Monday, June 1, 2009

Digging up the past

In Australian military history, the battle at Fromelles, in northern France, on 19 July 1916 was particularly murderous. Before the end of that deadly day, 5,500 Australians were either killed, missing or wounded. In 2008, mass graves of several hundred Australian and British soldiers were discovered here. A few weeks ago, a project was initiated, aimed at excavating the remains and reburying them at an official site.

The following photos are by Michel Spingler (AP Photo). The first one shows French veterans of a later war waiting for the mechanical shovel to get into action, with green tarpaulins separating the scene from a Christian church in the background:

The second photo shows two Australian officers standing on the sidelines as the excavation gets under way:

To my mind, the operation that consists of digging up an amorphous mass of unidentifiable remains of victims of an absurd battle that took place 93 years ago, in order to rebury them elsewhere, is totally senseless, indeed surrealistic. The aims of this curious project do not happen to correspond to any of my personal convictions concerning the sacred nature of human life, the horrors of warfare, or the respect that our societies owe to the descendants of the victims. Are there still naive people who would like to imagine that the war of 1914-18 was, in some macabre sense, "great"? In any case, it is not by dislodging the unrecognizable remains of victims of an ancient war, whom none of us knew personally, that we shall reduce the risk of new conflicts. This energy should be devoted to more urgent challenges.


  1. I agree - there are hundreds of thousands of bodies and bits of bodies in the fields of France and Belgium.

    Are we forever going to ferret around to find ancient corpses so that they can be re-buried somewhere else?

    I lost an uncle in the Somme and have been there once to see where he died -and am taking my brother there again later this year.

    His body was not found and identified but I am quite happy for him to lie there undisturbed in those fields.

    In fact I think its the best place for him. He fought and died there with his mates and they will lie together in peace forever.

  2. A few days, I came upon a perspicacious and intriguing observation. Somebody (I forget who it was) said that, whenever two individuals continue to argue about any theme whatsoever—from economics and politics through to science and philosophy—one of them will inevitably find it worthwhile, indeed absolutely necessary, to drag the subject of Hitler into their discussion. You might call this the Ubiquitous Nazism Syndrome (UNS).

    Unlike my friend Badger, certain fellow Australians of my generation might take offense at the final paragraph of my post, considering that dead soldiers merit an official resting-place with engraved names, etc. And, if I were to get into an argument with such people, it is almost inevitable that somebody would end up evoking a German soldier name Adolf Hitler who actually participated in various battles on the Western Front. Ah, if only that nasty guy had been mowed down at Fromelles instead of thousands of innocent young Australians!

    Getting back to the theme of unearthing the remains of dead soldiers and placing them in an official burial site, the above photos irritate me because of the presence of the mechanical shovel and the green tarpaulins, as if they were investigating a crime scene. (Some observers might say that it was indeed a crime scene.) Then I'm annoyed too by the pompous presence of the veterans, and the flags, and the Australian officers in uniform. That doesn't leave much to satisfy me, you might say! Well, it does. Let me explain...

    The project at Fromelles is being handled by professional archaeologists. It's what they refer to, colloquially, as a dig. A dig for dead Diggers. Most archaeological digs call upon young volunteers who see this as an interesting and worthwhile way of spending a few weeks out in the sunshine of a foreign land. (I'm thinking particularly of digs in the Holy Land, described extensively in the excellent Biblical Archaeology Review.)

    Well, here's my idea: Why doesn't the Australian government submit this entire Western Front project to the youth of Australia? Would they be interested in participating in what might be termed Anzac Camps, in the summer of northern France? The Australian authorities would finance local accommodation and meals (maybe by purchasing and developing a local farmhouse), but participants in the dig would be expected to pay their return fare to France. Participants (French and British as well as Australian) would spend, say, a month in such an Anzac Camp, where they would be symbolic guests of the corresponding French locality: Fromelles, Pozières, Bullecourt, Villers-Bretonneux, etc. This might be a splendid way of establishing links between the youth of Australia and the land where their ancestors died. They would be faced with the profound responsibility of digging up, literally and manually (in the correct style of archaeologists), the bones of their forefathers.