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Webmatters : Fromelles and Pheasant Wood: 19th July 1916
Rough Map of Area

Fromelles

The story Pheasant Wood Cemetery

May/June 2008

A number of years ago I was made aware of research being carried out by an Australian called Lambis Englezos into the possible location for a mass grave created by the Germans in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916. Of the 1,719 Australians who died during the bloodiest 24 hours of their military history, 170 bodies were never found.

He had already spent a number of years researching the matter and was convinced that not only could he place the site but that it was almost certainly still there — lost and untouched.

Both he and his research partner Tim Whitford visited the prospective area a number of times over the years and formed the opinion that a field to the side of what we know as Pheasant Wood was the place where up to 170 Australian Soldiers and perhaps twice as many British had been laid to rest in a number of pits.

The pits were noted at the time

The pits were noted at the time — to the bottom of the wood

The defence of Fromelles was undertaken by the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division and their records confirmed that pits had been dug to take the hundreds of dead.

It has been a long road for the group trying to motivate three governments to look into the matter but in early 2007 Dr Tony Pollard from Glasgow University came to Fromelles to carry out some preliminary probes.

His initial findings, using a range of means but without actually digging into the field, revealed a lot of British and Australian battlefield debris plus enough evidence to suggest that under the surface the pits (which appear in period aerial photographs) were intact.

The site is right up against Pheasant Wood

The site is right up against Pheasant Wood

In May 2008 Dr Pollard and his team returned to Fromelles with the backing of the French, Australian and British governments to conduct an archaeological dig on the site.


14th June 2008

The indications have all been highly encouraging

After three weeks of searching over thirty bodies have been discovered. The team worked on five of the eight pits and only a partial area of each. The discoveries would suggest that the remains of numerous more soldiers must lie here as well.

From an Australian perspective the find of Australian Rising Sun collar badges in pit 4 is the first real proof that some of these bodies are indeed Australians.

A British matchbox and buttons have also been found which confirms the presence of British soldiers alongside the Australians.

The site has now been closed off pending a decision by the Australian, British and French governments as to what will be done with the soldiers’ remains.

At a small ceremony to mark the closure of the dig, the owner of the ground: 81 year old Mme Demassiet recalled to journalists how the ground had always refused to grow anything worthwhile. She and her husband had resisted offers to buy the land without ever realising what was underneath it. Now she felt the ground belonged to the soldiers who lie there.

Dr Pollard will now prepare and submit a report on the dig and a decision will be made as to what exactly to do with the soldiers.

There are a number of possibilities including trying to identify all of them; creating a new cemetery or simply leaving the soldiers where they have lain for so long and placing a monument over them.

One thing is certain though — regardless of any possible identifications the soldiers will remain here in France along with the hundreds of thousands of their comrades who fell on the field of battle.

It would be nice to think though that after all this time Tim Whitford may eventually have found his great-uncle: Private Harry Willis

In March 2010 an Identification Board resulted in a positive ID for Harry. He is buried in Grave II F 11 in the Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery.

The discovery of two small horsehoe-shaped good luck medallions — which were presented to Willis by the local authorities in Alberton, Victoria, when he volunteered in 1915 — was crucial in identifying the site of the largest mass grave discovered on the western front in more than 80 years.

Private Harry Willis

Private Harry Willis

 

January 2009

A new cemetery

Australian Defence Science and Personnel Minister Warren Snowdon has stated that the Australian and British governments along with the village of Fromelles and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have decided to exhume the bodies and give each soldier an individual reburial at a new military cemetery close to Fromelles.

Following the archaeological work last year it is believed that 170 Australian and 300 British troops are buried in a series of eight pits dug by German troops after the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916.

Although the owner of the ground on which the current German site is situated has offered the land it has not been considered suitable for a permanent burial site. It suffers from extremely muddy conditions and its situation means that not only is it too small but that it is situated next to a fuel pipeline as well as near to overhead power cables.

The Cemetery at VC Corner on the Fromelles battlefield has been ruled out as have the others in the immediate area.

It will be up to the CWGC to decide on a suitable location which can be guaranteed in perpetuity. We are all accustomed to seeing the plaques at the entrances to Commonwealth Cemeteries stating that the land is a gift, but underneath that simple statement was a lot of hard work by the French (and Belgian) governments to buy up the land concerned often from numerous different families who in a post war situation may well have been difficult to track down.

The costs for recovering and reburying the soldiers will be met jointly by the Australian and British governments. A figure of about € 5 million is being promoted.

