s full of bullets and remnants from fighting, that means the ground hasn’t been disturbed since the war. So tell me about the Tony Pollard investigation.
Lambis: He was engaged to use clever technology at the site and he was there and you mentioned the point about general scatter patterns. Part of what they did though, they used ground-penetrating radar and sophisticated metal detectors. They were allowed to dig to a shovel’s depth only. There were more than 700 items of military junk – bullets, shrapnel balls, shell casings and the like – but the general scatter pattern right across the front suggested that anything buried there was still there because the ground had not been disturbed, but they found two distinctly Australian items as well. One was a heart-shaped medallion with ANZAC written on it. The other one was a horseshoe medallion Shire of Albertan AIF, clearly two Australian items and the only way they could have got there on the bodies of dead Australians, because no Australian soldier had got that far that night or throughout the entire duration of the war. That ground had never ever been fought over and a member of that team of research and advocacy, Tim Midford, he’s the grandnephew of Harry Willis so it’s absolutely astounding that the thing came out of the ground and it belonged to Harry Willis, Tim’s great-uncle.
Mat: Incredible! Were you there for that dig when they first turned over the soil?
Lambis: I went over in 2007 to be there. Next year will be my 10th visit to Fromelles, dwindling the kids’ inheritance, but I was there in 2007 with Tony and the team.
Mat: How did that feel? How did it feel to be there when they said we’re actually gonna do something now, after all your years of lobbying?
Lambis: It was pretty remarkable to be there with them. They were very thorough with what they did. They weren’t allowed to dig deep, as I said to one shovel’s depth only but I helped out with the archaeology and Tony and his team, Peter Barton and others, Ian Banks. Wonderful, wonderful guys and they did excellent work using clever technology. It’s not romantic at all, archaeology. You could do a Hemi [16:57] doing archaeology. You know, the testing and moving the trapeze and different things and a lot of trays, a lot of sieves
Mat: You’re right. It’s very clinical work, isn’t it?
Lambis: Workers had magnetometers but they were very thorough with what they did. They didn’t tell me about the two items. They didn’t have to, of course but we found out about that later, but their investigation suggested that the ground was of interest. They did determine anomalies in the ground and those two items of course being Australian items suggested that the ground was indeed of particular interest than the Dr Lothar Saupe document that he found, from the Von Braun report stating dig before Pheasant Wood so our circumstantial case was getting extremely strong
Mat: So that document… that was the document the Germans had written at the time?
Mat: Giving instructions to their troops to bury bodies at Pheasant Wood?
Mat: That is the smoking gun, you’re right
Lambis: Separate them by nationality at the grass off which is the feature before Pheasant Wood. German from British from Australian. The Germans had dug 8 pits and they filled in five. three were found in the corner of Pit 6 but I mean ostensibly they dug for four hundred, filled in five and in the end they recovered two hundred and fifty soldiers, so very Teutonic.
Mat: What did the French think about all this, when you came there? I mean, I know the French have always been very good supporters of the Australian story at Fromelles. What did they think when you said we’re going to dig up the ground at Fromelles and have a look?
Lambis: No one knew about the proposition. Patrick Lindsey, another good friend, he found Madame and Monsieur Demassiet, the landowners at Pheasant Wood and he told them the possibilities to their ground was a burial site and they were sympathetic. Madame because she had lost a few uncles in the Great War, one of them was missing, so she allowed the work to proceed. They cannot proceed without official approval so we got to the point where it was a properly sanctioned non-invasive investigation. In the following year they came there to actually dig to confirm yes or no. Were they there? They was no indications that they had ever been recovered so we were very confident that they indeed were there, so with local permission they proceeded. Now you mentioned French officials. I don’t want to digress too quickly but I mean there’s a site in Bullecourt where the landowner wants the field recovered but the local officials will not allow him, and their reason is because there’s a strong possibility that they will find human remains. they found six British soldiers there in 2008 and it is pretty well known and concerned that there are many bodies in that field, but the local officials won’t allow it so I’m very hopeful that the precedent of Pheasant Wood will be tested, but I mean he must meet official approvals and the British Ministry of Defence will not allow investigations. You mentioned that point about bodies being found by digging a road putting in a feature and then Commonwealth War Graves reacting to that, but they will not initiate or endorse investigations where you can make a strong case. one of the really positive things now is that in Canberra, we now have a unit called the UWC-A, led by Andrew Bernie that will investigate if you can make that strong case, but I mean as I said we had that obligation I believe to find and recover our war dead.
