This week of remembrance seems an apt time to reflect on why we are doing this in the first place.
Some of the seeds were planted eight years ago at Fromelles in northern France, when a team led by Tony Pollard from the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Battlefield Archaeology – now a partner on Digging In – went to investigate the ground at Pheasant Wood. We were there to find the remains of some of the British and Australian soldiers who lost their lives in the battle of Fromelles on July 19-20, 1916.
The Australian troops had landed in France only a few days earlier, the Brits in May; for both this was their first experience of combat. They went over the top after a seven-hour Allied artillery bombardment which, it turned out, had little effect on German defences. As they advanced across No Man’s Land, they were mown down by machine guns protected in concrete bunkers. Some managed to reach enemy trenches that proved to be flooded and indefensible, and with no reserves and poor protection the soldiers found themselves stranded. Many more were killed or captured trying to return to their own lines.
Over that 24 hours, more than 5550 Australians, 1500 British and 1600 Germans lost their lives. The Germans buried many of the Allied dead in mass graves behind their lines, including several hundred in some large pits beside Pheasant Wood which had never been found. The archaeological investigation brought those hastily buried soldiers to light so that they could be buried again, this time with proper respect, and some even reunited with their names and in memory with their families.
The process of carefully uncovering so many broken bodies brought home – to use Wilfred Owen’s phrase – the pity of war like nothing had before: the extinguishing of these young lives and the devastation wrought on the people who had known and loved them.
The grave pits held small clues to individual stories and attachments: a bronze good luck charm around one soldier’s neck; a matchbox made by a firm in Gloucester; a return train ticket from Perth to Fremantle, where men boarded ships for the Western Front.
At a little museum in the village, some of these men and boys smiled from faded photos set among ancient canteens and shells dragged from local fields. Proud and shiny in their new uniforms, they exuded a vitality that was completely at odds with the obscenity of their fates.
A similar dissonance comes through in soldiers’ accounts of their experiences, like those recorded by the Imperial War Museum – some of which you can listen to online. They describe barely imaginable horrors with incredible dignity, compassion and even humour. Some soldiers created gardens behind the lines, yearning for beauty and growth among all that devastation and waste. They are everywhere, these expressions of humanity in the face of such brutality.
Sometimes today there is a kind of distaste for anything that focuses so directly on war and how people cope with its impacts. It seems to arise from a feeling that to focus on the human experience without first fitting an anti-war filter is to de-politicise a conflict, and is somehow amoral. But the accounts, the images and the archaeology of World War I speak more loudly than any political rhetoric could.
At Digging In, it’s about exploring what people endured and what helped them survive, and how the collective experiences of war affected our society. It’s a form of remembrance against the extinguishing of life. And that is why we are digging in.
— Olivia Lelong, Northlight Heritage