The Battle of Fromelles commenced on 19 July 1916, 19 days after the opening of the Somme campaign on the Western Front. It is a day and a place that is marked by a tragic sacrifice as this day is the bloodiest day of battle in Australia’s military history.
The 5th Australian Division had arrived in France in late June 1916; it was a new Division, formed less than 6 months previously with less than a third of the personnel having had fighting experience at Gallipoli. The battle was meant to be a diversion, to keep German reserves at Fromelles, away from the Somme. The British 61st Division were to make the assault with the Australian 5th Division, however that battle did not go as planned and by the time they had reached half way through no-man’s land many of the battalions had become separated under artillery and heavy machine-gun fire, leaving isolated groups. Some British and Australian troops broke into enemy trenches and continued with their objectives, but by night fall without support and in danger of being cut off they had to retire back to their own lines.
Hundreds of dead and wounded soldiers were left behind while hundreds more had no choice but to surrender. More than 5,500 Australian and 1,500 British soldiers were casualties at Fromelles, while the Germans suffered approximately 1,000 losses. The Battle had no impact on the Somme where fighting continued. The impact of the battle in Australia was immense. More lives had been lost in this battle compared to weeks of fighting at Gallipoli.
LGC has played a significant role in the identification of soldiers who died at this battle a century ago.
Since 2009 scientists at LGC have assisted the Australian and UK Ministry of Defence in examining – with forensic archaeologists, anthropologists, genealogists, and military historians – the remains of 250 soldiers that were found at a mass grave at Pheasant Wood, a small copse area on the outskirts of the small village of Fromelles.
It was in 2009 that I first worked with Oxford Archaeology, who were working in the mass graves, to provide them with DNA support and strategy sampling methods. A temporary laboratory facility was set up and specific samples were sent to our DNA testing laboratory in Teddington for DNA item examination and processing. Y chromosome DNA testing and mitochondrial DNA testing were carried out on all 250 sets of remains as standard DNA analysis would have been insufficient for identification purposes. The descendants of these soldiers who have been tracked down – and continue to come forward – across the globe are mainly distantly related as cousins, great nephews and nieces. The long task of sending DNA sampling kits across the world, testing and carrying out the complex comparisons has allowed us to provide evidence to assist in the identification of 150 of the 250 soldiers from the Pheasant Wood mass grave. The Australian authorities continue to search for new relatives to come forward and our DNA database continues to grow year on year.
The first Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery to be built in more than 50 years was opened at Fromelles in 2010 where all 250 soldiers were buried with full military honours. I have been privileged to attend this ceremony in 2010, 2014 and again this year, on invitation by the Australian Department of Veterans Affairs, to commemorate and honour their sacrifice in the most tragic of times.
On Tuesday 19 July, I attended the headstone commemoration with three colleagues who have been working with me on this project and with some previous LGC colleagues and Oxford Archaeology, who feel like I do that this identification programme has a significant place in our hearts.
Fromelles is part of our daily vocabulary. The service this year was televised live across the globe. Attendees included the Minister of Veteran Affairs for Australia, Dan Tehan, the Governor of New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia, Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, Mayor of Fromelles & Albert, in addition to family members able of the six soldiers identified this year as well as previously identified soldiers family descendants.
The hottest day of the year, the atmosphere was poignant, the voices of the Birralee Choir of Brisbane, Queensland and the Australian Army Band setting the scene for a moving and heartfelt service… It is hard to describe the feeling when you hear the name of each soldier who has been identified and hear about their life story being read aloud while the family members make their way with a military escort to see for the very first time their name inscribed on a Portland stone headstone, hopefully providing some solace for the family knowing that their loved one has a final resting place recognised. “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon stanzas 3 & 4 was read before the last post and minute’s silence. Four large grandstands full of family, friends, and invited dignitaries sang in full voice the Marseillaise and Advance Australia Fair. Some had dressed in historical outfits, others in full military regalia, while others sat in silence, remembering the fallen soldiers. Indigenous flowers and wreaths were laid by representatives of all the armed services and members of the different divisions of the Commonwealth.
It was a privilege to attend and walk through the cemetery that I have become so familiar with, paying my respects and talking to the families, knowing that we have been able to be part of this significant occasion and historical event. John Symeon, Lead Analyst, DNA, LGC, who also attended the ceremony this year, commented, “It was an honour to attend this ceremony and see first-hand the result of our hard work and the impact this has on the lives of these Australian families”.
Grave sites across the Western Front and elsewhere across the globe continue to be found. Walking through a field at Fromelles, you are never far away from the impact the Great War of 1914-1918 has left. The German concrete fort nearby is still visible, unexploded shells are still located in nearby fields and mortar shell can be seen in the farmers fields as you walk through them.
Our commitment to this project continues and we will remember them . Lest We Forget.
By Victoria Moore, DNA Sector Manager, LGC