WWI mass grave excavation begins at Fromelles, France

May 7, 2009
Work started Monday to excavate and identify the remains of Australian and British WWI soldiers found in a mass grave in northern France. The grave holds the remains of up to 400 soldiers whose whereabouts remained a mystery for more than 90 years following the 24-hour Battle of Fromelles fought in July 1916.

Altogether, 5,533 Australian and 1,547 British soldiers in the battle were listed as dead or missing.

A Melbourne, Australia schoolteacher and amateur historian Lambis Englezos had spent years researching the battle and its aftermath, and was able to pinpoint the gravesite in 2007 on the outskirts of Fromelles in an area called Pheasant Wood. It was finally unearthed in May 2008. Final excavation was scheduled for this spring.

Before beginning the work Monday, French, Australian and British officials conducted a ceremony at the site. About 100 local villagers, including dozens of schoolchildren, attended.

Two priests blessed the ground in honor of the buried soldiers and the archaeologists in charge of exhuming their remains. Then a mechanical digger nicknamed Carla removed the top layers of grass and clay covering one of eight pits containing the soldiers’ remains.

A reporter from Australia’s The Age newspaper reported that Fromelles Mayor Hubert Huchette said he hoped the recovery of their remains would help the people of Fromelles "erase the wounds of the war".

In late April, the design of a joint British-Australian cemetery at Fromelles was revealed. The new cemetery will have 400 individual graves centered around a cross.

Scientists believe they are likely to positively identify 50% or less of the remains. So far, about 96 Australian families and only a handful of British families have come forward to provide genetic samples for the forensic testing. The search for surviving family members has been complicated by the many years and generations that have passed since the battle.

Sources: The Age (Australia), The West Australian, and The Connexion

Photo above: Battle of Fromelles memorial at Fromelles Memorial Park.

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