Two mates. Two soldiers. Two Aussies. This is a story about how DNA allowed two Australian diggers to be finally laid to rest 101 years after their deaths.
Here, Irene Darby tells the story in her own words.
My aunties, uncles, cousins and I all bowed our heads in tender silence.
Red poppies sat pinned on everyone’s jackets.
It was another Anzac Day at the Australian War Memorial, and our thoughts were with one man – James Leonard Rolls.
‘He’s always been part of the family legend,’ my aunt Myra said later, as we sat down to eat.
‘He went to war and never came back,’ I nodded.
My great-uncle James was shipped off to fight alongside thousands of Australians and New Zealanders in the First World War in 1914.
A Lance Corporal at 24, he left his wife Emily and two-year-old daughter Laura to serve in the 24th Infantry Battalion in France.
Tragically, like so many others, James never returned.
Even though he was the brother of the maternal grandmother I never even met, James’ legacy lived on in our hearts, and in our stories.
Every year on Anzac Day and on Remembrance Day, relatives would retell the tale.
‘Never forget your great-uncle James,’ my other aunt Cath would say, when I asked about our family tree.
Although his body was never recovered, the family lore was James died a hero in the trenches in 1917.
When the war ended the following year, heartbreaking words were scrawled on his papers.
Missing in action, presumed dead.
After the war, relatives were forced to rebuild their lives, with no sign of James.
When his close family grew old and passed away, the story of James’ bravery was passed down to his great nieces and nephews.
Though we had only one old, faded wedding photo of him, the ghost of his memory burned bright as ever.
Many of us believed he was buried in an unmarked grave, a nameless soldier.
Over a century had passed without any news.
Until one day last year, when I got a phone call from an unknown number.
It was a man from the Unrecovered War Casualties Army Unit in Canberra.
‘We’re looking to identify a soldier’s body found in France who might be a relative of yours,’ he said.
‘I know exactly who you’re talking about!’ I said, my heart pounding.
The body had been found by two farmers, buried with another soldier at an abandoned railway embankment.
They were surprisingly well preserved and artefacts such as badges made it clear they were Australian Diggers, who had been there for over 100 years.
Now, they needed my DNA to see if one of them was James.
I sent a cotton swab of my DNA for testing and my family and I waited anxiously.
‘We mustn’t get our hopes up,’ I told my husband John, who had uncles fight in the war too.
The unit had whittled down eight possible Australian families who might be matches for the two soldiers.
After testing all of them, the unit rang back with the results.
‘It’s a match – it’s James,’ they confirmed.
I was stunned and so pleased. After 101 years, our James had been found.
Thrilled, I rang around my cousins, siblings and other relatives to tell them the incredible news.
‘We’ve finally found him,’ I said, sadly thinking of our family who died not knowing.
James was due to be buried in his final resting place in Buissy, France in November.
John, five other relatives and I travelled the 16,000km to France to say goodbye to our fallen soldier.
James had died alongside fellow Australian Digger Private Hedley Roy Macbeth, and his family had been tracked down too.
Hedley was 31 and married to Bessie. They had a daughter, Mary, nine, and a son, Robert, five.
The young men were killed in action when an artillery shell exploded in the dugout they were in at Bullecourt on May 3, 1917.
James and Hedley were buried side-by-side, with full military honours.
It was so beautiful to think they had fought, died and lain together for over 100 years, and now forever.
Our two families have since become friends.
The funeral was just beautiful, with locals even coming to pay their respects.
‘Two Diggers dead but not alone,’ Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove said. ‘If ever there were two brothers in arms, it was them.’
I wiped tears from my eyes as the Last Post rang out.
As a final goodbye to James, I placed soil on his grave with a red poppy I’d had pinned to my lapel.
You’re home now, I thought.
This year will be our family’s first Anzac Day since James was identified.
It will be a special time for remembrance, knowing my great-uncle’s spirit is finally free.
I do hope our story will give hope to the families of other lost Anzac heroes.
Of the 60,000 Australian deaths on the battlefields, 23,000 have no known grave.
We should always pass down stories of fallen soldiers to younger generations.
Let us never forget, like we never forgot James.
Hedley’s great-grandson Rob says:
My whole family was so excited to finally have answers, as we have been searching for my great-grandfather Hedley for over 100 years. In November 2018, my wife Gabrielle and I were given the unforgettable opportunity to see where Hedley was found and lay him to rest, which was an amazing and emotional experience. Anzac Day has always meant so much to us. This year it will mean that much more.