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James and Charles Stokes, the brotherly bond immortalised for all eternity

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Posted on October 1 2020

The village of Vignacourt, to the North of Amiens, was the site of an astonishing and moving discovery in 2011 when photographic plates dating back to the First World War were discovered in the attic of the Thuillier farm. Close to 4,000 photographic plates were found and restored.

Passionate about photography, the Thuilliers, then farmers, set up a plate camera in their farm. These were quite rare at the time. Vignacourt was an important rear base for the Allied armies; soldiers and civilians came in large numbers to have their picture taken by the couple.

Many of these photographs are now displayed in the Vignacourt 14 – 18 Interpretive Centre located in the Thuillier farm, restored between 2017 and 2018. This unique collection of photographs provides a glimpse into the lives of soldiers behind the lines and leaves a moving heritage of the Great War.

Many Australian soldiers can be seen on those pictures; they are now called the “Lost Diggers of Vignacourt“. But far from all soldiers on the photos are “lost”.

For instance, the Sadlier Stokes prize, created in 1989, was named after Sergeant Charles Stokes (on the right of the picture). This prize is awarded each year to French students for school projects related to Australia and the First World War or to Australia’s commemorations in France.

At the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux on 24 and 25 April 1918, Sergeant Stokes and Lieutenant Sadlier and their army mates launched a daring attack on German machine gunners and in the early morning of 25 April, beneath enemy fire, they advanced towards German lines, throwing grenades as they went and eventually recapturing the village of Villers-Bretonneux.

Lieutenant Sadlier was awarded the Victoria Cross for this action and Sergeant Stokes received the Military Medal for exemplary conduct. The prize was named in honour of these two soldiers, thus encouraging future generations to commemorate the commitment of Australian forces in the First World War.

If Charles’ face is known to us today, the face of the soldier next to him on the picture could have been forgotten if circumstances were different. A moving and astonishing story hides behind this photograph, as the soldier is no one else than Charles’ brother, James Stokes.

Charles and James Stokes were brothers in their thirties who grew up near Perth, Western Australia, where they shared their time between their family and their horses. One was a horse trainer and the other a coachman.

As the war was spreading in Europe, James was the first brother to enlist in May 1915. He left for Egypt on board the HMAT Anchises. Charles, four years his junior, joined the Australian Imperial Forces in March 1916 and arrived in France in December 1916.

Even in the midst of war, life’s hazards can sometimes bring joy and the two brothers, who had been separated since their enlistment were reunited in January 1917 when their respective battalions were billeted behind the lines in Vignacourt. This reunion was immortalised in front of the objective of Monsieur and Madame Thuillier, and today, it can be viewed in the exact place the picture was taken more than one hundred years ago.

The Stokes brothers survived the war and returned to Australia in May 1919.

(For more information about the prize, please visit the Australian Embassy in France website.)

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