WWI war dead to be exhumed

PARIS: Experts will Tuesday begin exhuming hundreds of British and Australian troops from a World War I mass grave in northern France, before laying the fallen soldiers to rest in a new war cemetery.

Up to 400 Australian and British troops, lost in the Battle of Fromelles in 1916, are thought to have been buried in pits by German forces, without their dog tags, in a location known as Pheasants Wood near the village of Fromelles.

Between now and September, a team of archaeologists is to recover the soldiers' remains, in hope of identifying as many as possible and giving them a fitting burial, the British embassy said in a statement.

Built next to the mass grave on land donated by the owner, the new military cemetery, to be completed by 2010, will the first created by the Commonwealth War Graves Commisssion since the end of World War II.

Acting on behalf of the British and Australian governments, supervised by the Commonwealth commission, experts from British firm Oxford Archaeology will carry out DNA analysis on the bodies, before laying them individually to rest.

Excavation and recovery work is to begin Tuesday in presence of government representatives from France, Britain and Australia, after a religious blessing of the site, where a memorial and an ossuary currently stand.

An amateur historian in Australia discovered the mass grave, and the Fromelles dig was launched in 2007 after several years of campaigning on behalf of Australians who hope to give their missing relatives a fitting burial.

Skeletal remains, along with British and Australian service medals and military badges, were found during limited excavation work in May and June last year, confirming the presence of the soldiers.

The British and Australian governments have published the names of some soldiers who they believe may be buried at Fromelles, and are asking people to register details of relatives they believe may be interred there.

The Battle of Fromelles was the first major battle on the Western front involving Australian troops.

Intended to divert German troops from the Battle of the Somme, it was a bloody failure.

British and Australian troops were ordered to attack on the evening of July 19, 1916, advancing in clear view of German enemy lines, who fired on them as if they were sitting ducks.

Some 5,553 Australian and 1,547 British soldiers were killed in the space of a few hours.

It was the worst loss of life for the Australian Imperial Force in a 24-hour period, more even than Gallipoli in 1915, and poisoned relations between the Australians and their British commanders.