Excavation of WW1 grave

From the Melbourne Age

May 31, 2008

THE unearthing of human remains in the German-dug mass grave in Fromelles may ease the heartbreak of some soldiers' families, but it has sparked a monumental political headache for the Australian and British armies.
With up to 400 Australian and British soldiers apparently buried together in the pits beside Pheasant's Wood, how will we navigate and reconcile the two nations' different responses to and expectations of the find?
While both are party to a postwar agreement - that they won't launch specific searches; that their war dead remain where they fell - it is different when "compelling" evidence is found to justify individual investigations.
However, it does not mean that the bodies, when found, will be repatriated. Indeed, at Fromelles on Thursday, Major General Mike O'Brien made very clear that, despite some media headlines, no diggers will be repatriated - no matter what the outcome of investigations.
But the question of what to do on-site, once the dig has ascertained what is there, is far more complex. There are more than 70,000 British war dead in the fields and cemeteries of the western front in France. Another 15,000 Australians died and remain in and around Belgium and France.
In the past decade, cultural and social expectations of postwar recovery of casualties have changed dramatically, particularly in the wake of high-saturation media coverage of American repatriation exercises.
Of the Australian families with a connection to the 170 soldiers, none has requested for the remains of loved ones to be brought home. However, to those like Tim Whitford of Tallarook, who has searched for years for his long-lost great uncle, Private Harry Willis, identification and burial with a headstone is of enormous importance. The Australian Army is expected to make every effort to identify the men and, if possible, mark their burial site individually so families have a place to visit and pay respects.
If Australia heads down this path, it means the 400 bodies must be categorised as British or Australian, then the diggers must be identified individually through uniform remains - or DNA, if the exercise is approved and funds released.
So far, the investigation has cost an estimated £190,000 ($392,000), with another £50,000 spent on archival research. The Federal Government has not provided extra funding to Defence to conduct the investigation; it is part of its annual budget.
DNA testing and further research will cost more. Should public pressure demand this, it is likely to reverberate to Britain too. And to take no action could spark unwelcome headlines for Britain's already beleaguered Labour Government.
"Imagine if the Australians decided, for example, to try to identify their own soldiers and to provide marked graves on the site - and the Brits just left theirs in a mass grave … not a good look," noted an official, who did not want to be named.
A French, Australian and British group, FEG (Fromelles Evaluation Group), is entrusted with forging a solution to this diplomatic dilemma.
Interesting article. Cheers.

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