Mat: So at Fromelles, we’ve done testings which demonstrate the ground hasn’t been disturbed. We found Australian items which strongly indicate that your research is correct in its assessment. What was the next process to actually go there, because I remember this time as well and again you and I talked a lot about this and I talked with a lot of my other historian mates, once they determined that there was probably a mass grave there, there was now this other argument that came up. I’ve got to say in all this, Lambis, this is a story of overcoming obstacles because at every step there was just another obstacle that came up and now if I can recall correctly, the discussion was okay well it seems fairly likely there’s bodies there. Now what do we do? Do we retrieve them? And there was an official position was, well no, let’s just stick a memorial up saying there’s Australians from the battle of Fromelles. Tell us about that phase of the whole process.
Lambis: The first step was to confirm whether or not it was a burial site, and the technology of 2007 suggested that it was, and we remained hopeful that they would go back and investigate the site. There was a report, the John Williams report which was at best erroneous and it nearly sank our proposition, but the clever technology and the items coming out of the ground led to the point where they reengaged Tony Polack to go back and actually confirm. I went over again and Tim was there as well for the confirming dig, one way or the other. Everything suggested that the ground had not been destroyed but…
Mat: What did they do during that confirming dig?
Lambis: Okay. What they did is they cleared the ground, which is used for adjustment by at least by another farmer who cuts the grass here twice a year for farm animals. They cleared it then they removed the topsoil, a metre of topsoil. they cut down the original level and they dug a spit or a test pit to go down deeper, and very late on the second night, Paulette Otara [22:05] , a top journalist with eh and she said, I reckon there found something. The press were there in great numbers, including 60 Minutes were there again. She said I reckon they’ve found something. A lot of hushed conversations in the corner of the compound. A lot of photographing taking place. No eye contact from the archaeological team at the site that night. The following morning, they called in the police as part of the process to confirm that what they have found is indeed archaeological, and the work can proceed.
Mat: That’s because they want to make sure it’s not a domestic murder, don’t they? If they find your body, they want to make sure it’s in there
Lambis: That’s the process. They call the police and the previous night, the first sign of human remains was an arm coming out of the clay minus its hand, so the site was intact. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious about all of this; however with the official announcement there is some quick relief that’s overtaken by hope. I hope that these soldiers will be recovered and given their dignity. The dignity of individual reburial and perhaps their identity because after all we knew at least 196 of them by name because the Germans told us who they’d buried there
Mat: And we had a precedent too, because if anyone listening has seen my documentary Lost in Flanders, it tells the story of five Australian bodies that were uncovered a couple years earlier at Donna Beck [23:18] in Belgium, and for the first time I’ll say a collective we use DNA testing to identify three of those five bodies so there was a precedent. I think in some official circles disappointingly there was a precedent for now using DNA testing to identify World War 1 remains. This was obviously on a scale that had never been considered before. Tell us about that tug of war between simply sticking up a memorial saying there’s a number of bodies from the Battle of Fromelles here, and the struggle to get them removed and reinterred.
Lambis: Once the ground had been determined, what they did effectively was to rebury them to await that political determination as to how they were gonna proceed. What were they gonna do? Put up a monument saying believed to be buried here the Australians of the 5th Division, British of the 61st Division killed on the 19th or the 20th of July, or will they recover the site? As I said, it goes back to the original question, the moral dilemma. Do you do this work? Yes, you do. If you had the chance to find and recover your war dead, you do it. there’s a lot of tokenism around commemoration and remembrance, so I believe if you can find your war dead, then you have got to do it, so there’s more work to be done in Fromelles and elsewhere for the British especially at Fromelles because we believe we might have found where the British are from the Battle of Fromelles, and also the Battle of Ivor’s Ridge, but they’ve declared that they will not investigate. That’s their process but now there’s a British lobby group. Hopefully they can do up there what we did down here, not out of rat bag or you disabilities [24:47] if you can find your war dead, you’ve got to do it.
