Airdate: 
Sunday, November 8, 2009 - 20:50
Channel: 
SBS

Over 3,000 British and Australian troops were killed at the Battle of Fromelles on the Western Front, in what is still considered the worst 24 hour period in Australia's military history.

Now, thanks to amateur advocacy and commonwealth dollars, the remains of 250 missing from that night have been found and exhumed. The task of identifying the bodies through DNA analysis has begun, setting an expensive and complex precedent.

But the question remains, where are the other bodies, and should the British and Australian Government's go looking for them?

Transcript

With Remembrance Day - the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month - coming up, imagine this chilling scene. It's just before 6:00 in the evening on 19 July, 1916, on the battlefields of France. In the next few horrific moments thousands of Australian and British soldiers pour out of their trenches and over the top, straight into German machine-gun fire. Not only was the death toll horrendous, but no real ground was won in what was an unmitigated disaster. 94 years on, thanks to a retired Melbourne school teacher, the bodies of 250 of those missing, until now, in what became known as the Battle of Fromelles, have been located. Here's Nick Lazaredes.

REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes

In a small village in Northern France, a tragic chapter of Australian history is finally being accorded the recognition that it so richly deserves. Brave diggers, their bodies lost for almost a century, are now being put to rest.

ROGER BIRD, COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION: Here they are starting to place the sarcophagi - and these are plywood cases - it will hold the coffins.

Roger Bird is the stonemason in charge of this unique war-grave project which is rapidly taking shape in the French village of Fromelles.

ROGER BIRD: Here you see the start of the construction of the cross.

A location that's within sight of a battleground that hosted the bloodiest 24 hours in Australia's military history. 5,500 Australian soldiers were killed or injured in a single night of fighting at the Battle of Fromelles.

PETER BARTON, HISTORIAN: And where we are standing at the moment, over here, the Australians were attacking across this ground here. And when you look at the map, you can see great piles of dead literally right outside their own lines, so the moment they set foot beyond their own trenches they were cut down.

Hundreds of the dead lay in a mass grave undiscovered until last year. At the centre of what was one of the most savage battlefields on the Western Front - historian Peter Barton is offering me a rare insight into events on the front line. So rare, in fact, that the details Peter has uncovered only recently in archives in Munich offer the first accurate record of what happened during the battle of Fromelles.

PETER BARTON: The German archives tell a totally different story - you have minute detail, of minute for minute what happened - during not only this battle, but every other action that took place here.

That Barton should open the lid on some of the darkest chapters of the Western Front - should come as no surprise. He is, after all, acknowledged as one of the world's leading experts on the battlefields of the First World War, with an extraordinary insight into its most tragic episodes including the fateful final assault on Australian troops during a fierce night of fighting.

PETER BARTON: What the Germans did was they went around the outside of the Australian incursion and cut them off. You can see them approaching along the front line here - from that direction - and here, and strangely, this wasn't known. It was exactly at this spot that the bag was closed, that the noose was pulled, so all the Australians within the German territory at that time were trapped. We're inside German territory, if you like.

Having trawled through the German archives Peter Barton can now offer a clear picture of the Australians' final hours.

PETER BARTON: And it was here that the Australian troops were pushing forward, looking for the second German line and failing to find it, and they became separated and you had little groups going out here and there, and that was the German opportunity. And they just took their time very calmly indeed and picked them off during the night.

Almost a century later, evidence of the slaughter was finally uncovered at the edge of the battlefield in a place called Pheasant Wood.

PETER BARTON: Pheasant Wood is directly behind me here. And what happened here was that the bodies were collected on the battlefield, gathered together at various points beyond the wood, separated by nationality - that means German from British or Australian - and then put on a little light railway which ran through the corner of Pheasant Wood here and there they were dropped off and put into the pits.

Those pits are now empty and the preservation and storage of hundreds of personal effects belonging to the soldiers is now under way. Among the items is this astonishingly well preserved boot made from kangaroo leather. And this train ticket - a return from Fremantle to Perth. The artefacts paint a haunting picture of the final moments of Australia's young soldiers, as do thousands of other war relics in Fromelles' impressive village museum.

MARTIAL DELABARRE, CURATOR, FROMELLES MESEUM: Like this knife, remains of a knife, with the name G. Blake carved on it - George Francis Blake. He was an Australian soldier. He was a soldier of the 59th battalion. He was a carpenter, a native of Melbourne, just married. A couple of months later he joined the Australian Army and found death at Fromelles.

The curator of the Fromelles museum, Martial Delabarre, is keen to point out a curious, but somewhat chilling, link to the past. This German plaque tucked away at the back of the museum celebrates the fact, that in 1916, Adolf Hitler, too, was a soldier at Fromelles, in the Bavarian Reserve Regiment.

MARTIAL DELABARRE: The story of the world would have certainly changed if one of the Australian soldiers had been able to shoot Hitler.

