Australia, Britain bury WWI soldier in France

19th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Britain and Australia prepared to bury an unknown soldier Monday near the French World War I battlefield where he died, the last of 250 Commonwealth troops found in a mass grave nearby.

Descendants of Australians who died in the disastrous Battle of Fromelles in 1916 were to join Britain's Prince Charles and Australian officials including Governor General Quentin Bryce at the ceremony.

The burial honours the last one of 250 troops, most of them Australian, exhumed last year near the village of Fromelles, site of the bloodiest event in Australia's history.

Archaeologists dug up the remains and DNA specialists were able to identify more than 200 as Australian army soldiers, 96 of them by name, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

A total of 109 were identified as Australian soldiers but could not be named. Three were identified as unnamed British soldiers and a further 42 remain completely unknown.

Men of the 5th Australian Division alongside a smaller British contingent attacked the German line on the evening of July 19, 1916, at the village near the northeastern city of Lille.

Their aim was to distract German forces from the huge Somme offensive which had begun just to the south nearly three weeks earlier as they struggled to break the deadlock on the western front.

By 8:00 am the following morning, at least 1,780 Australians and 500 Britons were dead, plus more than 1,000 Germans, according to the commission, which looks after tens of thousands of war graves.

In total more than 5,500 Australians were killed, wounded or went missing, cut down by German machine guns as they advanced across the open fields.

David Richardson, a project manager at the commission, told AFP the dead had been wrapped in tarpaulins and carefully laid out in the grave pits.

Tests on bones recovered from the clayish mud revealed most of the soldiers were teenage boys, some of whom may have lied about their age when they signed up.

Thousands of artefacts such as badges and belt buckles were recovered along with their bodies, in what Richardson said was the biggest single excavation of World War I dead since the immediate aftermath of the war.

"It's remarkable that a grave of this size was still there (undiscovered)," before historians tipped off the Australian government about it, he said.

British Veterans Minister Kevan Jones said in March the government was "disappointed that there was insufficient evidence to name British soldiers," but the identification will be open for families to come forward until 2014.

The other 249 soldiers from the Fromelles grave site were buried in January and February in military ceremonies at the specially built cemetery. Honours for the last one were saved for the 94th anniversary of the battle on Monday.

"He is still unknown... either by nationality or by name," Richardson said.

The war graves commission has published on its website the names of soldiers who may be among the unidentified dead, many of them Britons from Gloucestershire and Warwickshire regiments.

© 2010 AFP

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