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Visiting the grave in Fromelles

By Steve Knibbs
Gloucestershire reporter, BBC Points West

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WW1 mass grave finds on display

Dressed in full protective white suits, hats and face masks the archaeologists worked meticulously and peacefully.

Using small picks and brushes, they were slowly revealing the remains of three more soldiers from the final grave excavation.

In the pit below me I could see the skeletons of these men who died at the Battle of Fromelles 93 years ago.

All lying face up and open mouthed, the one nearest to me was still wearing a well preserved leather boot on his right foot.

It's a strange but not uncomfortable sight. Everyone working here knows what they are doing is for the right reasons.

Over 200 other sets of remains have been afforded the same respect. This is no rushed job and it's done with the utmost sensitivity.

Dr Louise Loe on the WW1 project

Once every part of the remains have been uncovered they are sent to the mortuary where the bones are cleaned and dried.

From there it's to the anthropology lab where each skeleton is laid out in correct anatomical order.

Here the forensic teams can analyse the bones to find out more about what happened.

Any clues that could lead to the identification of the soldier will be recorded.

I was shown into the lab and to see the remains of one of the soldiers.

There was evidence of arthritis in his hips. His dentures were still intact, complete with a gold plated crown, and attached to his skull.

But most startling was evidence of how he died. A couple of his ribs were broken to show the entry of a bullet.

The exit wound a splintered hole in his collar bone. I asked how old he was when he died. About 35-40. The same age as me.

'Hidden gems'

Around the lab are photos of some of the remains discovered. One of the most striking was a close-up of a gold wedding ring - still on the third finger of the soldiers skeletal left hand.

Any artefacts are recovered and sent to the finds lab to be catalogued and investigated.

Here Kate Brady and her team dust away fragments of soil to reveal these hidden gems.

Behind the scenes at Fromelles

There are plenty of belt buckles, eyelets and shoulder badges, but also some unexpected finds.

Many with a story to tell, such as a return train to ticket to Perth that was sadly never able to be used.

But what was most poignant for me was a heart shaped leather pouch inside of which was a smaller pouch.

The stitching had come away to reveal a small locket of human hair. Presumably given to the soldier by a loved one before he went into battle.

Fascinating as some of this may be, foremost in the minds of the archaeologists here is that each set of remains was a British or Australian Soldier.

A real person and each has their own story. Many still have living relatives who will soon be sent swabs to supply their DNA to the research teams.

Every year, for the next five years, an identification board will meet to try and put names to the remains that have been found.

In the blistering heat of a French summer's day it was almost impossible to imagine the mass slaughter that happened here.

No-man's land

The Battles of Fromelles was supposed to act as a diversion from the Battle of the Somme.

It turned into a disaster. Thousands of British and Australian troops were killed.

A few days after the battle had ended a few hundred of the dead that were left in no-man's land were removed by the German army and respectfully buried in two layers behind German lines.

It's those soldiers who are being recovered in Fromelles today.

At a cost of over £6m, shared between the British and Australian Governments, no expense is being spared in giving these soldiers the respect and dignity they need.

A couple of hundred yards away from the dig site a new military cemetery is being constructed, the first for over 50 years.

Each solider will be re-interred here with full military honours from next February.

A reburial they not only deserve, but which they earned for giving their lives in the most bloody of battles.




SEE ALSO
DNA work begins at WWI mass grave
10 Aug 09 |  England
Audio slideshow: WWI in the words of Harry Patch
06 Aug 09 |  People & Places


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