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Thursday, 29 May 2008
Page: 3829

Mr HALE (3:18 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel. Would the minister update the House on excavation activities at the site of the Battle of Fromelles?

Mr SNOWDON (Minister for Defence Science and Personnel) —I thank the member for Solomon for his question. Further to the answer that I gave to the House yesterday, I would like to advise the House that work has resumed at Pheasant Wood following the inspection of the site by the French police who approved the continuation of the dig. However, at this stage no further discoveries have been made.

The meeting of the Fromelles Evaluation Group agreed on a tighter security regime and agreed that work should continue until 13 June and that investigation should proceed on the future of the land. I should mention, however, that conditions at the excavation are proving quite difficult. The watertable is high, requiring pumps and waste water storage; the clay is very heavy and quite difficult to dig, so hand trowels are being used, and that is necessary for the care needed in such a delicate task. I have been overwhelmed by the public response to the decision to proceed with his dig.

Yesterday I paid tribute to Mr Lambis Englezos for his support and, indeed, leadership in providing us with guidance as to where we might look. I would also like to give recognition today to General Leahy, Chief of Army, who acceded to requests to consider the evidence objectively and to obtain expert advice. It is indeed a salutary feeling for a modern commander to remain committed to recovering those lost in old battles. But I also want to recognise that this parliament is no stranger to the debate over the recovery of the missing; nor, should I say, are we strangers to the people who fought at Fromelles. Indeed, General ‘Pompey’ Elliott, who led the devastated 15th Brigade from Victoria on that fateful night in July 1916, tried to prevent the attack from proceeding and wept inconsolably the next morning at his 1,600 casualties, was a senator in the parliament for two terms. Sadly, though, he took his own life. That perhaps is an illustration of how disaster can ruin lives—not just through death in battle but through the horror of the memories. It is worth pointing to the difficulty that confronted him at that battle and what he said following it. He said not soon after:

I presume there was some plan at the back of the attack but it is difficult to know what it was. I trust those who gave the order may be made to realise their responsibility.

The general who gave the order, General Haking, is quoted as saying of that battle that the experience would do the Australians ‘a great deal of good’. This was, of course, after General Elliott further said, some years later, about the battle, ‘It was a wretched, hybrid scheme which might well be described as a tactical abortion.’

In conclusion, I also want to remind the House that 1,300 men were missing after that battle. A mass grave for 410 Australians already exists at VC Corner, just down the road from Pheasant Wood. Even if the Pheasant Wood site is proven and approximately 170 lost souls are in fact identified as being Australian—and we think we may know who they are—many hundreds more remain missing. There are in fact 7,243 individual graves in France, Belgium and Gallipoli marked ‘Known only to God’. I undertook yesterday to keep the parliament and the public informed of progress, especially the families, who have such a keen interest, and I will continue to do so.

Ms Gillard —Mr Speaker, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.