It was March 2003 when Belgian farmer Jean-Luc Gantois was ploughing on his farm at Merris, near the border to northern France.
His family had owned the land since World War I, and grew wheat, potatoes, sugar beet and corn. So it was a surprise when Gantois’ plough hit a hard object.
A quick investigation revealed something unexpected: a pottery rum jar and some bones. Human bones.
Gantois immediately contacted the mayor of his small village, Cecile Dujardin, and a local collector was commissioned to formally excavate the site of his find.
Australian pennies, ‘Rising Sun’ collar badges, a corroded officer’s ‘pip’ and a fragment of uniform were found, along with the remains of four unidentified soldiers.
On the other side of the world, Bathurst school teacher of English and history, John Payne, heard about the Merris discovery. He contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to register a family interest.
Payne’s instinct proved to be sound. In December 2004, the Commission notified him that one of the bodies was likely to be that of his great uncle, Corporal Ernest ‘Ernie’ Corby of Tuena.
Payne’s grandfather, Vince Corby, and great uncle Ernie were shearing contractors who both enlisted in WWI.
They were the grandsons of convict William Thomas Corby (1815-1891), who had been transported to Australia in the 1860s for pickpocketing.
He became a blacksmith in and lived in Taralga and Laggan, where he married twice and fathered 11 children.
Born in Laggan on September 11, 1885, Cpl Ernie Corby enlisted in the 18th Reinforcements and 3rd Battalion Australian Imperial Force in 1916.
Deployed to France, records show Ernie joined the 3rd Battalion in Belgium, defending the border in Merris, where forensic evidence later suggested he had been shot by a German sniper on April 14, 1918.
Today, Ernie’s oldest surviving relative is his niece Alma Elvins of Crookwell, whose mother was his sister, Reubena Reynolds. Payne’s mother, Nancy Payne of Wellington, is second-eldest.
Over the summer of 1997, Payne and his wife Denise travelled to Paris, France, hoping for a journey of genealogical discovery.
“[We] went very close to the spot where my great uncle had died,” Payne said.
They had decided to break their journey, hire a car and see if they could find the spot of Ernie’s death. The couple also encountered mayor Dujardin, who would later welcome the pair to Ernie’s reinterment ceremony.
Australian and French army representatives were also invited to the ceremony in 2005 at Outtersteene cemetery.
“For 87 years, Merris has held a secret in its soil that is part of your history,” Dujardin said on the day.
“This is a story that has deeply scarred our country, plunged our families into mourning, and which saw our village completely destroyed in the bombardment of April 1918.
“The identification … humanises and personifies a small segment of the list of those who died for their country, and of whom has been recorded ‘died somewhere in France’.
“John, do you remember when you [first] came to Merris ... We went for a walk to Mont de Merris, and you asked your uncle this question: ‘Ernest, can you hear me?’ Today, John, Ernest hears you!”
Over the years since, the Payne and Dujardin families have made a close connection as a result of the discovery of the unidentified soldiers.
“My mother tells me that, during her lifetime, Ernie’s mother, Catherine Corby, frequently lamented the fact that her son had died somewhere in France, and that she didn’t even know where he was buried,” Payne said.
“When my mother found out that Uncle Ernie’s remains had been identified, her first reaction was to say ‘Granny Corby’s prayers have been answered at last’.”
Cpl Ernie Corby will be honoured as the focus of the Last Post at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra this Saturday, April 14.
A similar honour will also take place in France for Cpl Corby and a monument will be unveiled to Payne and his family, in France especially for the anniversary.
They will once again visit Outtersteene, which has become a place of closure for the family, and lay a wreath under the headstone: ‘Found near Merris … A shearer from Tuena’.
- To watch the Last Post head to awm.gov.au/commemoration/last-post-ceremony/live-stream.