French dig may uncover mass grave of WWI troops
Human remains found at a World War I battlefield in France will likely reveal a mass grave of hundreds of lost allied soldiers, Australian officials said Wednesday.
Defence Personnel Minister Warren Snowdon said archaeologists working on the site on the outskirts of Fromelles in northern France had unearthed a human arm and hand.
Snowdon said there was “no absolute certainty” that the remains belonged to one of the estimated 400 Australian and British soldiers buried at the battlefield.
But he added: “We are quite confident that this is probably the place. There’s a very high probability.”
“This is a very historic moment for us given the mystery that surrounded Fromelles for such a long time,” Snowdon told reporters in Canberra.
The dig has now been suspended to allow French officials to investigate.
“At this stage there is no indication of the number or condition of any remains which may be found at the site and the archaeology team still have a large task ahead to attempt to resolve these questions,” Snowdon said.
“While it is believed that the bodies are likely to be Australian and British soldiers, the nationalities have so far not been confirmed.”
The 1916 bloodshed at Fromelles was the first major battle for Australian troops on the Western Front and ended with 5,533 Australian casualties — including some 2,000 deaths — within one day.
Records indicate that some 170 Australian soldiers were buried behind enemy lines by the Germans.
The search, which has been carried out with the consent of the French and British governments, was spurred by the work of an Australian amateur historian who compared records from the Germans and allies to locate the site.
Australia’s Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, said the site would be respected.
“The soldiers of the army will be thrilled we’ve potentially found our mates and will be able to say a proper farewell to them,” he said.
The allied attack on the Germans at Fromelles, designed to draw attention away from the Somme, was a failure as the Germans realised it was a feint and mowed down their attackers with machine guns.
Update 2nd June: BBC News have now picked up the story
Dr Tony Pollard is directing the excavations. Scots team find World War I Australian mass grave