EXCAVATION work began yesterday of a mass grave near the French village of Fromelles to recover the remains of an estimated 400 Australian and British soldiers killed there in World War I.
The start of work was marked by a formal commemoration ceremony attended by Australia's ambassador to France, David Ritchie, the Vice-Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Lieutenant-General David Hurley, and the vice-chairman of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Admiral Ian Garnett.
Britain was represented by Quentin Davies, the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support.
It was the first step towards ensuring that those who sacrificed their lives would be buried with honour and dignity, said Defence Science and Personnel Minister Warren Snowdon.
"The remains will be reinterred in individual graves at the new Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, to be known as the Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery.
"This will be the first such cemetery to be constructed in 50 years, and it is intended that the military funeral will be held at the site in July 2010, on the anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles," Mr Snowdon said.
The recovery operation is being undertaken by Oxford Archeology and overseen by the CWGC.
The Battle of Fromelles on July 19-20, 1916, cost 5553 Australian casualties, including almost 2000 dead, the biggest single loss of life in Australian military history.
So far, 191 sets of Australian remains have been identified, all exhumed from the same grave. Relatives of missing soldiers have been asked to provide DNA samples to be matched with the remains of the Diggers.
The bodies of the British and Australian soldiers were gathered from the battlefield by their German foes and buried in a common grave. Dog tags collected by the Germans were later handed to the Red Cross.
The Australian War Memorial describes the Battle of Fromelles, a diversionary attack, as the "worst 24 hours in Australia's entire history".
19 July 2010
250 WWI SOLDIERS FROM THE BATTLE OF FROMELLES GIVEN FITTING FINAL PLACE OF REST IN NEW CEMETERY DEDICATED BY HRH THE PRINCE OF WALES
In a moving and poignant service, the last of 250 WWI soldiers killed in the Battle of Fromelles was laid to rest today, in a new Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery dedicated by HRH The Prince of Wales. The soldiers were recently discovered in mass graves, and todays ceremony, on the 94th anniversary of the battle, marks the end of a two-year project to give them a fitting final place of rest.
The ceremony began when the coffin of the last soldier was borne out of Pheasant Wood, location of the original graves, on a WWI Mark X General Service Wagon pulled by horses from the Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery. The procession journeyed through the village of Fromelles, and was joined by HRH The Prince of Wales and Her Excellency the Governor- General of Australia Quentin Bryce, along with Chief of the General Staff General Sir David Richards, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, Australian Chief of Army, and soldiers from the British and Australian Armies.
Defence Minister Lord Astor, who attended the service, said:
Today saw the last of the 250 WWI Battle of Fromelles soldiers honoured with the dignity of an individual burial. So far we have been able to identify by name 96 of these soldiers and many others have been confirmed as having served in the Australian and British Army. It is hoped that over the next four years we can determine the names of more.
The service was attended by hundreds of members of British and Australian families whose relatives were killed in the battle. Many took part in the service, reading extracts from letters and diaries from those they lost. The coffin was borne by soldiers from the British and Australian Armies, and a joint Firing Party fired three shots, followed by a one minute silence.
Wreaths were then laid by HRH The Prince of Wales, HE Quentin Bryce, and Monsieur Hubert Falco, the French Minister of State for Defence and Veterans, and the cemetery was dedicated by His Royal Highness.
Chief of the General Staff General Sir David Richards said:
The British and Australian soldiers who fought and died at the Battle of Fromelles faced tremendous adversity. This splendid new cemetery is a moving tribute to them all, and will serve as a reminder of their sacrifice for generations to come.
HRH The Duke of Kent, President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said:
It is right and fitting that these men comrades, Allies and even two brothers lie side by side in this beautiful cemetery the first new war cemetery to be built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in fifty years. They are lost no longer, and are here at last at peace
Reverend Mitchell Collins from Fife, grandson of Private Mitchell Collins of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who was killed in the Battle of Fromelles, said:
My father grew up never having met his father, so the Battle of Fromelles will leave an indelible mark on our family. Although we have not yet been able to identify Private Collins as one of the soldiers buried here, I am hoping that over the next few years new evidence will come to light which will help us to do so. The ceremony today was very moving for my family, and a fitting tribute to those who fell in the battle.
