Page last updated at 18:49 GMT, Monday, 10 August 2009 19:49 UK

DNA work begins at WWI mass grave

DNA expert at war grave in Frommelles
Experts began examining the grave last year

DNA tests have started on the remains of hundreds of WWI soldiers whose remains were found in a mass grave in northern France last year.

Genetic samples from living relatives have been taken to identify British and Australian remains taken from the site of the Battle of Fromelles.

Soldiers from Bristol, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire were heavily involved in the fighting.

The exhumed bodies will later be buried with full military honours.

The grave was found after detective work by an Australian historian.

Fromelles on 19 July 1916, a frontal assault on German positions, cost the lives of more than 1,500 Australians and 500 British troops.

The 11-hour battle was the worst single loss of Australian life in the nation's entire military history.

Military honours

The British 61st Division, featuring the 4th (City of Bristol), 5th and 6th battalions of the Gloucestershire Regiment alongside men from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and the Worcestershire Regiment, were heavily engaged in the attack.

Other British units, including the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Regiment, also sustained heavy losses as they attempted to support what was intended to be a diversionary attack to take pressure of Allied forces on the Somme.

German forces, who suffered only moderate casualties, are believed to have featured the then 27-year-old Adolf Hitler.

Australian amateur historian Lambis Englezos was honoured by the Australian government after his research led to the grave's discovery.

Although the battle is largely forgotten in the UK, in Australia it is remembered as a national tragedy of the same note as Gallipoli.

Richard Hope-Hawkins, of Bristol, is waiting to hear if the grave, which was hastily dug after the conflict by the Germans, contains the remains of his late uncle 2nd Lt George James Mitchell.

"I feel very emotional about it. My late grandmother, great-grandmother and mother all talked about George James Mitchell and I think it's wonderful that they are now hopefully retrieving his body."

Richard Hope-Hawkins
Richard Hope-Hawkins has researched his family's history

As well as using DNA analysis, archaeologists will try to match up artefacts found with some of the bodies.

Train tickets, a heart-shaped pouch and even a stamped toothbrush have been discovered so far.

Once everything has been done to identify the remains, each one will be buried with full military honours at a new military cemetery.

The work on the grave is being supervised by the Berkshire-based Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Anyone who believes they may be related to a British soldier killed at Fromelles should contact the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre by calling 01452 712612 extension 6303 or emailing fromelles@spva.mod.uk



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