In 2008, a mass grave site was unearthed near Fromelles in northern France. This site contained the remains of 250 troops from the 5th Australian Division and British 61st Division who fought at the Battle of Fromelles. Through the use of DNA typing as well as archaeological, anthropological and historical evidence, scientists were able to assign names to many of the soldiers killed during that battle in which 1,780 members of the 5th Australian Division and 503 from the 61st British Division were lost between 6:00pm on July 19 and 8:00am on July 20, 1916.
On July 19, on the 94th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles, a dedication ceremony is taking place at the Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery in northern France. During this dedication, the last of the 250 Australian and British soldiers found at the Pheasant Wood site is being laid to rest with full military honors. This is a fitting day to present an update on the progress made since I first wrote of the identification efforts in May of 2009, shortly after excavation began.
First, a little project history: Analysis of old aerial military reconnaissance photographs taken over a period of several months after the Battle of Fromelles in 1916 revealed eight pits dug along the southern edge of Pheasant Woods. Later photographs showed that five pits had been backfilled. Were these pits makeshift graves for hundreds of Australian and British soldiers? In the spring of 2007 a preliminary evaluation of the site was begun by the Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division using topographic and geophysical surveys; the results of these surveys and the presence of surface debris, including shrapnel, shell fragments and bullets, provided strong evidence that it was. In May of 2009, members of the Oxford Archaeology team began excavating the site and recovering remains along with any personal and military artifacts.
In March of 2010, after collecting and analyzing DNA and other evidence, the first results were released: The names of 75 soldiers were announced. All served with the Australian Army. An additional 128 soldiers were identified as members of the Australian Army, but there was insufficient evidence to identify them further. Three British soldiers were identified by their force but none by name. In May of 2010, an additional 19 members of the Australian Imperial Force were assigned names. The remaining 44 are still considered unknown.
Why am I writing about this project (again)? There are several reasons. I am amazed that more than 90 years after these men were hastily buried, we finally can assign names to so many of them and give them a proper burial, something of which many men killed during the Great War were deprived. Shortly after the war was over, a thorough attempt was made to recover bodies, but the conditions for exhumation squads were difficult in the battered and waterlogged landscape. Bodies were carefully searched for any possessions that might help identification, but many of these vital identifiers were lost, and as a result, many men went to their graves nameless. Using modern technology, we are now able to right that wrong.
I am also amazed at the number of families who donated historical knowledge and DNA reference samples in the hope that their relative might be found, proving that more than 90 years after the battle, these men who gave their lives are not just forgotten names on an old military roster. Even though the last soldier is being buried today, identification efforts are still ongoing. However, these efforts rely on relatives of men lost at Fromelles to provide biological samples to generate, analyze and compare DNA profiles. The British and Australian governments assembled a list of casualties who may be buried at Fromelles and are seeking additional relatives who can provide biological samples to help identify the last of these men. Do you recognize any names on that list?
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