DNA to identify WWI soldiers in mass grave

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The Independent Online

DNA tests to identify the remains of hundreds of British and Australian soldiers killed in the First World War will begin this week.

Between 250 and 300 bodies have been discovered in mass graves in northern France, where they were buried by German forces after the disastrous 1916 Battle of Fromelles.

The soldiers' remains are being exhumed and will be laid to rest with full military honours in individual graves at a new Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery nearby.

Now a full programme of DNA testing is being launched in an attempt to establish the identities of the bodies.

Veterans minister Kevan Jones said: "This is an important step forward in the process of trying to identify the First World War soldiers buried at Fromelles.

"DNA is just one part of the identity puzzle. Our experts will be examining all available evidence in their attempts to confirm the identities of these men.

"Each one of these soldiers will be laid to rest with the dignity they deserve and we owe it to them to do all we can to identify them."

The land at Pheasant Wood, near the village of Fromelles, was confirmed as a group burial site in May last year after a limited excavation revealed pits which had lain untouched since the battle more than 90 years earlier.

Work to excavate the grave got under way three months ago and a full archaeological excavation of the site is expected to be completed by the end of September.

An identification board will convene in March next year to consider the evidence available.

The hope is to use casualty records, DNA tests and artefacts - such as kit parts - found in the ground to assign identities to as many of the bodies as possible.

Among the personal items excavated from the graves are a leather heart, a heart-shaped leather pouch containing a solid gold cross and a copper alloy crucifix, and a train ticket from Fremantle to Perth, where soldiers from Western Australia signed up for duty.

The Battle of Fromelles, which began on July 19 1916, was the first major battle on the Western Front involving both British and Australian troops.

It proved disastrous for Allied forces - records suggest that the Australians lost 1,780 troops and the British 503 between July 19 and 21.

* Anyone who believes they may be related to a British soldier killed at Fromelles should contact the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre by calling 01452 712612 extension 6303 or emailing fromelles@spva.mod.uk

Families who have already registered will be contacted with details about the DNA testing process.