WWI mass grave uncovered on the Somme

If a mass grave is discovered, what should they do?

  • Bury them in-situ and erect a monument on the site / turn it into a cemetry.

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Recover the remains and bury them in a current cemetry - possibly with their colleagues.

    Votes: 0 0.0%

  • Total voters
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#1
Archaeologists and historians have begun the excavation of the largest WWI mass grave ever discovered. The site at Fromelles on the Somme is thought to contain as many as 400 remains. Most are thought to be Australian, though with some British soldiers amongst them. All were killed during a diversionary attack during the battle of the Somme and buried by the German army shortly afterwards.

The BBC site has two articles on this, the second being a video clip of the excavations.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7430622.stm

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7428393.stm

I have recently visited the cemetaries and memorials around Ypres. They never fail to make an impact no matter how many times I go back to them.
 
#2
I think that there was something on the telly about an Aussie former history teacher being the person who has done much of the research over the last ten years in his own time that had led to this find.

Well done that man. A determined effort, for a worthy cause.
 
#3
This particular excavation throws up sensitive issues, which the following article from the Melbourne Age sums up. Bit of a political minefield by the sound of things.

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.
 
#4
Can you imagine the uproar and outrage if 450 soldiers got killed and their bodies and graves just dissappeared today?

We have NO idea of what life was like back then despite all the history books and stuff on the tv.

The past is a foreign land alright.
 
#5
I understand fairmaidofperth that it is standard prictice to re-bury any remains in local CWGC cemeterys. The possibility of identifying many, or indeed any, will be very low. It seems ID discs were leather back then and have long since rotted away. Although those that served in the Dardonels were issued metal ones and in those cases ID is possible.

I see no headaches in the sense that recently a family of a soldier who was found and ID's were refused permision to re-patriate his remains nor have any marker other than the standard headstone. Banjotrooper has all the details if you want to know more. All solders found are simply laid to rest with their comrades, end of story.
 
#6
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.
The slaughter on the Western Front was pretty much beyond anything I think we can imagine today and so were some of the attitudes towards it. Brave men on both sides.

But, and not to be picky about it, there is an inaccurate (or possibly the sub-editor couldn't believe the real number) figure in the piece from the Melbourne paper.

Best estimates are that there were something like 750,000 British dead or MIA on the Western Front and not the 70,000 mentioned. There were, in addition, significantly more non-fatal casualties...

http://westernfrontassociation.com/thegreatwar/articles/research/casulaties.htm
 
#7
A suspected mass grave of what is suspected to be Aussie soldiers is being unearthed in france.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7430622.stm

'If a mass grave is discovered, the countries must decide whether to exhume and rebury the bodies in a new cemetery, or to leave them in place but build a memorial on the site.'

What would you decide?
 
#8
Ord_Sgt said:
I see no headaches in the sense that recently a family of a soldier who was found and ID's were refused permision to re-patriate his remains nor have any marker other than the standard headstone. Banjotrooper has all the details if you want to know more. All solders found are simply laid to rest with their comrades, end of story.
They are given a proper farewell burial ceremony by the CWGC, with a padre and military rep present and sometimes the family. Gone but never forgotten.
 
#10
fairmaidofperth said:
Ord_Sgt said:
I see no headaches in the sense that recently a family of a soldier who was found and ID's were refused permision to re-patriate his remains nor have any marker other than the standard headstone. Banjotrooper has all the details if you want to know more. All solders found are simply laid to rest with their comrades, end of story.
They are given a proper farewell burial ceremony by the CWGC, with a padre and military rep present and sometimes the family. Gone but never forgotten.
Sorry, poor choice of words there, I was referring to the fact they are buried amongst comrades, not that we would do anything other than pay full military honours to them.
 
#11
The Fromelles battlefield is a fascinating and rich area in terms of places of interest. It was also a pretty bloody area and it is worth remembering that the Battle of Fromelles was in fact a diversionary attack, intended to fix German re-inforcements away from the Somme and Ypres.

