Recovered, identified, remembered: the fallen of World War I

A century ago, 250 soldiers were buried behind enemy lines in unmarked mass graves on the outskirts of the village of Fromelles in northern France. In 2009, a team from Oxford Archaeology was charged with recovering and helping to identify these men. In 2014, the report was published: Louise Loe told CWA about this remarkable – and unique – project.


This article originally appeared in issue 68 of Current World Archaeology.


The location of the mass graves between the village of Fromelles and Pheasant Wood. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery is under construction in the foreground. [Image: Oxford Archaeology]

Several thousand Australian and British soldiers were killed in the Battle of Fromelles on 19/20 July 1916. Many have no marked grave. In the largest recovery and identification operation of WWI soldiers, Oxford Archaeology used the latest scientific techniques to recover the soldiers, so that they could be reburied with full military honours. One of the aims of this venture, a joint Australian and British government mission, was to identify the men, thus providing names for their headstones. With the full support and cooperation of the soldiers’ families, the excavated evidence was used alongside DNA and historical sources. This was a huge undertaking, and it is only now that the full report has become available

Worst 24 hours

The battle of Fromelles was an Australian Imperial Force and British Army joint operation, fought on a 4,000-yard section of the German front-line. It involved the British 61st and Australian 5th divisions, and, on the German side, the 6th Bavarian Reserve division. It was the first action that the Australian Imperial Force saw on the Western Front. The battle resulted in over 5,500 Australian and 1,500 British casualties, of which almost 2,000 Australian and over 500 British were fatalities. It was, and still is, the worst 24 hours in Australian military history.

Private Stanley Charles Perrett of the 7th Battalion fought at Fromelles. He is wearing the standard uniform of the Australian Imperial Force.

The attack targeted a notorious German strong-point called the Sugar Loaf, and was planned as a feint to divert German attention from the Battle of the Somme. The attack started as a heavy but largely ineffective bombardment on German lines, which intensified seven hours prior to the general assault at about 6pm on 19 July. A combination of poor planning, poor supplies of ammunition, and well-prepared German defenders (among other factors) put the attackers at a severe disadvantage. When assault battalions moved into No Man’s Land, advancing in waves, they were met almost immediately by German shells, small arms, and machine-gun fire. Soldiers attacking in the centre of the front-line, heading towards the Sugar Loaf, were cut down by machine-gun fire.

An example of ‘trench art’: a ring made with bits of wire and metal found around the trench. [Image: Oxford Archaeology]

Some soldiers made it through into German lines, but were forced to withdraw back across No Man’s Land when support did not arrive. Those who had fallen close to or in the German front-line were gathered up by the enemy, and buried behind German lines in unmarked mass graves, including graves to the south of Pheasant Wood on the edge of Fromelles village.

The graves went unrecognised for more than half a century until researchers, most notably retired Australian schoolteacher Lambis Englezos, identified them through historical research. When non-invasive survey and an evaluation confirmed their presence, the Australian and British governments announced a jointly funded programme of excavation and recovery so that the soldiers could be reburied in individual graves.

Lacing eyelets from the ankle of breeches. [Image: Oxford Archaeology]

The recovery

With an international team of forensic and investigative professionals, Oxford Archaeology began excavating and recovering the soldiers in May 2009. Unlike traditional archaeology, where the goal is largely scientific, this was a humanitarian project in which the sole focus was on the recovery and identification of individuals with living families using DNA. Thus the highly sensitive nature of the work brought accountability and integrity into sharp focus, similar to modern forensic practice. However, unlike forensic operations, there was no medico-legal intent to the work.

With just six months to complete the work, and under intense media scrutiny, innovative techniques were devised to meet the project’s unique requirements. 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 crime-scene protocols were followed to ensure the continuity and chain of custody of all recovered human remains and artefacts, and to prevent the contamination of human remains by operatives.

Excavation of the graves in progress. [Image: Oxford Archaeology]

The graves, eight of them in total, were excavated over a period of four months. 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.

The excavation revealed important information about how the Germans set about the task of burying the dead. The distribution of ages, artefacts, and types of peri-mortem trauma suggest that the soldiers had been buried alongside those with whom they had fought, and had not been sorted by rank prior to burial. Chalk lumps and lime encountered in all the occupied graves – two were empty – attest to attempts to sanitise the graves before they were backfilled, while groundsheets and cable were used to assist with moving and interring the bodies. 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.

Variations in style and complexity of dental work: gold denture showing the owner’s rugae pattern
Variations in style and complexity of dental work: crude amalgam fillings

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 for 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 realtime 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 19/20 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 – blast, projectile, and sharpforce lesions were all recorded – from the battlefield.

An Australian jacket belt and attached buckle. [Image: Oxford Archaeology]

Meeting the men – and boys

Many soldiers were in their teens, including at least two who were less than 18 years old – and therefore below the legal age of enlistment/conscription. The youngest was about 14 years old. There were also older individuals, aged up to at least 50 years, including at least two who were over the maximum age for enlistment/conscription (41 years for Britain and 45 years for Australia).

Other anthropological information included data on ancestry, height, facial attributes, and ante-mortem trauma and pathology. The soldiers had an average height of 1.72m. The majority were Caucasoid, but at least one soldier 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, noting features that would have been noticeable in life, such as projecting chins, large nasal bones, and asymmetry. Ante-mortem 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 extensive, ranging from sophisticated, aesthetically pleasing white and gold crowns, bridge, and bonded dental work, to relatively crude, functional amalgam fillings and perhaps functional dentures.