With 250 bodies recovered and with suggestions that at least that amount are yet to be exhumed - the Australian and British governments will begin the process of burying their war dead with full military honours in early 2010. And with time running out an extraordinary scientific effort is taking place using modern methods of analysing human DNA in order to match names to these fallen soldiers.

ROGER BIRD: There will be a review board to study the evidence they have, and then at some stage a decision will be made on whether we have enough evidence to be able to name a soldier - obviously this is what we aim to do.

LAMBIS ENGLEZOS, AMATEUR HISTORIAN: There's a guy in there who is 6"6', there are two 16-year-olds in there.

But none of this would ever have been possible if not for the detective work of this retired Melbourne schoolteacher.

LAMBIS ENGLEZOS: Identifying one would be marvellous, but we've got to do everything we possibly can to get viable DNA from each of those bodies and give as many as possible their identity.

Lambis Englezos is an amateur historian who is credited with identifying Pheasant Wood as the burial place for hundreds of Australian fighters.

LAMBIS ENGLEZOS: I've walked the ground of Fromelles and as I said, I'd read their letters, I've seen their photographs and I've read the letters from their mothers and their fathers asking for any bit of information about their boys and now after this passage of time, as I said, it's not ancient history, it's extremely tangible.

Tonight he is talking to the Guest family who believe that their ancestor Eric Chinner is one of those recovered at Pheasant Wood. From a large collection of letters that Eric wrote to his family in South Australia, Andrew Guest has pieced together the last days of his great-uncle's life.

ANDREW GUEST: This is a letter written by Eric Chinner four days before the Battle of Fromelles. It was one of the two last letters which he wrote before he died in that battle, and this particular letter was written to his father. "Dear old Daddy, two papers and a life arrived yesterday. Letters are expected to arrive in a day or two. Thanks so much for the papers. I'm so far keeping well and so far have dodged all the dangerous lead. I'm sure God will protect me in the coming days. Goodbye, Daddio, fondest love from your cheerful, sunny, Australian son, Eric."

LAMBIS ENGLEZOS: I hope that they will follow through completely and if necessary go back and resample bodies if they don't get viable DNA from them so that the samples can be retested, and if necessary elsewhere, to maximize a result for the boys of Pheasant Wood.

Although the project has generated enormous interest with its scientific process - the very real prospects of recovering the remains of thousands more missing soldiers has sparked concerns about escalating costs and the lack of any clear government policy. One of the first voices to give weight to issues around the sensitive find at Fromelles is Fairfax journalist Paola Totaro who for the past 16 months has been following the snowballing events.

PAOLA TOTARO, JOURNALIST: If you set a precedent that you are going to spend millions on high-class archaeological work, DNA and genealogical work that is required to do the sampling and cross-matching, you're talking about a lot of money. And this is all about the first and so the precedent is being set now and policy is being probably formulated as we go along. This research that not only has led to the finding of these men, it's also opened archives. German archives that have thrown out more information, meticulous, detailed information about what happened than we've ever had before. And that's priceless.

Peter Barton knew that the German archives held the key to a potentially explosive truth - the locations of dozens of other hidden mass graves - where many hundreds, probably thousands, of Commonwealth soldiers lie forgotten and abandoned.

PETER BARTON: So they're still lying there, just like the Pheasant Wood people, waiting to be found - but there are a lot more to find yet. I know where there are potentially 30 to 35 other communal burials in this immediate area, but other historians have come to me and I've heard of others who insist that they know where there are more mass burials, and they have done for a long time. It's a question of what the authorities will choose to do when the next project like this turns up - and it's quite a problem. At the moment there is no policy for that, and whether they're developing one or not, I don't know, but the greatest problem they face is the cost.

GREG COMBET, DEFENCE PERSONNEL MINISTER: Well, I simply cannot speculate about that.

Defence Personnel Minister Greg Combet doesn't seem unduly concerned by all the fuss.

GREG COMBET: Of course, there are many soldiers who lost their lives in many theatres of war including, not just the First World War, but the Second World War. And we will undertake any further assessments as to what we may have to do in the event there are other important discoveries such as this.

PETER BARTON: We're driving across no-man's land now. And just approaching the German front line, so what we've just driven in what, 10 seconds? That was the objective. Once you'd reached the German line you had a chance, but it's the reaching it, it's crossing that killing zone that was the key. If you commemorated everywhere where sacrifices took place on the Western Front you'd have a continuous line of monuments all the way down from the North Sea coast to the Swiss border so although there was appalling loss of life, literally on the spot where we're standing now on 19 July, 1916, you can't have a monument everywhere.

Reporter/Camera

NICK LAZAREDES

Additional Camera

DAVID BRILL

Researcher

MELANIE MORRISON

Producer

VICTORIA STROBL

Editor

WAYNE LOVE

Original Music composed by

VICKI HANSEN