Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The Fallen of Fromelles: First World War Soldiers Unearthed

by Kathryn Hadley

Work began yesterday, May 5th, in the small village of Fromelles in northern France to recover the remains of over 400 British and Australian soldiers believed to be buried in a mass grave just outside the village. The soldiers were massacred during the battle of Fromelles, which was fought on July 19th, 1916, six miles west of Lille near the Belgian border.

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
about this.’

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:

For more information on the Battle of the Somme, read our articles Summing Up The Somme and The Somme Battlefield

1 comment:

grant triffett said...

Kathryn Hadley’s story titled ‘The Fallen of Fromelles: First World War Soldiers Unearthed’ published online in History Today News on Wednesday, 6 May, 2009 provided a good thumb-nail sketch of the current situation in relation to the investigations at Pheasant Wood. The contract for DNA testing has now been finally awarded and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has been organized to oversee the full archaeological investigation, but the United Kingdom and Australian Government still ignore the plea of Fromelles Discussion Group to include all the aggregated remains of the 5th Division AIF from this particular attack in the recovery project. Besides the 191 Australian Great War Diggers officially listed as being in the mass grave at Fromelles, there are supposed to be 1,131 unidentified bodies from this skirmish at VC Corner Military Cemetery as well as other cemeteries in the neighbourhing district.

Out of the 1,294 recorded on the VC Corner Australian Cemetery Memorial still said to be missing and unidentified, there are 410 at VC Corner Cemetery itself, 266 at Rue David Military Cemetery, 142 Ration Farm Military Cemetery, 120 at Auber's Ridge British Cemetery, 72 "Y" Farm Military Cemetery, 52 Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery, 27 Rue du Bois Military Cemetery, 22 Rue-Petillon Military Cemetery, 10 Anzac Cemetery at Sailly-sur-la-Lys and 10 Sailly-sur-la-Lys Canadian Cemetery.

The only way to recognize Australia’s debt to these gallant soldiers is to include them all in the project to ensure they are properly honoured and memorialized.

Grant Triffett, Convenor/Administrator, Fromelles Discussion Group

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