Local war heroes to be remembered

Victoria NichollsToday marks the 94th anniversary of the battle of Fromelles, when hundreds of British first world war soldiers lost their lives, including men from across our region.Victoria Nicholls

Today marks the 94th anniversary of the battle of Fromelles, when hundreds of British first world war soldiers lost their lives, including men from across our region. VICTORIA NICHOLLS reports how dozens of relatives will make the journey to northern France for a ceremony in which the last of the fallen soldiers will be laid to rest.

It will be a sombre occasion, yet one which will bring some comfort to relatives of the men who fell at Fromelles.

Today the thoughts of those travelling to the small village in northern France will turn to the many soldiers, including men from across Norfolk and Waveney, who died in the battle of Fromelles - one of the most costly offensives of the first world war.

A disastrous combined Australian and British assault on German lines at Fromelles began on July 19, 1916, and was the first major battle on the Western Front that involved Australian forces. Within 14 hours the battle was over, leaving 1,780 Australians and 503 British dead.

Only last year archaeologists unearthed several pits at Pheasant Wood that contained the bodies of 250 allied soldiers. Experts from Oxford Archaeology began to excavate the graves, and removed the remains of those British and Australian soldiers who had been buried behind German lines.

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To commemorate those soldiers, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) built its first new war cemetery for 50 years, the Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery.

The first of the soldiers was buried in January this year, and burials took place every other day until mid-February. The dedication of the cemetery, which takes place today, will see the 250th man, an unnamed soldier, being laid to rest as part of the ceremony.

One of the men believed to have died at the battle was Sgt Herbert Bird, of Ditchingham, near Bungay, who was in the 2nd/6th battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment.

His great-nephew John Thomson, from Oulton Broad, near Lowestoft, said he believed the new cemetery finally gave the soldiers the honour they deserved.

'It's very important,' he said. 'To have someone who just got buried in an open dug-out and just thrown in by the Germans and covered over - there was no ceremony, nothing. It was just a way of getting rid of people.

'If they can get DNA tests done, then put a name to the person and give them a proper burial, then it's nice.'

Mr Thomson recently found a plaque in St Mary's Church in Ditchingham that listed his great-uncle as having died in the Great War, but despite family members coming forward with information and offers to undertake DNA tests, as yet Sgt Bird has not been identified as one of the soldiers.

Mr Thomson said family members from Ipswich who were more direct descendents to Sgt Bird were continuing to carry out research in the hope that it would lead them to answers, although he said he did not think it was probable.

'I'm very doubtful now,' he said. 'I think it's more than likely that more Australian personnel will be identified than British. It would be nice if a lot of the soldiers were identified.'

Among the 250 soldiers, 96 Australians have been named, with a further 109 being identified as serving in the Australian army. Three British soldiers are confirmed to have been among the men, although so far a lack of evidence means they have not yet been able to be named, leaving 42 men classified as 'unknown'.

Today's event is being organised by the UK Ministry of Defence, the Australian Department of Defence and the CWGC.

It is expected that 120 British relatives of soldiers who fell in the battle will make the journey to northern France, as will the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Kent, the president of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

It is an important day in the five-year Fromelles project, which is aimed at giving those who died the dignity of an individual burial. Experts have used excavation, DNA and historical analysis to identify the soldiers, and for some relatives it has brought an end to years of speculation about the final resting place of their loved ones.

Project workers are urging people to come forward as the Joint Identification Board will meet annually until 2014 to consider evidence in a bid to put names to the soldiers.

Sue Raftree, from the British Fromelles Project team, encouraged families of soldiers who died in that area of France in July 1916 to make contact.

She said today's occasion marked a big step, adding: 'It's very important as it's the end of a lot of investigation, and even though certain families have not had family members identified, the work goes on and over the next four years hopefully more information will materialise and they will have final closure.'

July 20 will be the first day that the cemetery at Fromelles, a village seven miles south of the French-Belgian border, is open to the public.

An exhibition to chart the construction of the new cemetery opened at the Imperial War Museum in London earlier this month and runs until January 2011.

Anyone who believes a relative may be buried at Fromelles should contact the Historic Casualty Casework on 01452 712612 ext 6303 or 730, and can visit www.cwgc.org/fromelles