Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

The Lost Diggers

Three unidentified Australian soldiers wearing sheepskin vests photographed by Louis and Antoinette Thuillier in Vignacourt, France. Source: AWM

Richard Johnstone, ‘Captured by the Thuilliers’, Inside Story, 8 November 2014

From the archive – Remember Me: The Lost Diggers of Vignacourt is on show in Sydney until 15 January 2015. Richard Johnstone reviewed its Canberra run for Inside Story in March last year.

Remember Me: The Lost Diggers of Vignacourt Australian War Memorial Touring Exhibition, 
State Library of New South Wales until 18 January 2015

The Lost Diggers
 By Ross Coulthart, HarperCollins, $70

What are we looking for when we look at old photographs, particularly photographs of people long dead? What is it that holds our attention for more than a moment, and brings us back again? Many powerful, iconic images do just that – bring us back again and again – but sometimes the power resides not so much in a single image as in an entire collection, the individual components commenting on and illuminating one another to create something greater than its parts.

Such is the case with the photographs that make up the exhibition Remember Me: The Lost Diggers of Vignacourt. The exhibition draws on a vast collection of glass-plate photographic negatives – as many as 4000 of them – taken during the first world war in the small village of Vignacourt in northern France by a young man called Louis Thuillier and his wife Antoinette. It was in Vignacourt that Allied troops, many of them Australian, were granted brief respites from the relentless fighting just a matter of kilometres away.

The story of how Channel Seven’s Sunday Night program discovered this treasure trove, which lay largely undisturbed and surprisingly undamaged for almost one hundred years, fits the traditional pattern of such quests for hidden treasure. The moment of revelation, when the chest (in this case, three of them) is opened and the jewels are found glittering inside, came only at the end of a long and arduous journey, full of disappointments, false leads and obstacles strewn along the way. Ross Coulthart tells the story in The Lost Diggers, a book that includes many of the photographs developed from the rediscovered plates, together with biographical information on some of the men whose images have been preserved, in such astonishing detail, by means of emulsion on glass.

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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