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‘Remember Me to All’ The archaeological recovery and identification of soldiers who fought and died in the Battle of Fromelles, 1916

Loe, Louise and Barker, Caroline and Brady, Kate and Cox, Margaret and Webb, Helen and Anderson, Alison and Bradley, Matt and Champness, Carl and Flavel, Ambika and Hoban, Wayne and Jones, Peter and Lewis, Dai and Loveless, Tim and Murray, Paul and Poore, Daniel and Pricop, Lucian and Scott, Ian and Viner, Mark and Walker, James and Wessling, Roland and Wright, Richard (2014) ‘Remember Me to All’ The archaeological recovery and identification of soldiers who fought and died in the Battle of Fromelles, 1916. Project Report. Oxford Archaeology.

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Almost 100 years ago, 250 soldiers were buried
behind enemy lines in unmarked mass graves on the
outskirts of the village of Fromelles, Northern
France. They were among several thousand
Australian and British soldiers who were killed in the
Battle of Fromelles on the 19th and 20th July 1916,
many of whom have no marked grave. This volume
describes Oxford Archaeology’s contribution to a
joint Australian and British government mission to
recover the soldiers and re-bury them with full
military honours in a new Commonwealth War
Graves Cemetery in Fromelles. Bringing together an
international team of forensic and investigative
professionals, Oxford Archaeology, under the
management of the Commonwealth War Graves
Commission, excavated and scientifically examined
the mortal remains of the soldiers and associated
items buried with them. With the full support and
cooperation of the soldiers’ families, this evidence
was, and continues to be, employed alongside DNA
and historical sources in an attempt to identify the
soldiers by name for their commemoration on
headstones. This volume is a technical synthesis of
Oxford Archaeology's work on this landmark project
involving the largest recovery and identification
operation of First World War soldiers ever carried out
using modern science. It also includes detail of the
identification process undertaken by appropriately
experienced government advisors.
The operation commenced in May 2009.
Reverend Ray Jones of St George’s Memorial
Church in Ypres led a service and Defence Minister
Quentin Davies formally initiated the project. With
just six months to complete the work, and under
intense media scrutiny, innovative techniques were
devised to meet the unique requirements of the
project. A special site compound was designed to
integrate the different elements – excavation,
recovery and analysis – of the project, computer
software was developed to help interpret commingled
remains, and a forensic ‘chain of custody’
approach meant that human remains and associated
artefacts had to be signed for whenever they were
moved. In these respects the project broke new
ground and has arguably become the ‘gold
standard’ for projects of this nature in the future.
The graves, eight in total, were excavated over a
period of four months. The responsibility of recovering,
analysing and interpreting them was keenly
felt among the team, prompting periods of deep
reflection on the battle and warfare in general, and
fostering a strong determination to do justice to the
evidence and ultimately to the individuals
Precisely how many soldiers would be found was
unknown; preliminary investigations suggested
400, while over 1650 soldiers were listed as missing.
Soil was meticulously removed, first by a small
mechanical digger and then using specialist hand
tools, to expose individuals (all practically skeletonised)
and artefacts. Teeth and bones were
sampled for DNA and all evidence was comprehensively
recorded before being lifted and transported
to the temporary mortuary. All the graves were
highly complex deposits, prone to water infiltration
and requiring the exposure of as many individuals
as possible before they could be recorded and lifted
in a timely and accurate manner, while maintaining
the dignity of the deceased at all times. This, in
addition to robust water management systems,
sampling strategies, and two- and three-dimensional
recording by photography, survey and
written record, meant that it was possible to recover
discrete individuals and make secure associations
between the individuals and artefacts. This was of
fundamental importance to the identification
process and is presented through fully illustrated
descriptions in this volume.
Five graves were found to contain between 44
and 52 individuals each, buried in two layers with
the majority lying across the width of the graves.
One grave contained just three individuals lying
one on top of the other, and two graves contained
no individuals at all. Other findings, while not
directly relevant to identification of the individuals,
provided important contextual information on the
process of burial in 1916. Chalk lumps and lime,
found in all the occupied graves, attest to attempts
to sanitise them before they were backfilled, while
groundsheets and cable appear to have been used to
assist with the interments. In addition, fly pupae
suggest that the bodies had been buried, or the
graves had been backfilled, between five and ten
days after the battle had taken place.
Anthropological and artefactual analyses ran in
parallel to the excavation inside a temporary
mortuary adjacent to the site. Each individual was
examined one at a time at a workstation, which was
equipped with overhead cameras used to take
photographs of each skeleton from the same fixed
point throughout the duration of the project. Images
were downloaded onto computers, which also
contained, for each individual, associated survey
and finds data, the bespoke project database and
digital radiographs. This real-time archaeological
recording and analysis was invaluable, helping the
team manage the constant flow of information and
ensuring that the works were completed on time.
Despite the wealth of documents, including
letters, diaries and photographs that relate to the
Battle of Fromelles, the artefacts and skeletons tell
perhaps the most personal stories about what
happened on the 19th/20th July 1916. All the skeletons
