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Excavation begins at WWI mass graves at French village

May 06, 2009|Associated Press

PARIS — Excavators near a village in northern France began work Tuesday unearthing the remains of as many as 400 long-lost Australian and British soldiers who perished in World War I.

The remains, buried in a cluster of mass graves discovered last year, are to be individually reinterred in a cemetery being built near the site.

Australian, British and French dignitaries gathered in the village of Fromelles for a ceremony marking the launch of the project, which is expected to conclude in a little more than a year.

"Today marks the beginning of the journey to afford many of those killed at Fromelles with a fitting and dignified final place of rest," said Adm. Ian Garnett, vice chairman of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is charged with overseeing the excavation.

An Australian amateur historian discovered the graves -- which contain the largest group of Australian remains from World War I ever found -- in a muddy field on the edge of a small wood, prompting an investigation by the Australian government.

Australia has since commissioned the construction of the nation's first war cemetery in more than 50 years near the site and dispatched a team of archaeologists to exhume and attempt to identify the remains.

"This site is part of our national story," said Warren Snowdon, Australian minister for defense science and personnel. "It filled a gap in our history."

The remains appear to date from a single, famously ferocious night of fighting more than 90 years ago. Late on July 19, 1916, Australian forces launched the battle of Fromelles, the first Australian combat operation on the Western Front.

The battle has since been regarded as "the worst wartime tragedy in Australian history," Snowdon said.

More than 5,500 Australians were killed or wounded or went missing at Fromelles in less than 24 hours, along with more than 1,500 Britons, cut down by German machine guns and artillery.

German troops buried them afterward, Australian investigators say.

The bodies of more than 165,000 British Commonwealth troops killed in World War I have never been recovered, according to the commission, and remain lost beneath the fields and woods of Western Europe.

"To understand that you're standing near the site where these fallen heroes are buried," said Snowdon, who visited Fromelles last year, "was extremely moving."

Since the discovery of the site last year, about 400 people from Britain and Australia have traveled to Fromelles to pay their respects, said commission spokesman Peter Francis.

"It was over 90 years ago, but the wounds still run deep," he said.

The discovery of the Fromelles site coincides with a burgeoning popular interest in Australian history, Snowdon said.

"In Australia, it's got a lot of public support and drive," he said of the Fromelles excavation.

"It really is part of our national history, of who we are."

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