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PostPosted: Tue May 05, 2009 3:52 pm 
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Five burial pits dating from WW1 have been identified near Fromelles in northern France after several years of research.

They are believed to contain the remains of between 250 and 400 British and Australian soldiers, buried behind German lines after the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916.

An operation to recover and identify the remains of around 400 British and Australian soldiers who were killed in WW1 has begun.

The unmarked mass graves in a field near the village of Fromelles in Northern France had, until last year, lain undisturbed for more than 90 years.

Robert Hall reports.

PostPosted: Tue May 05, 2009 4:15 pm 
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An operation to recover and identify the remains of about 400 British and Australian soldiers killed during a WWI battle in Northern France is to begin.

It follows the discovery of several unmarked mass graves in a field on the outskirts of the village of Fromelles.

The British and Australian authorities have published the names of the soldiers they expect to find.

They have asked relatives for DNA to help identify the soldiers, who will be re-buried in a new military cemetery.

The bloody battle fought on 19 July 1916, at Fromelles, was a military disaster.

It was supposed to divert German resources away from the Battle raging on the Somme, 50 miles to the south, and to capture a local German stronghold.

But because of poor planning and execution, more than 5,500 Australian and at least 1,500 British troops were massacred as they attacked heavily fortified positions in broad daylight.

We can take these soldiers out of the ground and give them a decent burial - they will be the same as their mates

Caroline Barker, lead anthropologist
It was the first major action involving the Australians on the Western Front, and they suffered more casualties in a 24-hour period than at any other time in their history, even more than at the Battle of Gallipoli a year earlier.

Today, it is a place of pilgrimage for Australians.

Although the German commander offered a truce so that the bodies of the fallen soldiers could be recovered immediately after the battle, inexplicably the Allied commanders refused.

The Germans, from the Bavarian regiment, hastily dug mass graves and buried the bodies near to the village where the assault had been launched.

Although hundreds of bodies were exhumed at the end of the war, none could be identified.

Forensic archaeologist Roland Wessling describes the tools used to dig a war grave

Ironically, 93 years later, the man in charge of removing the remains is a German.

Roland Wessling is the project's chief forensic archaeologist. He and his team have to extract the remains meticulously to avoid damaging them.

The first layer of soil will be removed using a mechanical digger. The next will be taken out using ordinary shovels and spades, but when they find the first signs of human remains, the laborious task of brushing away the dirt will begin.

"We are very aware of just how important the recovery of the bodies are to very many people, both in the UK and in Australia.

"It's equally important to the people in this part of France.

"They live daily with this and are very passionate about this," he said.

Bois de Faisan, or Pheasant Wood - as it is known in English - is on the edge of the tiny village of Fromelles, about 10 miles outside the northern French city of Lille.

Ordinarily there would not be much to see except for a church and a few houses.

But now the scene is very different. Power cables hang above a hastily-built road, which leads to the site of the graves.

An inflatable awning has been erected to provide cover for the archaeologists. Red and yellow flags mark the location of the graves in a field between the wood and the church.

After Mr Wessling and his team have removed the remains, they will be taken to a huge temporary mortuary where they will be cleaned, photographed and preserved.

In a corner of the structure is Caroline Barker, the project's lead anthropologist. She has worked previously in Sri Lanka and Bosnia, where she helped to identify the victims of war crimes.

She said her team would have a hard task ahead of them: "It is to ensure that we can take these soldiers out of the ground and give them a decent burial, which is something they are entitled to as fallen soldiers.

Anthropologist Caroline Barker has identified war crimes victims in Bosnia
"And they will be the same as their mates. That is what we are trying to achieve and I think that is unique."

Both the British and Australian authorities have published lists of who they believe is buried in Pheasant Wood.

The final stage of the identification process involves DNA, and relatives of soldiers whose bodies were never recovered have given swabs.

Dr Peter Jones, the project advisor on DNA, will oversee the matching of samples.

"I think we're going to find some interesting stories... there are even some interesting ones appearing at the moment, in terms of relatives who are still alive. People like sisters, and daughters."

Across the road from Pheasant Wood, opposite the church, is where the remains will be interred once they have been identified.

It is there that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is building the first completely new World War One cemetery for almost 50 years.

PostPosted: Tue May 05, 2009 4:18 pm 
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DNA scheme to identify WWI dead

More than 7,000 Allied serviceman died at Fromelles
Hundreds of unnamed soldiers from World War One could be identified using DNA tests after their bodies were found in several mass graves in northern France.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, based in Berkshire, plans to exhume and identify about 400 soldiers killed at the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916.

About 1,700 British servicemen and more than 5,500 Australian soldiers lost their lives in the two-day battle.

The excavation project is due to begin next month.

The website will go live in the next few days while with details on the dead Australian soldiers is already active.

'Not at peace'

In the aftermath of the battle, the dead Allied soldiers were buried by their German counterparts. The graves were discovered in 2008.

A virtual image of the Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery at Fromelles.
Peter Francis of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission said: "Most of the identifying features were removed from the bodies by German troops, in order to give them information on the units they were fighting against."

The commission aims to identify the bodies and give them a military burial at a new site near Fromelles.

As part of the identification process, experts will take DNA samples from the bodies and try to find a family link with the help of the soldiers' relatives.

Mr Francis said: "When we speak to relatives, the phrase we keep encountering is that they are not at peace.

"With the website, we're hoping to put that right."

PostPosted: Tue May 05, 2009 4:21 pm 
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Emotional hunt for WWI remains

By Robert Hall
BBC News, Fromelles, France

The British lost 1,500 men in the battle

Nature has softened the scars of war, but the battlefields of France and Belgium remain places of pilgrimage and remembrance.

The immaculate cemeteries are constantly visited by those trying to piece together their family history.

