Fromelles Pheasant Wood New Military Cemetery

In search of the Missing of Fromelles

In 2002 a retired Australian schoolteacher, Lambis Englezos, returned home to Melbourne after visiting the battlefields of the Western Front. He had been struck by the number of casualties and particularly by the number of the 'missing' at Fromelles. He learnt that Australian and British soldiers killed behind the German lines at Fromelles had been gathered together by the Germans and buried in collective burial sites or mass graves. The Germans had recorded the details of those buried and had even gone as far as individually bagging and tagging their personal effects and returning them, where possible, to the soldier's families through the Red Cross. What struck Lambis was that the number of unaccounted for 'missing' soldiers equated almost exactly to the number recorded as being buried by the Germans. Lambis was determined to try and locate where those whose bodies had not been recovered now lay.

Lambis Englezos

Lambis Englezos at Fromelles during the construction of the Cemetery.

He then learnt about the Australian Red Cross' 'Wounded and Missing' files. These files consist of approximately 32,000 individual case files of Australian personnel reported as wounded or missing during the First World War. They were created by the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau of the Australian Red Cross, which was a branch of the British Red Cross. The Bureau commenced operation in October 1915 and sought to identify, investigate and respond to enquiries made regarding the fate of Australian personnel. It investigated the majority of personnel posted as wounded and missing on official Army lists, as well as written enquiries from concerned relatives and friends. In 2002, the files were digitised to preserve the fragile original documents and to provide greater public access to this valuable and unique information.

Using the names in the roll of honour that had been included in historian Robin Corfield's book "Don't Forget Me, Cobber", Lambis read through all 1,335 files of the missing from the Battle of Fromelles. He discovered that 175 Australian soldiers had been buried somewhere behind the German lines. While reading Don't Forget Me, Cobber, Lambis also discovered that a soldier profiled in the book had pointed to a possible burial site at a place called Pheasant Wood. This caught his attention and focused his search in the area of the wood. Lambis' next step was to looking closely at archival aerial photos of that area taken before and after the battle. He was looking for anomalies that he believe could potentially be the site of mass graves in the area of Pheasants Wood. He found four potential sites.

In 2005, Lambis, along other members of the World War I commemorative group Friends of the 15th Brigade, presented their evidence to the Australian government. It was given serious consideration, but as the evidence was purely circumstantial and the records showed that the postwar recovery teams had examined the area in the 1920s and found nothing, the Australian government determine that it was not conclusive enough to warrant any action. Not willing to give up his quest Lambis continued his research.

In 2006 the Australian Army and United Kingdom Ministry of Defence established a joint Fromelles project in response to Lambis Englezos' thesis that Australian soldiers were buried in pits near the village of Fromelles in France. A request was made via the Australian Army History Unit to the German Embassy for a search of the Kreigsarchiv (the German War Archive) to be carried out to try to determine if there was any evidence to substantiate Lambis' thesis. This was undertaken by Dr Lothar Saupe, the Kreigsarchiv's curator, and he discovered Oberst Julius Ritter von Braun's Order 5220, dated 21st July 1916. Obrest von Braun was the commanding officer of Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 21 that had borne the brunt of the Australian assaults. His order listed his requirements for the collection, treatment and burial of the Bavarian dead (at Fournes cemetery) and the bodies of their English enemies at Fasanenwald (Pheasant Wood).

The joint Australian and British Fromelles project also commissioned Professor Tony Pollard and his team from Glasgow University's Archaeological Research Division (GUARD) to undertake a non-invasive investigation of the site. This included analysis of aerial photographs, topographic survey, geophysical survey and metal detector survey (digging small, shallow holes to recover metal objects in the topsoil).

The study of aerial photographs, which show the ground around Pheasant Wood in the days, months and years following the bloody events of 19th—20th July 1916, provided some interesting and corroborative evidence to Lambis Englezos' claims. A photograph taken from a British airplane on 29th July 1916 clearly showed that eight pits had been dug in two parallel lines just behind the wood. Five of these pits had been backfilled, presumably to cover the bodies placed in them. Later photographs, the last of which was taken in September 1918, suggested that the three other pits had remained open until the end of the war. More detailed investigation suggested that the west end of a sixth pit may also have been backfilled at roughly the same time, presumably being used for bodies that may have been recovered after the other five pits had been filled in.

The topographical survey revealed the humps and bumps of the ground and provided a subtle picture of the surface. Several geophysical surveys were carried out in the hope of identifying some trace of the pits beneath the surface. These were particularly important in trying to establish if the bodies had been recovered after the war. Recovery parties were likely to have dug over and disturbed a greater area than the original pits and thus the pits would probably have been extended in size. The survey indicated that the bottom of the pits were between two and two-and-a-half metres below the present surface level and that the soil at that depth was very wet. There were some very slight trace of the pits and no evidence to suggest that they had later been disturbed.

They metal detector survey revealed the usual debris of war to be found in any field in Flanders; shrapnel balls, shell fragments, bullets, etc. However, just a few inches below the surface, directly beside pits 1 and 2, two medallions presented to Australian troops when they volunteered for service were uncovered; one of them bearing the letters AIF (Australian Imperial Force) and the other, ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). These two Australian emblems were the first concrete proof that the site was connected to the Australians. The Battlefield is, however, over a Kilometre and a half to the north of the Pheasants Wood site and therefore the only way that these objects could have ended up at this place was concluded to be that they had been in the possession of either dead, wounded or captured Australian soldier.

