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