100 years on: identifying the dead of the Battle of Fromelles by Michelle Leonard

This month marks the 100th Anniversary of the Great War Battle of Fromelles, which took place from the 19th to 20th of July 1916. The attack was intended primarily as a feint, to prevent German commanders from sending re-enforcements to the Somme. It was directed at the Sugar Loaf Salient, a strong German position of great strategic value, which allowed the Germans to see everything their enemies were doing. The attack was carried out by two very under-prepared infantry divisions after an ineffective seven-hour preparatory bombardment which deprived it of any advantage of surprise. When the troops of the 5th Australian and 61st British Divisions, all newly arrived in France and participating in their first battle, attacked at 6pm on the 19th, they suffered heavily at the hands of the machine-gunners of the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division. Amid the carnage small sections of German trenches were captured by the 8th and 14th Australian Brigades but, devoid of flanking support and subjected to fierce counter-attacks, they were forced to withdraw. The attack had been a calamitous failure, not only because of the immense loss of life, but because the Germans realised within a few hours it was merely a feint and even recovered the original order from the body of an officer on the battlefield. Not one inch of ground was gained.

The 5th Australian Division had suffered 5,533 casualties, of which 1,740 were killed, and the 61st British Division had suffered 1,547 casualties, of which 503 were killed. German casualties totalled just over 1,000, bringing total casualties for the battle to over 8,000. It had been the Australian Army’s first action on the Western Front, and to this day the death toll in those 14 hours stands as its largest loss of life in a single engagement; it is equivalent to the total Australian casualties in the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam War combined. The bodies of over 1,300 Australian and 350 British troops were never recovered from the battlefield. For health and sanitary reasons, the Germans had to bury some of the men who had died in close proximity to their own trenches. After the war ended, three years of intense activity to recover the dead and bury them in new war cemeteries was undertaken. Many mass graves were discovered, but a persistent rumour that a large mass grave pertaining to the Battle of Fromelles had been missed circulated in Australia for decades. Retired Melbourne schoolteacher, Lambis Englezos, made it his life's mission to find it.

Allied dead at Fromelles
Allied dead at Fromelles,_1916

After years of research, the location was pinpointed using aerial maps. It took numerous attempts to convince authorities, however, as they could not believe such a large mass grave had been missed. The finding of the order for the burials in the Bavarian Archives in Munich, by WW1 historian Peter Barton, was a turning point, and an investigation was launched. A special expedition from Glasgow University’s Archaeological Research Division (GUARD) officially confirmed the existence of the missing grave in a field named Bois de Faisant (Pheasant Wood), on the outskirts of the village, in May 2008. The mass grave contained eight pits capable of holding 50 bodies each, but only six had been used.

Standard protocol, when the remains of WWI soldiers are discovered, is for each body to be reinterred in an individual grave, with the inscription "Known unto God", unless the serviceman can be identified via uniform or artefacts. With advancements in DNA technology, however, the chance to do something different was opened to those in charge of the Fromelles find, and the decision was taken to instigate a ground-breaking identification scheme, attempting to give the fallen soldiers named graves. The Fromelles Management Board was set up, aiming to recover, identify and re-inter the bodies. A team of 30 archaeologists and forensic scientists excavated the site from May to Sept 2009. All of the bodies were carefully and respectfully moved to a temporary mortuary, and DNA samples were taken if possible. In the end, 250 men were recovered from the mass grave, and only six of them did not yield viable DNA.

Both the Australian and British authorities compiled lists of their men whose bodies had never been recovered and circulated them to the press. This was the catalyst that led to the creation of the Fromelles Genealogy Project.  It became clear to a number of Great War experts and enthusiasts that publicity alone was not going to be enough to bring forward the modern-day relatives of the majority of these men. They recognized that very few people would realise their grand uncle or second cousin might be on the list, even if they knew of them, so they decided to be proactive. Volunteer researchers in Australia and the UK set up projects to try to establish contact with as many DNA-appropriate relatives as possible and encourage them to participate in the DNA program. The British project took on the task of researching the trees of all 332 missing men of the 61st British Division; an enormous undertaking which resulted in a genealogical tree containing over 18,000 names. The Australian researchers had an even more daunting task since 1,335 Australian soldiers were never recovered. They initially concentrated on the 191 names on German death lists (Totenlistes). A number of the Australian trees also led back to the UK, so British research was still required. By 2015, more than 3,000 people had registered DNA details with the joint Australia-UK Fromelles Project.

