The Joint Australian Army and United Kingdom Ministry of Defence Fromelles Project was established in response to a proposal received by the Australian Army in 2006 that Australian soldiers were buried in pits near the village of Fromelles in France. A limited excavation was commissioned that confirmed the presence of human remains.
The Joint Australian Army and United Kingdom Ministry of Defence Fromelles Project began by commissioning independent research and undertaking careful academic scrutiny of the battle.
Planning identified several phases with the first an examination and survey of the site that included the use of ground-penetrating radar. This was followed by a limited excavation of the site to conclusively prove whether or not remains were buried there. The project team engaged Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division (GUARD) to confirm the location and number of burial pits and to confirm the presence of human remains.
On 27 May 2008, the first day of a three week project, the outline of two burial pits was uncovered. A small excavator and hand trowels were used to meticulously remove soil and lead to the discovery of two more burial pit outlines.
Over the following days, the team excavated sections of each burial pit to determine the presence of human remains. Discoveries in each of the burial pits not only confirmed that human remains were present but that it appeared that the remains of Australian and British soldiers lost during the Battle of Fromelles in 1916 were present.
At the end of the excavation period the GUARD team had identified a total of eight pits and confirmed that human remains were present in five of them. A subsequent GUARD assessment of the excavations predicted that there may have been up to 400 sets of remains buried there.
In May 2009, phase two was commenced by a British archaeology company – Oxford Archaeology, supervised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on behalf of the Australian and British governments. Oxford archaeology commenced excavating all the burial pits identified during the exploratory work of GUARD in 2008. Using a specialist team of forensic and investigative professionals including archaeologists, forensic anthropologists, odontologists, crime scene recorders and x-ray specialists, all of the pits were opened and the remains of 250 Australian and British soldiers were successfully exhumed.
The work carried out by Oxford Archaeology broke new ground in the development of enhanced techniques for removing large a number of remains for post mortem analysis.
Each set of remains was carefully removed and a forensic post-mortem examination was conducted. The individual sets of remains were x-rayed, photographed and every detail documented. Each set of remains was carefully packed and placed into secure storage and bone samples were taken for DNA analysis,
The third phase of the project commenced in January 2010. During January and February of that year, 249 of the 250 soldiers were reinterred at the Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery, the first new cemetery built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in over 50 years.
The cemetery is within sight of Pheasant Wood and the place where they had lain unmarked for almost a century and a short distance from the battlefield on which they gave their lives.
To properly recognise the commencement of the reinterments, the reinterment of the first soldier on 30 January 2010 was hosted by the Mayor of Fromelles, Mr Hubert Huchette. In attendance was the Australian Minister for Veterans Affairs, Mr Alan Griffin; the United Kingdom Minister for Veterans, Mr Kevan Jones; Vice-Chairman of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Sir Ian Garnett; and a representative of the French Minister for Defence, General Bruno Cuche; as well as several hundred spectators.
Through the remainder of January and most of February the joint Australian Army and British Army ceremonial team re-interred a further 248 soldiers, leaving just one – a soldier "Known only to God" – for reinterment with full military honours on 19 July 2010, the 94th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles.
The reinterment phase concluded on 19 July 2010 when Her Excellency, Ms Quentin Bryce AC, Governor General of Australia, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales, government representatives, relatives and 5500 spectators watched as soldiers from the Australian and British Armies laid the final soldier to rest. The ceremony was televised around the world and was a fitting conclusion to several years of remarkable work.
There is one more phase of the project still to be concluded. It is the ongoing work of the Fromelles Project team to identify as many of the men who were laid to rest at Fromelles as possible. To date 119 have been identified by name – all Australians – and the joint identification work will continue until 2014 in the hope that more might be identified.