Mat: As I recall this was one of the toughest points of the whole investigation was the argument about, because as you say it’s a moral and a philosophical argument, okay we’ve done the practical work. We’ve discovered that there are a number of Australian bodies, a large number of Australian bodies buried in this field.
Mat: Now it speaks to something much larger. What is our policy as a nation, from all sorts of aspects? Politically? Financially? Morally? What do we now do with them? I remember that was a tug of war that went on for a long time, and for a long time it appeared that they were going to lean towards just sticking up a memorial, didn’t it? I was quite surprised when I heard that they were actually going to exhume the bodies.
Lambis: Well, we’d been banned from the site. We were never ever there, Tim and I, to dig. We could have been helpful and useful but I mean very late into the dig, we were finally invited on-site for one viewing, and I can assure you it was very grim, but they were eminently recoverable, and if you don’t recover your war dead, it sends a really bad message to your current serving people. We had that obligation to find and recover our war dead. The Americans get it. They actively seek their war dead but now I was on a big dig with Pheasant Wood. We’ve had this wonderful result but eventually they did go back and Oxford archaeology was given the job of recovery. There are some of us who contend that all 250 that they recovered are Australian. Three were declared as British through kit; however, one was subsequently identified as Australian through DNA. Australian officers wore elements of British kit and a German document said dig for 400. They dug 8 pits, filled in 5, recovered 250 so there are 150 British missing somewhere nearby, and we think we might have found them. We have trench maps of the area which suggests that we might well have done so, and including those of the Battle of Ivor’s Ridge from the previous year from the 9th of May, but with Fromelles, the decision thankfully and mercifully was made to go back and recover. we knew these soldiers. We’ve seen their photographs. We’ve got their names in the back of Robin’s book. Their names are up on the VC Honour Roll up at the village of Breton War Memorial [27:10]. There was a clerical error for the 31st battalion boys who saw their names up there. 40 soldiers of the 31stBattalion killed on the 21st of July.
Mat: I didn’t realised that and obviously they were supposed to be at Fromelles
Lambis: Many, many, many Battles of Fromelles, so that they had a recent result in as much as logic has prevailed and I think they will take the 21st of July off the headstones. when we were there in 2010, Harry Willis had the 21st of July on his headstone, and 4 others, and the officials at the time made the decision to change it back to the 19th and the 20th thankfully, but they made the same mistake a couple of years later with Woodman, but now it has been determined and conceded that none were killed on the 21st. if you’re killed on the 21st of July while you are back in no man’s land doing the work of recovery
Mat: So just so I understand this point, so what you’re saying is that through a clerical error which occurred a lot during the Great War, all the names of the missing from Fromelles are recorded or supposed to be recorded at VC Corner Cemetery and the names of Australians killed in France in other battles throughout the war are recorded on the Veals [28:14] Breton Memorial and you’re saying there’s a group of 31stBattalion men recorded, I don’t know, who’d been killed at Fromelles, and also in addition listed as killed a day after the battle ended.
Mat: Okay, so the nature of record-keeping in the First World War
Lambis: Well, thankfully logic has prevailed and their headstones will be changed to the 20th at the new cemetery and also behind our lines they’re buried for the 21st of July on their headstones, so I think Commonwealth War Graves and UWC-A will alter that, get the right date.
Mat: You mentioned that you were present when they opened up one of the pits. Obviously without trying to sensationalize it, what was that experience like? What did you see, and how did that affect you emotionally after all the work you had done into these boys?
