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Wednesday, 3 September 2008
Page: 4407

Senator MARK BISHOP (1:21 PM) —From one war to another. I have spoken on a number of occasions over the last four or five years on the subject of the missing men at Fromelles in northern France during World War I. The Senate might recall that after the Battle of Fromelles on the evening of 19 July 1916 almost 1,300 Australians were posted as missing and were also among the 5,330 casualties suffered on that one lone evening. The battle has been described somewhat pejoratively by many as the greatest disaster in Australia’s military history. It is clear that there was no purpose to the battle and the losses to the 5th Division after its first action on the Western Front was such that it, the 5th Division, ceased to be an effective fighting force for many years hence.

What, in fact, has now been revealed from German documents recently discovered in the Bavarian archives in Munich is that the German army knew everything well in advance down to the most minute detail. The German army was well prepared. The Allies that evening were a shambles. It has also been revealed that the German trench preparation in this sector was permanent. The German line was not a construction of temporary sandbags and timber palisades but was a fortification of a most permanent nature. This in fact was the accepted new frontier for Germany in a post-war environment, fully equipped with electricity distributed from the city of Lille. More to the point those planning the Allied disaster had not the slightest idea of the extent of preparation of the Germany army acting in defence of the area.

Those who broke into the German lines and beyond found nothing like they had been led to believe. In fact we know they did not have any orders as to what was expected of them in the event that they eventually managed to capture anything at all. It is also clear from these same documents, which include reports of interrogations of Australian prisoners of war, that the Germans were responsible for collecting many dead Australians from no-man’s-land in the days following. In addition to venturing out at night to cover the dead with chemicals to prevent the stench they brought in many of the dead for burial.

The riddle of what happened has now been explained. Of the 1,300 recorded as missing that night and whose names are recorded on the walls at the VC Corner Cemetery all but about 170 were recovered after the Armistice in 1918. Of the missing soldiers, 410 were buried in mass graves at that place and, we now know that the thesis of Mr Lambis Englezos, who first brought the matter to my attention some years ago, that these men were buried at Pheasant Wood has now been proven almost totally correct. The survey conducted last year by the Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division, or GUARD, confirmed the existence of eight pits dug immediately after the battle. What was not known was whether those mass graves had been recovered after the war. However, as there was no evidence for or against that possibility, a contract was let to GUARD to conduct an exploratory but limited campaign. The work began in late May this year and, in its report, GUARD confirmed that the bodies buried after the battle in 1916 remained in situ. Furthermore, the work revealed that the skeletal remains were in very good condition and that it would be feasible to exhume them for individual reburial.

For those who might question the joint decision of the Rudd government and the United Kingdom government to do this you should know that this is, in fact, standard practice. To this day, as we have seen in Belgium in recent times, whenever missing Australians are found, in the first instance they are recovered and reburied in separate graves in the nearest war cemetery. If they are identified, as some have been, they are provided with an inscribed headstone. If they are not identified their headstone is inscribed with ‘known only to God’ until such time as identification may be possible and then, if that is confirmed, the headstone is changed.

That, in fact, was the process with Private Storey, whose remains were discovered along with four others at Westhoek in Belgium last year. Currently he is buried in an unknown grave in Polygon Wood cemetery. On the 91st anniversary of his death, on 30 September, his headstone will be changed in the presence of his family, who come from Western Australia. In fact Private Storey’s death was a quirk of bad luck. Having fought so hard and at such enormous cost to his unit to push the Germans out of Polygon Wood, Private Storey was killed by a shell just as his unit was preparing to retire to the rear for a well-earned break.

We can surmise that this will also be the process adopted for those to be exhumed at Pheasant Wood in Fromelles. It should be noted, however, that this exhumation is of a scale that has never been undertaken within our own history. As to whether identification will be possible, at this stage, naturally, we can only speculate. We are told that the skeletal remains are in quite good condition. But we also know that artefacts normally found on bodies, which assist identification, might not be available. The Bavarian records I referred to previously make that clear. German intelligence ordered that all badges and personal effects be removed from the dead. In fact so detailed are these records that German soldiers wanting to retain artefacts as souvenirs could apply to their respective and responsible authorities. Looting and souvenir hunting therefore was not a habit restricted to Australian diggers.

No doubt there are many Australian families who have been following this serial closely for a few years. Indeed many have written to me since I first began to pursue this matter some years ago. It is now gratifying to know that the thesis of Mr Lambis Englezos was 100 per cent correct. We all owe Mr Englezos, and the team of people down in Melbourne who have been actively supporting his cause, a great debt for their persistence. We can now collectively look forward to the work next summer and beyond that to the reburial in a new cemetery at Fromelles in northern France. I encourage those who embark on their pilgrimage to the Western Front to see where their ancestors fought, fell and are buried to visit Fromelles.

Already at Pheasant Wood there is a modest memorial indicating the place where perhaps as many as 400 Allied soldiers still lie buried after 92 years. I also recommend that you visit VC Corner and the Cobbers statue as you head north to Armentieres. This is a very important site for Australians. It does not have the associated glory of places such as Le Hamel or Peronne, nor the gravity and beauty of the memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. What is does have, though, is the currency of knowing that we still honour and cherish the memory of all of those tens of thousands of young men—young men who travelled across the world on the adventure of their lives and whose lives, it is now confirmed, were taken from them brutally and unnecessarily. The sheer scale of the waste is frightening when one reads the contemporary reports. Below your feet as you stand there are the remains of the 170 who have now been missing for 92 years.

Finally, for those who share this interest and fascination—and there are a considerable number of Australians within that classification—there is much new interesting literature to be read. Already, Les Carlyon’s work The Great War is a classic, beautifully written. I also recommend Patrick Lindsay’s book Fromelles, which traces the entire bureaucratic saga endured in the recent search for the missing. I understand that it is about to be re-released in an updated form post the recent archaeological exploration and post the gaining of much new critical knowledge as to what occurred that evening. For those wanting a deeper insight into the absolute misery of human life on the Western Front can I also recommend Somme Mud by Will Davies and the sequel, recently released and selling quite well, In the Footsteps of Private Lynch.

Then there are other classics, including Ross McMullin’s biography of General Pompey Elliott—General Elliott was a senator in this place for two terms—and the original opus by Mr Robin Corfield, Don’t Forget Me, Cobber. For those living in Melbourne and Victoria, and anyone visiting, I also recommend a visit to the replica statue of Cobbers. The memorial is at VC Corner and commemorates the feat of Sergeant Fraser, who rescued so many men from no-man’s-land on that fateful evening. Sculpted beautifully by Peter Corlette, this statue, standing below the shrine on St Kilda Road, is well worthy of attention. You do not have to go all the way to Fromelles to sense its significance and its sad and poignant beauty. We will follow the unfolding of the discovery at Fromelles with close interest as the years come. Thank you.