Keeping the wheels turning
After a brief hiatus, the Australian War Memorial’s exhibition Remember me: the lost diggers of Vignacourt has opened at the Glasshouse in Port Macquarie, the first of nine venues across regional Australia. Public interest in the collection of images captured by Louis and Antoinette Thuillier is likewise being renewed, and these images continue to reward careful study.
From their makeshift photographic studio in the village of Vignacourt the French couple have produced a body of work that enables every Australian to peer into the lives of ordinary soldiers. The affection felt for these men by exhibition visitors is heightened by the thrill of a grandfather or great uncle being recognised. However, as a true and accurate record of life behind the lines these images also have forensic value, which continues to pay dividends for anyone willing to study them. These soldiers are photographed as they appeared during rest periods, far from the polished perfection of studio portraits taken back in Australia. As well as the muddied boots and misshapen slouch hats, one can see men wearing Australian insignia on British pattern tunics, wearing uniforms that have been swapped with their French allies, or wearing their uniform badges in ways that bear little resemblance to AIF regulations. These photographs also offer other insights into life on the Western Front.
In addition to their home photography studio, Louis Thuillier may have provided other supplements to the family’s income. Journalist Ross Coulthart notes that Louis was known by his neighbours as “Peugeot” Thuillier, because of the Peugeot bicycle repair shop he established in 1907 as a sideline to his machinery hire business. The sign for the bicycle business can be seen in at least one of the Thuillier photographs, and when the treasure trove of negatives was discovered in the farmhouse attic by Coulthart and Memorial historian Peter Burness the Thuillier farm complex was still cluttered with remnants of farm machinery, old wheels, and bicycle parts. Louis Thuillier’s passion for two-wheeled transportation, and the technical skill that went with it, is also evident in some of his photographs in less obvious ways.
Take the first image (P10550.147), which depicts three despatch riders from the British Army, each astride a Triumph Model H. More than 50,000 of these motorcycles were manufactured for use during the First World War, and their reliability in the field saw them nicknamed “the Trusty”. Despite its overall reliability, though, the Model H was notorious for a weakness in the front fork spring, which had a tendency to break on particularly rough terrain. These soldiers have adopted the measure taken by most despatch riders, wrapping leather straps around the front forks as a precaution. They can be seen on each motorcycle below the headlamps.
We know these men are British because of the pattern of their tunics; no buttons on their cuffs, an extra layer of cloth above the breast pockets (so-called “rifle patches”, which prevented wear from rifle and webbing) and the “RE” (Royal Engineers) insignia on their shoulder straps. A small child, possibly the photographer’s own son, Robert, is glimpsed in the background. But of particular interest is the despatch rider on the right, specifically his motorcycle.
This same rider and motorcycle can be seen in P10550.149, which affords a better view of his mount.
On the front wheel some spokes have been treated with what looks like oil, leaving marks where the spoke meets the rim. The oil is still visible, indicating freshness. A quick examination shows that this oil appears to have been applied to every second spoke.
Wear and tear can cause a motorcycle wheel rim to shift off-centre over the axle and turn unevenly. Several techniques can be employed to correct the problem, and these would explain the presence of oil. The wheel could have been “dished”, to centre it properly, or it could have been “trued”, to make sure it runs in a straight, vertical plane. Either technique would demand adjustments to the spokes. On a bike wheel, the first spoke at the valve will connect to the hub on the right side, the second spoke to the left side, and so on, alternating around the rim. Tightening every second spoke – that is, every spoke connected to the hub on the left side of the wheel – will pull the entire rim toward the left. It is possible that the oil marks around the front wheel of this motorcycle are evidence of this work. A military motorcycle on the Western Front would be plying some truly awful roads and laneways, so the threaded nipples connecting the spoke to the rim would almost certainly be choked with dirt. A squirt of oil, sufficiently viscous to work its way into the thread, could be needed to loosen them.
What is interesting is that the work on this motorcycle wheel likely commenced shortly before the photograph was taken; this could mean that these repairs are the reason the soldiers are there. At the very least, it suggests that it was not a photograph which initially brought these men to the Thuillier’s house. It is possible that these soldiers went to a local civilian for some maintenance on their motorcycles, and as an afterthought decided to have their photograph taken. We know that Louis Thuillier was known as a local source of mechanical expertise, and that this expertise was being advertised during the war. If Louis Thuillier is repairing this motorcycle, did he regularly repair other bicycles and motorcycles for the stream of allied soldiers that passed through Vignacourt?
Since their discovery, Louis and Antoinette Thuillier’s photographs have provided a powerful emotional link to Australia’s military past, and families continue to celebrate the identification of their relatives as the Memorial’s exhibition tours communities across the country. But closer study can reveal hidden richness, or raise further questions, and the potential of these photographs as historical documents continues to be explored.