WW1 Mass Grave found

John A Silkstone

Mi General
MI.Net Member
Jul 11, 2004
By DAVID MURRAY, Fromelles, May 31, 2008 11:00am

A WOODEN cross greeted archaeologists when they arrived at a small patch of land next to Pheasant Wood last weekend.

It was entwined with a poppy and bore a hand-written message: ``We haven't forgotten you boys. We'll be back to get you.''

The cross, put up by an anonymous supporter, quickly disappeared from view as fences went up to shield the area.

But it had set a poignant tone for the expert team entrusted with a heavy responsibility _ finding up to 400 Australian and British soldiers suspected to have been buried there almost a century earlier.

The message on the cross summed up the feelings of amateur historian Lambis Englezos, the driving force behind the incredible events continuing to unfold at Pheasant Wood.

Six years ago Englezos started his own research after reading a book about the Battle of Fromelles and visiting the battlefield. At the time he was working at Lynall Hall Community School in Richmond, Victoria.

He was soon caught up in an all-consuming quest that ultimately led to the discovery this week of potentially hundreds of men overlooked in the Great Wars aftermath.

Against massive scepticism, the humble teacher had moved an army, captured the attention of a nation and ensured the soldiers of Fromelles would never be forgotten again.

Englezos was in the VC Corner cemetery and memorial last week as archaeologists were finally confirming what he had long suspected _ that the site near Pheasant Wood was a mass burial ground.

It was Thursday afternoon in France and sustained digging uncovered the skeletal remains of first one, then a second, and then a third person in separate burial pits.

It followed the discovery of the remains of one person earlier in the week.

As all his predictions started coming true, Englezos couldnt have been in a more appropriate place than the cemetery, about 1km from the burial pits at Pheasant Wood.

All around him was the battlefield, with VC Corner in the middle of what was once no-mans land.

The fighting there had been amongst the bloodiest in Australia's history, with 5,533 men killed, injured or captured in just over 24 hours on July 19 and 20, 1916.

Two weeks earlier on July 1, the British lost the largest number of men in its history, suffering about 67,000 casualties including almost 20,000 dead during the first day of fighting at the Somme.

The Australians who died at Pheasant Wood had been deployed as a feint to try to stop the Germans sending reinforcements to the Somme.

The road to discovery is a classic detective story. When Englezos first began his research, all he had was information that there may be undiscovered burial pits containing Australian soldiers behind German lines.

His first major breakthrough came when he sent away to the Imperial War Museum in London for photographs taken during the war. He was given aerials showing nothing of interest near Pheasant Wood prior to battle _ but, crucially, eight burial pits post-battle.

He found further evidence when he ooked through the Red Cross ``wounded and missing records''. Buried in the mountains of files was the case of Lieutenant ``Jack'' Bowden, from South Yarra, Victoria, and a single reference to Pheasant Wood as a possible burial ground.

Convinced he had the correct location, Englezos took the approach of trying to prove the men had been recovered.

``We only found evidence to the opposite,'' he says. The post-war Grave Registration Unit meticulously recorded details whenever they found bodies. There was a nil return at Pheasant Wood.

Englezos also found an Australian major had been sent to Fromelles in 1920 to specifically to look for the mass grave, but had returned home without success. Why would he have been sent if the bodies had been moved, Englezos asked?

As Englezos presented his research to some of Australias top military minds, he was met with disbelief.

It seemed impossible so many men could have been overlooked during the massive clean-up operation after the war.

He is reluctant to discuss the opposition he faced. ``There was active discouragement,'' is about as far as he will go. To the credit of the army, as Englezoss case became stronger, it took up the challenge, unearthing one of the strongest pieces of evidence to indicate the mass grave existed.

After writing to the German Embassy in Australia, the army was sent a document dated the 21st of July, 1916, just after the battle. It spelled out an order to German troops: ``You will prepare pits for 400 in front of Pheasant Wood.''

The mounting evidence prompted the army to commission a non-invasive study last May that found the site had not been disturbed since the war, indicating the bodies had not been moved if they were there. They also unearthed a medallion traced to a missing soldier from Victoria.

As remains continue to be uncovered, Englezoss own personal battle is only half won. He has found the lost Diggers of Fromelles, but has another task he sees as equally important _ ensuring every effort is made to try to identify the men, so they can be given the respect and honour they deserve.

Incredibly, if the men are identified, it may be due to the respect that German troops showed to their enemy's dead.

German officers had offered a brief truce to allow soldiers in no-mans land to be buried. When the offer was refused, the Germans gathered up all the bodies of enemy soldiers who had made it through their lines. In a remarkable process, they took the ID discs from the dead, individually bagged each item and through the Red Cross sent them home.

In all, they sent back the belongings of 173 Australians and recorded the names of each of the men.

Englezos believes all 173 are buried at Pheasant Wood. He says a count at cemeteries and unmarked graves in the region confirms the number _ of the 1335 Australians he estimates went missing in the Battle of Fromelles, exactly 173 cannot be accounted for in cemeteries.

``Its just my hope that they do whatever they can to try to identify them,'' he says. ``Each of them should be given the dignity of individual reburial.''

What a remarkable story and what determination by Lambis Englezos to correct a great injustice to these brave man. This is what history is to me, a living history that requires those of us that remember the sacrifice of the forgotten and strive to always keep their memory and deeds alive for the present. I have nothing but respect for these forgotten men, including the Germans that showed more respect for their fallen enemy on this particular battlefield then the Allied Generals did. I also have nothing but respect and admiration for Lambis Englezos and what he has accomplished against formidable odds.
Semper Fi
A very worthwhile project, which I knew I'd seen reported somewhere before, maybe even here?
BBC News covered this, too. Follow the link, scroll down to play the video clip, which you can enlarge to full screen.


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