War is a terrible business. The violent nature of the tools used in combat – guns, bombs, explosions, fire – can do dreadful things to human bodies. In the course of this sort of research, you sometimes come across some shocking stories. A P-47 Thunderbolt pilot, for example, was killed in a crash in eastern Holland in November 1943. A young girl found a loose boot belonging to the pilot near the wreck of the aeroplane… with a foot still inside. Or the unfortunate Charlie Nash, a 467 Sqn mid-upper gunner who was killed on the 10 May 1944 Lille raid. Such was the force of the explosion that brought his Lancaster down that Nash was dismembered. He was initially buried in two distinct graves, one in Hellemmes and one in Forest sur Marque.

Many of these sorts of stories are revealed in the files of the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, a team of RAF investigators who combed what had been occupied Europe to establish the fate of as many missing airmen as possible after the liberation of each area. The reports can sometimes make for disturbing reading. So much so, in fact, that full MRES reports are not released to the public in the UK if authorities believe they will be too distressing for next-of-kin or other researchers to read.

There is no doubt that these reports can contain some very grisly details. But factual reports of this nature are just that – factual. The details contained within them are very real. The events they deal with really happened – to real people. How much should modern-day sensibilities take precedence over knowing the truth?

This is an extremely difficult question to answer, and it’s one that every researcher must give serious thought to. There are two conflicting priorities here: the natural desire of the historian to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, versus the need to protect families from some pretty disturbing feelings about what might have happened to their relative. It is sometimes easier for the researcher to deal with these sorts of unpleasant revelations if they have no direct family connection to their subject. What they need to be careful of, however, is the sensitivities of those who do have that direct connection. I’ve been guilty of this myself, once or twice blithely telling a story to a relative of one of my great uncle’s crew without first considering how they might take the news. It’s only after I’d finished, when I saw their reaction that I realised, whoops, perhaps I could have dealt with that one with a little more sensitivity.

Ultimately, it is the researchers themselves who are responsible for making this very difficult decision. I disagree with the authorities determining what will and will not be released because I think it should be the duty of the researcher to decide what they do and don’t tell their audience. Researchers must be sensitive about how they communicate these sorts of stories.

Personally, I tend to prefer the truth, warts and all. After all, this is what actually happened. But I need to be very careful about how I get the message across.

 © 2012 Adam Purcell

The Thrill of the Chase

“I figured there would be a letter from someone, somewhere… I was just about to give up when I turned over a page and found it.”

-Historian Helen Harris, on the search to identify Ned Kelly’s bones

In recent days it’s been confirmed that a set of human bones exhumed from an unmarked mass grave in what used to be Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison belonged to Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly, perhaps the most infamous and celebrated of the Australian bushrangers. One of the great mysteries of the Kelly legend – what actually happened to the body after his execution in 1880 – has been solved, using modern-day technology and a bit of old-fashioned sleuthing.

Which is how a post about a 19th Century bushranger finds its place on a blog about a WWII bomber crew. There was an excellent article in the weekend newspaper last week that explained exactly how the identification was made and eventually confirmed through DNA matching with one of Kelly’s descendants. But it was the quote that opens this post, from a historian engaged in the search, which caught my eye. Harris was looking for police documents that could challenge contemporary newspaper reports that said Kelly’s body had been dismembered by autopsy, a crucial piece of evidence in determining that a skull long thought to have been Kelly’s was in fact not. Harris had a theory, born out of many years studying Victoria’s early police records, that the Superintendant of the time would have tried to find out the truth or otherwise of the newspaper report in question from the governor of Melbourne Gaol. She looked in the archives and, after a methodical search, found the letter she was looking for.

This is how a good historian works. Start with a mystery, work out where the gaps are in the story and consider where the missing piece of the jigsaw might be. Then go searching for it – and there is nothing quite like the thrill of turning over an old yellowing bit of paper in an ancient file somewhere and finding exactly what you are looking for.

Of course, it takes a long while sometimes to find that elusive document. Harris has, over the course of her career, looked at 400 boxes of old Victorian police documents – and the article says there are still a few hundred left to go. There could be anything in that archive – it takes a dedicated researcher to methodically work through each one, missing nothing, to fully extract all of the details.

Though the volume of documents that I have found in my research into B for Baker and her crew will not go even one twentieth of the way towards filling 400 boxes, I’ve gathered a fair bit now. And I still have a large pile that I’m working through – among them, documents that I copied at the National Archives of Australia well over a year and a half ago. As I work through each page, I sometimes find information that adds another piece to other puzzles I’ve been trying to solve. Finding letters written by one parent to another in one archive, and the replies to those letters in another, I’ve discovered that everything really is connected.

The information is out there, somewhere. Sometimes it’s in front of our very noses, it just hasn’t been properly extracted yet.

 (c) 2011 Adam Purcell

This blog post inspired by an article by Mark Chew, A Question of Identity, The Sunday Age Good Weekend Magazine, 03SEP11

This is why we do it.

”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
do it.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

The Lost Diggers

“It’s like looking back into time, looking into the eyes of men who’ve just been in battle.”

-Australian War Memorial historian Peter Burness, quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald:

In 1916 a French couple by the name of Thuillier began taking photographs of allied troops as they passed through their village of Vignacourt, just behind the lines on the Western Front. They began it as a means of making a little money – but what they created has become a priceless collection of immense historical value.

The collection was almost lost to history. A French amateur historian first tried to alert Australian and British authorities to its existence some 20 years ago, but nothing came of it. It was only recently that they were uncovered, in three dusty chests in the attic of the old Thuillier family farmhouse. The Sydney Morning Herald article reports that the farmhouse was about to be sold – which could have been the end of the three dusty chests, until Burness and his team intervened.

As Gil Thew told me, his uncle’s effects hadn’t been touched for over thirty years. I don’t have any comparable material concerning my great uncle Jack. The family story is that his letters disappeared sometime in the 1960s. Perhaps they were seen as merely dusty old papers, of no interest to anyone.

But like this story shows, what one person might consider old junk could be a goldmine. I’ve been lucky enough to study closely the archives of ‘dusty old papers’ belonging to two of the crew of B for Baker. Reading this story made me wonder what else might still be out there, largely forgotten – but waiting to be found.

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell