Sunday Night tracks down an Aussie treasure

The outbreak of World War I was greeted with great enthusiasm in Australia and, before England even declared war on Germany, the Australian Prime Minister Joseph Cook pledged support for the Mother Country and mobilized troops. Little did the Australian soldiers know the horrors that awaited them – 52% of the 400,000 Aussie troops were killed or severely wounded.

After having fought in German New Guinea, Gallipoli and the Middle East, in 1916 the Anzacs were posted to the Western Front in France and Belgium. During two years of trench warfare the Australians suffered 115,000 casualties in battles like Fromelles, Bullecourt, Messines, Pozieres and Villers-Bretonneux.

Many wives, parents, sons and daughters lost loved ones in these massacres, and due to the lack of communication of the day, they often remained completely ignorant of how their loved ones died, or even where they died or where they were buried.

But the war also had its rare lighter moments and opportunities. In the small town of Vignacourt in northern France, an entrepreneurial famer and his wife, Louis and Antoinette Thuillier, had the idea of earning a few francs by taking souvenir photos of allied soldiers stationed nearby or billeted in the village. Having bought revolutionary photographic equipment, Louis Thuillier immediately started up his small business, apparently teaching his wife how to use the camera as he was often tied up with farming.  His enterprise resulted in a unique collection of photos of the Allied troops on the Western Front; photos that show a side of the war rarely seen: soldiers having fun, resting, mixing with the locals, and playing with kids.

Some of these photos made it back to Australia with the troops, but for nearly a century these rare images remained a mystery: as to where they had been taken and who the unknown photographer was.

Then, in 1988 Thuillier’s nephew, Robert Crognier, stumbled across crates filled with the original glass plates of the Thuillier photographs in the attic of the same barn where they had been taken decades before. Being an amateur photographer, Crognier was astonished by the treasure he had unearthed. Using special lighting techniques he printed some of the photos for a French-Australian ceremony in Vignacourt that year.

During this brief period of time when the photos surfaced, antiques dealer and World War One enthusiast Laurent Mirouze came to hear about the photos in Vignacourt. Mirouze travelled to the town, saw them for himself and was in awe. Extremely excited by the historical importance of this ‘lost treasure’, he contacted Australian and British authorities in Paris. Strangely they didn’t seem interested – and Mirouze was left frustrated for the next two decades.

Then, in late 2010, journalist (and former ABC and Al Jazeera chief) Max Uechtritz was hired by Seven Network’s Sunday Night program to look into another collection of photos from WW1. In doing so he got wind of the Thuillier trove. He called Laurent Mirouze. Laurent’s response went something like this: “I’ve been waiting for this call for 20 years”.

January 27, I caught the train from Freiburg, where I had been visiting my girlfriend, to join my father and the crew in bitterly cold northern France.

There were eight of us in the team: reporter Ross Coulthart, whom I had previously worked with, cameraman Matt Koopmans, soundman Dan Abbott, producer and researcher Max Uechritz, Australian war historian Peter Burness and our amusing and passionate French friend Laurent Mirouze.

After a large breakfast and vast quantities of water to get over the slightly-too-many-beers of the night before, the morning of the 28th found us in the trenches used by the Allied soldiers during the First World War. There had been a slight misunderstanding with our French equipment department: we had asked for a Mini-Jib (a crane for the camera about 2m long or less) and ended up with an enormous Jimmy-Jib (6m long with a robotic head and all kinds of complicated accessories). We therefore spent all day poring over manuals trying to figure out how to put the bloody thing together, never mind how to use it. It was a learning experience for all of us – including the cameraman, since it was his first time using a monster like this.

After about five hours freezing our butts off constructing the jib we realized that we hadn’t charged the battery for its robotic head. No drama. The owner of the museum where we were shooting cheerfully roared off to the nearest village in his decked-out, carbon fiber €300,000 Audi R8 (which made me seriously consider becoming a museum-curator) and picked us up a 30m extension cable. Just before the light faded we got our one and only jib shot for the day. Matt skillfully maneuvered our beast to capture a beautiful high pan of the trenches then zoomed down to Ross delivering his standup from the muddy depths of the trenches. Five hours of butt-freezing for about two minutes of footage – but believe me, it was worth it. Of course, with the thermometer still heading down, we then had to dismantle our friend Jimmy.