Lambis: It was a lunchtime and I was called on-site for the viewing and Tony Pollard said, shut down pit number 4. He didn’t want me to see pit 4 because it was particularly grim, I assume. Team got to see pit 4 and 5 later but they were skeletal remains contiguous as they had been placed. They were in pits one two and three. they had been laid down a layer of bodies, earth and lime, another layer of bodies, earth and lime, but by pits 4 and 5, they had to carry these bodies from the light rail to the furthest point of the diggings and by then they were being thrown in, but I felt like I knew these men. I had done the research and I had seen their photographs, read the letters from their mothers and fathers so I was okay with viewing those pits, but that can consolidate the fact that we had to recover this site you know some people said leave them alone. Leave them at rest at peace with their mates. No, they were never ever at peace. If we could do better, we had to do better.
Mat: Yeah, I think that’s a key point. if someone’s buried in a cemetery and a consecrated ground, a certain service is held, however brief it would have been during the First World War, that’s one thing but Aussies thrown into a pit on top of each other, covered in lime and then filled in without having being marked is not the respected burial that we would want for our war dead, is it?
Lambis: True enough and clearly and as I said, it sends a bad message to your current serving people. If you can find your war dead, you should do it.
Mat: So what was next? They agreed that they would recover the bodies and they agreed to DNA test them, which again was another big argument whether they would DNA test.
Lambis: So thankfully the decision was made to go back and actually recover the site, Oxford archaeology, but first on Tony Pollard and his team from God, Ian Banks, Tony and his team, they did remarkable work, not just an act of archaeology but there was a strong link with what they did, and Al McKinnon, the anthropologist. They did remarkable work, as did the Oxford team once they got the tender to do that recovery work. It gets very close and personal but they recovered the site, 250 soldiers from those pits and then the call had gone out right across Australia that families of soldiers lost at the Battle of Fromelles come forward, offer us your family tree, nominated DNA giver. We’ll try and match your soldier to the DNA
Mat: Yeah, because this is the important thing and I learned a lot about DNA during the whole Lost in Flanders process of making that documentary about the five bodies in Belgium is that DNA is pointless unless they have a living relative to match it to, isn’t it? That’s the case, isn’t it? People ask me this all the time. Last year they recovered a few bodies at Passchendaele and just buried them as unknowns without even …I’m sure they took DNA samples but they buried them without an identification and people ask why that is. We need strong documentary evidence to give us a good indication of who these people might be, don’t we, in order to then narrow down living family members and to match DNA. You can’t go and test everyone in Australia in the hope that you find a missing soldier
Lambis: It is a very clever technology and science and if the soldier had a brother, the mitochondrial line is very strong but you also need that the male line as well and our friend Royce Atkinson, he has a soldier to identify at Pheasant Wood, he and his team the formal [32:30] Association of Australia done excellent work finding DNA providers across Australia and around the world, but they need a mitochondrial link and I don’t know enough about the science of it all
Mat: Yeah, what we discovered during Lost in Flanders is the strongest DNA you can take is the one through the female line and that gets very difficult trying to match to modern times, because in Western society when women marry they take on their husband’s name so that the name becomes very male-dominated, so it’s very difficult to trace through the female line of a family, especially when you’re going back several generations so that was always the complication that we found as well in Flanders was that the I can’t remember the male DNA is called it’s easier to trace but harder to get
Lambis: Harder to get
Mat: Harder to get, that’s right if it’s the female line, and so you need to find someone whose great aunt remembered that they had someone missing in Fromelles, etcetera, so I think it was a great work that was done to do this at Fromelles, wasn’t it.
Lambis: If the soldier had a sister who had a daughter, who had a daughter, who had a daughter, they carry the mitochondrial line but after the first generation the Y drops away I think, so the timing was such that there were people still alive who carried the potential DNA to make that match but with the recoveries, they found remarkable artefacts in those pits, many poignant finds. In the waterproof section of a gas mask a train ticket return second-class Freemantle to Perth, clearly placed nearby that soldier as a good luck charm or talisman, a reminder of home
Mat: So was that a return ticket?