Limited DNA testing

In a further announcement on 11th November 2008 the Australian Federal Government has announced that all of the soldiers exhumed at Fromelles will be subjected to DNA testing in an attempt to compare them with known relatives of the missing soldiers.

 

5th May 2009

Work Begins

The work has started on the site for the recovery of those buried here. The CWGC has undertaken the management of the project at the behest of the Australian and British Governments.

A team from Oxford Archaeology has been chosen to recover the bodies of those within the burial pits. A multinational group of scientists, they have a great deal of expertise for this type of project.

The objective will be to gather as much information about each body as it is recovered. If possible samples will be taken for possible DNA/ADN comparison with modern day relatives.

A new cemetery will be prepared to receive the soldiers across the road from their current resting place. Those soldiers recovered will be given individual burials in the spring of 2010.

The cemetery will then be finalised for a commemorative opening on the anniversary of the battle of Fromelles: 19th July 2010.

The site before it was closed to the public

The site before it was closed to the public

This will be the first CWGC Cemetery created since the Second World War and is generating considerable interest in Northern France.

As with the other First World War Cemeteries the French Government has negotiated with the landowners for the plot of land which lies alongside the communal cemetery.

The plaque

The plaque

Obviously whilst the work is in progress it will not be possible to visit the actual site but a viewing platform will be erected and an informative display will be provided at the Fromelles Mairie (Town Hall).

 

September 2009

Following a great deal of careful and intricate work the recovery of the remains of 250 British and Australian soldiers has been completed at the original site in Fromelles.

The archaeological site has been levelled and grassed over.

Tests on the skeletons have shown that teeth where available seem to offer the best chances of gaining good specimens of DNA.

The old methods of identification — personal items etc. will be combined with the more modern but even with the enormous advances in our abilities to identify people we are still only capable of taking the trail so far.

It has to be realised that to make an identification based on a DNA sample it is necessary to have a living relative. Despite our best efforts we are still going to see numerous graves marked — A Soldier Of The Great War.

Work on the new Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery has continued, with extensive foundations to ensure the stability of the ground. As soldiers from the time would have born witness, the water table in Flanders is never far from the surface (Flanders actually means the flooded land).

Posts have been driven several metres into the surface and adequate drainage arrangements made for the thick clay which moves as it gets wet or dries again.

The terrace for the cross of sacrifice has required considerable support to take the weight of the tons of Massangies limestone.

The Cross of Sacrifice is what is known as a standard Type A, which is four metres wide at the base and six metres high. The cemetery will not however be large enough to have room for a Stone of Remembrance.

The positioning of the cross has been the subject of much consideration and its positioning on the highest part of the sloping cemetery will ensure that it will be seen from VC Corner Cemetery out on the battlefield. In return it will be high enough on the horizon to be visible from that cemetery and the Australian Cobber Memorial

 

First identifications made in 2010

Top soil being delivered in March 2010

Top soil being delivered in March 2010

On 17th March 2010 the Australian and British governments announced the results of the first Fromelles Joint Identification Board. After analysing all of the available evidence: historical, anthropological, DNA and artefacts, 75 soldiers have been identified by name.

The 75 identified all served with the Australian Army, with a further 128 soldiers also identified as having served with the Australian Army. 3 British soldiers were confirmed to be among the 250, leaving 44 soldiers currently unknown.

The grassed area is taking form

The grassed area is taking form

A second Joint Identification Board took place in May 2010 to consider samples that were not available for the March board. A further nineteen soldiers (all Australian) were identified. Further Boards will take place yearly from 2011 until 2014 to analyse any new evidence that may be presented.

The small plaque placed next to the original Pheasant Wood burial site has been moved. It is obviously still possible to walk down the pathway to visit the emplacement.

Pheasant Wood Cemetery from the Cobber memorial

The new cemetery from the Cobber memorial

 

30th January 2010

Burials begin at Pheasant Wood Cemetery

At 1100 hours on 30 January 2010, the ceremony to rebury the first of the 250 Australian and British soldiers recovered from Pheasant Wood took place at the new Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery.

Reburials continued until Friday the 19th February when the 249th soldier was laid to rest with full military honours.

 

19th July 2011

The Joint Identification Board reconvened in London on 4th April 2011 as part of the continuing effort to identify some of the remaining 154 unknown soldiers. As a result a further 14 Australian soldiers have been identified.

This means that not a single British soldier has been identified. I can’t help but wondering if this is because Australians are more conscious of their family’s involvement in the battle and have been quicker to come forward with DNA samples.

The fourteen new headstones were dedicated at a special ceremony commemorating the 95th Anniversary of Fromelles on 19th July 2011.