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DOVO-SEDEE, and the Australian connection

Recovering The Past is constructed around two key elements. One, the work of the DOVO-SEDEE bomb-disposal team, and the other, Australia’s artistic and cultural heritage of a century ago.

At its heart, are the artist’s own images of an ongoing, century-old operation to clear Belgium’s West Flanders region of unexploded ammunition from the First World War.

DOVO-SEDEE: an introduction

DOVO-SEDEE – the Belgian army’s bomb-disposal team – operates across Belgium. The team is best known for its operations on the former First World War battlefields of West Flanders, a region devastated by the battles that raged here during the First World War.

Commencing on 31st July 1917, the opening barrage of the Battle of Passchendaele saw four and half million shells fired over just ten days. With official estimates suggesting that 20-25% of all shells fired in the First World War failed to explode, the scale of the ongoing task facing DOVO-SEDEE in this region is hard to imagine.

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In early 2011, DOVO-SEDEE approved artist Ian Alderman access to photograph the team’s work. Over a period of seven years, the artist photographed all aspects of DOVO-SEDEE’s West Flanders operation, revealing processes rarely seen beyond the confines of their Poelkapelle base.

Each artwork features Belgian deminers, side by side with Australia’s First World War soldiers. Each photograph had to be carefully composed, so that the final artwork would portray men of the past and present united in a land which is now at peace.

Great care has been applied to the pairing of new and archival components; none of the exhibition’s images has been created by chance. 

In all of the exhibition’s images, all men have been treated as equals. In the above image, all men are simultaneously responding to the camera, the intervening century has become irrelevant. This particular image explores gas warfare, it provides a stark comparison between the protective equipment worn by the two groups of men. Continuity between the past and present is evident throughout the exhibition.

 

Unearthed through farming activities, a 6” British shell is recovered by a DOVO-SEDEE team on the former battlefield of Passchendaele.

DOVO-SEDEE and their contribution to this exhibition: Formed in 1920 in response to the vast quantities of unexploded ammunition that littered the Flanders landscape, DOVO-SEDEE’s work was expected to be completed within three years. It wasn’t to be, now in their second century of continuous operations, in this predominantly rural region of Belgium, their work is expected to take many more years to complete.

Image credit : DOVO-SEDEE

The only unit of the Belgian armed forces authorised to continue its operations by the occupying German army during the Second World War, today, a century after the signing of the Armistice, DOVO-SEDEE teams routinely recover circa 200 tonnes of unexploded ammunition per year from Belgium’s former battlefields.

Responding to a call from the local police, a DOVO-SEDEE team will be dispatched from its Poelkapelle base to collect ammunition predominantly unearthed through farming and construction activities. All recovered ammunition is transported back to the unit’s base, where it will be identified, and ultimately destroyed through a series of highly-controlled processes.

It is hard to believe that so much First World War ammunition is being recovered so long after hostilities. Alongside a similar operation in France, the work of these two respective teams represents one of the few aspects of the First World War in evidence today. In 2011, and with the then fast approaching commemorations to the First World War, DOVO-SEDEE made it possible for Ian Alderman to begin the production phase of the exhibition.

Accumulated over the century of operations in Flanders, among the unique facilities in DOVO-SEDEE’s facility is its ‘living-library’ of ammunition types. The most complete of its type in existence, and featuring an example of every type of munition type known to have been used in Flanders, it operates as an essential source of reference to the unit’s personnel. This fascinating location features within the exhibition’s imagery.

A detail of DOVO-SEDEE’s ‘living-library. A unique reference resource of ammunition types used in Flanders.

A large caliber High-explosive shell awaits its ultimate destruction.

DOVO-SEDEE’s teams collect and destroy ammunition with three main content types: High-explosive, toxic (gas), and shrapnel, with each requiring specific handling and destruction processes. Each step in the processing of a shell from it’s identification through to destruction, is conducted within the confines of DOVO-SEDEE’s base.

DOVO-SEDEE’s Contained Detonating Chamber (CDC)

DOVO-SEDEE’s Contained Detonating Chamber (CDC) was for many years the only such facility in Europe, and plays a vital role in enabling the destruction of shells containing the Clark toxin. With these shell type’s comprised of high levels of Arsenic, Clark shells can only be destroyed in the chamber’s blast proof interior. Due to the exposure of high-levels of Arsenic, this process requires that its operators wear bio-chemical protective suits.

Recovering The Past would not exist without the enormous support provided by DOVO-SEDEE and its personnel. In 2017, the work was exhibited at the world renowned In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres, at which it was viewed by more than 40,000 visitors.

It formed a part of Belgium’s centenary commemorations of the Great War. Recovering The Past is unique in being only art project produced during the commemorations, which documented a bomb-disposal team’s operations on a former Great War battlefield.

The exhibition’s message is relayed through more than the work of DOVO-SEDEE alone. Enter the Australian connection.