were in good or excellent condition, allowing a
high level of biological and personal identification
information to be obtained. As expected, the skeletons
exhibited extensive wounding from the battlefield
(blast, projectile and sharp-force lesions),
testimony to the bravery of the men who fought at
Fromelles. Horrific in nature, this could be important
identification evidence when considered alongside
eye-witness accounts held by the British Red
Cross, and is enormously helpful to forensic pathologists
today, who work to achieve justice for victims
of armed conflict.
Many soldiers were in their teens, the youngest
approximately 14 years old, but there were also
older individuals aged up to at least 50 years. They
had an average height of 1.72 metres, which is
above the height restrictions in place for enlistment
in 1916. The majority were Caucasoid, but at least
one was of mixed European and Aboriginal
ancestry. Despite considerable breakage of bones, it
was possible to make detailed records of the facial
attributes of a good number of individuals. Antemortem
pathology and trauma were consistent with
a group of individuals who had died prematurely in
their prime. There was a low rate of joint disease
and other conditions that are normally associated
with old age. Congenital abnormalities were
frequent and the dental work was varied and extensive.
Healed fractures, activity related bony
changes, dental fillings and chronic disease were
also recorded, and these could make an important
contribution to identification where they were
supported by enlistment documentation.
When the burials took place in 1916, identity
discs and personal effects were collected and sent
back to the Red Cross and military intelligence. As
such, it was expected that a limited range of
artefacts would be found. However, approximately
5900 artefacts were recovered and analysed for
identification information with the assistance of
radiography. Consisting primarily of items the
soldiers happened to be carrying with them at their
time of death, they included both military and
personal effects. The majority were the remains of
uniforms, such as insignia, buttons and belt buckles,
the last item playing an important part in identifying
the army for which individuals served. There
were seven items that bore a name and were associated
with individuals, although the association was
not always strong. Perhaps some of the most
poignant artefacts to be found were an unused
return train ticket from Freemantle to Perth, which
had been tucked inside a gas mask, and a lock of
hair, contained within a leather heart.
All the recovered evidence was collated into
confidential case reports, one for each soldier, for
the identification commission, which convened
annually over five years, beginning in 2010. A data
analysis team, which comprised subject matter
experts, including a representative from OA,
collated this information with historical records and
DNA results from living families and the deceased.
This was a fundamental part of the identification
process and employed a methodology devised
specifically for this project – the first attempt at
historic identifications on a large scale.
To date, a total of 144 Australian soldiers have
been identified by name. Of the remaining 106
soldiers, 75 are considered to have served for the
Australian Army, two for the British Army and 29
remain ‘known unto God'. Work to identify these
soldiers by name will continue under the auspices
of each country.
All the soldiers have now been re-buried with full
military honours in individual graves at Fromelles
(Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery, the first CWGC
cemetery to be built in 50 years. The first and last
burials to take place were marked by ceremonies
held in January 2010 and on 19th July 2010. At the
latter ceremony, held on the 94th anniversary of the
Battle of Fromelles, a dedication service was held
and the last soldier, presently unidentified, was
reburied. The ceremony was attended by HRH the
Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, the
Honourable Dame Quentin Bryce, then Governor-
General of the Commonwealth of Australia, HRH
the Duke of Kent, President of the CWGC, families
of the Missing and the buried soldiers, residents of
Fromelles, members of the French, Australian and
British governments and armed forces, and
members of the various organisations who have
worked on the project.
For Oxford Archaeology, which has investigated
thousands of archaeological burials, including mass
graves, it has been a great privilege to work on the
Fromelles project. At all times the soldiers’ mortal
remains were treated with the utmost dignity and
respect, with high regard shown for the sensitivities
involved in a project of this nature. The information
in this volume has been provided in this spirit and in
recognition of the Fromelles Management Board's
conditions for information release (as far as a reasonable
person would interpret them). An operation
such as this clearly has a very important contribution
to make to future, similar, projects and multiple disciplines
in general. Every attempt has been made to
realise this as far as possible here, although some
information (for example, images and specialist
catalogues) has, by necessity, been omitted or altered.
Ever since the recovery operation began, and
given the sensitivities involved, limited information
has been revealed up till now about how this
project, aiming to recover and identify some of the
Missing of Fromelles, was undertaken, what was
found and how the information was employed to
identify individuals. This volume is the comprehensive
account of that work. Ultimately, however, this
is a story of the soldiers, their bravery and sacrifice.
Individuals remembered.

Item Type: Monograph (Project Report)
Subjects: Period > French Periods > Périodes moderne et contemporaine 1500 AD - Present
Geographical Areas > French Regions > Nord-Pas-de-Calais
Divisions: Oxford Archaeology South > Fieldwork
Depositing User: Scott
Date Deposited: 19 Apr 2023 10:40
Last Modified: 19 Apr 2023 10:40
URI: http://eprints.oxfordarchaeology.com/id/eprint/7091

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