The Fromelles offensive was a modest attack launched by Haig in an attempt to divert German resources away from the Somme, 50 miles to the south of Fromelles, following the outbreak of violent fighting 18 days earlier. The Australian 5th Division and the British 61st Division fought together in an effort to capture the village and the ridge overlooking the battlefield. The offensive was a disaster: during the 24-hour battle, the Australian Division suffered 5,533 casualties and the British suffered 1,547 casualties. At the time of the attack, the Australian troops had only been in France a couple of weeks and it was the first major action involving Australians on the Western Front. They suffered more casualties in a 24-hour period than at any other time in their history. In the aftermath of the battle, the commander of the Bavarian troops allegedly offered a truce so that the bodies could be recovered, however, the Allied commanders refused and the Germans consequently dug a mass grave and buried the bodies.
At the request of the Australian government, active research began on the site in May 2008, by a team from Glasgow University led by Dr Tony Pollard. Following preliminary excavation work, it is now believed that 170 Australian and 300 British troops are buried in a series of eight pits. British and Australian authorities have published the names of the soldiers they hope to identify and have asked families for DNA samples in order to identify the bodies. Once the remains have been removed from the grave, they will be taken to a temporary mortuary where they will be cleaned, photographed and preserved. The project is expected to last six months.
On July 31st 2008, the British and Australian governments officially announced their plans to rebury the bodies in individual graves in a new military cemetery. The building of the cemetery, due to open in the spring of 2010, will be overseen by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The new cemetery will be the first complete First World War cemetery to be built for almost 50 years.
In the aftermath of the battle, the bodies were buried by German troops and, somewhat ironically, the leading forensic anthropologist of the current project, Roland Wessling, is also German. In an article published on the website of the BBC, he described the importance of the project:
‘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
Caroline Barker, the project’s leading anthropologist, also explained the aim of the research:
‘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. And
they will be the same as their mates. That is what we are trying to achieve and
I think that is unique.’
For more information on the project, visit the website of the Australian Ministry of Defence, which will be updated throughout the duration of the project: www.defence.gov.au/fromelles
For more information on the Battle of the Somme, read our articles Summing Up The Somme and The Somme Battlefield