World War One treasure trove found

25 February 2011 by Peter Burness

Vignacourt is an old rural village in France, larger than most, 12 kilometres north of the city of Amiens. During the First World War it stood behind the front-line of the Somme fighting, although the action was never far away and soldiers were always present.  For much of the time it was a forward rest area where troops arrived to recover from recent battle and prepare for the next. Men were billeted in the houses, lofts, stables and barns, and mixed freely with the villagers.

A photo from the Memorial's collection of an unidentified Australian soldier standing in a street in Vignacourt in 1919.

The comings and goings of the troops, British, Indian, French, Australians, and Americans, and even some of the Chinese Labour Corps, was recorded by a local photographer, Louis Thuillier and his wife. Throughout much of the war they photographed the fighting men who came to their humble outdoor studio in the courtyard of their house. Thousands of their photographs must have found their way to homes around the world, including Australia.

Remarkably the Thuilliers’ glass plate negatives still exist, sitting almost undisturbed for nearly a century.  They have recently been located by investigators from Australia’s Channel 7.   An unknown number of the photographs show Australian diggers, but they must number in the hundreds.

Research at the Australian War Memorial indicates that the Australian photographs were mostly taken in November 1916 and during November-December 1918.  Among the latter are scenes of celebration on the day the war ended, 11 November 1918. A study of the soldiers’ faces shows men pleased to be away from the dangers of the front-line, although many also show the strain of recent heavy action or that accumulated over years of fighting.

The first Australian troops in Vignacourt were men of the 1st Division who were billeted there only days before facing the horror of the fighting at Pozieres on 23 July 1916.  A few months later the survivors of the battles of Fromelles and Pozieres moved into the Somme trenches where they would face the misery of the wet and frozen trenches in an ordeal some found worse than heavy battle. Some of the exhausted brigades went to Vignacourt to recover.

The history of the 5th Australian Battalion records its move to Vignacourt:

The Australian regiment was weary, untidy, and muddy to the last degree ... their despondency was noticeable, though not to be wondered at, when one remembers the misery of the preceding days in the mud. The Fifth underwent a rigid course of training in Vignacourt.  New clothes were issued, and the men were refitted generally.  Five hours daily of hard work soon had its effect, and the Regiment rapidly regained its physical and mental fitness.

The Vignacourt photographs are a record of Australian troops in France and their interaction with French civilians, and present unique evidence of the life and experiences of men following battle. The story of the amazing photographs and their discovery airs on Sunday Night at 6.30pm on the Seven Network.

Update: There is also a Facebook page called Lost diggers with more photos, video, and details about who to contact if you think you can identify any of the soldiers.