The Lost Diggers
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During the First World War, thousands of Aussie diggers and other Allied troops passed through the French town of Vignacourt, two hours north of Paris. Many had their photographs taken by Louis and Antoinette Thuillier as souvenirs while they enjoyed a brief respite from the carnage of the Western Front. For all too many, this was their last moment away from the lines before being sent to their deaths in battles that are now part of the mythology of Australian nationhood - Pozieres, Bullecourt, the Somme. The weariness and horror of battle is reflected in their eyes, but the photos also capture a sense of camaraderie, high spirits and even a soupcon of romance.
The Lost Diggers is the riveting detective story of the hunt across northern France for a rumoured treasure trove of antique glass photographic plates that led investigative journalist Ross Coulthart to an ancient metal chest in a dusty attic in a small farmhouse. The nearly 4000 glass plates he and his team from Channel 7's Sunday Night discovered are being hailed by experts as one of the most important First World War discoveries ever made. But that was just the beginning. With meticulous research and the help of descendants, Ross Coulthart has been able to discover the stories behind many of the photos, of which more than 330 appear in the book. Part thriller, part family history and part national archive, The Lost Diggers brings together these wonderful images and the amazing stories behind them.
- First World War
- Publication Date:
- HARPERCOLLINS PUBLISHERS (AUSTRALIA) PTY LTD
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The Lost Diggers - Ross Coulthart
21/11/2012A beautifully presented Memorial to those Diggers who may or may not have returned from the "Great War".
The Lost Diggers - Ross Coulthart
Ross Coulthart tells us about his amazing journey to discover the lost diggers.
Tell us about The Lost Diggers. They’re a collection of extraordinarily high-quality images off near century-old glass photographic plates we discovered in a French farmhouse early last year. They feature often quite intimate and informal images of young Australian diggers (and other allied soldiers) enjoying a moment of rest and recreation in the small village of Vignacourt just behind the World War One frontlines. Back then, a local farmer – Louis Thuillier – and his wife Antoinette decided to make a bit of money by selling photographs to the thousands of allied soldiers passing through their little town, which had been designated a rest village for troops fresh in from the frontlines. Soldiers were given a print off the plate but the glass plates were dumped in an attic after Louis and his wife Antoinette died, and they were forgotten about. Unlike a lot of contemporary images from that period, these pictures are very relaxed – often the lads have a girl on their lap and a bottle of wine in their hands. These were fun pictures to be sent home to family or shown to mates in the trenches….a bit of light relief from the horrors of the frontlines.
How did you first hear that there was rumored to be a treasure trove of photographic plates in an old house in France? It was a healthy journalistic hunch which led us to these images. We knew there were individual plates from other photographers ending up on the web on sites like Ebay and our interest was strongly piqued when we saw a couple of Aussie faces in pictures the London UK Independent newspaper ran in 2010. They weren’t from this Thuillier collection but we figured it was worth the time and effort to ask whether there were more out there. Initial inquiries through historians and local museums came to naught but then we heard about a bloke called Laurent Mirouze, a French amateur historian and furniture dealer. It turned out he had seen a large number of the Thuillier plates about twenty years earlier when some were displayed by the Vignacourt local council. Unfortunately, the Thuillier relative who showed him the images had passed away since so our initial efforts to find surviving family members were dashed.
Tell us about the search for these plates. We hired Laurent Mirouze, our historian chum, to travel to the Somme Valley to make inquiries about the remaining descendants of Louis and Antoinette Thuillier. When he had a few leads we then came over from Australia to join him on the hunt. Unfortunately, most of the family had left Vignacourt – or so it seemed. We spent quite a few weeks knocking on doors getting nowhere and then we heard about Madame Crognier, the widow of Robert Crognier. Robert, who had died a few years earlier, was a Thuillier descendant and he was the local photographer who had shown Laurent the images over twenty years previously. Madame Crognier was initially suspicious of our motives but when she realised that we were passionate about preserving the collection and in ensuring her husband’s role in honouring it was acknowledged, she admitted she had a few of the old glass plates sitting in her attic. Better still, she also revealed she knew the surviving Thuillier relatives and she believed they knew where the plates were hidden. The Thuillier relatives were a bit suspicious also of us because they feared that it might mean the plates were confiscated from them without compensation. But eventually we negotiated to meet Christian Thuillier, a local lawyer, and he agreed to meet us at an old farmhouse in Vignacourt. It was only there and then that he admitted the plates were still in the upstairs attic, where they’d been left by Antoinette after her husband’s death in the 1930s.
Describe what you found in that attic. It still makes my spine tingle talking about it – we climbed these rickety old stairs, pushing aside old jerry cans from World War Two and old prams. The attic was full of cycling and motorcycle magazines because Louis was a cycling nut. When we cleared those away, there was a big chest sitting under a skylight window with other chests. We lifted the lid and there they were – thousands of glass photographic plates which had miraculously survived nearly a hundred years in a French farmhouse attic.
