Page last updated at 12:05 GMT, Friday, 29 January 2010

Putting names to the lost soldiers of Fromelles

Archaeolgoists at Fromelles
Archaeologists wore protective clothing to prevent contamination of the remains

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

The first of the remains of 250 World War I soldiers found in France are being reburied with military honours after painstaking efforts to identify them. How do you put the right name on a headstone after so long?

When the first chipped and battle-scarred bones were excavated from a muddy field in northern France last May, the story of the forgotten battle of Fromelles began to emerge.

The remains of 250 British and Australian soldiers had lain undiscovered for 93 years since falling on the Western Front.

Boots, purses, toothbrushes and other personal artefacts lay amongst the twisted skeletons at Pheasant Wood, offering partial clues about the men's identities.

Richard Parker (inset) and Len Twamley, taken before his deployment
My grandmother died without knowing where Len was buried - this would bring proper closure to a family tragedy
Richard Parker, pictured inset

But it is the unique genetic codes within these remains that offer the best chance of putting names to each unknown soldier.

So far, more than 800 UK families who think they may have lost a relative at Fromelles have given DNA samples, but many will be disappointed.

The man whose job it is to help identify the soldiers says it is like finding a needle in a haystack, albeit with a very good metal detector.

"The problem with DNA that's been in the ground for 90 years is it degrades in quality and quantity," says molecular geneticist Dr Peter Jones.

"If it's a very acidic site, there's no chance of DNA at all because acids attack DNA rapidly. If it's dry and arid like in a desert, you get good DNA. If it's wet, less good."

The remains extracted from Fromelle's muddy burial pits have produced small but workable amounts of DNA, says Dr Jones. The teeth, which preserve well because they are encased in enamel, give by far the best samples.

"The hardest part is finding the right families and getting them to come forward... you can have good DNA profiles, but no family to match it up to."

Tracing family DNA

Map showing highest snowfall and lowest temperature
An individual's genetic code is carried by the DNA inside every cell of the body. A unique DNA profile and sequence can be made by extracting DNA from remains of the dead or mouth swabs of the living. DNA from Y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA is then analysed. Families will share similar DNA traits.
Graphic showing amount of grit used so far
Family trees help establish paternal and maternal lines to trace who is alive today to provide DNA samples to match against those taken from the remains of the Fromelles soldiers. As long as a relative is on either the paternal or maternal line, then a match to a soldier should be possible.
Graphic showing amount of gas used so far
Clues to the soldier's identity would lie with his sons or grandsons, if he had any, as the male Y chromosome DNA is passed from father to son. If he did not have children, as in the example above, DNA from his brother's grandsons or great grandsons may do.
Graphic on school closures
On the soldier's maternal side, his sister's grandchildren or his sister's grandaughters' children will have inherited the same mitochondrial DNA he got from his mother. If there are no surviving members on one branch of the family, then going back generations to find another line is also valid.
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Although 250 bodies have been recovered from the graves, it's thought about 1,500 British and 5,500 Australian troops fell in the battle, making it all the harder to match.

And when it comes to matching DNA samples across several generations, Dr Jones says the methods are far from perfect.

Unlike the seven "markers" used for more exact matches on the National DNA Database, he only has two at his disposal - the Y (paternal) and mitrochondrial (maternal) profiles.

A boot found in a burial pit at Fromelles

"If we had the children of the soldiers, we could use the same markers as the DNA database. But because we are three generations away, the markers get diluted out through each mother and father."

Families searching for their ancestors have been asked to give maternal and paternal samples - preferably two each - using a simple cheek swab.

The DNA results will be added to the anthropological, archaeological and historical information to try to get positive identifications.

Families will be told sometime after March, once the remains of all 250 soldiers have been buried. Their final resting place will be a new war cemetery nearby, the first to be built in 50 years.

The £3m project, funded by the British and Australian governments, is overseen by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Waiting for news will be Richard Parker, 47, who has spent 25 years trying to retrace the footsteps of his ancestor Leonard Twamley. His father's uncle was just 19 when he volunteered for the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Six months later, the 20-year-old died at Fromelles.

"He was an ordinary working class lad from Coventry working in a cycle factory, who gave his life because it was considered his patriotic duty to do so."

Although interested in Len's story since his 20s, Mr Parker did not know he was killed at Fromelles until an amateur historian contacted him last year.

A missing person notice placed in the local paper
Leonard Twamley's mother put this poignant notice in the Coventry Herald

Since then he has made a pilgrimage to the French village with his father, who supplied DNA, along with Len's surviving nephews and nieces.

"Even if his body isn't found, in some respects his memory is even more alive now. By researching what sort of person he was, we now know much more about him," Mr Parker says.

"My grandmother died without knowing where Len was buried... this would bring proper closure to a family tragedy that goes back 95 years."

Unknown soldiers

The bodies that remain untraceable will be buried with a headstone marked simply "Known Unto God".

Dr Jones fears many will suffer this fate. He estimates the final number identified to be up to 100, but more likely tens.

19-20 July 1916, 19 days after Somme Campaign
Intended as diversion to stop German soldiers going to Somme
Troops of 5th Australian and 61st British divisions led attack at 6pm
Within 11 hours, 5,533 Australians killed, wounded or taken prisoner and 1,547 similar British losses
Soldiers from Gloucestershire, Bristol, Warwickshire and Worcestershire heavily involved
Worst 24 hours in Australia's military history, considered a national tragedy
Forces believed to have included the then 27-year-old Adolf Hitler

Even if there is a DNA match, it may not necessarily be the right family because some DNA profiles are relatively common.

Adoptions, women who married and changed names, and paternity issues can also throw a spanner in the works. Other families simply die out.

But a match can be made through cousins, nephews or nieces on the family line. So if a family is missing a paternal link, they can trace the soldier's father, grandfather or brother, then locate their living relatives.

Dr Jones says one family went back seven generations on the maternal side then came forward five to find a suitable relative.

Forensic anthropologist Professor Margaret Cox says the team is so reliant on DNA matches as 90% of British enlistment records were destroyed in the Blitz.

And the painstaking methods of extracting and cataloguing remains have been refined at the scenes of genocide and war crimes in Rwanda, the Balkans and Iraq.

As at those sites, the bodies recovered gave clues to their fate - in this case, fractured bones showing damage from machine guns, rifles, mortar shells and shrapnel. But they were buried in deep graves with order and respect.

"You try not to imagine what it was like, it makes it difficult to do our work," she says, adding that this is easier said than done at times.

What brought the tragedy home were the artefacts - the inscribed bibles and lucky charms.

For her, the two most poignant came from Australian soldiers. The first was a small lucky charm in the shape of a boomerang, to symbolise returning home.

The other was the return half of a railway ticket from Freemantle to Perth, intended for the soldier's journey home to his family.

Site of battlefield and new cemetary

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