None of this confirmed that the 'missing' were buried beneath the surface at the Pheasants Wood site; the only way to confirm that would be to carry out a properly controlled archaeological dig. What the non-intrusive investigation did do however was significantly increase the evidence corroborating Lambis Englezos' thesis.

The joint Australian and British Fromelles project consequently commissioned GUARD to to carry out a three-week limited archaeological excavation of the site and Tony Pollard and his team returned to Fromelles in late May 2008. The aim of this limited excavation was to establish beyond all reasonable doubt whether or not the pits still contained any human remains. If remains were discovered the intent was to make an assessment of the numbers and nationalities present. It was also hoped that the condition of the remains could be established along with an assessment of the potential for the identification of the individuals and the removal of individual remains for re-burial. If no remains were present, each of the pits were to be entirely emptied of soil in order to verify that the recovery party had not inadvertently left some bodies behind. In either case, no remains were to be removed from the pits at this stage.

With the world's press looking on the first bucket full of top soil was removed at 09:30 hrs on the morning of 27th May 2008. The scrape was carefully continued and for a time no evidence of the pits were seen. Then the tell-tale changes in soil colour began to appear as the orange-brown clay gave way to lighter material with patches of blue grey clay mixed within it. They had found the first of the pits. Soon the edges of the pit were identified; they were clean and straight, appearing to be undisturbed since they had been originally backfilled.

The shallow trench was cut across pits 5 and 6. With their edges defined the next stage was to dig carefully down to determine what if anything lay in them. This was done with a carefully dug trench cut by hand. After reaching around a metre below the surface the smell of decay became apparent. It was on the morning of the second day, when they had reached about 1.2 metres, that the first human remains were discovered. Similar trenches in the other pits also began to reveal human remains in the five pits in which they expected to find them. Over the next few days full sized excavation pits, between 1.5 and 2 metres long, were opened up in each pit. Human remains in the form of well-preserved complete skeletons were soon being revealed in pits 1 to 5. The wet conditions had also preserved bits and pieces of clothing and equipment.

In pit 4 two rising sun cap badges were found, clear evidence that the pits contained Australian war dead. In pits 4 and 3 General Service buttons were discovered, clear evidence of the presence of British war dead. The bodies in pits 1 to 5 lay in two layers, separated by a thin layer of soil and quicklime. In pit 2 two bodies had been buried side-by-side in a single German groundsheet. In pit a body lay on its back with its arms thrown out spread-eagled and across the waist lay two more pressed up tight against the edge of the pit. Each pit was beginning to reveal its story.

Pheasants Wood Excavation site

The Pheasants Wood Excavation site. (Australian Army)

By the end of the third week it was evident that the pits contained around 400 Australian and British war dead and that the remains were well-preserved and could potentially be exhumed for re-burial. The condition of the remains also meant that the potential of identification was good.

Shortly after the completion of GUARD's three-week limited archaeological excavation of the site the Australian and British governments announced their intention to have the bodies removed and reburied individually in a new cemetery.

Archaeologists at work at Pheasants Wood

Archaeologists at work at the Pheasants Wood site.

In 2009, the joint Australian and British Fromelles project commissioned Oxford Archaeology, a British archaeology company, to carry out the exhumation of the remains under the supervision of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on behalf of the Australian and British governments. In May 2009 Oxford Archaeology commenced their 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.

Australian Collar Badge

An Australian Collar Badge found in the mass grave at Fromelles. (AWM REL44975.099)

Each carefully removed individual set of remains was then subjected to a rigorous forensic post-mortem examination. They were x-rayed, photographed and every detail documented. Bone samples were taken for DNA testing and then each of the individual set of remains was carefully packed and placed into secure storage.

The joint Australian and British Fromelles then began the process of trying to identify the remains. They established a register of relatives and descendants of Australian soldiers killed at Fromelles. More than 3000 people registered on the Australian Fromelles Relatives Database and almost 1000 individuals provided DNA samples for analysis. The project's Data Analysis Team examined forensic and artefact evidence, historical information, anthropological data, and DNA testing results in an attempt to identify the remains of the soldiers exhumed. To date the remains of 144 Australian soldiers have been identified.

In January and February 2010, 249 of the 250 soldiers exhumed from the Pheasants Wood pits 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 first soldier was reinterred on 30th January 2010. 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; General Bruno Cuche, a representative of the French Minister for Defence; Mr Hubert Huchette, Mayor of Fromelles; as well as several hundred spectators.

Funeral Cortege of the 250th Unidentified Soldier

The Funeral Cortege of the 250th Unidentified Soldier.

The one remaining unidentified soldier, the 250th, was reinterred on 19th July 2010 in the presence of 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. He was laid to rest by a contingent made up of soldiers from the Australian and British Armies. The ceremony was televised around the world and was a fitting conclusion to several years of remarkable work.

In search of the missing of the Second Battle of Krithia

For the past four years Lambis Englezos has been advocating a similar recovery effort for the remains of 250 Australians killed in the May 1915 Second Battle of Krithia an Allied assault against Ottoman Turkish positions on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

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Last updated: 14th December 2018