Mat: Obviously the second part of that ticket was never used
Lambis: A medallion in the shape of a boomerang with return to me written on it. Three soldiers with their disks still on. Bibles with underlined sections through them. A soldier had engraved his surname into his dental plate, so they’re identifying soldiers using your variety of methods. A watch with a name on it so they’re identifying soldiers to the point where at the dedication of the new cemetery on July 19th, 2010, 96 Australian soldiers had been identified at that stage. That figure is now 166, so identifying one is wonderful, but 166 is sensational.
Mat: It’s incredible! One hundred sixty-six of two hundred is remarkable. Well that’s the thing now is that they decided that they would for the first time since the 1950s, they would build a brand-new Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery called the Cemetery at Pheasant Wood and they would reinter those bodies there. I was there. I was fortunate to be there in 2010. That was a special day. It was hot.
Lambis: Bloody hot all day. It was remarkably hot.
Mat: What did that mean for you, Lambis? I mean I know these are probably inane questions to say what did it mean for you, but after all of this work, a decade or more work to stand in the new cemetery and see two hundred and fifty headstones of which nearly half had been identified, just how did you feel that day?
Lambis: It was wonderful to be there but I stress from the outset that it was a team effort that got us there. Research and advocacy by a lot of people but to be there I was there with my daughter and Suzanne my wife and to be there for that particular service, to see the headstones, to see the service. Maybe I’m a bit dim but I mean maybe the magnitude of all this hasn’t sunk in. I don’t know, but I mean to be there was remarkable, and for me the culmination in the eight-year process to that point was when the families got to go in to greet their soldiers. Tim photographed with Harry Willis, and also the Governor-General was there, and she got to greet the families and I’ve met families and I think some of it sinks in when you meet the families because some have sneered at the term closure. I think it’s very important. some have suggested, among them from the expert panel, that it’s sufficient to have a name carved in stone, cast in bronze, painted on to a board, that this process has been a waste of time and money. I don’t see it like that nor do the families of those, but there’s a collective ownership of that ground. You’ve been in there. You’ve walked it many times. There is that collective ownership. It is now blessed and consecrated ground, and I think it’s important that we continue this work and the wonderful village of Fromelles, they have a custodial role. we have many friends in Fromelles and they will love and care for the soldiers of Pheasant Wood and our very good friend P.S. Elliere has instigated a program where the schoolchildren called the Cobbers have adopted a headstone so they will tend the grave. they’ve struck up a dialogue with the family’s permission, with the families back in Australia so they’ve taken away the anonymity for those who haven’t been identified, they now have this ongoing process, so commemoration and remembrance is assured and in youthful hands in Fromelles, and there will be visitation and it will be ongoing and this work will be ongoing.
Mat: It’s Fromelles now. there’s always been a very strong link with Australia but Fromelles now, thanks to this work, is now absolutely iconic and when I talk to people in general about visiting the Western Front, the two things they generally say are I want to go to the spot where Monash won the war – and that would be a subject for a separate podcast, the validity of that statement – and I want to go to Fromelles where the soldiers were discovered, and you were instrumental in that role. I mean how do you feel? You were awarded with an Order of Australia and a lot of Australian people are incredibly grateful for the work that you did. How do you carry that burden of gratitude of the nation?
Lambis: As I said from the outset, this Fromelles momentum is due to Robin Corfield, who began this. He planted that flag in his book, the Bowden flag. I picked it up and with good help, we carried that flag forward. It’s been a remarkable and a wonderful result. It is ongoing research and advocacy in Fromelles and elsewhere, but I mean I was awarded the I M in 2009. That’s a personal recognition but and I only wear once a year on the 19th of July at our Fromelles services down at the shrine there, but it’s been a remarkable journey, and as I said, I may be too dim to be sensitive about all of this, but you know we persisted. We had a proposition. We persisted with the proposition in the face of a lot of active discouragement, and pursued it to the result that we have now, and it’s been a wonderful result and families do have point of visitation, but as I said, it’s not blood-specific. People will make a pilgrimage to Fromelles and elsewhere. With the passing of the Centenary, I don’t see it diminishing in any way. People will continue their visits and their pilgrimages to the Western Front, France, Belgium, to Gallipoli and that’s an open invitation. I’ve done a lot of work in schools and there’s an open invitation to Commemoration and Remembrance and it will be assured.
