WWI-Era Mass Grave Rediscovered In France

About 7,000 British and Australian soldiers died in the muddy fields around the French village of Fromelles during the first World War. A mass grave of 250 of those killed in 1916 was recently found near the town. Experts are now trying to identify the bodies and prepare them for burial in a new war cemetery in the heart of Fromelles.

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In Northern France, the bodies of fallen troops from the First World War are still being found more than 90 years after the armistice.

Eleanor Beardsley reports on the discovery of a mass grave containing 250 missing Australian and British soldiers.

(Soundbite of church bells)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: A landscape of church spires and farmers' fields surrounds the tiny French village of Fromelles. Today, there's little sign that this was once the site of a horrific battle. In July 1916, thousands of fresh-faced British and Australian recruits stormed across no man's land in an attempt to take heavily fortified German trenches.

The Battle of Fromelles ended in total slaughter. About 7,000 soldiers of the British Empire were cut down in two days by German guns and shells. Buried by the Germans behind enemy lines, many of these men might have remained hidden forever if not for some determined historians and ground-penetrating radar.

David Richardson of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission says they hope to identify some of the soldiers by matching their DNA with that of living relatives.

Mr.�DAVID RICHARDSON (Fromelles Project Manager, Commonwealth War Graves Commission): We found 250, exactly 250, sets of remains, and it's very heavy, wet, clay soil here. So they would have been at a fairly constant temperature, fairly wet all the time, and so, preservation was pretty good. Hair, of course, still there on some of the remains. You know, 93 years later, we're still finding DNA.

BEARDSLEY: As bulldozers push dirt back over the now-empty graves, the bodies and artifacts taken from the ground are examined by a team of archaeologists and forensic scientists in a series of white trailers next to the burial site. Dr.�Louise Loe is head of the identification project.

Dr.�LOUISE LOE (Head of Burial Archaeology, Oxford Archaeology): Every single fragment that we recovered from the site, we carefully washed (unintelligible), and it's sometimes in here that we make some bulky(ph) discoveries. We found the train ticket in some of the fabric that came up with one of the soldiers. The fabric was opened out, and inside was a train ticket, a return ticket, Freemantle to Perth, which is very poignant.

BEARDSLEY: David Richardson says as his team studies each set of remains, trying to establish an identity and cause of death, a picture begins to emerge of the individual soldier.

Mr.�RICHARDSON: Imagine these young guys signing up in Australia, volunteering, you know, getting on the boat, full of bravado

Dr.�LOE: So excited.

Mr.�RICHARDSON: So excited and, you know, fighting for the British Empire and never coming back.

BEARDSLEY: More than 5,000 Australians died at the Battle of Fromelles, the country's biggest war loss after Gallipoli. Richardson says that even if all the remains at Fromelles can't be identified, the soldiers will now at least lie in a Commonwealth military cemetery.

Not far from where the archaeologists are working, bricklayers are laying the foundations for the first cemetery to be built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 50 years on land donated by the village. Fromelles has had a bond with Australia since the Great War. The town's school has two clocks. One shows French time, the other the time in Melbourne.

Fromelles resident Marcel De La Barre(ph) says even today, this project tugs at the hearts of the villagers.

Mr.�MARCEL DE LA BARRE: For us, for people of Fromelles, for myself, we are really very proud with all these, of these soldiers. I think, soon, they will have a new resting place in the heart of the village of Fromelles, and that's also a page of our local history.

BEARDSLEY: The process of identifying the men will go on. But next July in a commemorative ceremony, each of the 250 soldiers will be reinterred in his own grave, alongside his comrades.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Fromelles, France.

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