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Archaeologists seek WW I mass grave

world Updated: May 30, 2008 15:50 IST
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On the edge of a wood near the northern French village of Fromelles, archaeologists are seeking to uncover a suspected mass grave of hundreds of Australian and British troops from World War I.

A high fence surrounds the site in the middle of fields of ripening wheat and Australian soldiers stand guard at the entrance as experts work under sheeting to shed light on one of the great mysteries of the Western Front.

From outside all that can be seen is the arm of an excavator turning up the earth, which is then carefully examined by members of Glasgow University's Archaeological Research Division (GUARD).

The battle of Fromelles, on July 19 and 20, 1916, was the baptism of fire for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on the Western Front. Intended to divert the Germans from the ongoing Battle of the Somme, it was a costly failure.

More than 7,000 troops were killed, wounded or missing among the attackers, of whom some 5,500 were Australian. It was the worst loss for the AIF in a 24-hour period, more even than Gallipoli in 1915, and poisoned relations between the Australians and their British commanders.

Many of the soldiers were unaccounted for and are thought to have been buried in pits by the Germans near what was known to the allies as Pheasant Wood. A campaign of several years to have the site investigated finally bore fruit, with a preliminary probe carried out last year.

Australian General Mike O'Brien, supervising the dig, said yesterday that the excavation was important for the whole of Australia, where interest has been intense.

Many Australians in particular are hoping that remains of their missing relatives will finally be found and given a fitting burial.