DNA to identify WWI soldiers in mass grave

Author: By Sam Marsden, Press Association

Between 250 and 300 bodies have been discovered in mass graves in northern
France, where they were buried by German forces after the disastrous 1916
Battle of Fromelles.

The soldiers’ remains are being exhumed and will be laid to rest with full
military honours in individual graves at a new Commonwealth War Graves
Commission cemetery nearby.

Now a full programme of DNA testing is being launched in an attempt to
establish the identities of the bodies.

Veterans minister Kevan Jones said: “This is an important step forward in the
process of trying to identify the First World War soldiers buried at
Fromelles.

“DNA is just one part of the identity puzzle. Our experts will be examining
all available evidence in their attempts to confirm the identities of these
men.

“Each one of these soldiers will be laid to rest with the dignity they deserve
and we owe it to them to do all we can to identify them.”

The land at Pheasant Wood, near the village of Fromelles, was confirmed as a
group burial site in May last year after a limited excavation revealed pits
which had lain untouched since the battle more than 90 years earlier.

Work to excavate the grave got under way three months ago and a full
archaeological excavation of the site is expected to be completed by the end
of September.

An identification board will convene in March next year to consider the
evidence available.

The hope is to use casualty records, DNA tests and artefacts – such as kit
parts – found in the ground to assign identities to as many of the bodies as
possible.

Among the personal items excavated from the graves are a leather heart, a
heart-shaped leather pouch containing a solid gold cross and a copper alloy
crucifix, and a train ticket from Fremantle to Perth, where soldiers from
Western Australia signed up for duty.

The Battle of Fromelles, which began on July 19 1916, was the first major
battle on the Western Front involving both British and Australian troops.

It proved disastrous for Allied forces – records suggest that the Australians
lost 1,780 troops and the British 503 between July 19 and 21.

* Anyone who believes they may be related to a British soldier killed at
Fromelles should contact the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre by
calling 01452 712612 extension 6303 or emailing fromelles@spva.mod.uk

Families who have already registered will be contacted with details about the
DNA testing process.

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