The Australian Connection

The artist’s use of Australian First World War soldiers in this exhibition’s imagery is also not one of chance. Australian cultural icons, photographer Frank Hurley and artist Will Longstaff, produced work of such significance that aspects of their work have been adopted and used in Recovering The Past.

Pioneering photographer Hurley, first gained prominence through his participation on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic. Hurley’s celebrated images of battle scenes along the First World War’s Western Front are the finest of that period.

Image: Frank Hurley                                                                   

Image: Frank Hurley | Credit: Australian War Memorial

Hurley’s tenacity and natural sense of adventure, enabled him to take risks that other photographers would not consider. In conjunction with an eye for a great composition, his bravado has resulted in many of the most memorable images of that conflict.

Through extensive experience photographing at the war’s front lines, Hurley, concluded that a single image could not convey the ‘vast scale’ of events unfolding before him. His six, now-famed composite images were created to tell the full story as he saw it.

‘A Raid’ or ‘Over The Top’, the most revered of Hurley’s composite images | credit: Australian War Memorial

A painter and war artist, Australian Will Longstaff is best remembered for his work entitled ‘Menin Gate at Midnight’. 

Depicting an army of spirits of dead soldiers marching in front of the Menin Gate memorial, the painting now has iconic status. Recovering The Past has adopted the visual affect which Longstaff applied to the soldiers in his paintings. 

 Image: Will Longstaff                                              

‘Menin Gate At Midnight’ by Will Longstaff | credit: Australian War Memorial

The incorporation of Hurley and Longstaff’s artistic techniques into this exhibition’s imagery reinforce its Australian foundation. Building on this, poignant memoirs sourced from Australia’s national archives accompany the artworks. They reveal that the war’s impact on people was not confined to the battlefields themselves.

The War's Impact On Australian Society

The exhibition’s accompanying text reveals a series of poignant personal testimonies of Australians who were impacted by the war. Sobering and often direct, their words reveal thought-provoking legacies, each the consequence of human-conflict.

“My mind is a blank – this will break my wife’s heart.”

Zeehan and Dundas Herald, Tas, Thursday 18th November 1920

The simple but desperate words on the note found with the revolver Evan Joseph Derby – of Canning Street, Melbourne – used to take his own life.

Evan and Alice Derby : Image credit: The Derby family                                                                               

Evan and Alice Derby are featured in the text of this exhibition, their story epitomises the long-term social consequences of war.

Married with four young children, Evan returned home from the war in March 1919. In the months after his return, he told a workmate he was of suffering ‘very bitterly from pains in his head’.

On the 8th November 1920, a member of the public found Evan’s body; alongside him, a revolver and a suicide note. Alice later explained her last contact with her husband in his inquest’s coroners report:

‘When he left (for work) he seemed very quiet. He had been different since he got back from the war. I did not know he had a weapon’.

Despite having survived the war, Evan – alongside many thousands of other traumatised returning soldiers – had become a belated victim of it.

Now widowed, Alice raised their four children on her own. Today, Evan and Alice share a plot in Melbourne’s Coburg Pine Ridge Cemetery, neither appear on a memorial to wars’ victims, their tragedy all but forgotten.

Although their story is just one of millions of similar such tragedies, of the less appreciated impact of war on its survivors, through featuring in this exhibition, Evan and Alice now play an important part in future-proofing its timeless message.

 

Julia Goulding, And Her Search For Her Lost Son

Julia Goulding a resident of South Brisbane, Queensland, and the mother of Private John Joseph Goulding. Enlisting into the Australian imperial Force (AIF) on the 30th August 1915, John arrived in France on 23rd June the following year. 

In a translated German message dated 22nd October 1919, it was confirmed that John Goulding had been killed in-action in Fromelles, France, on the 19th July 1916. This information was never relayed to John’s grieving mother.

In 1920, Julia wrote to the AIF headquarters:

‘I am writing to enquire of my son John Joseph GOULDING No555. B Company 31st Battalion AIF who was reported missing since July 19th 1916… I have waited patiently with an aching heart for news of him… I know he was not the only one by thousands, but he was my son, lent to me for 35 years… The suspense is what makes it so hard’

Julia Goulding died on the 19th July 1922, she was never to discover her son’s fate. In 2009, John’s remains were discovered along with 249 other missing soldiers in a series of mass graves in Fromelles, France.

The Asserting of 'Victim' Status

Julia Goulding and Evan Derby both outlived the First World War, but are undeniable victims of it. 

Recovering The Past asserts that anyone who has lost a loved one to war has not just been affected by it, but has also become the victim of it.

The post-conflict victims of wars have no dedicated national memorials. With very few exceptions, the survivors of war – service personnel and non-combatants alike – are buried in millions of largely anonymous graves in cemeteries across the world. Irrespective of their contribution and sacrifice to their nation’s war effort, they are a metaphorical army of largely-forgotten people.

Throughout this exhibition’s accompanying text, are the poignant testimonies of wars’ victims. Sobering and often direct, their words are a likely premonition of the consequences of all future conflicts.