Bringing the past to life

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Leader of Information, Literacy and Innovation Michael Burden, left, with acclaimed writer/director Patrick Lindsay and students from St Clare's Waverley. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Leader of Information, Literacy and Innovation Michael Burden, left, with acclaimed writer/director Patrick Lindsay and students from St Clare’s Waverley. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

What started out as a history lesson has resulted in a group of Year 10 students restoring the dignity and memory of some of the 2000 Australian soldiers who died in the Battle of Fromelles.

And so valuable is the work being done by the young historians, a number of local RSL Clubs have donated money to the project to ensure it is a permanent reminder of those brave young soldiers killed in the 1916 battle – the largest loss of life within 24 hours in Australia’s military history.

The Year 10 students from St Clare’s College Waverley have spent the past 12 months researching the short lives of some of the soldiers who fought in the bloody battle.

Their painstaking research will form part of an emotional documentary film project by acclaimed writer / director Patrick Lindsay which aims to show the impact of the July 1916 battle from a female’s perspective. Also included in the footage will be a visit by the students next year to the battlefields and their emotional visit to each soldiers grave.

More than half of the 250 bodies recovered after Australian researcher Lambis Englezos discovered their location have been DNA matched with existing relatives, and given to the students to research and bring to life.

Utilising army and medical files from the Australian Imperial Forces and Australian War Memorial websites, the students were able to uncover letters written by wives and family members to form a snapshot of the soldier mostly unknown to surviving family members.

Year 10 student Kate O’Sullivan, who was tasked with researching soldier Thornton Gainsborough Clarke, said prior to the project war was just a thing of the past, but through the initiative it showed her what a devastating effect it still has on relatives more than 100 years later.

“We scoured the entire internet and found army files, medical files, files from his workplace where he was an electrical engineer and was able to create a profile for his family they had no idea about,” she said.

“We found game records from his VFL club and his school records – any nuance we could tap into to find some sort of information to connect with him and add to his story.

“I wasn’t very interested in history to begin with because I found that it wasn’t very interactive or personal.

Leader of Information, Literacy and Innovation Michael Burden, left, with acclaimed writer/director Patrick Lindsay. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Leader of Information, Literacy and Innovation Michael Burden, left, with acclaimed writer/director Patrick Lindsay. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“But after doing this task and sharing the profile with our school I found that history has become a bigger and more valuable part of our learning and life.”

RSL clubs in Campsie, Earlwood/Bardwell Park, Kingsgrove and South Hurstville, along with Bondi Diggers and Club Rivers at Riverwood have donated to the project to ensure the documentary about the soldiers is carried out when the students visit the gravesites of the soldiers next year.

Campsie RSL director and life member Gordon Brian said it was very keen to support the school’s work as it provided a valuable glimpse of the soldiers not often viewed from a young, female perspective.

He said the project was also a valuable way of teaching the students about Australia’s history and ensuring it is carried on through generations.

“These stories need to be told and getting them from a young, female perspective is something rarely seen,” he said.

“The students are uncovering details that many of the families have never known or aware of.

“They are giving loved ones a rare insight into these men who could very easily be forgotten.

“It certainly wasn’t a difficult decision to provide some financial support to the school who are giving so much back to these soldiers families.

“We are very grateful for all the time and hard work they have put into the project.”