Page last updated at 23:47 GMT, Monday, 4 May 2009 00:47 UK

WWI battle grave recovery begins

By Phil Mackie
BBC News


A ceremony has been held to mark the start of the work

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.

Caroline Barker, Lead Anthropologist
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.

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