In Search of a WWI Digger: Can You Help?

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Belgian Jean Van Campenhout was grievinghis father’s death when he discovered an old photograph, and with it a family mystery.

THE young geologist had found an Australian Imperial Force (AIF) group portrait, with a cross inked above a soldier in the photo – indicating the man who was his Australian great-grandfather. Sadly, no name was inscribed on the photo and Jean was left in the dark about his identity.

The unknown Australian soldier returned home in March 1919, before the young Belgian woman he had been courting was even aware she was pregnant. The Digger never knew that on December 7, 1919, his son Robert was born.
 
At a loss about where to startto find a name for his Australian great-grandfather, Jean contacted Claire Dujardin, an historian at the University of Brussels who was experienced in researching the subject. Because the soldier was billeted at Marchienneau- Pont during the winter of 1918-19, Claire suspected, from battalion unit diaries and other archival records, that he might have been in the 26th Battalion.
 

LIFE IN BELGIUM FOR JEAN’S GREATGRANDFATHER

The battalion entered the Charleroi region of Belgium onDecember 20, 1918, along withthe 27th and 28th Battalions. The soldiers marched behind battalion bands and were warmly welcomed by enthusiastic crowds lining the streets.

Jean’s great-grandfather was accommodated either in a public building, such as a school or industrial workshop, or possibly in a local home. If he was in a home, he would have
Jean's great-grandfather, a member of the Australian Imperial ForceJean's great-grandfather, a member of the Australian Imperial Force

been shown kindness and openhearted hospitality, treatedlike a family member, slept in a real bed and spent pleasant evenings talking or playing cards around a comforting fire. Each day he would have heard  the 26th Battalion band play for the citizens of Marchienne-au- Pont. On Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, he would have been invited to join family festivities, sampling Belgian beers and traditional Belgian waffles. 


On January 1, 1919, he would likely have danced with young women invited to a supper dance, the first of a series of entertainments conducted by the military. Awaiting repatriation, he would have undergone regular military exercises, including drills, rifle range target practice and route marches. He may have enjoyed soccer, football, boxing or skating, and travelled by electric tram into Charleroi to visit cafes, concert halls, theatres, dance halls and cinemas. He might have toured Charleroi factories and enrolled in technical and vocational education at the Université du Travail (University of Labour).

Gradually, AIF contingents departed, and by the end of March, what remained of the battalion moved to Mont-sur- Marchienne. On May 31, 1919, the last of the 26th Battalion left for home.

Photo-4-26thBtn-GROUP-HD-PHOTOweb-(1).jpg
A group photo of the Australian Imperial Force soldiers of the 26th Battalion billeted at Marchienne-au-Pont, Belgium. A cross was made above Jean’s great-grandfather – the man in the back row, second from the right.​

DO YOU HAVE ANY INFORMATION?

• Do you recognise the man in the back row of the group photo (second from the right)?
• Does your family have this group 26th Battalion portrait in an album with names inscribed, or any details as to the date and exact location where the photo was taken?
• Does your family have any 26th Battalion portraits with names? 

Jean would dearly love to know his great-grandfather’s name and find his Australian descendants. If any of the above apply to you, please contact Claire via diable.detasmanie@skynet.be or Alison McCallum on 0400 063 718.