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Sunday, 9 December 2012

Photographs from France

My grandfather did not make a diary entry on this day in 1917. Instead, I thought it worth including this story from yesterday's Australian newspaper:
HUNDREDS of young Anzacs posing for pictures to send home to loved ones nearly a century ago have helped create an extraordinary window on to life and death on the Western Front.

In 1916, the Diggers were pulled back just a few kilometres from the bloody battles in France in World War I for a rest in the French village of Vignacourt on the Somme.

There they posed for French photographers Louis and Antoinette Thuillier. Their images, extraordinarily clear and detailed and startlingly warm, were captured on glass plates.

With the end of the war, the couple stored the plates in the attic of their farmhouse, where they remained for nearly a century.

Hearing that the treasure trove of antique glass photographic plates had survived, journalist Ross Coulthart began a hunt for them across northern France last year that led to an ancient metal chest.

Nearly 4000 fragile glass plates were discovered and bought by media magnate Kerry Stokes, who presented them to the Australian War Memorial. They are on display in an exhibition entitled Remember Me: The Lost Diggers of Vignacourt.

This image is is one of several from the collection published by The Australian in August but lacking details of what happened to the men it portrayed.

In his new book The Lost Diggers (published by HarperCollins), Coulthart notes that the individual fortunes of the soldiers in the photograph illustrate the extremes of the war and what it brought out in the men who fought in it.

At least four of these young men served in Gallipoli as well as France. Standing on the left is Lieutenant Harold Maurice Griffiths. He joined up in August 1914, soon after the outbreak of war. He'd been a cadet sergeant and was immediately made a sergeant in the 5th Battalion.

Griffiths became ill at Gallipoli and spent considerable time in hospital but he had clearly impressed his superiors and was quickly promoted to lieutenant.

The young officer saw an extraordinary amount of combat. He was promoted to captain and was wounded in the bloody Battle of Pozieres, but was back in action in time to be wounded again during a raid on an enemy trench. This time he remained on duty.

In April 1917 he took part in the Allied attacks on the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt and was awarded the Military Cross for leadership as he moved from post to post under heavy fire, encouraging his men to drive off an enemy counterattack.

In May 1917, at the so-called second Battle of Bullecourt, the Australians endured 48 hours of furious shelling and beat off as many as 13 German counterattacks.

Among the 7000 Australian casualties was Captain Griffiths.

The battalion history describes how "the death of this beloved officer roused the men to such a pitch of cold fury that they took unusual risks in getting at the enemy during the counterattack. When the company left the trenches, tired and spent as they were, they insisted they should carry Griffiths's body away for a decent burial, so, through the night from Bullecourt to Vaulx, they formed a reverent cortege for this man's brave remains."

Griffiths was killed in action six months after the picture was taken. At the time, his younger brother Howard was just 14. Twenty-six years later, Howard was killed in action in New Guinea.

Seated on the left is Captain Thomas Karran Maltby, a self-made man who left school aged 11, after his father died, and worked three jobs to get himself through night school. Maltby worked as a battery boy in a Victorian goldmine while he studied for his mining engineer's certificate, and then as a tramway labourer and as a clerk for a sugar refining company.

He was promoted to captain after service in France in 1916 and was awarded the Military Cross for leadership of his company and for organising daylight raids on enemy positions.

During a stint as an instructor he was injured while experimenting with ways to fire grenades from a cut-down rifle.

Maltby survived the war and returned home a hero in 1919. He was later elected an MP in the Victorian parliament and became a minister, Speaker and deputy premier. In 1949, he was knighted. Sir Thomas Maltby retired in 1961 after 32 years in politics.

Seated next to Maltby is Captain Eric George De Trembley Permezel, another Military Cross holder who survived the war.

Permezel was a 20-year-old insurance clerk when he enlisted as a second lieutenant on November 11, 1914, never dreaming that the war would end exactly four very bloody years later in 1918.

He was hit by shrapnel in his arm, chest, thigh, back and shoulders during a bombardment in June 1916 and was out of action until September.

On August 23, 1918, Permezel was awarded the Military Cross for heroism. The citation said that when his unit was held up by several enemy posts, he worked his way around behind the German positions to capture three machineguns and 12 prisoners. Apart from stints as an instructor and time away while sick with tonsillitis, he remained with his battalion until the end of the war.

Seated on the right is Lieutenant George Leslie Makin, who joined up as a private, aged 20, in August 1914.

He was quickly promoted through the non-commissioned ranks and then, after service at Gallipoli, to second lieutenant. He lamented that it was "rotten" to leave Gallipoli "after all the men we lost there. I suppose it was the best thing to do after all the blunders were made. People don't realise how close we were to getting through."

Later in France, despite lengthy spells in hospital being treated for paratyphoid and trench fever, Makin led his company in several fiercely contested battles until he was badly wounded by an exploding artillery shell in August 1918. He died two months later in a hospital at Rouen just before the war ended.

Standing on the right is Lieutenant John William Dwyer.

Dwyer was sent to hospital from Gallipoli suffering from appendicitis and from there was posted to the Western Front in France. He was eventually "relieved of his post" and sent home. In much harsher times, his papers were stamped: "Services no longer required - inefficient".

Coulthart comments: "Knowing what we know now about post-traumatic stress disorder, there should have been no shame for him or his family in what came to pass."

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