The remains of hundreds of World War I soldiers buried in France have now been successfully recovered after a four-month archaeological operation.
The bodies of 250 soldiers who were killed in the 1916 Battle of Fromelles have now been recovered and will shortly be reburied with full military honours at a new military cemetery close to the site.
The group burial at Pheasant Wood, Fromelles, was confirmed during a limited excavation in May 2008 and work began to recover the Australian and British soldiers buried there by German forces after the battle.
The battle began on 19 July 1916 and was the first major battle on the Western Front to involve both British and Australian troops. In total, the 61st British Division suffered losses of 1,547 personnel, who were either killed, wounded, taken prisoner or missing. The 5th Australian Division suffered 5,533 similar losses.
The excavation was carried out by Oxford Archaeology, whose final day of work in the field will be 14 September.
The remains will stay at Oxford Archaeology’s laboratories on site at Fromelles while experts record all details to help with identification. DNA samples have been taken from each soldier and specialists in England are attempting to extract DNA strands from the samples to help with the identification process.
The identification process may take many months and it would be inappropriate to delay the reburials until it is complete. Therefore every soldier will be buried in a marked but unnamed grave in the new Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery, which is currently under construction by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The burials will take place in February 2010.
All of the evidence obtained through archaeological, anthropological, historical and DNA analysis will be presented to a specially convened identification board which is due to meet in March 2010. Each grave will be marked by a headstone following the formal identification process. If the soldiers can be identified by name their relatives will be able to add a personalised inscription on the headstone at a later date.
A commemorative event to open the cemetery is scheduled for the 94th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles on 19 July 2010.
Veterans Minister Kevan Jones said:
“This is a milestone in the development of the project and I am grateful for the work that Oxford Archaeology has done. I know they have been working in very tough conditions and they have recovered the remains of these brave soldiers with the utmost care and respect.
“Now we will do everything we can to try to identify each and every one of these fallen soldiers. What is most important is that these men are laid to rest with full military honours and the dignity they deserve.”
His Australian counterpart Greg Combet said:
“A total of 250 sets of remains and 1,200 artefacts have been excavated from six graves. While identification of the remains is an extremely complex process I remain hopeful that we will be able to identify a number of those that we have found.”
Anyone who believes they may be related to a soldier killed at Fromelles should contact the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre by calling 01452 712612, extension 6303, or by emailing Fromelles@spva.mod.uk.