FRESH investigations could hold the key to finding the final resting place of eight Warrnambool district soldiers lost on French battlefields for nearly a century, according to the man behind the discovery of the Fromelles mass grave.
War historian Lambis Englezos believes there is a strong possibility of another burial site as close as two kilometres from Pheasant Wood, Fromelles, where 250 soldiers, buried by their German enemies in 1916, were recovered in 2009.
The revelation brings new hope for the families of eight Warrnambool district soldiers who died in the battle, but whose remains have never been found.
Mr Englezos said it was “quite possible” that about 30 soldiers were buried by their own forces behind Allied lines after the Fromelles bloodbath which claimed the lives of an estimated 5500 Diggers.
Delivering an update on the Fromelles project at the Port Fairy RSL clubrooms yesterday, the Melbourne researcher said documentation supported the existence of a burial site at the former dressing station of Rifle Villa, 800 metres behind Allied lines and about two kilometres from Pheasant Wood.
However, burial records had subsequently been lost and the names of the dead mistakenly entered as casualties on the memorial wall at the nearby VC Corner Cemetery.
“There are many names listed at VC Corner who shouldn’t be there,” Mr Englezos said yesterday.
He said the task of identification had been complicated by the fact that the bodies of many of the dead had lain in ‘no man’s land’ for as long as two years before being retrieved and buried in unmarked graves at VC Corner. Mr Englezos said it was hoped aerial photos of the potential site, believed to be held in London archives, would help prove the existence of the burial ground.
“Evidence is growing but it is too early to say definitely yet. We are a long way short of going to Canberra with it.”
He estimated there were a minimum of 32 burials behind Allied lines, likely from the 15th Brigade, many of whom were drawn from the Warrnambool area.
While two ex-Warrnambool soldiers — privates Harold Esam and John Howard — are among the 124 Australian soldiers now identified from the Pheasant Wood mass grave through DNA analysis, eight more from the region who are named at VC Corner are still listed as missing.
They are W. D. Bruce, A. H. Ellis, V. M. Grogan, W. H. Hammond, W. H. Hunt, J. D. McIntosh, V. E. Morton and B. B. Pitcher.
The joint Australian and UK identification program to identify the Pheasant Wood soldiers officially wraps up in London next March, but Mr Englezos said the DNA samples would be transferred to Australia where the matching process would continue by the Army’s Unrecovered War Casualties team.
He urged any relatives of missing Fromelles soldiers to provide DNA samples to assist in identification.
Port Fairy-based From-elles researcher Maria Cameron said while many families had provided DNA samples, the stronger mitochondrial DNA (from female relatives) was preferred to increase the chances of a match.
“If there are any of the families of the soldiers who are still unidentified, we would like them to come forward to help,” she said.