Fromelles diggers laid to rest

By Alyssa Braithwaite/AAP with AG Staff 20 July 2010
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Ninety-four years after one of the bloodiest battles in WWI, 250 soldiers have been laid to rest.

NINETY-FOUR YEARS TO the day after they were killed and buried anonymously in one of the first world war’s bloodiest battles, 250 Australian and British soldiers have been finally been laid to rest with the recognition they deserve.

The Battle of Fromelles, in northern France, represents the worst 24 hours in Australian military history, with 5533 diggers killed, wounded or captured. An estimated 1780 Australian soldiers died and 503 British troops lost their lives. Many of their bodies were never recovered.

On Monday the final 250 soldiers whose bodies were discovered in a mass grave in 2007, were buried at a new military cemetery at Fromelles. Watched on by the Prince of Wales, Australian Governor-General Quentin Bryce, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Alan Griffin, Chief of Army Lieutenant General Kenneth Gillespie and hundreds of families, a coffin carrying an unknown allied soldier was farewelled with full military honours.

End of a long silence

“We are here to observe the end of a long silence,” the Governer-General said to mark the occasion. “A near-century of questioning and not knowing, of loving hearts unrequited. Generations of absence, lives extinguished without explanation, missing without proper account. That is, until today.”

Ninety-six of the soldiers – all Australian – have been identified through DNA testing and have been given tombstones inscribed with their names. A further 109 soldiers have been confirmed as having served in the Australian army and three were British soldiers. The remaining 42 have been classified as unknown and their headstones read: “A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.”

Prince Charles, accompanied by his wife the Duchess of Cornwall, paid tribute to the bravery of the 250 men who lost their lives on 19 July 1916. “In laying this last hero to rest we honour them all,” Prince Charles said.  “I am profoundly humbled by the outstanding bravery of these men who fought so valiantly in the indescribable mud and carnage, many thousands of miles from their families and from their homes.”

Family connections

Of the 96 identified Australian soldiers, 80 had family members who travelled to France for the special occasion. Brisbane man David Parker made the journey with his son, Robert, to pay his respects to his uncle, Second Lieutenant John Parker. “(We) never knew what happened to him,” David says. “It means a huge amount to the family to have final closure and know that Uncle Jack has had a proper Christian burial. It’s the final chapter in a long, long story.”

Perth woman Heath Stook, 27, came to visit the grave of her second cousin, Raymond Bishop, who was considered “missing in action, presumed dead” until DNA matched to her grandmother confirmed his body had been found.

“He went over with two cousins and he actually fought in the battle with one of his cousins by his side,” she says. “His cousin was writing letters back home to our family, which we’ve got copies of, and they weren’t exactly sure what happened to him. They never heard…they always had a little shimmer of hope that one day he might turn up back on the doorstep because his body was never found. [The discovery of his remains] is definitely a bit of closure.”