- Australian Government, ‘Remembrance Day’, <australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/remembrance-day>; ‘Australians on the Western Front’, http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/australians-on-the-western-front.
- C.E.W. Bean, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume 3: The Australian Imperial Force in France 1916, Angus+Robertson Ltd., Sydney, 12th edn, 1941, p. 728.
- Garry Wilmott, website, <www.letthemrip.com>.i
- Australia, House of Representatives, Debates, 13 September 2011, p. 9883.
- Wilmott, <www.letthemrip.com/letthemrip.com/Finding_Remains_Videos.html>.
- See <www.slowtravelberlin.com/2010/01/24/kathe-kollwitz -museum>
Around Pozières, in Northern France, they insisted that the winter before last was the most bitter in four decades. This was fortunate because I was there researching the Collingwood football player Percy Rowe, also known as Paddy Rowan, who died on the Somme in December 1916 during a winter the locals also reckoned was the nastiest for forty years.
I’d told myself I was chasing some small sense of what Percy experienced before he copped a piece of shrapnel in the kidney and died a day later in a morphine haze at a field hospital behind the lines at Heilly. I managed to find the remains of his last trench—today a barely discernible furrow across a ploughed potato field, accessed by a remote semi—sealed road that bleeds old shrapnel in the wet. But really the weather was as close as I could hope to get. Even that comparison wasn’t fair: I had thermals, thick gloves, two polar fleeces, lightweight waterproof shoes, my ski-jacket and balaclava, while Percy had his waterlogged leather boots, his sodden great coat and an army issue blanket in which to wrap himself while the artillery rounds whistled in from over the horizon.The cold haunted Percy’s best friend and Magpies teammate Doc Seddon, who came home to play again, raise Percy’s son and marry his wife—but mostly to endure. He never talked about it. But the fire that burnt daily, year round, in the grate at Doc’s Abbotsford cottage said enough.
So despite the hundreds of first-person accounts I’d read, despite all the grainy film footage and photographs, and despite having a British guide with old trench maps who could conjure in images the old front lines and redoubts, it was impossible to get inside Percy’s experience. Imagine, yes. But never empathise.
Hours after arriving in rural France, we almost lost the car while trying to bounce it off the treacherous snowdrift upon which we’d improbably marooned it. I face-planted in the ice as the car shot backwards towards an embankment and certain write-off in the field of deep sticky mud below. I quickly lost, without my balaclava and gloves, all sensation in my face and hands. I could only ponder my call to Europcar: ‘Pardon, monsieur, je voudrais une autre voiture, s’il vous plaît’, while my travelling companion, the photographer Mike Bowers, managed to stand, run and somehow throw himself through the open door and pull on the handbrake. I could have prefaced this anecdote with ‘In an act of daring that typified the Anzac spirit …’ but really, we were just eager to avoid the excess whereas they were subsisting in the snow and the mud while killing and dying.
So began my five-day tour of the unsettling winter landscape where Percy and Doc fought and billeted, froze and whored and died.
I’ve toured the European Western Front several times during warmer months. The Belgian–French summer is an incongruously beautiful stage for such a vast horror, with the milky light refracting off wheat fields budding in a palette ranging across every hue of green and gold and russet. Then of course there are the ubiquitous, almost clichéd, poppy fields, the lark song and the long, tranquil twilights rendered more magical by the countless bells that peal from churches in a procession of picture-postcard villages that, ninety-five years ago, were mostly reduced to piles of rubble and burnt-out machines and viscera.In contrast, winter is appropriately malevolent. Gunmetal grey clouds, ever pregnant with sleet, hang low over villages devoid of tourists while unforgiving winds whip fields that have become an empty monochrome quagmire. The rains weaken the verges; they crumble and spit out what remains of some of the millions of shells that smashed this land to pieces between 1914 and 1918.
Several million allied British and enemy troops died on the Western Front—a meandering 725-kilometre line of opposing trenches stretching from the French–Swiss border to the Belgian coast. About 46,000 of them were Australians, 18,000 of whom remain missing or could not be personally identified at burial. The Somme and French and Belgian Flanders are scattered with hundreds of well-marked Allied cemeteries. But you can be certain that just about anywhere you step you will be close to the lost remains of a serviceman.1 Such is the evocative tragedy of the Western Front, where the disparity between modern weapons-machine guns, tanks, grenades and accurate artillery—and the traditional infantry method of relentless bayonet charges across open ground is brought into sharp, ugly relief by the unthinkable scale of human loss.
