On January 30th 2010 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission dedicated their first new war cemetery for fifty years at Fromelles, north of Lille. The burial of an unknown soldier with full military honours was witnessed by politicians from both the British and Australian governments. During the service an Australian soldier played the ‘Last Post’ on a cornet that was said to have been in the possession of a soldier who fought at the Battle of Fromelles.
The Battle of Fromelles was meant to divert the attention of German forces away from the major Allied attacks taking place along the Somme front. A combined Australian and British assault on German lines at Fromelles was disastrous. The Australians first combat operations on the Western Front was also their costliest in terms of men lost in such a short space of time – over 5,500 men.
In 2008, a farmer in Fromelles found what proved to be the first of six mass graves of 250 Allied soldiers. It is assumed that the soldiers were buried by the Germans in these graves to prevent the spread of disease as the attack occurred during a hot summer and many died in German lines. Those who excavated the sites said that those who had died were buried with “order and respect”. Certainly, this camaraderie would not have been unusual in this war.
To commemorate the fallen at Fromelles, the CWGC built a new cemetery and it is planned that it will be fully dedicated on July 19th 2010. The first soldier to be buried there took place on Saturday January 30th. His headstone reads “Known Unto God”. The official title of the new cemetery is Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery.
The circumstances behind the deaths of the men discovered in 2008 meant that any form of immediate identification was impossible. However, those who believe that an ancestor died at Fromelles have been encouraged to give a DNA sample to the investigating body who believe that there is some chance that some of the bodies may one day be identified. DNA samples have been taken from each of the discovered bodies. To date more than 800 families have given DNA samples, as they believe that a family ancestor was killed at Fromelles. However, the scientists’ involved face a daunting task as over the last 90 years the DNA found on the bodies has degraded. The task has been made more difficult as the bodies were found in soil that was frequently wet and this alone has had an impact on the DNA tests done on the bodies. Dr Peter Jones, the scientist leading the team, has been quoted as saying that they, the team, have “small but workable” amounts of DNA.
The other issue will be that only 250 bodies have been recovered to date and it is possible that this will be the sum total. Yet 5,500 Australians and 1,500 British soldiers died in the short but bloody battle at Fromelles. Families may well come forward in the belief that a relative died at Fromelles and that they are among the 250 but, in fact, their body has never been recovered. Another problem facing scientists trying to use DNA is that they are three or four generations down the line. DNA specialists usually use what they refer to as the ‘Seven Markers’ but because of the 90 years degradation and the three/four generation gap, they only have two to go on – the Y (Paternal) and the mitochondria (Maternal) profiles. For those on the team, the work has been particularly poignant as artefacts were found that were evocative. One of the bodies still had a Bible tucked away in the pocket of his uniform and this had saved it from the constant damp; another corpse was found to have a return rail ticket from Perth to Freemantle while another Australian soldier carried a small boomerang into battle – symbolising his return home. One of the men on the excavation team, Tom Pollard, stated that such finds made him “shake with emotion” and made him “more determined” to bring the burials to a proper conclusion.