Others leave simple crosses close to the spot where they believe a father, grandfather or great-uncle fell during the brutal struggle for territory.

But that's only part of the story. The savagery of trench warfare caused thousands to disappear without trace.

At the VC Corner Cemetery, more than 400 Australians are remembered, but there are no grave markers here.

Their remains were never recovered.

They died in fighting near Fromelles, a diversionary attack during the Battle of the Somme.

The prime aim is to ensure dignity and respect for the fallen

Remains found at WWI 'grave'

It has been described as the "worst 24 hours in Australia's entire history" - more than 5,500 of their troops were killed, wounded, or captured. The British, fighting alongside, lost 1,500.

War Historian Peter Barton has spent two years piecing together events on that day in 1916, in an effort to trace where the fallen were buried.

The dig at Fromelles has uncovered body fragments

German records indicated that they had been placed in a mass grave near the village of Fromelles, and aerial photographs seemed to bear this out.

Grand task

Lambis Englezos, a retired art teacher from Melbourne, is in Fromelles' tiny museum. He's spent the past 30 years trying to convince his government to support the search for the missing Cobbers.

Now that day has arrived.

Half a mile away, screened from visitors, a team of archaeologists from Glasgow University are leading a team that also includes forensic scientists, recently arrived from Jersey, where they've been working on the child abuse enquiry at the former Haut De La Garenne children's home.

The Battle of Fromelles took place in north-east France

An Australian general, Mike O'Brien, is here to oversee the painstaking operation. He said the prime aim was to ensure dignity and respect for the fallen.

It was too early at this stage to predict what form of memorial would be appropriate.

At a media conference to announce the first remains had been found, archaeologist Tony Pollard said this was the largest investigation of its kind ever attempted.

His team believe there may be 400 British and Australian soldiers in the burial pits. It would be an emotional experience, even for those trained in such specialist work.

Family hopes

A short distance from the dig site lies the Australian Memorial Park, dominated by the cast figure of an Australian soldier carrying a wounded comrade.

A team of archaeologists are leading the dig

On the plinth beneath is the framed photo of another missing man - Pte Harry Willis, from Victoria.

His great-nephew, Tim Whitford, has travelled from Australia in the hopes that the mystery of Pte Willis' whereabouts may now have been solved.

During a survey last year archaeologists found a tiny medallion that may have been his.

Tim's view is simple - all those found should be given a full military funeral.

Whatever the cost, he said, nothing else would give the men the honour that they have been denied for so long.

PostPosted: Tue May 05, 2009 4:32 pm 
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WWI 'grave' revives forgotten battle
By Phil Mackie
BBC News

WWI British Army recruits, before meeting the reality of war

Archaeologists say there is "compelling" evidence they have found the mass burial site of British and Australian troops who were killed during World War I.

They believe the bodies of up to 400 soldiers remain in unmarked graves in northern France near the site of the Battle of Fromelles.

It is the largest discovery of its kind and the Australian, British, French and German authorities must now decide whether to proceed with a mass exhumation of the soldiers' remains.

The Battle of Fromelles was an unmitigated disaster.

It was conceived as a ruse to divert German attention away from the campaign on the Somme in July 1916.

Burial pits

The British and Australians launched an assault on heavily fortified positions in broad daylight.

Although they fought bravely they suffered heavy losses.

The British withdrew and the Australians had to fight their way back through the German lines.

The Battle of Fromelles is often overshadowed by the Somme

A second assault was cancelled, though the Australians were not told and they lost more men.

A geophysical survey has located burial pits where hundreds of soldiers were buried after the battle.

Dr Tony Pollard, the director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University, has just returned from the site.

"To my knowledge this is the largest unmarked mass grave from the First World War to be discovered in modern times," he said.

"There have been multiple graves in the past, but they've been maybe 20 to 30 men. We're talking here of somewhere in the region of 400 men according to the German records that we have".

He said a metal detector survey revealed a number of artefacts including metal objects with Australian Army insignia on them.

"The only way they could have got there really is on the dead bodies of Australian soldiers," he said.

"The bodies haven't been disinterred and buried elsewhere. We believe there's strong evidence that the bodies are still buried in that field."

Visit from Hitler

In Australia the battle is regarded as one of the most significant in its history.

Dr Pollard said, among Australians, the Battle of Fromelles is talked about in the same breath as Gallipoli.

We are potentially speaking of 399 sets of remains - a very costly and very lengthy exercise

Peter Barton, Historian

"It's a huge national disaster. Within the 12 or 15 hours of the battle 5,500 Australian soldiers were either killed or wounded."

But he said it also held strong significance for the British.

"We tend to forget the Battle of Fromelles over here because it's overshadowed by the Battle of the Somme.

"But upwards of 1,500 to 2,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded in that same attack and several hundred of those may be in those grave pits."

It was the first time its troops had seen action on the Western Front, and it is seen as an example of how the Empire was prepared to sacrifice its colonial troops with little thought about the consequences.

It is believed Adolf Hitler, then a corporal in the Bavarian reserve infantry, ran messages behind the German lines during the battle.

And the bunker Hitler visited in the 1940s when he came to occupied France is said to be just a few hundred yards from the burial site.

The mammoth task of trying to work out who might buried there has already begun.

Historian and author Peter Barton, who is also part of the team working on the project, said: "We are potentially speaking of 399 sets of remains - a very costly and very lengthy exercise, as indeed the excavation itself would be."

The next decision will be whether to exhume the bodies and bury them with full military honours.

PostPosted: Tue May 05, 2009 7:21 pm 
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...I hope someone is recording all this for possibly some "history Channel or Military Channel program special for future viewing...

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PostPosted: Tue May 05, 2009 9:34 pm 
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I read that BBC article, interesting stuff.

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