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Annual Report 2013-14

Feature articles

Joint Australian–British Fromelles project honours dead soldiers

On 19 April 2014, the headstone dedication ceremony marked the completion of the Joint Australian–British Fromelles project, which had been in operation since 2008 when the remains of 250 Australian and British soldiers were discovered outside the French town of Fromelles.

The remains were discovered in six mass graves near Pheasant Wood on the outskirts of Fromelles. A joint Australian–British team was assembled, and in 2009 the UK-based Oxford Archaeology company excavated and exhumed the remains. In January and February 2010, 249 of the bodies were reinterred, with full military honours, in graves in a new Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery—the Fromelles (Pheasant wood) Military Cemetery. On 19 July 2010, the 94th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles, the final unidentified soldier was buried before a large crowd of onlookers that included the Governor-General of Australia and the Prince of Wales.

VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial at Fromelles, France.

VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial at Fromelles, France.

The two governments agreed that identification work should continue, and in 2011 another 14 Australians were identified. In 2012, the project's Joint Identification Board identified another nine Australians, and five more Australians were identified in 2013. In 2011, 2012 and 2013, a headstone dedication ceremony was conducted on 19 or 20 July to mark the change of headstones of those identified. The board convened for the last time In April 2014 and identified another 20 Australian soldiers.

The Battle of Fromelles was a combined attack by British and Australian troops on 19–20 July 1916 during World War I. The aim of the operation was to seize a German-held salient position just north of the village of Fromelles in France. It was the first offensive operation by the Australian Imperial Force on the Western Front and was intended to divert German troops away from the epic Battle of the Somme.

The British and Australian attackers had little time to prepare, and the odds greatly favoured the well-entrenched Germans. After a night and day of fierce fighting, the German defensive line remained unbroken. When the attack was called off on the morning of 20 July, more than 7,000 British and Australian troops had been killed, wounded or captured or were missing. The high casualties in Australia's 5th Division made the battle the worst loss of Australian lives in a 24-hour period in Australia's history.