Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Lost Diggers (Remember Me Exhibition)

The Australian War Memorial has been running an exhibition which I've wanted to see since it opened in November and I was lucky enough to be able to go along to today with Audrey and Eli.

Nearly 100 years ago during the First World War the small French village of Vignacourt was behind the front lines and was a staging point, casualty clearing station and recreation area for troops of all nationalities moving up to and then back from the battlefields on the Somme.

Between 1916 and 1918 an enterprising French photographer took the opportunity of the passing military traffic to establish a business taking portrait photographs. He captured pictures of many nationalities, Australian, British, French, US, Indian and even Chinese (of which there were more than 10,000 workers in France at the time - something I hadn't realised).

The pictures were turned into cheap postcards which the soldiers could send back to loved ones around the globe. A fragile link in a time years before people carrying their own cameras, smart phones, email and facebook.

The photos (captured on glass) were lost for decades until a TV crew in 2011 went in search of them and discovered them in the old Thuiller family farmhouse. The farmhouse was dilapidated and for sale, but they discoverd a chest in the attic containing over 4,000 pictures lost for generations.

Many of the pictures were taken in front of a painted backdrop - of a classical Roman archway - I guess it was in an attempt to introduce beauty and structure into what must have been a horrific and chaotic environment for the soldiers. The chronicle of the discovery also told that the backdrop was also found - dusty and abandoned in the eaves of the farmhouse and is now on display alongside the photos.

The pictures have been printed, framed and displayed, produced at a higher quality than they ever would have been at the time. Only a few of the original (faded) postcards still remain. I found it an incredible exhibition. So many young men, who have seen so much horror of war and the memories of it somehow recorded in their faces and so many interesting interactions between soldiers and locals.

What I found sad was that many of the soldiers are unidentified, primarily I guess because the passing of generations which means that people forget family history, or where someone was at that time or what gallantry or service they carried out. Nevertheless it's a fabulous (and free) exhibition.

If you're  in Canberra before the end of July it's definitely something worth visiting.

Audrey and Eli liked the pictures - they spotted animals - some of the pictures contain military mascots - a soldier with a monkey on his shoulder (strangely the monkey is identified as Jenny, the soldier unidentified) two dogs and a puppy. There's also a great picture of a brass band.

It's hard visiting the War Memorial with kids, explaining why countries go to war and people shoot at others, Audrey and Eli don't really understand, but then I guess sometimes neither do I.

Some of the pictures from the exhibition

And some of us enjoying our time there

Audrey and Eli try the backdrop out for size

On board a submarine (in another part of the War Memorial)

Life on the ocean wave

Looking down to New Parliament House

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