In this specific work of finding the missing, the UAW-C has a mandate now to listen to a case if we make a strong enough case, we’ll go and look. Hopefully our British friends will come around to it and our French local officials won’t be obstinate to the point where they won’t allow investigation, but there’s a whole lot more work to be done, especially at Bullecourt. Of all the places I’ve been to in France, I don’t know about you but it’s the ground that fills me with the most dread. First Battle of Bullecourt, second Bullecourt – there are many, many bodies there and we believe we’ve located anomalies and UWC-A are considering that work, as they are our work at Krithia. I am more confident about the Krithia ground that I was for the Pheasant Wood
Mat: So Krithia is the battle from May 1915 in Gallipoli? Really the unknown ANZAC Battle of Gallipoli down in the Heller sector
Lambis: Yeah, we were only there for that one night and again, an absolute disaster. 243 missing, but research, documentation, geography and logic indicate the ground before and behind Tommy’s Trench near the creek and there are burials there, Australian burials but many British Indian as well, French…
Mat: We should make this point. you mentioned the word logic and we should understand that this was common practice during the First World War that in a very specific set of circumstances, if you had an enemy attacking a trench system – in this case the enemy was the “Australians” from the German perspective – if you had enemy troops occupying a trench system and then being repulsed, or dying in large numbers in ground that was then not held by them during that attack, once the opposition came back in, they would have to do something with the bodies and the standard thing they would do is take great care with their own burials, and we did it as well. If you had a lot of Germans to bury, dig a big hole and throw them in.
So although it’s unique, Fromelles in terms of the outcome, it was a fairly standard practice and we can now as you say, there’s battles you’ve mentioned Bullecourt, Krithia, if we go back to any large Australian action where they advanced a long way, got into the enemy lines, tussled hand-to-hand with the Germans and were then repulsed at that point, it’s highly likely there would have been mass burials of the bodies at that point, and so that’s what you’re finding with Bullecourt and Krithia?
Mat: You believe you’ve got more mass graves?
Lambis: Yeah in Bullecourt especially, and with the Battle of Krithia, in the nights after the battle we went out and brought our own back and we buried them and again no record of recovery from this particular site, so very confident about the Krithia ground and hopeful that our Turkish friends will allow an investigation, but we’ll see about that
Mat: How has the official response been this time around? Are they like oh, not bloody Lambis again? Have we done enough?
Lambis: We persist. We persist and as I said, we are very hopeful now with this new group, the UCW-A that they will investigate particular sites and propositions and hopefully as I said the precedent of Pheasant Wood will be tested as I believe it should. A false economy around commemoration and remembrance, and if we had the chance to find our war dead, we should do it.
Mat: What does this all mean? What was the significance of Pheasant Wood? I mean removing bones and putting them in a new spot a few hundred meters down the road, that’s the minor part of it. What does it mean for you and why was it important that we did this?
Lambis: Well as I said, I believe we had that moral obligation to find and recover our war dead. We have to do it because if they can be found, they need to be recovered and as I said, our American friends, they do it actively and if you find your war dead, you should recover them. It can’t be, as I said, that logistical inconvenience, financial inconvenience and if you don’t, it sends a bad message to your current serving people. You find your war dead but as I said, with Fromelles, with Pheasant Wood we’ve had this wonderful result and I’m hopeful. There’s a group of people out there, family members. I get contacted regularly by people who want to know if there’s any chance for their particular soldier and we have ongoing work with that, and we believe we have found more soldiers scattered across the Western Front and UWC-A are considering. We might have a very strong result out of Villiers-Bretonneau. In September, we believe we’ve found some soldiers in Villiers-Bretonneau and in other places so we remain hopeful that this precedent will be tested. You find and you recover your war dead.
Mat: You brought with you today a statuette, quite a moving statuette
Lambis: It’s remarkable. As I said my good friend Tim Whitford, it’s very heavy. Careful! I mean it is very heavy.
