”It’s unbelievable. After 95 years, we finally found him.”
-John Andrews, great nephew of Matthew Hepple, one of the Australians missing at Fromelles
In July 1916 the 5th Division of the Australian Army launched an attack on German positions near the French town of Fromelles. It remains one of the costliest attacks ever mounted by Australian military forces. In one night more than five and a half thousand men became casualties. Almost two thousand of those had been killed.
In 2002 retired Australian schoolteacher Lambis Englezos, following a visit to the Western Front, realised that the number of known Australians buried after the Fromelles battle did not match the number of the recorded missing. He suspected he had evidence of the existence of mass graves dug by the Germans after the battle at a place called Pheasant Wood. He believed that this might have been where the missing Australians lay. This kicked off a remarkably dogged and determined investigation that would eventually find enough information to convince Australian and British authorities to mount an exploratory archaeological dig at the site. British historian Peter Barton was the man, as part of that first dig, who uncovered two buttons showing the Rising Sun of the Australian Army, unequivocally proving that Australians had been there and that Lambis had in fact been right.
In 2009, I was in France to visit the graves of the crew of B for Baker in Lille. I was staying with Joss le Clercq, who by chance lives just outside the village of Fromelles. The week that I was there, a full archaeological dig began on what became known as ‘the Fromelles Project’ at Pheasant Wood. This work resulted in some 250 bodies being recovered and reinterred in the first completely new cemetery to be built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in more than 50 years, just across the road from Pheasant Wood.
Up to the beginning of 2011, some 96 of those 250 had been identified. Last month, a further 14 names were released, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald.
We are now seeing the vindication of the project begun by Lambis Englezos. 110 families have now received news that had been delayed almost a century. 110 soldiers have permanent, dignified resting places that can become a focus for their families’ remembrance of them. Most importantly, 110 soldiers now have names and stories.
And it all came about through one bloke’s enthusiasm, determination and sheer hard work.
Remembering the men in the faded photographs. This is why we
© 2011 Adam Purcell