For the diggers

Jun 3rd, 2008 | By | Category: Personal Columns

The news last Saturday of the return of David Beckham as captain of the English soccer team contrasted sharply with another story that had been breaking over the past week, a story of a commitment and heroism that puts into perspective those who hide behind agents and seven figure salaries.

This morning’s Guardian reports on the excavation at Fromelles in northern France where, on a day in 1916, Australia suffered the worst 24 hours in its history. In the context of the overwhelming numbers of losses, Fromelles was just another day at the Western Front, countless lives lost in an attempt to capture a few hundred yards of mud defended by German machine guns in concrete shelters, an exploit truly worthy of Blackadder.

The faces of the fallen would have made those who lined up in England shirts last week look like old men, Harry Willis: joined up at 19 and dead, and his body thrown into a pit, at the age of 21. Bravery is not playing in a soccer match, bravery is being a teenage boy and travelling to the other side of the world to fight in someone else’s war, because, however pointless it might seem to others, you believed it was the right thing to do.

Fromelles is a reminder of real heroes, all the more heroes because this was not their war. Ninety-two years later, perhaps they will at last find a final resting place. The Australian Government found millions of dollars to send soldiers to Iraq, perhaps it will be able to find a fraction of that amount to allow the descendants of the fallen to travel to France for a commemoration.

Commemoration recognizes the dignity of those who died, it says that everyone is worthy of respect; it is a gesture to the dead, more importantly, it is a lesson for the living.

The senselessness of those years is perhaps expressed best in satire.


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  1. Commemoration certainly, but leave whatever remains there are left now where they rest!

  2. Harry Willis is commemorated here:

    He is one of 10,770 Australian servicemen whose names appear on the memorial. I think the enormity of the losses would be brought home much more forcibly if there were at least headstones for those buried at Fromelles.

  3. Grannymar I agree wholeheartedly

  4. The plan for Australian troops is to try to identify as many as possible and bury them in France as there’s a military graveyard there for fallen allied soldiers. The dig is a joint effort by the British, French and Australians and supervised by the Australian army. It’s unlikely the Australian Government will pay for a commemoration that includes family members. The recent commemoration for sailors on the Sydney (sunken ship during WWII where almost all perished) allowed a ballot for 20 family members to visit the site as a commemoration. There are expected to be 170 Aussies and 400 brits buried there.

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