Our experience ‘in the trenches’ really made us admire the soldiers who were forced to sleep, eat and live in these muddy holes in sub-zero temperatures.

For the next few days we shot mainly in the Thuillier barn where the photos had been discovered. It offered some great photographic opportunities for me because of the amount of old interesting stuff lying around, for example a hundred year old petrol pump and a pram dating back to the early 1900s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We became very proficient with our friend Jimmy the Jib, our record construction-time being around 20 minutes. Matt and Dan also gave me a range of what they called ‘master-classes’, mostly to do with camerawork but also touching on a wide and interesting variety of life-skills. And I have to say, they’re great teachers! I love how Matt shoots and creates amazing pictures with the use of filters, lighting and effects. The promo shot for the story was one of the chests filled with photos, illuminated by a skylight in the roof of the attic, with dust billowing around it – incredibly cinematic.

It was certainly one of the best shoots I’ve been on, both because of how interesting the story was and the great people we were working with. Our crew Frenchman Laurent Mirouze, had us constantly doubled over with laughter with his sly wit and his wonderfully French accent. I have found that during every shoot there always seems to be a catchphrase/sentence, which everybody repeats to the point of ridiculousness. Laurent gave us the one for this shoot: “No,no,no,no,no,no,non…” said in a typical French accent and emphasised by a good finger-wagging. You had to be there.

We had some problems with the grandchildren of Mr. Thuillier who didn’t want to give us access to the photos, for reasons we still don’t understand – they refused offers of money and of publicity (seeing as the photos would be shown all over Australia, and may attract potential buyers) – and to top it all they didn’t really seem to care about the glass plates – bundled in boxes, in no order, unprotected and quickly deteriorating. Fortunately when Robert Crognier had originally discovered the plates he had kept a cache of them hidden from the grandchildren, and although he had passed away, his widow was happy to offer them to us, refusing any offers of money – she at least realized the historical value of these photos for Australia.

To ensure we had some images of the precious plates, we contacted a local photographer John Claude who used special techniques to make prints of them.

Filming this procedure was the last sequence of the story.  Unfortunately the prints were first preprocessed in the photographer’s studio and then had to be taken to his darkroom – outside of town – to be developed. We didn’t have time to go to both locations. Therefore with the use of lights with red filters and a lot of creativity we improvised a darkroom, which looked incredibly authentic.

After a scrumptious French meal at a local restaurant, Matt and I headed to the Aussie Bar of Amiens to have a final beer. It was a wrap.

Brendan

P.S. This story went to air Sunday the 27th of February. Sunday night created a Facebook page with all of the photos they acquired so people could help identify the Aussie soldiers. It’s an immense success, in the first 3 or 4 hours after the show went to air, 5000 people joined the Facebook page. By Monday Sunday Night’s website and photo galleries registered 1,000,000 hits. Aussies who had relatives in the Great War are entranced by the photos, and many have already identified great-grandparents, grandparents, great-uncles etc. Aussies are writing to Prime Minister Julia Gillard to organize a fund to bring the entire treasure trove back to the Australian War Memorial.

If you want to watch the program follow these links:

PART 1: http://au.tv.yahoo.com/sunday-night/video/-/watch/24334771/

PART 2: http://au.tv.yahoo.com/sunday-night/video/-/watch/24334819/

For the Facebook page and photo galleries search for “The Lost Diggers”.

I hope you enjoy/have enjoyed the program as much as I did!

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~ by brendo91 on 02/02/2011.

2 Responses to “Sunday Night tracks down an Aussie treasure”

  1. Hey Brendan, glad you enjoyed the shoot and we enjoyed your company and input.Lest we forget!

    Cheers
    Max

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