Page last updated at 11:17 GMT, Friday, 13 June 2008 12:17 UK

WWI 'mass grave' to be sealed

By Robert Hall
BBC News

A mass grave of hundreds of British and Australian World War I soldiers found in Fromelles, France, is to be sealed following excavation. Archaeologists have completed their research on human remains found at the site.

The soldiers died during battle in Fromelles, north-east France in July 1916.

Maj Gen Mike O'Brien
The aim of the battle was to distract Germans from reinforcing the battle of the Somme
Maj Gen Mike O'Brien

Bloody failure

The Battle of Fromelles was intended to divert German troops from the Battle of the Somme which was raging 50 miles to the south.

But due to poor planning, the mission was a complete and bloody failure which greatly soured relations between the Australians and their British commanders.

In total, 5,000 Australians were killed, injured or captured, with around 2,000 lives lost in the first 27 hours of fighting.

For Australia, Fromelles saw one of the single greatest losses of life in the whole of the war.

Alongside them, some 1,500 British soldiers were also killed.

Terrible loss

Major General Mike O'Brien, who oversaw the dig, told the BBC the battle had been "a disastrous day" for Australia, with "terrible casualties".

"On the other hand, the aim of the battle was to distract the Germans from reinforcing the battle of the Somme and you could look at that as one of the achievements of the battle - but an achievement at a terrible price."

Maj Gen O'Brien said the "slow and methodical" excavation was important for the whole of Australia.

In a local cemetery, the remains of 410 unidentified Australians are buried alongside the names of 1,300 others who have no known grave.

Forensic experts and archaeologists led by a team from Glasgow University had what appeared to be a simple brief - to identify the spot where at least 400 British and Australian troops were buried.


How the German army buried British and Australian soldiers

The work by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission had the consent of the French, British and Australian governments.

For three weeks, they, like the soldiers who fought here, have struggled with the elements, and with the sticky Flanders clay.

But heavy rain followed by sweltering heat - conditions very similar to those that prompted the hurried burials ordered by senior German officers - have provided extra challenges to what was already a traumatic task.

One by one the five burial pits have yielded grim secrets - hundreds of bodies lying haphazardly with few clues as to their identity.

Their personal belongings were removed by the Germans, and eventually returned to their families. But metal buttons and insignia have been enough to reassure the archaeologists that these are indeed Commonwealth soldiers.

Last Post

On Friday the investigation team stood silently, with representatives from the British and Australian army, as a bugler sounded the Last Post.

This phase of the operation is now complete. The graves will be sealed once more to await a decision on how and where the soldiers should be commemorated.

Many are now calling for the exhumation and individual reburial of every man - a costly exercise that would probably be undertaken by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Britain's Veterans' Minister Derek Twigg told the BBC that governments would help meet the cost. But that decision would not be made until the excavation team had handed over their full report.

Relatives on both sides of the world will have to wait a while longer before they can close this chapter of their family history.


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