Each year the project’s Data Analysis Team examined not only DNA results but forensic evidence, artefacts and anthropological data, such as height and estimated age, and prepared recommendations for a Joint Identification Board made up of Australian and British officials as well as forensic advisers. The board convened each March for five years (2009-2014) to review the recommendations and make decisions on whether each soldier could be identified and given a named grave or must be buried simply as an Australian or British unknown. After the first board meeting an announcement was made that 75 Australian soldiers had been identified, and this number has now risen to 150 out of 250, with the latest six identifications only announced last month in the run-up to the 100th Anniversary commemorations. Sadly, no British Army soldiers have been identified, but this is hardly surprising since the overwhelming majority of these men were bound to be Australian. It is worth remembering, though, that Australia was still a fledgling nation in 1916. Many of the Australian soldiers were actually British men who had emigrated, and even many of those born in Australia were the children of British immigrants.

One such man was Robert Courtney Green, known as “Bob” to his family. Bob was born in London in 1886 and emigrated to Australia in 1909, leaving a life of service as a footman to work the land of remote Western Australia. After six years in Australia he left behind a farm and a fiancée, as he felt compelled to do his duty for his homeland – he wrote to his mother Jane that it was “impossible to be a stay-at-home”. He ended up in the 32nd Battalion at Fromelles and was one of those who made it behind German lines during the battle. On the day he died he sent a postcard to his fiancée, Nancy Pearson, the last she would ever receive from him.

Robert 'Bob' Green, one of the first AIF soldiers to be identified and now has a named grave in Fromelles
Robert 'Bob' Green, one of the first of 75 AIF soldiers to be identified and now has a named grave in Fromelles

In a set of heart-rending letters that Nancy wrote to Bob’s mother at the time, her agony is recorded in painful detail. Bob was listed as missing for many torturous months, while Nancy tenaciously attempted to find out what had happened to him and refused to give up until she knew all hope was lost. She contacted the Red Cross numerous times and tracked down other soldiers who had survived, hoping that someone could help her. Eventually, eyewitness accounts brought news that Bob had been shot in the stomach, and was last seen, critically wounded, in a trench behind German lines. The Red Cross received his ID disc from the Germans, confirming his death, and it was sent on to his mother. Blood stains the ID Disc to this day, serving as a brutal reminder of how he died. For years that was all his family knew, as his body was never recovered, but now their descendants have the final answers to the puzzle. Bob was one of the men buried by the Germans at Pheasant Wood. He was one of the first 75 AIF soldiers to be identified, and now has a named grave in Fromelles. His story featured in the official documentary ‘WWI: Finding the Lost Battalions’, which aired in 2010.

Fromelles Commonwealth War cemetery
Fromelles Commonwealth War cemetery

The first war cemetery to be built in over 50 years was constructed, by the CWGC, as near to where the men had lain all those years as possible. The cemetery was named the Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery and opened with a dedication ceremony on the 94th Anniversary of the battle on 19th July 2010. 249 men were re-buried with full military honours in early 2010, and one Unknown Soldier on the day of the opening as part of the dedication ceremony. The vast majority of those who died at Fromelles will never receive a named grave, but the finding of the mass grave and the successful project to identify the missing has brought many of their stories to life again. Families who, in many cases, didn't know their relatives existed are remembering them and their sacrifices, and nothing could be more fitting as we mark 100 years since that fateful day.


You can also read this article within the July 2016 issue of the Forces War Records e-magazine, see HERE

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