Putting names to our unknown World War 1 legends

The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP
Assistant Minister for Defence
Assistant Minister for Veterans' Affairs

OPINION PIECE

On Anzac Day, in the Somme region of France, locals join Australians to remember the Aussie Diggers who fought to save their towns in the Great War.

This year is especially significant because five soldiers who have been missing since the Battle of Fromelles, more than 106 years ago, have now been formally identified.

There is no question the Battle of Fromelles was one of the worst days in Australia's military history.

It is the site of the greatest loss of life Australia's armed forces ever suffered in a 24-hour period.

In the early evening of July 19, 1916, elements of the 5th Australian Division, along with the soldiers of the British 61st, were preparing to attack the German lines at Fromelles.

They were among the first Australians on the Western Front. Many were veterans of Gallipoli. Others were new reinforcements.

We can only imagine the advice or wry jokes the old hands must have exchanged with the fresh faces as they readied to go over the top.

As they rose above the parapet and moved into no man's land, they met a resolute German resistance.

The Germans had a clear view of the assault, and quickly unleashed a terrible hail of fire and shrapnel.

The attack was a catastrophic failure. The losses were devastating. The 5th Australian Division suffered more than 5500 casualties.

They were ordinary Australians who had answered their nation's call and yet the final resting place of many remained unknown. Families never knew where they lay, nor if they had received a proper burial.

For thousands of families, this was a tragically common story.

It is a story of how pain and loss continued to echo down, long after the guns had ceased to fire.

This Anzac Day, we return the names to five of these brave soldiers.

Corporal William John Stephen, from the 55th Battalion AIF, was born in Balmain and worked as a grocer when he enlisted in Liverpool in July 1915. Corporal Stephen was 28 years old when he was killed in action.

Private Richard James McGuarr, from the 32nd Battalion AIF, was born in Lismore and was a dairy farmer when he enlisted in October 1915. Private McGuarr was 27 years old when he was killed in action.

We now know the final resting place of these young men from NSW, along with Sergeant Oscar Eric Baumann from South Australia and Western Australia's Private Alexander Russell Robert Page and Private Maurice James Claxton.

We were only able to identify these soldiers thanks to the brilliant work of volunteers and Defence personnel. They performed rigorous research and analysis to identify these men.

The remains of these five soldiers were recovered, along with 250 of their fallen comrades, from a mass grave near Pheasant Wood in 2009.

In 2010 they were reinterred at the newly created Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery as Unknown Soldiers.

It was an honour to visit the resting places of these brave men and, on behalf of the Australian government, pay tribute to their sacrifice. They gave their lives in the service of our nation, just as 46,000 other Australians did on the Western Front.

A memorial at Villers-Bretonneux commemorates their sacrifice, and is the site where we hold the Anzac Day Dawn Service in France.

At Villers-Bretonneux 10,800 names are commemorated on the Australian National Memorial. It is difficult today to fathom the scale of loss those 10,800 names represent.

And yet it is a fraction of the more than 60,000 Australians who were killed in service during WWI when so many families across our nation were touched by tragedy.

On Anzac Day, we remember them. We remember them all. We honour their service and their sacrifice. Lest we forget.

ENDS

This opinion piece was first published in The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, 25 April 2023.

 

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