19th July 2010
Governor General, Monsieur le ministre, Families of those killed in action here in Fromelles, Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is a great privilege for my wife and myself to be here today to bear witness to this important and moving ceremony, as we lay to rest the last of the "Unnamed Warriors" whose remains were so recently discovered only metres away. In laying this last hero to rest, we honour them all.
Standing here, I cannot help but be taken back to that terrible day in July 1916; to a world made familiar and accessible to us and our children by the truly outstanding work of organizations like the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and Imperial War Museum in London. Ninety-four years ago in Fromelles there were no buildings, or even trees or hedges, to define and punctuate the landscape we see today such was the intensity and ferocity of the conflict. There were not even any local people - they had all been displaced. The vast and heavily defended German position stretched out two kilometres to our North West.
In the trenches beyond the German front line and No-Mans Land, the man we have reinterred today was billeted with his brothers-in-arms his cobbers - from the 5th Australian Division and the British soldiers of the 61st (South Midland) Division. I can only begin to imagine his emotions as he made the journey to the Western Front: perhaps the initial excitement of waiting for orders, the sickening anxiety preparing for battle and, as the attack began in earnest, a mix of sheer adrenaline and heart-stopping apprehension. But, somehow, he and his friends mustered the incredible courage to climb over the parapet into a hail of machinegun fire and into a field strewn with mud, barbed wire and the dead. We will never know what impact that apocalyptic scene had on them. Leon Gellert captures all this with such poignancy in his poem Before Action, when he says I wondered if my packing-straps were tight, And wondered why I wondered Sound went wild and order came I ran into the night, wondering why I smiled.
The next day the full horror of what had taken place was revealed. More than 5,500 Australian soldiers and 1,500 British soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. Under orders, German soldiers moved the body of this man and his cobbers to Pheasant Wood where they were buried.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am profoundly humbled by the outstanding bravery of these men who fought so valiantly in the indescribable mud and carnage, many thousands of miles from their families and from their homes. Today we honour and commemorate these young soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we might live in peace and so that our children and grandchildren might learn the lessons from both devastating world conflicts.
We dedicate this cemetery in grateful memory of all those in the Land Forces of the Commonwealth who died in the cause of freedom, particularly those who fought and died during the Battle of Fromelles and the 250 soldiers whom we remember especially today.
May we ever be mindful of them and their comrades in arms of all Services and be guided by their example of loyalty, service and selflessness.
sierradelta, the 61st Division was a Kitchener second-line division, based on a cadre of Territorials who volunteered only for Home Service. The first line South Midlands division was the 48th which served with distinction on the Somme, during 3rd Ypres and in the Asiago campaign of 1918 in Italy. The 61st did not cross to France until May 1916 and was in action at Fromelles (aka Fleurbaix by the way). The division did not "do well" and to an extent lost its name becoming a garrison division thereafter until 1917 when it was involved in the pursuit of the Retreat to the Hindenburg line, Third Ypres and defending the counter-attacks following Cambrai.As an Australian viewing the events from Fromelles last night I just wanted to pay tribute to all those British Servicemen and women who took part in the events the Royal Horse Artillery, The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and The Rifles seem to have been there in numbers. One Question would be were these troops Territorials or from the regular battalions? Either way australians owe a great deal of thanks.
The escort included regulars from King's Troop RHA, 1st Battalion RRF, 4th Battalion The Rifles and A Corps of Drums British Army and Australia's Federation Guard, Australian Army. CGS, the Australian Chief of Army and the French Chief of Army were also present.As an Australian viewing the events from Fromelles last night I just wanted to pay tribute to all those British Servicemen and women who took part in the events the Royal Horse Artillery, The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and The Rifles seem to have been there in numbers. One Question would be were these troops Territorials or from the regular battalions? Either way australians owe a great deal of thanks.