Archaeologists seek World War I mass grave

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The mass grave is suspected to consist of hundreds of Australian and British troops who died in the battle of Fromelles.

30 May 2008

FROMELLES - On the edge of a wood near the northern French village of Fromelles, archaeologists are seeking to uncover a suspected mass grave of hundreds of Australian and British troops from World War I.

A high fence surrounds the site in the middle of fields of ripening wheat and Australian soldiers stand guard at the entrance as experts work under sheeting to shed light on one of the great mysteries of the Western Front.

From outside all that can be seen is the arm of an excavator turning up the earth, which is then carefully examined by members of Glasgow University's Archaeological Research Division (GUARD).

The battle of Fromelles, on 19 and 20 July 1916, was the baptism of fire for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on the Western Front. Intended to divert the Germans from the ongoing Battle of the Somme, it was a costly failure.

More than 7,000 troops were killed, wounded or missing among the attackers, of whom some 5,500 were Australian. It was the worst loss for the AIF in a 24-hour period, more even than Gallipoli in 1915, and poisoned relations between the Australians and their British commanders.

Many of the soldiers were unaccounted for and are thought to have been buried in pits by the Germans near what was known to the allies as Pheasant Wood. A campaign of several years to have the site investigated finally bore fruit, with a preliminary probe carried out in 2007.

Australian General Mike O'Brien, supervising the dig, said Thursday that the excavation was important for the whole of Australia, where interest has been intense.

Many Australians in particular are hoping that remains of their missing relatives will finally be found and given a fitting burial.

Four days into the operation, only one human vestige, an arm, had turned up, but the archaeologists said they had a long way to go as they sifted the soil for fragments of bone, uniform or equipment.

"It's a matter of careful removal of a large amount of soil," O'Brien said.

"You can see, the process is to move the layer and examine it carefully if there's anything in it. And sometimes that's productive."

Tony Pollard, head of GUARD, said work was continuing on "pit five", where the human remains were found.

"We can now even see the shape of the German spades that were used to cut the pit," he said, adding that metal rings from German stretchers used to carry the bodies had also been found.

"We hope that at the end of the day we will be well down into pit five, and at that point we'll expose a broader expanse to human remains in the bottom of it."

"That process will continue from pit to pit."

On the site of the nearby battlefield stands a statue of an Australian soldier carrying a wounded comrade, while a cemetery contains the remains of 410 unidentified Australians and the names of some 1,300 men who have no known grave.

[AFP / Expatica]

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