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Mystery of Fromelles

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Reporter: Liz Hayes

It was one of the darkest days of Australian history.

In the tiny French village of Fromelles, nearly 2000 young Diggers died in a single night, back in 1916.

But at least 170 Australians also vanished that night without a trace.

It was one of the great unsolved mysteries of the First World War - until a Melbourne high school teacher named Lambis Englesoz set out to discover what happened to the missing men.

Liz Hayes was there as the mystery was solved.

Additional information:

Australian Fromelles Project Group (ASFPG) would like to get in contact with relatives who have yet to register with the project.
If you believe a relative may be buried at Fromelles, you can register at: www.army.gov.au/fromelles or Phone: 1800 019 090

Full transcript

INTRODUCTION PETER OVERTON: It was one of the darkest days of Australian history. In the tiny French village of Fromelles, nearly 2000 young Diggers died in a single night, back in 1916. But at least 170 Australians also vanished that night without a trace. It was one of the great unsolved mysteries of the First World War until a Melbourne high school teacher named Lambis Englesoz set out to discover what happened to the missing men. Liz Hayes was there as the mystery was solved.

STORY LIZ HAYES: This tiny village in northern France has held a secret for nearly a century. And this week, just down from the church at Fromelles, across a field of wheat, that secret was finally unearthed.

TONY POLLARD: At 5:10 last night, our first positive trace of human remains.

LIZ HAYES: Here, the bodies of up to 170 missing Australian diggers from the First World War. Young men who had vanished in one night of horror during the Battle of Fromelles.

LAMBIS ENGLESOZ: We have families right across Australia who have been waiting for this result, and now they will have somewhere to come to make their pilgrimage.

LIZ HAYES: It has taken 92 years to solve the mystery of the missing diggers from a battle that, until recently, few Australians had ever heard of. But there is a reason for that. The Battle of Fromelles was such a slaughter, such a disaster, that the British and Australian military hierarchy tried to forget that it ever happened.

TIM WHITFORD: They were slaughtered here, absolutely slaughtered. And I think the government in Australia at the time were happy to just write it off.

LIZ HAYES: Tim Whitford's great uncle Harry Willis was one of the nearly 2000 Australians killed here that night. A former soldier himself, Harry's story feels very personal. So we are right in the middle of the battle here?

TIM WHITFORD: Yep, we are standing in the middle of no-mans land here.

LIZ HAYES: And and and you can see why the Germans won.

TIM WHITFORD: Absolutely. It's dead flat, it's like a a pool table.

LIZ HAYES: It's flat as a tack and there is no cover, there is nothing to hide behind.

TIM WHITFORD: Nothing. Nothing, and the place was well defended, swept by machine gun fire, observed artillery fire coming in. An absolute charnel house, a slaughter house.

LIZ HAYES: Remarkably, some of the Australian troops did make it into the German lines, But it ended in almost complete annihilation. Almost 2000 dead. Harry Willis, and 170 other diggers, simply disappeared.

TIM WHITFORD: It's just just a bad... there's no happy ending here, absolutely no happy ending.

LIZ HAYES: For years, the Battle of Fromelles was a footnote in our history books. And may have stayed that way if not for the persistence of one man.

LAMBIS ENGLESOZ: I could be obsessed. I have been accused of being a bit belligerent. But I think this is a question that needs resolution.

LIZ HAYES: Lambis Englesoz is a Melbourne high school teacher who was determined Australia would not forget. Lambis spent years trawling through Red Cross records and military files and found the Germans had buried the dead Australians. But where?

LAMBIS ENGLESOZ: This is a British intelligence aerial photograph.

LIZ HAYES: When he discovered aerial photos of the battlefield taken before and after the battle, he knew he had found the answer.

LAMBIS ENGLESOZ: And the Germans tells us in the Red Cross file that they buried them in five pits before Pheasant Wood - 1,2,3,4,5.

TONY POLLARD: None none of this would have happened without Lambis, I can't believe.. he has been a one-man crusade, literally.

LIZ HAYES: Tony Pollard is the battlefield archaeologist who has been brought in to dig for the bodies. On his first examination at the site, he found a clue that Lambis was right - the medallion given to a soldier from the tiny town of Alberton in Victoria. Only one soldier from Alberton had served at Fromelles and amazingly, it was young Harry Willis - Tim Whitford's great uncle.

TONY POLLARD: It was a kind of Eureka moment. It was one of those moments where you make a direct link with history.

LIZ HAYES: Just before the dig begins, Tim and his family visit the burial site and it is an emotional moment.

TONY POLLARD: Excavation into that deposit reveal the bones of a forearm, what we're doing now, or about to do, is to go back into that trench, continue that excavation for the rest of the five pits that we now think are highly likely to contain human remains.

TIM WHITFORD: Hey nan, they have found where he's buried, over here in France. It's really good news. They have got to keep working and they think there's a lot of them. Love you, nan.

LIZ HAYES: What do you want to see happen now?

TIM WHITFORD: Give them a dignified, individual burial with military honours.

Muffled drums, the whole lot. It's the least they deserve.

LIZ HAYES: Proper recognition.

TIM WHITFORD: Yep. And this is a good a spot as any. Right in the shadow of the church. Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful place.

LIZ HAYES: This dig will go on for another two weeks, to find out how many men are buried here, and whether they can be identified. But none of it would have been possible if not for the passion and commitment of Lambis Englesoz. You're a good man.

LAMBIS ENGLESOZ: Oh, cheers. I'm blushing through my stubble.

LIZ HAYES: I think you're a good mate.

LAMBIS ENGLESOZ: Well, its all for the dignity of the soldiers, and we have really got to make every effort we can for our war dead.

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