Identification and recovery process

The investigation process begins with comprehensive research by a team of forensic and historical experts. They examine the data and records related to the soldier's service history, area of operation, and forces that fought in the area of interest.

The identities of every soldier who went missing in the area are examined for clues. Commonwealth War Grave Commission records are checked to see if any unknown soldiers were buried there. The area is surveyed and compared to wartime mapping. Forensic staff may examine it to identify likely burial locations. 

When a search area is identified permission is obtained from the host nation to conduct reconnaissance and possible recovery. The entire process, from investigation to recovery, can take several months or years.

Each investigation is evaluated on its own merits and strength of the evidence, irrespective of an individual's rank or status.

Once a grave is located the process of physically recovering a single set of remains normally only takes a few days, depending on the location and environment of the recovery site. This process can take longer if the grave contains the remains of more than one individual, is in an isolated area or contains dangerous items like unexploded ordnance.

The investigation into the possible identity of a soldier is generally the lengthiest part of the process. Firstly, the remains are forensically examined to determine age, sex, height, ancestry, pre-existing injuries. Any artefacts recovered with remains are also examined.

This information is cross referenced with what could be thousands of paper records of soldiers who went missing in the same location. A short list of soldiers is developed, the families of these soldiers sought out, potential DNA donors identified and samples obtained. Once DNA from the family is obtained it is compared with the DNA profile of the recovered remains. The identification of soldiers may include:

  • DNA matching (sometimes this isn't possible due to degradation of the remains)
  • artefacts (both military and personal)
  • anthropological data
  • dental records
  • location of recovery.

Where a suitable DNA donor is identified, the family member will be contacted and a sample requested. For more information on the DNA collection and analysis process, see the document  below.

DNA testing guide (PDF 44.25 KB)

Relatives of soldiers missing in action or presumed dead can register their details with Army.

Queensland University of Technology Project: Development of next generation DNA technologies for identification of fallen Australian Service Members

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) is currently undertaking a project funded by Defence’s Innovation Hub to assist the Australian Army’s unrecovered war casualty investigations by improving and developing new DNA methods for identifying human remains.

The project seeks to identify Australian service members missing from past conflicts, particularly those from World War I and II. Unidentified remains of casualties from these conflicts are frequently uncovered; as most are more than a century old; the use of forensic DNA methods for modern casework is often sub-optimal. The QUT project involves identifying remains through next-generation sequencing and compares DNA results with those from relatives of missing soldiers.

The project aims to:

  • Establish a Family Reference DNA Database for Defence to compare with DNA profiles obtained from remains recovered from historic battlefields;
  • Develop new genomic methods to extract DNA profiles from highly degraded remains to support investigations for identifying unrecovered war casualties;
  • Develop analysis techniques for predicting biogeographical ancestry and externally visible characteristics in highly degraded remains.

This project commenced in 2021 and research is ongoing. All DNA results obtained by QUT are reported back to Defence to consider alongside other evidence available through the investigation process to determine if a DNA donor is a potential relative of a soldier whose remains have been recovered from historic battlefields.

For more information on the project, please see QUT’s project website.