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Wednesday, 29 November 2006
Page: 195

Mr GRIFFIN (12:17 PM) —I wish to make a few brief comments on the Battle of Fromelles, which I know, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, you are well aware of. It is a battle which took place over 16 hours in the evening of 19 July 1916 on the Western Front and which saw Australia’s worst ever battle casualties: 2,000 dead and 5,500 casualties in total. This year was the 90th anniversary of this battle. I had the honour of attending the 89th anniversary of the battle last year at Fromelles and met with a number of the locals who still commemorate that battle and the activities of the Australian forces at that time. They treat it with a good deal of respect, and it was certainly a great honour to be there, particularly to catch up with Martial Delebarre, who I am sure the Deputy Speaker met when he was over there. He works for the War Graves in that area and has played a great role there. That has been acknowledged with the award of an Order of Australia for the work that he has done with respect to commemorating the activities of the Australians on the Western Front.

The matter which particularly concerns me, apart from the continued grieving of the families of those lost, is the fate of 170 young men whose bodies were never found and whom we know were buried by the German army in days and nights following the battle. These men were killed within the German lines which they captured temporarily that night or behind those lines prior to the successful German counterattack. Their names are known as they were recorded by the Germans and this information was passed on to the Red Cross at the time. The mystery has always been: where were they buried? The dedicated detective work by Mr Lambis Englezos of Melbourne, among others equally persistent, led to the belief that many of these young Australians were buried just beside the village of Fromelles in northern France, in a farmer’s field beside Pheasant Wood, along with some of their British comrades, 326 of whom were also buried by the German army at the same time. It should be noted that there were possibly other burial sites too—the sap trenches dug that night by the Australians and possibly another site nearby known as Manlaque Farm.

Since the thesis on Pheasant Wood was proposed to the government the response has been typically reticent and on occasions combative, the single theme being denial. The government’s reluctance to act appears to be predicated on three arguments: firstly, that there were no mass graves at Pheasant Wood; secondly, that even if it did occur, it is highly unlikely that such large burials would not have been discovered and bodies disinterred; and thirdly, in any case, the French would not like us fossicking around looking for bodies.

It is now clear from recent documents provided through the German embassy, namely German regimental records of what they did on the days following the battle, that mass graves were in fact dug beside Pheasant Wood. The details of the process are remarkable, including the identification processes, the order of burial and the detail of the German units and their commanders who undertook the task. This is an amazing revelation and in itself requires the government to now get active and finally investigate this information properly.

The government’s assertion that it is unlikely that recoveries were not undertaken after the war is also conjecture. The fact remains that no evidence of any such record has been found—and those records are renowned for their scrupulous detail. As for the government of France, it is impossible to imagine that with some simple diplomacy the French would not do everything possible to assist an immediate investigation of the site at Pheasant Wood. This is especially true given the close ties we enjoy with France when it comes to our common and shared history on the Western Front.

We on this side have never sought to politicise this matter, but it seems that the attitude of denial from some parts of the bureaucracy and the delay over the last two years have been completely unwarranted. The expert panel appointed to consider the evidence, for example, has not met for 18 months, though we understand it will now meet on 15 December. I would also mention that a House of Lords committee looking into this same matter is to meet on 12 December, so it may well be that the British take the initiative before us.

On behalf of all those families who still wonder where their relatives and loved ones are buried, we urge the minister to get cracking, contact the French government immediately and investigate Pheasant Wood as a top priority. I do not know what will be found, but there is now more than enough evidence to act on this. The Battle of Fromelles is extremely important to our military history and heritage. This government should act now to protect this heritage and to reveal the final fate of those brave young men who sacrificed so much for their country, rather than offering the same old tired excuses that nothing can or should be done.

When I visited there last year, I actually walked that area with Martial Delebarre where it is alleged those burials took place. I oversaw parts of the battlefield. I certainly urge members, if they are travelling in that part of France, to go down and have a look. There are some quite impressive memorials. It is one of those battlefields that we do not hear as much about. More should be known. There is an excellent little museum there with some quite amazing stuff that does not get shown publicly as much as it should because of issues of funding, but it is certainly a place that I would encourage all Australians to visit to see a very important part of what was our history in World War I.