Burial at last for 250 unknown soldiers

A Slice of Britain: In the summer of 1916, during a single day's fighting to capture a tiny French hamlet, more than 2,200 Allied soldiers were killed. The remains of 1,700 could not be individually reclaimed and honoured. Until yesterday

It is nearly 100 years since the flat farmland surrounding the tiny French village of Fromelles echoed to the sound of First World War machine-gun fire: almost a century since thousands of young men were slain, men such as Private Leonard Twomley.

Those same fields, neatly ploughed and lightly frosted with fresh snow, echo again to the jolt of gunfire. Not in the heat of battle this time: the volley from soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and the Australian army marks the first burial in the first Commonwealth war cemetery to be built for nearly 50 years.

The report of gunfire, the cordite smoke drifting across the fields, evokes memories of one more tragic episode in the war "to end all wars".

Even by the bloody standards of the First World War, the Battle of Fromelles was one of the more pointless actions. The village of around 900 people, 19 kilometres (12 miles) or so from Lille in northern France, had little strategic value. At the outer reaches of the Western Front, the original purpose of the fight was to tie up German troops so they couldn't join the Battle of the Somme, some 80 kilometres to the south.

By the time of the action, 19 July 1916, the Somme was raging. Fighting at Fromelles could serve little purpose. Nevertheless, General Richard Haking decided it would be a good idea to capture a scrap of high ground. More than 1,700 Australian and 500 British soldiers died fighting for that patch of earth. Thousands more were wounded. It remains the bloodiest 24 hours in Australia's military history.

The Veterans minister, Kevan Jones, reminds us of the scale of the slaughter, quoting W H "Jimmy" Downing, a survivor of the battle: "The air was thick with bullets, swishing in a flat criss-crossed lattice of death. Hundreds were mown down in the flicker of an eyelid, like great rows of teeth knocked out of a comb." The remains of 1,600 men were never recovered.

The Germans buried 250 of the bodies with as much respect as war would allow, in a mass grave next to Pheasants Wood, a few hundred yards from Fromelles, on the other side of the imposing church, St Jean-Baptiste, that sits by the new cemetery. They might have lain unmarked for eternity had it not been for a research programme led by Lambis Englezos, a retired Australian teacher, which discovered the remains in 2007.

After excavations by Oxford Archaeology and Glasgow University all of the bodies are to be reburied with full honours in separate plots. DNA samples are being taken in an effort to identify the remains.

For the descendants of those who fell here, this ceremony marks closure and the end of questions that have reverberated down generations.

Private Twomley's mother, Drucilla, was so desperate for word of her 19-year-old boy, a soldier for all of 245 days, that she placed an advert in the Coventry Evening Telegraph, asking for news. She lost another son, George, in 1917, and died without knowing that Leonard fell at Fromelles.

Her great-grandson and Leonard's great-nephew, Richard Parker, hopes the mystery will be solved: "Len still has two nephews and a niece alive, so we've been able to give some good DNA samples. It would be nice to close his story. Even if we don't find Len's body, the fact that his story and his life have been recognised is a fitting memorial to him."

But that is for the future. For now, the first of many unknown soldiers is laid into the ground with full military honours as we look on. Forty flag-carrying French veterans, one for each town or village in the Lille area, form a guard of honour. Among them, Henri Delapierre, 88, is carrying the original 1914 flag of Fromelles.

Richard Hope-Hawkins has given DNA in the hope that his great-uncle Second Lieutenant George Mitchell, from Bristol, is among those found. He carries his mother's diary from 1916. She was four when her uncle, aged 33, died, and he displays the day of the battle – a Wednesday - marked with a child's squiggle. "I thought it would be very poignant to bring it with me," he says. "We always knew that he had fallen; we still have the telegraph. But we didn't know where. It was only recently we heard he'd fallen at Fromelles. I'm hoping very much that my great-uncle is identified. I've been very moved by all this."

Nearly the entire population of Fromelles walks across the frozen mud of the not yet finished cemetery, leaning into the biting wind that whips across the flat landscape. The mood is both sombre and celebratory.

Afterwards, there are smiles and handshakes between the buffed, polished officers, pleased at a job well done, and a brief reception in the church hall with mulled wine and hot soup. Similar ceremonies will continue throughout February, with burials and honours, every other day.

Even after that there may be more: the fields around here have not yielded up all their dead. If a farmer ploughs deeply, a new pipeline is laid or a new foundation is dug, the bones of an unknown soldier are more than likely to surface, says Margaret Cox, an independent forensic analyst who has been advising the Ministry of Defence.

"I'm sure there are graves all over this area," she adds. "We are optimistic of identifying the soldiers found in Pheasants Wood. We have the science. But it depends on relatives coming forward. We've had 700 so far, which is around half."

The Australian and British flags hang at half mast as the Last Post echoes across the cemetery; the synchronised crunch of polished boots and the tolling bell of St Jean-Baptiste are the least we can extend to long dead and unknown men. As we drift away there is talk, still, of sacrifice and freedom.

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