Tell us about your work in documenting the stories behind the photographs. It has been a huge task trying to identify any of the soldiers in the images. Unfortunately none of Louis or Antoinette’s notes which might have helped identify the soldiers in the plates survived. All we had were boxes and boxes of these glass plates with crystal clear images on them. So we initially started looking at the images one by one and it really helped having Australian War Memorial historian Peter Burness with us there because he immediately recognised one of the images as that of one of Australia’s most decorated soldiers, Joe Maxwell VC. On our return to Australia we had the plates professionally scanned. My day job is as investigations reporter for the Channel Seven public affairs TV show SUNDAY NIGHT. We realised that if we put all the images up online on the Sunday Night website then our audience might be able to identify individual soldiers – and that’s exactly what happened. It far exceeded our expectations. We had literally millions of pages views on the site as people from all over the world helped us begin identifying individual soldiers. Because most of the Thuillier pictures were photographed in front of a canvas painted backdrop we could use that as a fingerprint for the provenance of Thuillier images. Some families still had copies of the old Thuillier picture in their albums and they were able to tell us it was their dad or grandfather. We also combed through old regimental histories from the 1920s and 1930s looking for the distinctive Thuillier backdrop – and when we saw it, we knew we could link the soldier named in the history to a Thuillier image. The wonderful resources of the National Archives and the War Memorial then allowed us to verify that that particular soldier was in the town of Vignacourt at the right time. Amazingly, their service records often showed them being billeted in the town on a particular date and, by looking at battalion badges and ribbons and decorations it was possible not only to identify a soldier but also, sometimes, when it was taken. All too often we were able to show that a soldier went on to his death or to horrific injury in a subsequent battle.
Is there a particular photograph that has really stuck with you? I love the series of images of Armistice Day celebrations in Vignacourt – the 11th of November 1918 – at the end of World War One. Because the British military banned cameras on the western front, there are precious few images of Australian soldiers behind the frontlines. And, as far as we know, these Thuillier pictures of the Armistice Day celebrations are the only images ever recorded of the actual celebrations of Armistice right up behind the frontlines. The beauty of the images is that Joe Maxwell VC actually mentions this moment in his book ‘Hells Bells and Mademoiselles’, when the French Tricolor flag and the Australian flag are hoisted from the cathedral steeple overlooking the village. Louis Thuillier’s picture is so clear that you can zoom into the image and actually see that very moment, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of November when the war finally came to an end. And you can see the relief in the soldiers’ eyes. They know they’re going home. Two-thirds of their mates were either killed or wounded.
Do you have a personal connection to WWI? Yes – I had a paternal grandfather who was a British cavalry officer. My father told me once that he was very badly affected by the war and I suspect this is the same for many people of that generation. The war was something dark and horrific that blighted so many lives that for much of the past 100 years people tried to put it behind them. Now that feeling of sadness has been replaced with curiosity and pride.
What was the hardest part of Lost Diggers to write? I think the most difficult job was to ensure that I brought these young lads to life. It is one thing to have a service file with his personal war history, and a battalion diary with the unit history. But what I strived to do in this book is to personalize these soldiers we identified. That meant speaking to their families and reading through personal letters and private family histories. It was a very personal thing to approach families like this and I was surprised at how painful it was still for many of them to talk about the loss and pain their family suffered. They honoured me with their trust but there were a few tears along the way. I find it terribly moving still to look into the faces of the diggers we still haven’t identified because I so want to find them a family that will honour them.
Describe the place where you write. I built myself a home office three years ago with the proceeds from my book on bikie organised crime – Dead Man Running. It is designed to have no distractions so I have nothing on the wall in front of me. I am far too easily diverted to doing anything else other than writing so I removed all other books and papers not relevant to my Lost Diggers research. I also wrote a big chunk of the book in a holiday house at Currarong beach on the South Coast of NSW.
What are the best traits that all authors should have? The thing I have learned more than anything else in this book is to not rush people. I am a journalist by day and we have quick turnarounds on stories that don’t tolerate weeks of waiting. In The Lost Diggers, I soon learned the virtues of taking a deep breath and of going to actually visit someone rather than using the telephone or email. So many times when I made that effort, it paid off because people then felt they could trust me more with their family history. Writing a good old-fashioned letter was also very effective. I think an author also has to be disciplined. I wrote this book mainly between the hours of 4am to 8am every morning because I then had to head out to my day job as a journalist.
Name two authors that you would like to see collaborate on a book. I love Antony Beevor’s classic histories of WW2, Berlin and Stalingrad. I’m also fascinated with what I know about the untold history of the Cold War – and the stories of espionage and derring-do where the World came so close to a nuclear conflagration. No-one’s ever done a solid insider history of the Cold War that tells it like I’ve heard it off-the-record from Australian, American and British spooks. His collaborator would have to be a Russian historian of distinction with access to the KGB archives – or perhaps Professor Christopher Andrew, who wrote the book on the Mitrokhin Archives, a compendium of files stolen from the KGB library. I was very disappointed when I heard Professor Andrew had been offered the opportunity to do the official history of British intelligence agency MI5 because he has probably – with the Mitrokhin material – come the closest to telling the real story of the unofficial history of that period. Perhaps with Prof Andrew’s access and Antony Beevor’s brilliance for telling a good yarn, they will come up with something special. If they don’t, maybe I’ll offer to do it one day.
Who is your least favourite character of any book? The hitman Anton Chigurh in ‘No Country for Old Men’. I loathe the moral ambiguity behind his amoral homicidal psychopathy. I’ve met too many evil people in my day job as a journalist to enjoy a book which makes such a character almost likeable.
And who is your favourite? Harry Potter. I don’t care what people say. It’s literature.
Name three people who would join you for your ultimate dinner party… Nigella Lawson (she can show me how to cook) Nelson Mandela (because I wish I was that patient and noble) Karen Gillam AKA Amy Pond of Dr Who (because she’s gorgeous and I’m appalled they killed her off)