The small French village of Vignacourt is north of Paris, near Amiens. During WW1, this village was behind the front lines, a short march from the frontlines against the German army. It soon became a casualty clearing station/recreation area for passing war traffic. Allied troops moved up to, and then back from the battlefields on the Somme, via Vignacourt.
In 1916 farmer Louis Thuillier had returned to Vignacourt after two years of military service in the French army when Australian soldiers began arriving in the town. The Australian forces were pouring into the Western Front from the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in Gallipoli. Thuillier and his wife Antoinette were an enterprising and caring couple who saw an opportunity to make some income for themselves; they offered passing soldiers photographs of themselves. They depicted British and British Empire soldiers and French civilians, particularly Australians.
Taken by Louis and Antoinette Thuillier
Photo credit: The Lost Diggers, Channel 7
Captured on 4,000 glass-plate negatives, printed into postcards and posted home, the photographs made by the Thuilliers enabled Australian soldiers to maintain a link with their families at home. The Louis and Antoinette Thuillier collection covered many of the significant aspects of Australian involvement on the Western Front, from military life to the bonds formed between the soldiers and civilians.
The photographers' notes suggest that many of the photos were taken of Australian soldiers, from the 1st and 5th Division, in late 1916. Thus the boys had recently survived the carnage of battles at Pozieres and Fromelles. At Pozieres alone, in just four days, 5,285 Australian soldiers were killed or wounded.
If people DID know about the photographic collection during the 1914-18 war, they forgot about it after the armistice. Only one person mentioned the photos in the decades since 1919; a French amateur historian, Laurent Mirouze, had seen part of the collection over twenty years ago. Apparently his attempts to see the plates preserved and protected two decades ago were ignored by the British and Australian authorities in France.
Anyhow this amazing war record was recently found by a Sunday Night team in France. After following up rumours of a secret stash, the team found 3,000+ fragile photographic glass plate negatives in the attic of a dilapidated Vignacourt farmhouse that had once belonged to the Thuillers.
The Australian War Memorial in Canberra was fortunate enough to be given 74 of the original glass-plate negatives; these in turn were made into hand-printed photographs in Canberra. The resulting exhibition is called Remember Me: The Lost Diggers of Vignacourt. They are candid, informal portraits of allied soldiers enjoying time in the village, young men who had recently survived the carnage of battles on the Somme and Flanders. The soldiers were often billeted with local families and some of the pictures show local children and French teenage girls posing with the diggers. I am assuming the photos were informal and a bit larrikin because Australian soldiers at rest don't feel comfortable in formally posed military positions.
The curator noted “Nearly two-thirds of the young men who came through Vignacourt would have gone on to be killed or wounded. The losses were appalling. In all likelihood these images are the last photographs taken of many of these young men before they died. They are a character study of men under stress and in relaxation but men who are experiencing the war and coming back to areas where they can let off steam a little bit. They know they’ve got to back up the line”.
Diggers with their host family
Photo credit: Sunday Night
The Channel 7 show, The Lost Diggers, secured some of the plates from a Thuillier relative. When she heard of the great interest in the history of the plates, she donated them to Australia. Gratitude to the Australians in this part of France is apparently still very strong.
The remainder of the Thuillier collection is still in those chests in France, covered with dust and in serious danger of deterioration. I could not have written about The Lost Diggers, without Channel 7’s Sunday Night programme.
The Remember Me: The Lost Diggers of Vignacourt exhibition will end at the Australian War Memorial Canberra on the 31st July 2013.