And then there were the missing … 23,000 diggers were listed as missing … those who simply disappeared in the deep fog of war. Imagine their families? … dealing with the nagging doubt of not knowing what had happened to their loved ones.
The story of the missing Diggers from the battle of Fromelles shows how the war even today has a lingering impact on hundreds of Australian families. At Fromelles, a tiny village in north-eastern France, the Diggers fought their first battle after Gallipoli and their first on the Western Front in France, on 19 July 1916.
It was an unmitigated disaster. Of the 7000 diggers who attacked, almost 2000 were killed and 3,500 were wounded or captured – in 12 hours. To this day, it was the worst night in Australia’s history. We lost more men on that day than we did in total in the Boer, Korean and Vietnam wars and all subsequent conflicts.
Of the 2000 who died at Fromelles, almost 1,300 were declared ‘missing’ and their families were thrust into that terrible netherworld, not knowing how their loved ones had died or even whether they had died at all.
Some mothers kept their front veranda lights on for the rest of their lives, in case their sons came home.
Thanks to the work of a Greek-born, retired Melbourne art teacher and amateur historian, Lambis Englezos, we learned that the Germans had buried 250 Diggers who were killed at Fromelles in a mass grave.
Since then, using DNA-matching with descendants, 166 of those 250 Diggers – or two-thirds of them – have now been identified and given graves and headstones in the newly-created Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery in Fromelles.
In fact, another seven missing Fromelles Diggers will be given an official burial and headstones on this year’s anniversary of the battle, as the work of Lambis and his team continues.