Interestingly at VC Corner CWGC there are further mass graves of unidentified Australian casualties - some 410 according to the web-site. 750 British and Empire unidentified casualties are interred at Rue Petillon, fiften minutes drive away (or ten if TFB is at the wheel, I don't call her Fangio for nothing!) with another 750 identified casualties. You really notice the long, repetitive rows of unidentified Australian casualties here.

Rue Petillon was in use as a cemetery throughout the war pretty much, from 1915 to 1918.

Pheasant's Wood is in a low wide valley and is a really pretty spot. God bless them all.
 
#12
The scale of Australian casualties at Fromelles - 5553 in 24 hours, nearly 2000 killed - was unprecedented in Australian history. The most telling quote is "My God we never had shelling like this at ANZAC.

This link gives a very human insight into the reaction of one of the 5th Div's bde commanders...http://www.awm.gov.au/wartime/36/article.asp

It also gives further food for thought on the "time-delay" effects of PTSD.
 
#13
Golly, the more I dig into this...no pun. The underlying decency of the Bavarians may in fact be responsible for the huge number of unidentified corpses. Apparently during a mini-truce, the Bavarians went out and collected the personal effects of the Empire casualties, sending them back to NOK...which is in itself an incredible enterprise. Unfortunately this then resulted in corpses being unidentifiable at a later stage, when they were being interred.

The AWM is a veritable goldmine of information. The link is to a great PDF file of a brochure for the Fromelles memorial park (home of the famous "Cobbers" statue).

http://www.dva.gov.au/images/commem/oawg/brochures/P00055 Fromelles 2007.pdf
 
#14
Cuddles

The BBC is selling Fromelles as a cockup - is this true? They gave little information except to say that it did not divert or fix the reinforcements. Thanks for the link - it is a part of the war I have not looked into.
 
#15
Sven said:
Cuddles

The BBC is selling Fromelles as a cockup - is this true? They gave little information except to say that it did not divert or fix the reinforcements. Thanks for the link - it is a part of the war I have not looked into.
In 1916 the Australian view was that they were not surprised to get dicked at Fromelles "as it was impossible to see how the operation could have been a success if executed as planned". The purpose of Fromelles was to act as a feint and fix - in particular the Guards Reserve Corps - the Germans in that sector, preventing reinforcement further south. This aim was only achieved for two-three days, hardly decisive.

It was a very serious cock-up from the point of view of the 5th Aus Div. They found themselves attacking the Sugarloaf feature, which had elevation and firepower advantage. The MG locations on the Sugarloaf were not neutralized despite something like 8 batteries in direct support. It was in this sector, west of Fromelles, that the 5000+ Diggers were killed, wounded or captured. The 61st South midland Division also lost some 2000 men there. So as a feint it was not successful, casualties were huge - 90% in 5th Aus Div's case - and it did not achieve opportunistic success. In fact all gains made in the assault had to be surrendered.

I too have been guilty of semi-ignoring Fromelles, only dropping in en route from Loos to Aubers ridge in the past. It is approximately a 4 x 4 mile battle area, so would be great to walk or cycle in fact.
 
#17
You're welcome Sven. Sorry, did you need a reference? :wink:
 
#18
Excavation and individual burials are going ahead.

British WW1 soldiers to be exhumed from mass graves in France and given individual burials


The remains of about 400 British and Australian First World War soldiers will be dug up from a battlefield in northern France and given individual burials.

The excavation of six mass graves on the Somme will begin in May after archaeologists found human remains and fragments of kit and equipment. The work is expected to take up to six months.

The bodies will each be buried with full military honours in a new cemetery near the town of Fromelles.

Veterans minister Kevan Jones said: 'By the end of the project in 2010 all the bodies will be permanently laid to rest in individual graves at a new Commonwealth war graves cemetery.

'Wherever it is possible to identify the remains, named graves will be provided.'
During the battle at Fromelles on 19 and 20 July, 1916, more than 5,500 Australian troops were killed or injured as they attacked fortified German positions.

Britain lost 1,468 men in the battle. German soldiers buried many in pits after the attack.

Australians have described the battle as .the worst 24 hours in Australia's history'.
 
#19
I hope the inscription on the graves of those soldiers who cannot be identified continues to be the politically incorect, non- multi faith, non atheist friendly "A Soldier of the Great War-Known unto God"
 
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