Remember Me: The Lost Diggers Of Vignacourt

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Great photos tell a story without words – as is the case with this remarkable collection of photographs, Remember me: the lost diggers of Vignacourt, which is on display at the Glasshouse until February 5. Lauren Hewitt, Curator of Photographs, Film and Sound at the Australian War Memorial, fills us in on the significance of the exhibition.

Hi Lauren. Please introduce yourself …

My name is Lauren Hewitt, and I am a curator of Photographs, Film and Sound at the Australian War Memorial. As a curator, I take care of many aspects of the collection at the War Memorial, from acquiring new works and collections; researching and telling the stories behind many of our photographs; to ensuring the collection is well looked after, housed and preserved for future generations.

Where did the idea to put together the exhibition Remember me: the lost diggers of Vignacourt originate?

When we acquired the collection of glass plate negatives taken by Louis and Antoinette Thuillier, we were haunted by the gritty, often weary looking faces of these unnamed men. We may not have known who they were, but we knew they had a story to tell. The rather remarkable story of their discovery, in the attic in France, and the fact that this collection of extremely fragile glass-plate photographs remained largely intact after so many years added to their allure.

What was the significance of the French village, Vignacourt, during World War I?

Vignacourt, just north of Amiens, was a vital rest and training area for Australian troops during the First World War. Thousands of Australian soldiers were billeted in the village as they moved to and from the battlefields of the Somme during the bleak winter of 1916-17. For many, during this period, it was a refuge. They had the chance to visit a bath and laundry, get issued with fresh clothing, visit local cafés and estaminets and mingle with the local women and children.

Later in the war, as the Germans again advanced toward Amiens, Vignacourt was established as a vital communications hub and casualty clearing station. 585 soldiers, mostly Australians, are buried at the Vignacourt war cemetery. Significantly, it was at Vignacourt on 11 November 1918, that Australia’s 5th Brigade learned of the news that the war had ended.

The techniques photographers used to capture the photos that form this exhibition were markedly different to those used by photographers today. Tell us a bit about the process of capturing these images on glass and how they were then used to create postcards …

At the turn of the 20th Century, photography – like today – was very popular. It was a relatively new technology, but by the onset of the First World War, it was becoming increasingly more accessible to the keen amateur.

While many soldiers had personal cameras, the carrying of them on the Western Front was banned. So, when on leave the men often sought out studios, such as the Thuillier’s, to have their photos taken and to send home as postcards. The photo postcard, at that time, was a social phenomenon, with countless numbers of them being sent all over the world.

Entrepreneurs such as Louis Thuillier saw the opportunity to set up studios and provide an invaluable service to the allied troops.

The photographs were taken on glass plates, about the size of a postcard, that were coated with a light sensitive photographic emulsion. A single glass plate yielded a single photograph. The cameras used to take this size negative were large and cumbersome; often the exposures took several seconds. The photographer would then need to develop the image on the glass plate, in darkness, using photographic chemicals.

Once developed, the image would then be contact printed onto postcard paper, again coated with a light sensitive emulsion, and fixed (or stabilised) with chemicals. These materials were generally available as pre-made, commercial products, Louis likely buying his supplies from a photographic store in Amiens. As the war went on, however, and supplies were harder to get, photographers often had to cut their own glass to size and coat it themselves with a silver based emulsion.

The photographers are believed to have taken over 4,000 photos originally of troops from various nationalities, of which over 800 featuring Australians were donated to the Australian War Memorial by Mr Kerry Stokes AC in 2012. What’s the history behind the Stokes family obtaining these photographs?

Historians at the Memorial and elsewhere were aware of the existence of a collection of photographs in Vignacourt as early as the 1990s. Some of the photographs had been seen in local cafés and museums. In 2011, working with a local French historian and the Sunday Night program (Seven TV Network), Memorial historian Peter Burness travelled to France, to unearth the collection. It consisted of several thousand glass-plate negatives of Australian, British, Canadian and French troops, as well as Chinese labour corps and French civilians. Housed in the attic of the Thuillier farmhouse, where the photos were taken almost 100 years ago, the collection was discovered almost entirely intact. The collection was then purchased privately by Mr Stokes and brought to Australia.

The exhibitions showcases 74 of the images donated by Mr Stokes … as Curator, how/why were these particular images selected from amongst so many?

When putting together the exhibition, we, of course, wanted to focus on the story of the Australian soldiers. As we were selecting for the exhibition, we could see several recurring themes emerging. The images that were selected are some of the most striking within the collection, but they also tell us a lot about the hardships of war and give us a glimpse into the different characters that made up the quintessential Australian soldier, the relationships that they formed with each other, as well as with soldiers of other nationalities and French civilians.

Where can our readers view more photos from the Thuillier family’s collection?

The exhibition will include a touch screen interactive that displays all 800 of the Australian photographs held in the Memorial’s collection. Readers can also view the collection on our website: https://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/remember-me/

For further information about the collection or identifications please contact our curators on photofilmsound@awm.gov.au. Please read our FAQ page before contacting us: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/photographs/vignacourt/

Thanks Lauren.

Interview by Jo Robinson.

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