Digging up fallen diggers is the ultimate indignity
As we approach the Centenary of World War I, we start to think about the tremendous sacrifice so many of our diggers made. It is unimaginable to think that over 60,000 young men died in Gallipoli and the Western Front.
When you visit the battlefields of France and Belgium and the cemeteries and memorials you see countless numbers of white crosses honoring the fallen. Many of those crosses are for soldiers who are “Known Only to God”.
At the various memorials such as VC Corner and Menin Gate the names of those who were missing in action are engraved in stone. The Australian Government’s official estimation is there are approximately 18,000 Diggers lying under the fields of France and Belgium.
Diggers such as Harry Daniel who died at the age of 17. He lied about his age so he could join the Great War in 1916. He was sent to Gallipoli and survived and was then sent to France and died in the unnecessary slaughter of the Battle of Fromelles.
He was in the 59th Division and was one of the first to “Go Over the Top”. He was probably killed in the first five minutes of the battle. His body has never been found.
We owe Harry and the other 18,000 Diggers - not to mention thousands more from other nations buried beneath the fields of France and Belgium - the dignity and honour they deserve.
Harry was my Uncle. That is why I started Let them RIP (www.letthemrip.com).
In April last year I read an article by Ian McPhedran. The article was based on his friend and fellow author Paul Daley and well known photographer Mike Bowers’ experience while on a research trip to the Western front for their book “Armageddon”.
Their French guide Dominique discovered a Digger in an excavation trench:
“Now, on Saturday, we find ourselves standing in the bitter wind, the mud sucking at our boots, beside a one-meter newly excavated drainage ditch outside Mouquet Farm near Pozieres - the scene of a bitter three-week battle in August 1916 that claimed 11,000 Australian casualties - as Mr Zanardi gingerly passes us bones that we, in turn, place in a hessian sack.
He uncovers the soldier’s boots, still holding the bones of his feet, and places them on the side of the ditch. As we carefully carry the rest of the man’s remains from the ditch to the bag containing his skull and his jawbone, his arms and his legs, one thought dominates: dignity and glory do not belong to the battlefield.
As with the many thousands of others who lost their lives in the terrible fighting on the Somme during World War I, the battlefield has claimed this soldier’s identity. And were it not for Mr. Zanardi he would probably have stayed anonymously beneath the sticky mud of the Somme for an eternity.”
This story really moved me. Paul Daley and Mike Bowers tried to notify the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) but, being a weekend, it was closed. The Mayor of Pozieres, Bernard Delattre, was planning to remove the body from the site on the day to prevent it from being reinterred by the bulldozer on the site. He called the Australian Embassy in Paris to inform them an Australian Digger had been uncovered but go no result.
To ensure the soldier was not covered over with the mud and clay until the next excavation, Paul and Mike retrieved the Digger themselves. They delivered the bag of bones to the CWGC on the Monday.
Is this what we picture when we stand with our heads bowed as the bugler plays The Last Post on ANZAC day? Is this what President Barack Obama was thinking when visiting The Unknown Soldier’s grave at the War Memorial recently? We have, according to the Australian Government, 18,000 soldiers lying beneath the fields of France and Belgium; they deserve to be allowed to rest in peace.
I have been proposing to the Government since ANZAC day 2010 that a set of procedures should be established so that we can ensure our Diggers are protected.
At the very least a regulation should be initiated to ensure if any excavation work in the battlefields is to take place to dig trenches or dig foundations for a new building, a permit is required and the CWGC and the police are notified. Then, if remains are found, there is no excuse for the authorities not to be present and remove the remains in an orderly fashion and according to the regulations.
Some other options are:
1. Create an incentive program that entices the French farmers to report any finds rather than ignore remains and plough them back.
2. Speed up the process so that the farmers are not penalised by interrupting work on their farms.
3. Establish a facility in Northern France that can identify the remains by DNA and badges etc.
4. Create a publicity program to notify all relatives of Diggers MIA from WWI battles to register and contribute DNA samples for identification purposes.
5. Once the remains are identified, bury them in an appropriate war cemetery with full military honours.
If it proves to be too difficult to achieve the first option then I propose a second option: non-tillage farming.
This farming practice has been adopted all over the world including Australia where 22,239,000 acres are farmed this way. In essence it would mean the French farmers would not be continually ploughing our Diggers up over and over again.
This would require an investment from the Government including equipment and training. It is also a very green method of farming.
A third option would be for the Australian Government to lease farms along the trench lines of the major battlefields where the Australians fought. The lease would be for a year for each farm and would have to be very advantageous to the farmers to ensure their cooperation. Then a controlled and properly monitored dig could take place.
Fromelles was a wonderful example of what can be achieved and having attended the ceremony, I got a true sense of the importance of honouring our fallen soldiers who gave their lives for their country.
I met military historian Lambis Englezos in Melbourne on the 19th of July 2011 at the ceremony celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Fromelles cemetery. One thing I learned from him is persistence.
Questions have been asked in Parliament and I have spoken to many people. What comes across clearly is denial or just plain apathy. Only Andrew Wilkie and to a lesser extent Malcolm Turnbull have shown any real concern for our lost Diggers.
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