Last of the Allied losses at the Battle of Fromelles finally laid to rest
Hundreds of First World War soldiers buried in a mass unmarked grave have finally been laid to rest. Nick McCarthy reports on a project to try and identify some of them.
The gardens are neatly trimmed, the rows of identical white headstones face the sun and 249 soldiers have already received funerals with full military honours.
They have spent 94 years side-by-side in a mass unmarked grave in northern France but, today, the last recovered Allied soldier of the Battle of Fromelles was finally laid to rest.
Twelve months ago scientists and archaeological experts started the painstaking work of recovering the bodies of men who had been forgotten for nearly a century.
They have been buried in exactly the same order in which they were found next to a wood in the picturesque village of Fromelles.
Scientists spent months sifting the sticky grey Flemish clay for evidence of the catastrophic First World War campaign that claimed the lives of thousands of troops, including many from the West Midlands.
The project, overseen by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), has managed to identify 96 of the 250 fallen soldiers.
It has also seen the building of the first British war grave on European soil for more than 50 years, where 249 of the 250 have already been reburied with full military honours.
The battle, on July 19, 1916, is not as well known as The Somme, Passchendaele or Ypres, but it was still the scene of enormous loss and unimaginable horror. More than 1,547 British and 5,533 Australian soldiers were killed, wounded or missing presumed dead in this largely forgotten 24-hour conflict.
It was also the area defended by a young German Corporal called Adolf Hitler, who was serving as a machine gunner with the Regiment of Bavarian Reserves who repelled the Allied attack.
It is almost impossible to imagine the level of carnage when you stand in exactly the same peaceful spot beside open tree-lined cornfields 94 years later.
Today hundreds of members of British and Australian families whose relatives died that day made the pilgrimage to Fromelles, many still hoping that their DNA samples can establish the exact identity of the unidentified bodies in the new cemetery - the first Great War cemetery to be built for 50 years.
The village of Fromelles was silent during the service, its streets lined with locals for whom the war graves of lost soldiers are part of everyday life. The streets surrounding the village were packed with the cars and coaches of visitors, many with no direct connection with the battlefields.
Others came to make some connection with a forgotten battle in which they know their relatives perished.
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 armies. It is hoped that over the next four years we can determine the names of more."
The battle that was supposed to divert German reserve troops away from the Battle of the Somme, some 50 miles south of Fromelles.
One Australian survivor, Sergeant Walter ‘Jimmy’ Downing, of the 15th Brigade, said in a diary entry: “The air was thick with bullets, swishing in a flat, crisscrossed lattice of death. Hundreds were mown down in the flicker of an eyelid, like great rows of teeth knocked from a comb.”
David Richardson, project manager for the CWGC project, said: “This project is unprecedented. It was the largest First World War excavation in living history. It is about closing the circle for many of the families. There is still ongoing research to identify the remaining unnamed soldiers. Anybody who lost a relative can come forward and offer DNA, which can be tested against the samples we took.’’
Although all 96 of the named soldiers were from the Australian 5th Division, many would have been born in Britain or had British ancestors.
The British 61st South Midlands Division which fought in the battle took its young men from Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, but there are few records of the losses because most were destroyed during the Blitz.
The Germans did keep meticulous records of the burials, but the documents have never been recovered from the Bavarian Regiments which fought in the battle.
Prince Charles was among the dignitaries attending today's ceremony, accompanied by the Duchess of Cornwall, and they attended a reception for relatives of the soldiers and those involved in the project at a local school.
Eurostar was also hosting a train naming ceremony at St Pancras Station by HRH The Duke of Kent today. The train has been named Remembering Fromelles and took 400 guests and relatives of the soldiers to Lille, 10 miles from the village.
The Battle of Fromelles
In the early evening of Wednesday, July 19, 1916, near the village of Fromelles, 10 miles west of Lille, Australian and British infantry attacked a 4,000-yard section of the German front line.
Advancing over unfavourable ground, in clear view of the Germans, the Allies suffered terrible casualties in mere minutes. The Battle of Fromelles was a diversionary attack to distract German reserves from the Somme offensive, 50 miles to the south.
Allied soldiers were told to regain ground captured by the Germans. They successfully did this, breaching the first German line. But the second line was not where the troops had been told it would be and this proved to be a disastrous mistake.
Forced into no-man’s land, the British and Australian troops were ruthlessly cut down by shells and machine guns.
The attacking forces comprised two recent arrivals to the Western Front – the 5th Australian Division and British 61st Division (South Midlands).
Eurostar operates nine daily services from London St Pancras to Lille. Return connecting fares from Birmingham with Virgin Trains are available from £79. Tickets from www.eurostar.com or 08432 186 186. Fastest London-Lille journey time is 1 hour 20 minutes. Virgin services between Birmingham New Street and London Euston (a five-minute walk to St Pancras) are available at www.virgintrains.co.uk or 08719 774 222.
Nick McCarthy stayed at the Hotel Bellevue in Lille. Rates available at www.grandhotelbellevue.com. Fromelles is 10 miles west of the city