Mat: It certainly is. Just to describe it, I’ll put the photo up on the Facebook page, but it’s an older lady. Is that a photograph she’s clutching?
Lambis: She’s clutching a photograph of her soldier son
Mat: She’s in a long winter coat. It’s all about mourning and it says a lot about grief and sadness and loss. Tell us about this statue.
Lambis: Tim Whitford, he found a letter in the National Archives written by Mrs. Alice Dooley and Peter Corlett, the sculptor with Cobbers has made the statue of the grieving mother. it is Fromelles-generated, Fromelles-specific but at once it is an image which is centuries and millennia old, the grieving mother and Gary Snowden and his team in Ballarat, they have found a home for the statue and she’s very close to the Arch of Victory before the 22- kilometre long Avenue of Honour. So as I said, people will visit the grieving mother, lay flowers at her feet ANZAC Day, Remembrance Day, and Mother’s Day. It’s a wonderful statue. Mrs. Dooley, she passed away in 1922, never knowing what happened to her son. He was on the working list of 196 to be buried at Pheasant Wood, and she passed away in 1922 on the 19th of July, the anniversary of the battle. Many, many strange coincidences and links in this entire process, but she never knew what happened to her son but…
Mat: Was he one of the ones identified?
Lambis: Five years ago, they found DNA for him out by Queensland somewhere, I believe and now Gordon has a marked headstone.
Lambis: So it’s a remarkable letter and through that process, we now have this remarkable statue and we thank Ballarat for giving her a home.
Mat: It reminds me of the statue I saw in Geraldton in Western Australia at the Sydney Memorial, which shows a mother looking out to sea in the direction of the lost ship, and I think for me these are some of the most evocative statues that we do. it takes courage to make images like this because the image of the brave warrior that we typically see on war memorials is what’s expected. It’s not difficult to cast your heroes in bronze, but this idea of confronting the grief of the family members that was left behind. I think it’s probably a more modern thing. You don’t see too many of those at the time of the war. Perhaps the exception might be things like the Vimy Ridge Memorial, the Canadian Memorial has a lot of grieving images on it but I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s an important element of commemoration that we talk about the aftermath of these matters and that’s what this statute does wonderfully.
Lambis: I think so. It’s a remarkable statue. There was the Sydney mother, the Fromelles mother who every night for the rest of her life would walk up the hill to the top of the street to watch and wait for her Fromelles son to come home. Plates set at the table, the dinner table, lamps being lit in windows to guide their son home, the sons that would never come home, but as I said it’s very important and not enough is discussed about their coming home. Maybe we’re too stoic with all of that because we’ve learned that there are more than 10,000 Australian soldiers in unmarked graves across the country. Those damaged men, the men who came back from the war, who brought the war back with them. Went into Mont Park, Callan Park for five months, five years, died in there, and were buried in pauper graves, unmarked. Now with a properly sanctioned paper chase, maybe we can find these soldiers and restore their dignity, so there’s ongoing work.
Down in Tasmania there’s a group called the Headstone Project which is now going national and Andrea Gerrard and her team have done excellent work at Cornelian Bay. They found more than 300 unmarked graves but they now all have a headstone. A remarkable template, a remarkable process but maybe we can find our soldiers and restore their dignity and their identity.
Mat: Lambis, it is wonderful work. I think everyone listening to this would just agree wholeheartedly that it’s incredible the work that you’ve done and that lots of people are doing and I agree with you. I think we owe it to these men to look for them if they’re missing and you said the word tokenism. I think I think we owe them more than simply turning up one day a year on Anzac Day and waving the flag I think we do owe it to them and the work you’ve done here is absolutely remarkable and I feel very honoured that I’ve been able to follow it over the years because it’s just a wonderful example of passion and humanity and empathy playing out on the ground of the First World War, so it’s been wonderful. Thank you for coming and discussing it with us and I’m sure we all look forward to the next chapter of the Lambis Englezos story
Lambis: Thank you Matt and as I said from the outset, a good team effort with a wonderful result and perhaps the precedent will be tested elsewhere and it should. Thank you Mat.