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TRANSCRIPT
The Hon. Bruce Billson, MP
Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence
Tuesday, 24 July 2007
INTERVIEW WITH ABC NSW STATEWIDE DRIVE:
MASS GRAVE NEAR FROMELLES IN NORTHERN FRANCE MAY HOLD THE REMAINS OF MANY
MISSING AUSTRALIAN SOLDIERS FROM WWI
JOHN MORRISON:
A mass grave near Fromelles in northern France may hold the remains of some 160 missing Australian soldiers
from World War I. Historians say the grave site may be the largest mass grave found in western Europe since
World War II. It contains what is estimated to be over 400 bodies of which 160 of them are Australian.
And now an expert panel in Canberra will consider the next step to take and whether to conduct further
exploratory searches, which Bruce Billson, the Veterans' Affairs Minister says there's a lot more work to be done
before the graves are searched and part of that is the fact that the French and Belgian authorities are reluctant
to let searches proceed without solid evidence.
So where are we up to in another aspect of Australia's military history? Well I thought we'd talk to the Minister
and Bruce Billson joins me on the line this afternoon. Minister, good afternoon.
BRUCE BILLSON:
Good afternoon to you John and ABC Drive listeners.
JOHN MORRISON:
This is a very interesting find, isn't it, because it does show up what was one of the most tragic battles for
Australian soldiers but it approaches it from a different angle, a mass grave of Commonwealth soldiers.
BRUCE BILLSON:
Yes, John, it's not only an interesting find, it's an important part of a remarkable story. Many of your listeners
would be aware of the Battle of Fromelles in northern France at a time when the battles of the Somme were well
underway and our leadership, largely British imperial military leaders, thought a distraction, a decoy around
Fromelles would be an important strategic move. It turned out to be one of the darkest days in our military
history. Enormous, enormous loss of life, 5500 casualties and more than 2000 Australians died in about 24
hours. And one of the stories that emerged was this thought of mass graves, pits that were dug in the area
where the remains of Australian and British soldiers were taken and buried and then subsequently not
recovered as part of the extensive post war recovery operation.
JOHN MORRISON:
Yeah, and just the point too that was raised that the Belgian and French authorities don't want anybody just
poking around uncovering or looking. They're very determined about who can go where with these searches,
aren't they?
BRUCE BILLSON:
Well they are, but they're also remarkably helpful. I mean many of your listeners who've travelled to the Western
Front would know that in the north of France and the south of Belgium on a daily basis the sacrifice of
Australians is commemorated and it's something that's very much a part of their community education for
younger generations linking this service of young Australians, thousands of miles away, fighting for the liberty of
those local communities. So the reverence and the respect is there but also the fact that these are where people
live, these are farms that people work on and part of the post war recovery was this extensive effort to recover
the remains of those that lost their lives in temporary graves.
So they're certainly open to carrying out that work as a nation does what it needs to do in respecting the special
duty we have to those that have served, but they certainly discourage reckless enquiries. They don't want it
looking like the gold fields where people…
JOHN MORRISON:
Yeah, yeah.
BRUCE BILLSON:
…are just moving around doing their own thing…
JOHN MORRISON:
No, that's right.
BRUCE BILLSON:
So what we've done is move slowly towards this goal where historical records have been examined, including
from the Germans…
JOHN MORRISON:
Yes. Yes.
BRUCE BILLSON:
…and I'm shown…
JOHN MORRISON:
Yes, because that was the source of the information, wasn't it, the fact that they collected personal items from
the soldiers before burying them and sent them back to the Allied side.
BRUCE BILLSON:
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Yeah, that's right, John, and the fact that we find German reports of planning for the battle, bearing in mind the
Germans could see all of our preparations and that's what added to the tragedy of the occasion. And there are
military reports of these mass pits being dug, of light rail being put in place to carry the remains. And this is
what's been part of the story we've examined. We've found the location. We've had non-intrusive examination of
the sites which add weight to our theory that we think this is the site of a mass grave, aerial photographs confirm
the location of the pits, but most importantly we've actually found remnants on the surface of the pits that
confirm that they weren't opened again after the war and that's what's leading us to where we are now.
JOHN MORRISON:
Minister, just briefly, if it is established as a Commonwealth war grave, will it be opened up or will it be left and
recognised?
BRUCE BILLSON:
Well there are a couple of options, bearing in mind there are many like - possibly many times the number of
British war dead there than Australians, we'll need to work closely with the Brits.
One possibility though is to establish a new war cemetery that allows these remains to lay in peace, given the
time that's elapsed, and give them a proper commemoration without further disturbing them. These are the
discussions we need to canvass with the British and local authorities.
JOHN MORRISON:
Minister, I can tell you just on one other brief matter too, one of our listeners, who rang only a short time ago,
Murray from down at Bermagui was over the moon this afternoon. He's received his service medal from his
service period in Korea in 1951 and I said I would mention it to you as a Veterans' Affairs Minister that the fact
he's received it. He is the happiest man in the South Coast, I think.
BRUCE BILLSON:
Murray and Bermagui and the broader Bermagui community can know that Murray's made that contribution and
we thank him on behalf of a grateful nation.
JOHN MORRISON:
Minister, I appreciate your time this afternoon. I look forward to following this story, if we can, with you.
BRUCE BILLSON:
John, good to keep in touch and best wishes to ABC Drive listeners.
JOHN MORRISON:
Mr Billson, thanks for your time this afternoon.
BRUCE BILLSON:
Take care.
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JOHN MORRISON:
That's Bruce Billson, the Veterans' Affairs Minister joining us this afternoon on Statewide.
Media information:
Cameron Hill 0408 239 521
Defence Media Liaison (02) 6265 3343 or 0408 498 664
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