A souvenir badge from nearby Estaires. [Image: Oxford Archaeology]

When the soldiers were buried, identity discs and personal effects were collected and sent back to the Red Cross and military intelligence, so it was expected that a limited range of artefacts would be found. However, about 5,900 artefacts were recovered and analysed for identification information with the assistance of radiography. Most of these items, both military and personal effects, were simply what the soldiers happened to be carrying with them when they were killed. The majority were the remains of uniforms, such as badges, leather patches from mounted-style breeches, insignia, and buttons and equipment, such as webbing, gas masks, field dressing kits, and bayonet scabbards. Some boots were recovered but most were taken by the burial party: leather was in short supply and good boots would have been highly prized items. No steel helmets were found, probably because they were also salvaged or lost in the battle, but also, significantly, because they had not been issued to many of the Australian soldiers.

There were seven items that bore a name, although their association with individuals was not always strong. Three of these were aluminium identity discs that had been privately purchased, and were worn or carried in addition to the army-issue compressed plant-fibre ID tags. From 6 July 1916, regulations stipulated that all soldiers were to be issued with two tags: one to stay with the body, the other to go to the Red Cross in the event of death in battle. However, most of the soldiers at Pheasant Wood seem to have been issued with just one dog-tag, which were diligently removed by the Germans when they buried them. Other items found bearing a name were an upper denture, a signet ring, and a matchbox case and briar pipe.

Fragments from an ‘Onoto’ fountain pen. [Image: Oxford Archaeology]

Gifts from home, souvenirs, keepsakes, letters, photographs, and items of jewellery were among the personal possessions found. These would have provided comfort to many during their time on the Western Front. Other items found include charms or talismans, trench art, a knotted leather bracelet, and religious items, such as crucifixes, rosaries, bibles, and medallions. One soldier had a purse that contained Ottomon and Turkish coins, perhaps from previous service in Gallipoli. Another had an ‘Onoto’ fountain pen, a type still manufactured today and that would have been a very expensive purchase at the turn of the 20th century. But perhaps the most poignant items were an unused return train-ticket from Fremantle to Perth, which had been tucked inside a gas mask, and a lock of hair, contained within a leather heart.


A purse that contained Ottomon and Turkish coins, perhaps from previous service in Gallipoli. [Image: Oxford Archaeology]

These items provide a fascinating insight into aspects of social and military history, but their potential to assist with identification was limited, primarily because of their inherent portability. The First World War was called a ‘war of souvenirs’ by the soldiers who fought in it, and items – buttons and badges in particular – were regularly collected from the battlefields and given away by locals. Added to this, Australians frequently wore elements of British uniforms at times of shortage. For this project, then, where the artefacts were found – whether carried in a pocket or worn – and what they were found with were highly important. This meant that some artefacts were more valuable for assisting with identification than others. For example, the belt buckle, which was stitched into the Australian jacket and therefore could not be removed, was the most important for determining the army for which the soldiers fought.

A return train-ticket from Fremantle to Perth, which had been tucked inside a gas mask. [Image: Oxford Archaeology]

Identification

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 collated this information with historical records, family trees, and DNA results from the deceased and their descendants. This was a fundamental part of the identification process, and employed a rigorous, repeatable methodology, free from bias and devised specifically for this project – the first attempt at historic identifications on a large scale.

Fittings from 1908 Pattern Web Infantry Equipment issued to the British Army during WWI. [Image: Oxford Archaeology]

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’. While DNA has been a prime mover in these identifications, it has not been without its limitations. The use of DNA extracted from people who died almost 100 years ago can only use inherited markers associated with the maternal and paternal line. This inevitably means lower levels of match probability compared with autosomal DNA analysis associated with modern day scene-of-crime investigations. Thus, identifications were made if they were strongly suggested by at least three datasets with no further dataset being contradictory. Work to identify these soldiers by name will continue under the auspices of each country.

Remembering

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. All the soldiers have now been reburied with full military honours in individual graves at Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery – the first Commonwealth War Graves Commission 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 19 July 2010: the latter ceremony was held on the 94th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles, and was a dedication service when the last – as yet unidentified – soldier was reburied. Oxford Archaeology’s book (see right) is a comprehensive account of the Fromelles project. Ultimately, however, it is a story of the soldiers, their bravery and sacrifice – individuals remembered.

A new museum of the Battle of Fromelles was opened in July 2014. [Photo: Ianto Wain]

FURTHER INFORMATION

The project team worked to bring the results of the excavation and the anthropological and scientific analyses to publication, and in July 2014 Oxford Archaeology’s monograph on the project was published. The publication coincided with the centenary of the start of the First World War, the 98th anniversary of the battle, and the opening of a new museum in Fromelles, the Musée de la Bataille de Fromelles, which displays artefacts and images from the excavation, and photographs and information about some of the soldiers. ‘Remember Me to All’: the archaeological recovery and identification of soldiers who fought and died in the Battle of Fromelles 1916, by Louise Loe, Caroline Barker, Kate Brady, Margaret Cox, and Helen Webb, is published by Oxford Archaeology (Oxford Archaeology Monograph No.23), and distributed by Oxbow Books, priced £25 (www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/remember-me-to-all.html).


This article was originally published in November 2014, when it appeared in issue 68 of Current World Archaeology.

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