In a sombre and fitting ceremony the process began today to lay to rest some 250 recently discovered WWI British and Australian soldiers, who fell in the 1916 battle of Fromelles. The first soldier was buried with military honours in the presence of Veterans Minister Kevan Jones, his Australian counterpart, Veteran Affairs Minister Alan Griffin, families of soldiers who fell during the battle and people from the small French village of Fromelles.
The bodies were excavated last year from six mass graves where they had been buried by the Germans after the battle. The soldiers are now being afforded a fitting final place of rest, in a new, purpose-built Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery, the first Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery to be built for fifty years
Veterans Minister Kevan Jones said:
“It was the wish of both governments to give these brave soldiers a fitting place of rest, honouring the commitment shown to our fallen after the First World War. Today we have started that process.
Work to try and identify them has already begun, and I urge again any families who think they may have a relative killed at the battle of Fromelles to come forward to assist with this.”
Admiral Sir Ian Garnett, Vice-Chairman of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said:
“As the first new cemetery to be built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in almost 50 years, this is a very significant day. The level of care and professionalism shown during the building of Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery will stand as a lasting and fitting tribute to the sacrifice of the 250 men who will soon lie within its walls.”
Captain Matthew Clarke, Officer in Charge of the Fusiliers assisting with the burials, said:
“It is a real honour for us to be taking part in this historic task, finally giving these soldiers, who sacrificed everything for our freedom, a fitting military burial. As we go about our solemn duty, our thoughts will be with all of our friends and colleagues injured or killed on operations, and all those still willingly defending the freedom and security of our country today.
As the last of the survivors of the Great War come to the end of their lives, these re-burials serve to add weight to the words spoken by every one of us on 11 November each year – “we will remember them.”
The remainder of the burials, bar one, will take place over the following four weeks with approximately 30 each day on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (weather permitting). Each will take the form of a standard military funeral with hearse, bearer party of British and Australian soldiers, and a padre in attendance.
On 19 July 2010, a special ceremony will be held to dedicate the completed cemetery. This ceremony will mark the 94th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles and see the final burial of the last of the 250 soldiers who had lain undiscovered at Pheasant Woods since 1916.
Notes to Editors
Construction of the cemetery is only 70% complete, as the horticultural work has not yet taken place. Turf and plants will be introduced later in the year ready for the ceremony in July.
Each soldier will be buried initially without a permanent headstone awaiting identification if possible. In March 2010, a specially convened identification board will consider evidence to determine what, if any, level of identity can be attributed to each soldier. Evidence will include historical, anthropological, archaeological and DNA information.
In April 2010, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will begin erecting permanent headstones for each soldier reflecting the determinations of the identification board.
The group burial at Pheasant Wood was confirmed during a limited excavation in May 2008. The full archaeological excavation of the site began last May and was completed in September 2009.
This is a joint project between the British and Australian Governments, and is being overseen by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The full list of names of Australian and British servicemen who may be among those buried at Fromelles is available from the Fromelles Project web site www.cwgc.org/fromelles. Anyone believing they may be related to British soldiers buried at Fromelles should contact the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre, Fromelles@spva.mod.uk, 01452 712612 extension 6303.
The Battle of Fromelles began on 19 July 1916 and was the first major battle on the Western Front involving Australian troops. The 5th Australian Division suffered losses of 5,533 either killed, wounded, taken prisoner or missing; and the 61st British Division suffered 1,547 similar losses. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s (CWGC) records suggest that between 19 and 21 July 1916 the Australian dead at Fromelles amounted to 1,780, the British 503.
Media can download HD quality video of the ceremony at Fromelles by going to www.vimeo.com and searching for "War Graves Commission". Quicktime files of the footage are free to download
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