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NEC Australia makes breakthrough in search to identify unknown World War 1 “Diggers”

NEC Australia has made a breakthrough in their project to identify the ‘Lost Soldiers’, working closely with the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. 

Back in 2011, images of hundreds of unknown World War 1 diggers were found on images captured on glass plates, found in an attic of a farmhouse in the French village of Vignacourt. The almost 4000 images taken in 1916 at the height of the first world war and found in a trunk in the upstairs room were purchased by Australian philanthropist Kerry Stokes, AC and donated to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. 

How NEC is helping to identify the unknown soldiers 

The invite for NEC Australia to take part in the trial came from the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and revolved around the use of NEC’s world-acclaimed NeoFace Watch Facial Recognition technology to try and identify hundreds of unknown soldiers. 

Progress in identifying the unknown diggers had been slow. Since the arrival of the “Vignacourt Collection” in 2012, less than 150 previously unknown diggers have been able to be identified. This process involved a manual, image-by-image identification of a soldier’s uniform against other records kept within the Memorial – an extremely time-consuming process. 

Last month, NEC Australia’s research team of Sylvia Jastowiak and Jason Zhou were granted access to the glass negatives which were deemed to be in usable condition – 718 from the Vignacourt Collection – in controlled conditions at the War Memorial. 

Two days of testing yields positive results 

During two days of testing the pair of NEC Australia researchers attempted to match those 718 images against two others the War Memorial also had in its possession, known as the “E Series” and the “Darge Collection”, thousands of photos taken, often of World War 1 soldiers signing on at recruitment centres in Australia and therefore whose names were recorded and known to this day. 

However many others, like those in the Vignacourt Collection, weren’t known and still are not. 

Excitingly the first match at an estimated 83% certainty emerged at lunchtime on day two, a Victorian soldier identified as Robert Deegan (pictured below). The resemblance was indisputable, a fresh-faced young man in his brand new uniform at a recruiting centre in Melbourne and that of a young man standing alone before a homemade backdrop in a makeshift photographic studio in Vignacourt, just behind the front line of the Western Front. 

Since then Sylvia has been finding many more high percentage matches of Vignacourt Soldiers, sometimes alone, other times with their battalion mates. In raw terms Sylvia and Jason have determined;  

  • Out of 718 Vignacourt images we have a potential 1388 candidate matches. 
  • From the 2161 Darge Unidentified images we have a potential 28,276 candidate matches. 
  • From the 411 E Series Unidentified images, we have 33,505 potential candidate matches. 
  • All three groups of unidentified images were tested against a selection of Darge collection images (11,745) and E series portraits (568). 

Next steps 

Following the successful two day trial, NEC Australia researchers are now compiling a final report to be sent to the Australian War Memorial with a view to them realizing how valuable NEC’s technology could be to the iconic organisation, not just in thousands of hours saved in laborious manual checks, but in solving the mystery of the identity of so many more soldiers from conflicts Australia has been involved in over the decades. 

To find out more about this project, please visit the NEC Australia website.  

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