Terry O’Meara’s winning speech — Feel the Fear – Arthur Garvey Speaker of the Year
‘One return ticket from Perth to Fremantle, please sir.’
The ticket clerk looked up at the young soldier resplendent in his new uniform, his handsome face smiling out from under the brim of his slouch hat.
‘Mum said no son of hers is going off to war on a one-way ticket,’ he explained. The soldier tucked the ticket into the breast pocket of his uniform and was soon swallowed up by the sea of khaki that flooded into the train’s carriages bound for Fremantle to board a ship headed for the war in Europe.
The year was 1916 and one would have expected that the news of heavy losses at Gallipoli the previous year would reduce enlistments but they had in fact increased sixfold in the intervening months. Young men in search of adventure who thought that they were 10 feet tall and bullet proof. They just did not feel the fear, frightened only that the war might end before they got there. In 1916 Gallipoli veterans joined with fresh young troops from Australia to fight in northern France. Their first taste of trench warfare was on the 19th July 1916 near the little-known town of Fromelles. They came under the command of two British generals, Haig and Haking, who told them that the artillery would smash through the German defences and lay them open to attack. ‘It would be a walk in the park.’
They were wrong and the young diggers had no choice but to place their faith in commanders who had failed to adapt to the new ways of mechanised warfare. Poor reconnaissance, inadequate preparation, flawed execution and lack of cover combined with the depth and experience of the German defenders predisposed the young diggers to calamitous failure. The casualties that night were devastating. Out of 7000 attackers 5533 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner: the greatest loss of life in one night from any cause in Australia’s history.
There can be few more stark examples of the futility of war than the destruction of these young men as a result of the stupidity and cavalier indifference of their commanders. Whether the intention was to protect the reputations of the commanders or because authorities could feel the fear of a possible backlash from the Australian public, details of the battle were conveniently airbrushed from all news reports. Although it was Australia’s first action on the western front and our worst military tragedy the battle of Fromelles never found its way into our history books and no Australian war memorial records that the battle ever took place. Despite the heavy losses suffered that night hundreds of Australians broke through the German front line trenches but, with no plan for holding their ground or adequate back up, they were trapped by the German counter attack and slaughtered. The fate of those who died behind the German lines was to remain unknown for more than 90 years.
Without question the worst news that a family can receive of their loved one is to be told that he is missing in action. Young wives would have their widow’s pensions denied because they were unable to prove the death of their husbands. More often than not mothers would live out their lives in pain of the unknown until they would go to their graves without ever knowing. Annie Stalgis was one of a thousand mothers who clung to the hope that her son, Gregory, would come home one day. All the while she could feel the fear that she would never see him again. For years after the war until her death in 1941, she would stand at the garden gate at the end of each day looking down the road waiting for him to come home. As far as their families or the rest of the world knew, on the 19th July 1916 these young men simply disappeared near a small village in France.
They would have remained in the mists of history if it had not been for a Greek born Australian art teacher from Melbourne who made it his quest to find them almost 90 years later.
Lambis Englezos is a quiet, unassuming man. Although he was born in Greece, he developed his hobby as an amateur military historian through his interest in the Anzacs and a strong love for his adopted country. These days Lambis is about as Greek as a vegemite sandwich. One day while reading a book on Australia’s famous victory at Pozieres in 1916 he came across a reference to a previous battle at Fromelles that he had not heard of before. Lambis’ interest in Fromelles began to grow to such an extent that he travelled to France in 1996 for the 80th anniversary of the battle. But it was in 2002 while visiting the Australian cemetery at VC corner that he became aware that the number of Australians buried in the area was less than the number of names of the missing engraved on the memorial. This led him to wonder how many there were who remained unfound. A growing feeling welled up inside him. These missing diggers were waiting for him to find them.
On his return to Australia Lambis began extensive research to find out how many were missing, who they were and where they were. His passion had now become an obsession. He gathered a small close-knit group of likeminded amateurs around him who became known as the Lambis team. Their research of cemetery records confirmed that approximately 170 diggers had not been officially buried. A study of aerial photographs taken before and after the battle in 1916 revealed an area of disturbed ground near a place called Pheasant Wood. The Germans had kept impeccable records from which it was possible to confirm that they had buried foreign troops in a mass grave at Pheasant Wood. More importantly, before doing so, they recorded the names of the dead from their identification tags. Lambis was confident now that he had the number of missing soldiers, their names and where they could be found.
The team sent its findings to the Australian Army and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs but all they met with were road blocks, dead ends and prevarication. Reluctantly Lambis decided to go to the press and began to lobby, cajole and harass all forms of the media. His cajoling seemed to have paid off when an article in The Australian on 18th July 2003 introduced the story of the missing soldiers to the Australian public for the first time.
His team was invited to present its case to a special government panel of experts but some 18 months later no progress had been made.
In the meantime, support for the cause continued to grow and in July 2006 Lambis was interviewed on 60 Minutes in front of two million TV viewers. Finally, in December that year, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Bruce Billson, announced that he had appointed Dr Tony Pollard from the Centre of Battlefield Archaeology in Glasgow to carry out an investigation of the Pheasant Wood site. In May 2007 Dr Pollard reported that he had found sufficient evidence to support an excavation of the site. This work began in May 2008 and it soon became evident that the site did, in fact, contain human remains. In the months that followed the skeletal remains of 250 British and Australian soldiers were recovered from the mass grave. The elderly French couple who owned the farm on which the grave was found donated the property so that a proper cemetery could be built. Usable DNA was extracted from all 250 skeletons prompting calls for relatives of the deceased to supply DNA samples to help identify them.
When the remains of Gregory Stalgis were identified from DNA supplied by descendants of Annie Stalgis, a family member visited Annie’s grave in Sydney to tell her – ‘Annie, we found him.’
Since February this year the missing soldiers of Fromelles have each been reburied in their own graves with full military honours. Young men who fought so bravely now had no reason to feel the fear that they would never be found. The last soldier was buried just 12 days ago on 19th July, exactly 94 years after his death, as part of the dedication ceremony for the new cemetery. This closed the saddest chapter in Australian military history that would not have been possible without the hard work and tenacity of Lambis Englezos and his team.
Among the remains of one soldier was a small folded piece of paper, crushed and broken like his dreams of a journey home that was never made. Barely legible on the paper were the printed words:
‘One return ticket from Perth to Fremantle’
Terry O’Meara – Arthur Garvey Speaker of the Year 2010