WWI: Descendants of missing Australian soldier bury shard of violin at Somme
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“There’s always been an Uncle Frank-shaped hole in the family”. Matthew Curtis started trying to fill that hole. It led him from Queensland to the Somme where, 100 years after Frank was killed, the family buried a shard of his handmade violin.
Matthew Curtis never got the chance to meet his great-uncle Frank. He knew his brother, Ernie, who also fought on the French battlefields but managed to make it back to Australia. Between 1914 and 1918, 420,000 Australians signed up to fight in what was known as the Commonwealth Contribution.
“The family has always wondered what happened to Uncle Frank. He was remembered as a decent young man who left his home to fight in the name of his recently independent country. The violence he saw in World War One would have been unimaginable to him."
Frank Curtis fought and died on April 5th 1918 in the Battle for Dernancourt, a village near Albert in the Somme. The 26-year-old was a member of the 47th Battalion and had been in France for 12 weeks and one day.
Sixty-thousand Australians were killed in World War One and few with no commission were referred to by name in C.E.W Bean’s Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918. Frank Curtis is an exception because his death was mentioned. In a footnote, it was described as an “uncommon brutality”.
Eyewitness accounts recorded by the Red Cross give contradictory information, but as he read, a clearer picture began to emerge for Matthew Curtis. C.E.W Bean, the author of Australia’s official war history, gave most weight to an account by Sergeant O’Rourke. It suggests a war crime was committed:
“An enemy officer, when we came out of the trench asked, ‘Who are you?’ and since Curtis was nearest to him, he replied ‘We are Australians’. This German officer without a word, just pulled out his revolver and shot him in the stomach about 8 paces distant.”
Frank Curtis has no grave and, one hundred years after the event, Matthew Curtis will never know for sure if his great-uncle was executed while he was a prisoner of war.
After poring over the archives in Australia, Matthew Curtis felt a strong desire to go the battleground in Dernancourt. His cousins, Hugh and Libby, were keen to come. On April 5th 2018, 100 years after Uncle Frank died, the group of Australians arrived in Dernancourt.
They thought about bringing some soil from the place where Uncle Frank grew up, Tambourine Mountain in Queensland. His parents were the mountain’s first European settlers and the Curtis cousins grew up there.
Before they left for Dernancourt, heavy rain turned the Tambourine earth into mud so the cousins needed a Plan B. They decided to take a shard of Uncle Frank’s violin which had been damaged over the years by termites.
When Matthew Curtis arrived in Dernancourt he wondered what to do with himself. “We had planned to walk around the fields where Uncle Frank would have fought and bury the piece of his violin. But then it all became very clear in that Town Hall.”
The Curtises got talking to an old policeman, Thierry Saudemont, who thanked them for the sacrifice Australians made to help his village. In broken English, he invited them for coffee at the Town Hall and told them: “You Australians can knock on any door in Dernancourt and you’ll always be welcome.”
They were soon joined by the former town mayor, Lionel Lamotte, and within minutes a bottle of champagne had been uncorked. An Australian couple, who had been spotted wandering around and who were there for the same reason, were also invited in. In the month-long battle, 1,230 Australians were killed or wounded at Dernancourt.
“Off-the-cuff, dignified and lovely” is how Matthew Curtis describes the moment in the Town Hall. “This openness and generosity of spirit was what Frank would have known on Tambourine Mountain. The same sorts of people, who have a strong sense of place. He’s somewhere which is far from alien, it’s familiar.”
Hugh Curtis, a fiddle player like his great-uncle Frank, said he felt “so touched and emotional that he had to try not to fall apart”. He wants to transmit their experience to family and friends back home. “There’s no one you can ask about it, the people who were around then are all gone. So it’s up to us now.” His wife, Lisa Curtis, will give an Anzac Day talk to eight hundred pupils and parents in the secondary school in Brisbane where she’s a teacher.
For Matthew Curtis, more than a decade of research has brought him to what he calls a “tearful feeling of happiness". A piece of Uncle Frank’s violin is buried in Dernancourt and he has brought back some soil from Dernancourt. Once it has emerged from Australia’s comprehensive disease tests, the family will scatter it on Tambourine Mountain. The “ultimate question” of what happened to Uncle Frank will never be answered but for the Curtis family, “it feels like the matter has been peacefully resolved”.