One evening, with the rain slicing at us in horizontal sheets, we trudge through a ploughed field beside a newly dug metre-deep public works ditch. The mud congeals on our boots, turning them into great ungainly clods that must be scraped before a few more steps can be taken. We are on the outskirts of Mouquet Farm on Pozières Ridge, where 6800 Australian troops were killed in action or fatally wounded in three weeks from late July 1916.With the sombre lyricism that marked his writing about the Anzac waste, Charles Bean—mythmaker and official Australian historian of the First World War—said this place ‘is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on the earth’. In his history of the First World War, Bean described the landscape where we are wandering by flimsy torchlight with our guide, Dominique Zanardi:
The reader must take for granted many of the conditions—the flayed land, shell-hole bordering shell-hole, corpses of young men lying against the trench walls or in shell-holes; some except for the dust settling on them seeming to sleep; others torn in half; others rotting, swollen, and discoloured. He must also take for granted the air fetid with their stench or at times pungent with the chemical reek of high explosive; the troops of both sides always in desperate need of sleep working or fighting by night and living by day in niches scooped in the trench side—dangerous places perilously shaken with the crashing thump of each heavy shell whose burst might all too easily shovel them on top of their occupants.2
Dominique is a historian and a Western Front battlefield guide. He also collects and sells First World War ordnance—the seemingly endless ‘iron harvest’ that farmers’ ploughs, weather and earthworks bring to the surface.
That is why we are out here tonight. Dominique stops when his torchlight catches a flicker of green oxidising metal, and he sifts through the mud. Soon we have come across cases of unexploded Mills bombs, hundreds of unspent .303 and machine-gun cartridges, rusting rifle barrels, mortar heads, artillery shell casings and bayonet scabbards. Dominique takes a few bits and pieces, and says he’ll return in the morning.
I souvenir the copper dial from a British shell (later to be used as a paperweight on my writing desk) and a few bullet casings, stunned at just how close to the surface sits the archaeological evidence of the slaughter of a generation. The next day we return to Ypres in Belgium and prepare to head back to London. It is Friday night and we are in a bar when Dominique rings. He tells us he has just found a body in the ditch that he believes is that of an Australian officer. Can we come and help him remove it?First thing the next morning we drive back to France. Dominique tells us that he had been unable on Friday night to reach anyone at the Australian Embassy in Paris or the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He fears the bulldozer will resume work on the ditch and rebury the skeleton.
So we traipse out there again. Piece by piece we remove the soldier, beginning with his feet. They are still in his boots. We place them carefully inside a hessian sack on the side of the ditch, along with his skull and jawbone, his arms and his legs. There is shrapnel all around him indicating, perhaps, that he was killed by a shell while sheltering in a foxhole. He was armed to the teeth: eight Mills bombs, a bayonet, the remains of a Lee Enfield rifle, 150 rounds of ammunition and a Webley service revolver were buried with him.
We find his toothbrush (purchased from a Boots pharmacy in England), his watch and a few foreign coins. Only a tunic buckle and the holster of his pistol, which is stamped AUSTRALIA and WA, identify him as being Australian. The place where Dominique found him, which is also probably where he died, was effectively a No Man’s Land between Mouquet Farm and an Allied redoubt that was secured with barbed wire.
While we have taken the body from the public works ditch, we do not remove it from the site. Dominique has called the local gendarme, who is busy with another case. In the absence of the war graves commission, the police or anyone from the Australian Embassy, he was waiting on instructions from the mayor of Pozières, Bernard Delattre, to remove the body from the site.
When we returned to Dominique’s café ‘Le Tommy’ in Pozières on Saturday afternoon, I wrote an article for publication in Monday’s Australian newspapers. It described how I felt (unnerved but deeply moved, and not least hopeful that this lost Australian soldier might now be given an identity). Two days later, by which time I’d returned to London, the article appeared in three newspapers with Bowers’ pictures of the man’s pistol and other belongings.In the meantime Dominique found another dead soldier further along the ditch, which was being steadily filled in by an earthmover as new pipes were laid. This one was a German.
As soon as the article appeared in Australia my inbox came alive with touching messages from families that had lost a soldier on the Somme. Could it be him? ‘Was he wearing a silver cross—because my great grandmother gave him one before he set off?’ one correspondent asked. Sorry, no. ‘You saw his shoes. My grandad was size 13.’ No. This man was at best 8½.
These messages told me that even as the generations pass, the loss of a man—literally—in war leaves a profound emotional gap in a family. People want to know, and where they can they should. But others who contacted me were hostile. One man wrote to say I had ‘no right to tamper with a war grave’; another said I should be ashamed for ‘interfering with a digger’s slumber’ and yet another that we had ‘staged the whole thing’.
An internet forum for Great War aficionados was divided among those who said we’d done the right thing and those who believed we had not; a few even suggested we should be ‘charged’—with what, they did not elaborate.
