Saturday, 2 July 2016


The unassuming memorial lies quiet within the redbrick walls of the Pheasant Wood cemetery. Beyond the cemetery walls the woods draw a dark line through French countryside to Fromelles. The gravestone is plain. Below the details a single word is inscribed, “Laddie”. It says little, but so much to those who remember him.

Laddie was a small-town boy. He grew up in Peterborough, a dusty railway town somewhere in the vast openness that stretches between Adelaide and Broken Hill. He was tall and rangy as is the way with Chinner men. Formal photos of the family show an earnest young man standing proud behind his parents.
Letters from the time speak of a sound young man with deep religious convictions.  Perhaps it was these convictions that led him to the military and saw him graduate from Duntroon as a Lieutenant in June 1912. It is not known what the family thought of this—we Chinners are a peace-loving lot by nature. Laddie was the only Chinner to serve in living memory until my grandfather served in Darwin during the Second World War.
He found work as a bank clerk after he left school. We can only guess that this where he met Gladys. She was a bank teller. That he loved her is sure, they were engaged before his 32nd Battalion sailed from Adelaide on the 18th November, 1915. As a memento of their time apart Laddie presented her with a silver locket containing his photo. 

Laddie’s Battalion joined the 5th Australian Division in Egypt and moved to the Western Front. He was ordered to take his team to the protect the Allied left flank, where the German front line trench crossed the Rue de la Cordonnerie, just north of the German strong point of Delangre Farm.
On arrival, Laddie was ordered to take his team to the “Nursery”, a somewhat safer spot for new arrivals to become accustomed to the daily horrors of battle. Their first days were spent practicing trench digging in ground so sodden they had to create trenches with sandbags.
In July, there came a day when the Battalion hoped for a bombardment to soften the German position. The bombardment failed.  The Allies suffered 7,000 killed and wounded. 5,553 of them were Australian, making 19 July 1916 the worst day in Australian military history. Laddie was among them. He was preparing a bomb when a piece of shrapnel hit him on the wrist, causing him to drop the bomb. The result was described in cold medical terms as blunt-force trauma to the ribcage.
During the night and early morning German counterattacks began recapturing the lost trenches. General Richard Haking, the British commander of the operation, gave the order to retreat. The Allies were pushed back, leaving the dead and wounded where they lay. Laddie died during the night and lay with his fallen comrades. The Germans buried the dead in mass graves, great trenches heaped with the fallen and covered over. 

There they lay until the end of the war when teams ploughed the fields in search of remains. The found were buried at VC Corner Cemetery in Fromelles, but Laddie and over two hundred of his mates lay hidden in an untried corner of Pheasant Wood.
The patient dead waited until a retired Australian schoolteacher, Lambis Englezos, became curious in the nineties. The statistics did not add up. One hundred and sixty-three Australian soldiers were not accounted for in any war memorial. It would take Englezos years of painstaking investigation and persuasive arguments until in mid-2008 Glasgow University’s Archaeological Research Division confirmed there was indeed a mass grave in Pheasant Wood. 

In 2009, Oxford Archaeology carried out a full scale exhumation. The results were astonishing. Two hundred and fifty bodies and some six thousand artefacts most identifiable as Australian or British.  There were military buttons, buckles, even the occasional boot. Unusual in that British and Australian footwear was considered superior by the Germans and was often removed. Other objects were more personal – a fountain pen, a bible, a French phrase book.

Further confirmation had to wait until the Australian Army’s Unrecovered War Casualties–Army unit established a Fromelles Project Team to locate descendants of men killed at Fromelles who were willing to provide a sample of DNA to confirm the identity of the recovered soldiers.
Discussions ran hot in the family. Who was the closest descendant? Who was prepared to provide a sample for testing? We had to wait until early 2010 to learn that Laddie was indeed Lieutenant Eric Harding Chinner, my great-uncle. 

Laddie was buried with full honours in the specially commissioned Pheasant Wood Cemetery. He lies there now, no more a forgotten soldier. Gladys died at age ninety. She seldom spoke of her lost Laddie, but kept his locket until her death. 

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