The remains of 220 men have so far been carefully removed from the pits at the edge of Pheasant Wood. But the work is still far from finished. The skeletons bear witness to the suffering endured by the British and Australian soldiers, before their enemies had placed them in the soil in neat rows 93 years ago, to guard against contagion in the summer heat.
Some of the bones are chipped or split where the shrapnel or machine gun bullets had struck. Regimental badges, wallets, crucifixes and other artefacts surrendered to the ground add poignant detail to the stories the broken grey skeletons tell.
A train ticket that one doomed Australian soldier had kept close to his heart is the find that most moves Dan Poore, Oxford Archaeology’s head of fieldwork. It is a return ticket from Fremantle to Perth.
Maybe it was being carried for good luck or simply to help bolster the soldier’s belief that one day he would get back home.
Instead he was to be one of the 5,533 Australians killed, wounded and missing on the night of July 19, 1916 in the disastrous attack at Fromelles, planned as a purely diversionary attack, aimed at distracting German reserves from the great Somme offensive, some 50 miles to the south.
Some 503 British troops also perished near the village of Fromelles, in northern France, when Australian and British infantry of two divisions attacked a 4,000-yard section of the German frontline centred on the notorious strongpoint called the Sugar Loaf. Advancing over unfavourable ground, in clear view of resolute and well-prepared defenders, the action turned into a bloody catastrophe.
But while it is still remembered Down Under as the “worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history”, in this country until now it has not been a battle to be recalled along with the likes of the Somme and Passchendaele.
The efforts of Oxford archaeologists and city historian Julie Summers are helping to change that, following the start of work this summer to remove the remains of up to 300 men from the eight burial pits, discovered thanks to a 30-year obsession of a retired Melbourne schoolteacher to find the missing Cobbers.
All the dead will be examined and, where possible, identified, before being reburied in individual graves in a new cemetery being created nearby by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
It is unlikely that Oxford Archaeology, based in Osney Mead, has ever worked on such an emotionally charged or high-profile project. For the progress has been under intense scrutiny from the world’s media, politicians, historians, battlefield archaeologists and the British and Australian military.
And, perhaps most significantly of all, the project will also be carefully watched by the relatives of the men who perished at Fromelles, along with hundreds more in Australia and UK who believe they might have lost a relative in the doomed diversionary action.
Mr Poore said: “We regard it as a great honour to have been asked to undertake this project. It is a great responsibility and our people have been greatly moved by the experience of working at Fromelles. Those men deserve this recognition and they deserve all the professionalism and commitment that we can bring to this project.”
Sadly, it is also proving the most controversial project that Oxford Archaeology has been involved with. For sections of the Australian press have seized on criticisms from a Belgian “battlefield specialist” seconded to the site, who complained about the way the men’s remains were being excavated. There have been claims that the project was being rushed, remains and artefacts mixed up, with inadequate site preparation leading to the pits being compromised by rain.
If such allegations were not appalling enough, there have been questions raised about the tender process, which Oxford Archaeology won ahead of Glasgow University’s archaeological research division, that had undertaken early investigative work at the pits. One report suggested Oxford Archaeology won the job by bidding almost half the price of its competitors, bringing the risk of an archaeological dig becoming what has been called “a cut-price recovery of remains”.
Until now Oxford Archaeology has kept a dignified silence, with Mr Poore saying the priority was to avoid upset to relatives, by giving any credence to what has been dubbed the “Fromelles furore”.
But the Oxford archaeologists have reluctantly decided the time has come to defend the quality of their work against claims of “nightmare” methods being used to exhume bodies, which the unit insists does not reflect what is being achieved on the ground.
The chief anxiety of the man at the centre of the row, Johan Vandewalle, is that the archaeologists went to the centre of the graves instead of working layer by layer, meaning there was a serious risk that remains could be jumbled.
Mr Poore said: “We have vast amounts of experience of excavating human remains from the Neolithic to the 19th and 20 centuries. But this project is really unique. The task has been to excavate, record and exhume all the individuals buried at the site, along with the personal effects that they were buried with, and then analyse the anthropological and finds information carefully. Some people have misunderstood the nature of the project, calling it a body retrieval exercise.
“It is different from work on a medieval site, where we might be looking for information about lifestyle and diet. But we are applying the same rigorous forensic archaeological techniques. And we are determined to do the job with the dignity that these people deserve.”
Mr Poore said that Mr Vandewalle had been employed as a carpenter and was involved in dealing with the problem of ground water at the site, adding: “What has been said is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of archaeological principles.”
An early exploratory dig by the Glasgow archaeologists to establish the number of remains had inevitably meant some “modern intrusion”, Mr Poore said.
“Good archaeological practice demands that archaeologists must remove recent deposits first, to avoid any risk of the site and results being contaminated. To the untrained eye it might have looked like we were burrowing into the pit, rather than dealing with it layer by layer.
“But before that could happen, we had first to deal with clearing the test pit.
“We are recovering the remains layer by layer and the high proportion of artefacts — some of which are incredibly well preserved — associated with specific individuals is proof of the effectiveness of the methodologies employed on site and the skills of the multi-national team that we have engaged.”
As for the issue of the tender, Mr Poore believes Oxford simply put in the best bid. He said: “The whole tender process was run fairly. We complied fully with all the requirements and submitted the highest quality bid with a realistic budget.”
Last week, members of the press were invited to visit the site to see the white overalled figures crouching over the shallow pit, gently brushing dried mud off skeletons. A small mortuary and medical laboratory have been created near the pits where the remains are received.
Dr Louise Loe, project manager and head of OA’s historic burials department, said it took about two weeks to hand excavate each layer of remains.
She said: “Priority is given to fragile finds that will help with identification. This includes rings, a New Testament, with a very well preserved leather cover, recovered from graves three and four. Textiles have survived very well, with a whole sleeve of a jacket found in grave four. Finds in grave one and two are of predominantly Australian origin and rising sun badges and Australian belt buckles continue to be recovered. British items seem to be fewer in number but a Fusilliers badge was recovered from grave three.”
Oxford archaeologists are also responsible for extracting DNA samples from the remains, usually from inside the men’s teeth, which are delivered to LGC Forensics, the Culham-based company that was awarded the contract to undertake DNA analysis that will hopefully help establish the identify of as many of the individuals as possible.
The Oxford and Berkshire Light Infantry was involved in the fighting at Fromelles and Mr Poore is urging any local families to come forward if they believe they lost a relative in the battle.
All the soldiers will be buried in individual graves between February and March 2010 and in the new cemetery created in the traditional style familiar to any visitor to the Great War battlefields. It will be completed in time for a commemorative event scheduled for the anniversary of the battle next July, with The Queen and the prime minister of Australia expected to attend. Relatives of the men identified will later have the opportunity to have headstones inscribed.
Oxford historian Julie Summers who wrote Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth Graves Commission, has been asked to organise an exhibition about the whole project at the Imperial War Museum in London, which will open next July. Ms Summers is also writing a book on the Fromelles project to coincide with the exhibition.
She said: “The commission is one of the most wonderful organisations that I have been involved with. When it came into being in 1917, its brief was one of the most ambitious ever undertaken: to commemorate in perpetuity those who had died in the service of the British Empire in the Great War. Rudyard Kipling described it as ‘the biggest single bit of work since any of the pharaohs, and they only worked in their own country’.”
The large number of bodies found at Fromelles has dramatically reminded the world that its work goes on, with archaeologists benefiting from DNA in identifying the fallen.
And the watching world can only pray that no undignified disputes about tendering prices and site preparation provide any further distraction from the real betrayal at Fromelles.