Peninsula. Lambis Englezos is a man on a sacred mission. The Greek-born 62-year-old retiree from Melbourne, Australia, has spent more than a decade in search of the burial sites of Australian troops listed as “missing” from that nation’s wars. His research and persistence led to the discovery of an unrecorded World War I mass grave in Fromelles, France, containing the remains of 250 “Diggers,” as Australian and New Zealand troops are known. The remains were exhumed in 2009, then reinterred once identified. For the past four years Englezos has been advocating a similar recovery effort for the remains of 250 Australians killed in the May 1915 Second Battle of Krithia—an ultimately futile Allied assault against Ottoman Turkish positions on the Gallipoli.
What led you to search for the missing at Fromelles?
There were more than 5,500 Australian casualties and some 1,335 missing from the July 19, 1916, Battle of Fromelles. I visited the battlefield in 2002, and when I returned to Australia, I was determined to help locate those whose bodies had not been recovered.
I researched the Red Cross’ “Wounded and Missing” files and cross-checked the names with a “roll of honor” that historian Robin Corfield included in his 2000 book Don’t Forget Me, Cobber. A soldier profiled in the book pointed to a place called Pheasant Wood as a possible burial spot, and by looking closely at some archival aerial photos of that area, I found what I believed to be anomalies. I and other members of the World War I commemorative group Friends of the 15th Brigade presented our evidence to the Australian government in 2005, and in May 2008 the information led to the discovery of 250 sets of remains. So far 144 have been identified, and the bodies have been reburied in a special cemetery on donated land..
Why search for the remains of Australia’s missing soldiers?
First, our nation sent them to war, and I believe our nation, therefore, has a moral obligation to find and recover the bodies of those who died. We cannot allow our war dead to be seen as a financial or logistical inconvenience.
Second, if a nation just leaves its war dead on the battlefield in anonymous dirt, it sends a very strong message to people currently serving in the military that their nation doesn’t care what happens to them. That’s very bad for morale.
Third, commemoration and remembrance isn’t just about the dead, it’s also about the families that might never know what became of their loved one. My son served in Afghanistan, and I certainly wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering what happened to him had he been listed as missing.
Many have sneered at the term “closure,” saying it should be sufficient to have the missing person’s name carved into a stone monument or painted onto a church honor roll. I would suggest that whenever we can, we should acknowledge the person’s service and sacrifice by doing everything possible to locate and recover their remains.
Can’t the Commonwealth War Graves Commission do it?
It does a fine job of maintaining our cemeteries, but its role is reactive. If a body is discovered during construction work, it is recovered and reburied in a Commonwealth Cemetery. Our work and advocacy is research-based and active—we go looking for the missing.
What is your opinion of the Gallipoli Campaign?
It was a disaster. Poor leadership and poorer planning and execution on Britain’s part—combined with a huge underestimation of the Turkish defenders—guaranteed failure. More than 8,000 Australians died in combat or of wounds or disease in nine months.
Didn’t it instill in Australia a national consciousness?
When war broke out in 1914 men enlisted for a variety of reasons, among them the desire to defend and serve the mother country and the empire. Their wartime contribution and warranted fighting reputation—endorsed by the Americans who fought alongside them at Hamel on July 4, 1918—certainly helped mold Australia’s national consciousness, but at a staggering cost.
How did you learn about the Second Battle of Krithia?
I read the two volumes of Charles Bean’s Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 that cover Gallipoli, as well as other books on the campaign. It occurred to me that—as was the case at Fromelles—there were likely unrecorded burial sites that would contain the remains of missing Australians.
Which units were involved?
The 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th battalions of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, Victoria. They were brought down from Anzac Cove to Cape Helles on the southern tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula to act as part of the reserve along with the New Zealand Infantry Brigade [see Hallowed Ground, P. 76]. The Australians entered the reserve line and began to settle in, but then a general advance was ordered, and they were given just 30 minutes’ notice to attack. The incompetent British commander, Major General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston, even asked if the Diggers had brought a band to lead the attack!
The Australians advanced across 600 yards of open ground toward defenses they couldn’t see while being subjected to frontal and enfilade machine gun and artillery fire. The line withered, and the attack failed. The Australians suffered casualties of 50 percent. After the battle, under cover of darkness, the dead were recovered and buried by our troops in hastily dug mass graves whose positions went unrecorded.
What made you believe there are forgotten mass graves?
Four years ago I suggested to a Turkish-Australian friend—author, guide and historian John Basarin, who volunteers at Melbourne’s World War I memorial, the Shrine of Remembrance [shrine.org.au]—that there could be a burial site behind our lines. We spent years researching official documents, diaries and memoirs of participants. Several of the documents spoke of hurriedly dug graves, one containing 57 bodies and the other 86, for a total of 143.
We determined the likely position of the mass grave—or graves—was in or near a dip in the ground that would have provided cover for the burial parties. John visited the area and found that dip in the ground.
Are you certain you found the right spot?
It matches the documentation—the eyewitness accounts are confirmed by the geography. However, the only way to positively confirm it is to conduct an officially sanctioned investigation using modern technology.
Did you give the Australian government your data?
We did. Three years ago we forwarded our information but didn’t get a reply or an evaluation. Then in December 2014 the government finally responded, saying they would only investigate the site if they were certain to find remains. But how can we be certain if we don’t investigate?
What is your ultimate goal for this search? Burial in place? Repatriation?
Australia does not repatriate recovered World War I remains. We would like to see them reinterred in place with the respect and honor they deserve.
What do you personally get out of this effort?
Any work that I have done in the field of commemoration and remembrance I dedicate to the memory of the World War I veterans I have met over the course of my life. They were wonderful gentlemen who carried their physical and emotional scars with quiet dignity. I consider myself very fortunate to have shared their company and their companionship. MH