Oxford archaeologists are to begin work on recovering the remains of the Australian and British soldiers who fell in the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916.
The mass grave at Pheasant Wood was discovered in May 2007 by archaeologists form the University of Glasgow. It is believed that German soldiers buried up to 400 men on this site, which thought to be the largest modern mass grave not related to genocide.
A major operation to disinter the bodies and individually bury them will commence this Monday.
Oxford Archaeology has been drafted in to carry out the excavation and recovery work by the Commonwealth War Graves Committee, an independent, internationally funded organization established in 1917 by Royal Charter to mark and maintain the graves and official memorials of the Commonwealth Service personnel who died in either of the World Wars.
The first step of the task involves identifying the bodies using DNA techniques. It was common practice amongst many of the German soldiers to remove the dog tags of fallen soldiers, and so the identity of many of the bodies is unknown.
Families who suspect that they might have relatives buried at Fromelles are being asked to come forward to aid the process.
The soldiers will then be buried in individual graves in a new war cemetery nearby. It is hoped that the entire process will be completed in no longer than 6 months. A commemorative ceremony is expected to take place in July 2010.
The attack at Fromelles was an unsuccessful attempt to divert German attention away from the Somme. The advance over difficult ground in clear view of the enemy sent thousands of British and Australian soldiers to their deaths within hours.
The majority of bodies were recovered but the whereabouts of several hundred bodies was a mystery, up until the discovery of the site at Pheasant Wood.
Oxford Archaeology is a multi-national team consisting mostly of archaeologists, radiologists and anthropologists from the University of Oxford. Robert Neil and Alison Anderson are the chief coordinators of the project, experts in body identification who were also involved with the mortuary after the July 2007 London bombings.
The Australian and British governments will equally share the costs of the recovery work and DNA testing. The chief objective of the project is to “ensure that these servicemen are buried with the dignity and honour that their sacrifice deserves.”