The Battle at Fromelles: Identifying World War I Remains Using DNA

Australian 53rd Battalion at Fromelles, 19 July 1916
Australian 53rd Battalion at Fromelles, 19 July 1916

On July 19, 1916, British and Australian forces launched a diversionary attack on heavily fortified German front lines near the tiny village of Fromelles in northern France to try to divert German resources from the Battle of the Somme, which was taking place only 50 miles to the south. Many men fell as they tried to cross the unfavorable ground between Allied trenches and the German fortifications. More than 5,500 Australian troops and 1,500 British soldiers were killed, wounded or captured during the two-day battle, making this Australia’s most costly battle of World War I. After Allied commanders refused a truce offered by the Germans to retrieve the fallen soldiers, the Germans recovered the bodies, loaded them onto a train, then transported them the short distance to Bois de Faisan, known as Pheasant Wood in English. Up to 400 of these bodies were buried there in five of eight hastily dug pits, then covered with the heavy clay soil and forgotten. These graves were lost to history until recently.

In 2008, the mass graves site was located through topographic and geophysical studies. The site, which had remained undisturbed for 93 years, is now bustling with the activity of battlefield and forensic archaeologists, historians and anthropologists. Scientists are patiently removing layer after layer of heavy clay to locate the remains and any belongings that might offer clues about the identities of these men. The belongings are sparse though, since the Germans stripped the bodies of anything that was useful to their military or might provide information about the units they were fighting. While metal detectors may lead investigators to a stray button or belt buckle or a dead soldier’s good luck charm, the most informative artifacts to identify these remains might be the bones themselves.

Dr. Peter Jones, the project advisor on DNA, and his co-workers hope to identify the remains by extracting DNA from the carefully washed bones, then comparing this DNA to DNA collected as reference samples from some of the relatives of the 165,000 men still missing from World War I. These relatives, who are often crucial to the identification efforts, include sisters, brothers, sons and daughters. Their relation to the deceased is investigated using complex statistical analyses of shared DNA sequences (1). Fortunately, the search for reference samples is aided by a list of missing soldiers believed to be buried in these graves, published by British and Australian authorities.

Using DNA to identify a soldier many years after his death is not new. DNA analysis has been used successfully to identify remains from military conflicts as far back as the U.S. Civil War (2). The success rate depends on how well the remains have been preserved, what bones are used as the source of DNA, and whether suitable reference samples can be collected. The type of DNA that is targeted also affects the success rate: mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis is often more successful in these situations because most cells contain hundreds of copies of mtDNA, unlike single-copy genomic DNA, making mtDNA more likely to survive the harsh environmental conditions that remains often endure before recovery. Mitochondrial DNA is also useful since it is passed unchanged from one generation to the next within a maternal lineage.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has set up a Web site to provide updates as the work is completed, as well as historical information about the battle. In a commemorative ceremony, scheduled on July 19, 2010, each set of remains will be reburied across the road from Pheasant Wood in the first entirely new World War I cemetery built in almost 50 years. Hopes are high that DNA analysis can attribute a name to each new grave, but for now, only time will tell if these bones will speak the name of a missing soldier.

  1. Maguire, C. and Woodward, M. (2008) DNA-Based kinship analysis. Profiles in DNA 11(1), 3–5.
  2. Edson, S. (2007) Identifying missing U.S. servicemembers from the Korean War—Do storage conditions affect the success rate of mtDNA testing? Profiles in DNA 10(1), 14–15.
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Terri Sundquist

Terri has worked as a Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation for more than 13 years, and prior to that, spent more than 5 years solving problems and answering questions as a Promega Technical Services Scientist. She graduated with B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, then earned her M.S. in Molecular Biology from the Mayo Graduate School in Rochester Minnesota.

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