GUARDIAN 7: Madame Demassiet
Villers-Bretonneux was not the only French village deeply interconnected with Australians in World War I. According to Fromelles landowner Madame Demassiet, her village had also been beset by busloads of visiting Australians. And she had become a bit of a celebrity herself, owing to her cooperation during the process of finding, exhuming and bequeathing proper burials for the ‘Lost Diggers of Fromelles’.
Rolling down towards the village of Fromelles, Pierre Seillier was waiting patiently at the Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery. This cemetery was constructed in 2009 to bury the remains of 250 Australian and British soldiers that had lain undiscovered beneath Madame Demassiet’s fields for decades.
Pierre was translating that day and led us through the village to where a tiny woman in a smock over heavy tights met us at her front door with a welcoming smile. Madame Demassiet vanished into a chair and settled in to tell us the story of how Australian schoolteacher and military historian Lambis Englezos had discovered the previously unknown mass grave in Pheasant Wood, located near her Northern French village of Fromelles.
Lambis first discovered the mass burial site, located behind World War I German lines, through the analysis of aerial photographs. What followed was an initial non-invasive investigation in 2007, with the bodies being recovered during formal archaeological excavation work in 2008. The soldiers had died in the first major battle for the Australians on the Western Front in 1916.
Pierre explained that since Lambis and the discovery of the mass grave, many people had made the pilgrimage from Australia, and Lambis had become friends with all the citizens of Fromelles.
‘Madame Demassiet says he is a kind man,’ Pierre says. ‘He is symbolic to Madame. When Lambis found the clue of the mass grave he wrote to Madame, not for the land, but just to say hello.
‘When he found the exact pit for the mass grave, fortunately it was the field of Madame Demassiet because the friendship was very good between her and the Australian people. She feels a great friendship with Australians.’
Madame Demassiet consented to archaeological digs on her property and, after the remains were resumed, donated the land where they were buried – to the soldiers of Pheasant Wood.
‘When she found out that we had the certainty of the mass grave on this position, immediately she said, “Yes, for my little soldier”,’ Pierre said.
He explained ‘little soldier’ was an endearing term in French that meant ‘from the heart’.‘She said yes immediately because the soldiers were such young men. Maybe the soldier could be her grandson,’ he said.
Pierre said Madame Demassiet had been given special permission to be present at the archaeological digs when Tony Pollard, from Glasgow University, was engaged to first investigate the site in 2007, and the following year during the actual dig. The site was found intact, with the state of the remains undisturbed and artefacts that suggested British and Australian soldiers were buried there.
‘Madame Demassiet says it is strange, because nobody in the village knew there was a mass grave there because everyone was evacuated during the war,’ Pierre said.
‘Madame Demassiet is a religious person and she remembers that during a lot of years when her husband planted on the border of the field, near the pit, it was difficult to plant some crops because wildflowers grew up on this position – yellow, blue, red flowers. They say it is a strange coincidence, and maybe an act of God, because the flowers are so beautiful in this position.
‘When she was on the field with Dr Tony Pollard, the archaeologist, she remembered that for many years she had received some sign. Maybe it was the soldiers who said “we are here”, and the crops took a strange form and the flowers were all along the border. She was very moved.
‘Imagine what it is like to grow up with the remembrance of World War I and World War II. She had seen skeletons and she said she was not afraid of the bones and bodies, but she was moved as they were little boys of the earth. The youngest in the mass grave were 16.’
Pierre said that while Madame Demassiet watched the archaeologist working on the mass grave, it became increasingly important to her because the soldiers had been missing from their families for so long.
‘Madame was very moved because during the research, Lambis was in Fromelles and, during the year Dr Pollard did the first dig to prove the mass grave was there, they explained the stories of some of the soldiers. When you know the story of the soldiers it is impossible to say it is not important. It is important for the families. Since the discovery of the mass grave, every year Madame Demassiet receives messages from families.’
Pierre explained that she never asked for money or compensation for the digging on her fields.
‘She said it is a gift for the families, for Australia.
‘Maybe it seems strange for Australians that some people in France or Belgium are so involved in the remembrance for the Australians. But it is impossible to have no compassion – not just for the Diggers but for their families. We had the same situation when the bodies of French soldiers were never found, were missing in action, from World War I. Madame says she can imagine the archaeologist saying to the family, “We have found the body of your grandfather or great-grandfather.” We know in Australia and Commonwealth countries remembrance is very important. She says the scar of the family was not closed. It was always open because they did not know where their boys were.
‘She says it is important just for the family, not for her – she does not want to be famous. Some people say one hundred years ago, it is not important – the soldier can stay in the mass grave. For the soldier, a grave and a burial are very important.
‘She would do the same for any nationality. But, they were Australian. It is incredible the Australians made such a long trip all around the world just to help the French people.
‘It is one of the reasons we fight for the remembrance of the Australian people.’
On my return to Australia after my time with Madame Demassiet, I thanked Lambis for his help in connecting me with the folks of Fromelles.
‘I believe we have a moral obligation to find and recover our war dead,’ Lambis says in an email. ‘They cannot be a financial or a logistical inconvenience.’
He had exemplified to me the power of an Australian arriving on the Western Front, decades after the war, and exposing locals to Australia’s role in the war, owing to his passion. On account of his persistence, the earth had been forced to give up its equally tenacious hold on the remains of those soldiers who lay beneath so long.
I thought of the other people I had met: proud David, carrying on the tradition of his family’s resettlement farm; Jean, tirelessly working in her community to share stories of that time post World War I and helping build the Stanthorpe Museum; also in her 90s, Madame Ginette, equally dedicated to her family’s role in rebuilding their village post war and, later, helping build the Australian legend now so prevalent via helping build the Franco-Australian Museum; Bernard and Jean’s focus on Australia’s role in battles; and Lionel, taking his passion to create a business.
I was starting to understand where this dedication to commemorating the Aussies had emerged. True, the role of the Diggers marked a massive sacrifice of life and dedication to their duty; they were leaders in critical turning points in the war. However, if the locals were sent away and local men fought in different battles, when did Europeans get an opportunity to meet and get this link to Australia? How did stories and memorabilia from a country so far away become so prevalent that it risked overshadowing stories of local experiences in the war and the more recent World War II in this region?
Probably it was the merging of histories that had begun with the likes of those such as Lambis and the many thousands of others coming to visit and mingle their Australian accounts of World War I history with the locals’ versions. Was this not, after all, the true nature of history?