In September 2022, a discovery was made by the director of the Vignacourt 14-18 Interpretive Centre, Valérie Vasseur.
Going through the WW1 Pictorial Honour Roll of Tasmanians – a website that commemorates the 15,485 Tasmanian soldiers who served in the First World War – Valérie stumbled upon a photograph she recognised from the Thuillier collection.
The discovery was significant. The photo is part of the permanent exhibition at the Vignacourt 14-18 Interpretive Centre. It is the portrait of a young Australian soldier, whose identity was previously unknown. His scarf tied around his neck and tucked into his jacket pockets gives him an amused look. The motion blur of the cigarette he is holding at the corner of his lips brings the picture to life.
The Tasmanian website provides information on the source of the photograph. It was published in the Tasmania Weekly Courier on 23 May 1918. The portrait has been cropped and the cigarette has been removed but there is no doubt that it is the same photo. We can now put a name to this face: Private James Dillon.
While discovering the name of this soldier, we also discover a story. His story.
James Dillon was born on 24 March 1896 in Launceston, a town in northern Tasmania. He was just over 19 years old when he enlisted. Before joining the 40th Battalion of the AIF, he was working as a farm labourer.
He arrived on the Western Front in September 1916, where he joined the 51st Battalion, an Australian infantry unit attached to the 13th Brigade.
During his time on the front, James was wounded on three occasions, the first being at Polygon Wood, a few kilometres from Ypres, on 26 September 1917, where he was hit by a shrapnel in his left leg. Then, a month later, on 15 October 1917, during the Battle of Passchendaele, he was severely poisoned by the toxic gas used during the fighting and was sent to Britain for recovery. After four months in hospital, he returned to the front on 7 March 1918. On 24 April 1918, he took part in the Allied counter offensive at Villers-Bretonneux. He was shot in the left arm. This third wound was fatal. He died ten days later, on 4 May 1918. He was 24 years old.
Reading the war diary of the 51st Battalion, we discover that James Dillon’s unit was at Vignacourt on two occasions. The first was from 4 to 7 November 1916, for combat training. Then a second time from 1 to 3 January 1917. It must have been during one of these periods away from the front line that James visited Louis and Antoinette Thuillier, a Vignacourt farming couple who had improvised a photo studio in their farmyard and who were well known for taking photographs of civilians and passing soldiers.
Private James Dillon is buried in Crouy British Cemetery, Somme, France.