Back home others were exercised by the suggestion in my article that Belgian and French farmers, and public works officials, sometimes rebury the bodies of First World War soldiers rather than notify the authorities and endure the consequent red tape.
I based this on the on-the-record comments of Dominique Zanardi—who at last count had retrieved fifteen bodies from the mud around Pozières. Other locals, including farmers, confirmed that human bones were sometimes ploughed back into the soil rather than delay the harvest through proper recovery. On subsequent visits to France and Belgium other bilingual tour guides and farmers have told me similar stories.
Then Garry Wilmott got involved. Wilmott, a small businessman from Tasmania, was moved when he read about our removal of the body at Mouquet Farm. Not without reason. His great-uncle Harry Daniel, a former Carlton player, died at Fromelles in July 1916 where, under appallingly negligent British command, almost 2000 Australians died in a single night while attacking the heavily fortified German lines across open ground. It remains the single blackest day in Australian military history—so black that the commander of the Australian 15th Brigade, Brigadier-General Pompey Elliott, wept at what he labelled a ‘tactical abortion’.
Wilmott’s uncle ‘young Harry Daniel’ later died at Amiens, aged seventeen. Neither body has been found. ‘The idea that the bones of Australian servicemen could be inadvertently dug up by farmers or workmen and then returned to the ground because there was too much red tape involved in recovering them, really appalled me,’ he says. ‘I felt very strongly that I should try to do something about it.’
He has since been lobbying the federal government to consider new ways of approaching the ‘missing’, including making it financially viable for French and Belgian farmers to stop work and call in the authorities—including the war graves commission and the police—whenever suspected human remains are found. He also insists that excavation work at places such as Mouquet Farm should be undertaken as a matter of course with the relevant authorities.3
In Question Time the Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie asked Prime Minister Julia Gillard: ‘The remains of World War I diggers are often uncovered during routine earthworks on farms and building sites in France and Belgium. There have been concerning reports that these remains are sometimes ploughed back into the ground or simply ignored when they are uncovered … will the government look afresh at this issue and work with the French and Belgian governments to give greater protection to the remains of our World War I diggers?’
I am advised that there is no evidence that French farmers are guilty of ploughing human remains back into their fields, as has sometimes been asserted in media reporting. In recent years most if not all remains of Australian soldiers have been discovered at a depth greater than that which is uncovered by routine ploughing. They are further underground. In almost every instance those remains were discovered during deeper excavations—for example, when people are digging trenches for gas pipelines, so they are working further underground. As all Australians know, tens of thousands of Australians fell in battle across the Western Front. There are about 18,000 Australians who lost their lives and for whom there is no known grave. The government will continue to do all it can to find and identify the remains of our war dead.4
The veterans affairs minister, Warren Snowdon, later reiterated the position (albeit more forcefully) in a letter to Wilmott, dismissing as ‘sensationalist’ the reports—such as mine—that farmers sometimes uncovered bodies and left or reburied them. Gillard’s answer was diplomatic, though deceptive; in truth Australia does little or nothing actively to ‘find’ the missing except where their location en masse—such as at Fromelles—is scientifically well established prior to excavation. But it does take steps to recover them when they are accidentally found and reported.
As to the ploughs digging up bones, many soldiers from France, Germany, Britain and occasionally Australia are found this way each year. Wilmott’s website links to video of the bones of a French soldier being discovered in a recently ploughed field on the Somme.5 The question remains, of course: should we really be looking for them or should we let them stay where they died?
The Western Front is crowded with the tombstones of those whose bodies were recovered and memorials to the others who never will be. The French and the Belgians, whose lands have served history as something of a perpetual battlefield, are reverential though practical about the rich human DNA of their soil. They remember the Allies in their prayers and through the myriad dedications in their rebuilt towns. The dead diggers are as dear to the French as the land itself—a land they are now literally part of.
But the German bodies, when they turn up, tend to evoke a less poignant response, just as they did after the war when many were burnt in piles before mass burial. As the centenary of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli approaches Australia seldom pauses to think of the enemy Turks—and even less about the Germans, at least a million of whom died on the Western Front and most of whom have no marked graves.
Germany grieves too, but silently. Anyone who has seen Käthe Kollwitz’s sculpture Mother with Dead Son in Berlin’s Neue Wache will understand that.6 One of the saddest places on the Somme is the First World War German cemetery at Fricourt. Here the Germans are buried four, sometimes five or six, to a grave. Unlike the British, Canadian, South African and French cemeteries that are visible from the road, Fricourt’s rows upon rows of iron crosses are secreted behind a high stone fence.
Even on the most bitter and dark of winter afternoons you’ll still find visitors at the cemeteries where the Australians are buried. I’ve visited Fricourt three times in the past two years. I’ve always been the only one there. Such is the ongoing politics of commemoration.© Paul Daley