The unknown Diggers of Vignacourt

Vignacourt is a town in France that few Australians have heard of. And yet the town was visited by thousands of Australian Diggers, who passed through the cobbled streets on their way to the nearby Western Front during World War I.

As they passed through the town, unsure of what lay ahead, a husband and wife duo, Louis and Antoinette Thuillier, began selling portrait photographs of the soldiers on their way to war.

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Another soldier identified in the project, Private Fitch, photographed in Vignacourt. Credit: Australian War Memorial.

Some soldiers returned to Vignacourt as a refuge to recover from battle. Others were carried through on stretchers to makeshift hospitals, and many never saw the town again.

Almost a century later, that collection of 4000 glass plates were discovered in a wooden chest in the Thuillier’s former farmhouse. Recognising their significance, they were donated to the Australian War Memorial.

However, the identity of the Diggers photographed was not recorded, nor was their fate known.

In order to solve this century-old mystery, the War Memorial and NEC teamed up to use facial recognition technology to finally reveal the identities of the young men photographed in Vignacourt.

Over a thousand soldiers identified

Over the course of just two days the facial recognition software cross-matched photographs from Vignacourt with other collections archived at the War Memorial. These included recruitment photographs from around the country, and other official photographs where the soldiers names had been recorded.

Trying to match the photographs manually had taken significant time over the course of several years, with relatively little success. Then, a national tour of the Vignacourt images around Australia provided some possible leads. But with the effort at a roadblock, the search turned to technology.

In all, the facial recognition software identified 1388 Australian soldiers in photographs from Vignacort. Some of the soldiers were photographed individually, while others were in groups of up to 100 people.

Also: When it comes to recognising faces, a computer can do it better than you

The first photograph matched was of Private Robert Deegan, a young soldier photographed by the Thuilliers in 1916. A year earlier the labourer had been photographed at a recruitment station in his hometown of Bendigo.

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William Fitch’s recruitment photograph, a year before being photographed in Vignacourt. Credit: Australian War Memorial

Another solider identified was Private William Fitch. Originally a carpenter from South Melbourne, he left Australia’s shores in November 1915. During 1916 he passed through Vignacourt on his way to the Western Front, having his portrait taken sitting on the Thuillier’s wooden chair.

Fitch was listed as missing after a German attack on ANZAC trenches, and was later declared killed in action in September 1917 at Polygon Wood in Belgium. He was just 21.

The researchers say it would have taken years of work to achieve the same results manually. The project instead accelerated the process and revealed hidden details of the young men’s lives, and in some cases their fate.

“You really are bringing back to life the stories of the men, and shining a light on them and what they went through,” says lead researcher Sylvia Jastkowiak.

“It focuses our attention back on that part of history. While we think we know a lot about World War I, there’s still pieces to be found.”

The facial recognition software, NeoFace Reveal, was designed for law enforcement and security agencies, and is used by the Australian Federal Police. This was the first time the software had been used on historical photographs.

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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