Remember the Dead
The first new CWGC cemetery to be constructed in more than half a century, Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery was, appropriately, officially dedicated on 19th July 2010.
Between 30 January and 19 February that year, sometimes in groups of up to thirty at a time, the remains of 249 of the 25o soldiers recovered from the mass graves at Pheasant Wood were reinterred with full military honours here in the new cemetery on the outskirts of the village of Fromelles.
Buried by the Germans in 1916 and undetected by the Graves Concentration Units’ extensive search of the Fromelles area in 1919 and again in 1921, the men lay undiscovered, their names inscribed on some of the many memorials to the missing that tell their sad tale across the Western Front, as the years, and memory, receded.
…In Perpetuity tablet, this time the French version, cemetery register, and visitor’s book, and while we’re doing the domestics, here’s the first new cemetery plan for fifty years.
Receded, that is, until 2002, when Lambis Englezos, a schoolteacher from Victoria, and a man with a decades-long fascination with the Fromelles battle, found himself wondering, whilst on a visit to V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery, why so many of the Australian dead from the battle were unaccounted for.
On entering the cemetery, Plots III & IV are to our left, overlooked by the tower of Fromelles church, which, although shattered by British artillery, was still used as an observation post by the Germans. Bearing in mind the utter flatness of the surrounding countryside, the Germans were able to see for miles into the British & Australian rear areas from the church tower.
On our right, Plots II and, beyond, Plot I. Back to Lambis Englezos. Of the 1,301 names on the memorial at V.C. Corner, Englezos knew that some were buried in the cemeteries that we have visited on this tour, but adding up these numbers still meant that about 160 Australians killed during the battle appeared to have simply disappeared without trace. It seemed unlikely that such a large number of dead men, if recovered by the Germans, would have been transported any large distance for burial, so were they still somewhere in the immediate area of the battle, undiscovered by the post-war Graves Concentration Units? And if so, where?
Over time it was ascertained that the Germans probably had buried quite a number of Australian and British dead after the battle, many, particularly in the Australian sector, having fallen close to, or even behind, as we have seen previously, the German lines, the requirements of hygiene necessitating that this was done as quickly as possible.
Photographs of dead ‘Englanders’ (the Germans tended to refer to all British and Empire troops as English) piled on light railway trucks, lying in long lines, or heaped in piles (all available if you search the interweb), showed that the Germans clearly buried large numbers of men after the battle, and aerial photographs taken before and after the battle confirmed that eight large burial pits had been dug by the Germans (proving that Fromelles was far from a surprise attack), and that five had indeed been filled with dead soon after the battle. Australian Red Cross documents referring to burials behind Pheasant Wood (just a few hundred yards east of the new cemetery, on the other side of the road through Fromelles) were also uncovered, everything pointing to the fact that the Germans had carried out a mass burial there. But had these graves already been uncovered by the Graves Concentration Units, and were now among the unidentified burials in the cemeteries we have visited? Or had, somehow, they been missed?
By this time others had become involved, both in Australia and in the United Kingdom, supporting the work being done by Englezos and his colleagues, and, as public interest grew, pressure increased on the Australian Government to take official action, particularly as, if there is strong circumstantial evidence that battlefield remains may be those of Australians, the Australian Army is obliged to investigate. The Australian Army History Unit was requested to look into the Pheasant Wood claims, but when Englezos first presented his findings, they remained unconvinced that a mass grave of such size could have remained undetected, concluding that the evidence did not, at that point, warrant further investigation.
Plot I. Undaunted, Englezos continued his enquiries. In September 2006, a document in the Bavarian military archives written by a German colonel ordering the digging of mass graves behind Pheasant Wood for 400 English (note) soldiers, and giving precise details of the procedure for burying them, was uncovered; when presented to the AAHU panel, it was agreed that it seemed that burials had indeed taken place behind Pheasant Wood, but that there was still no conclusive evidence that they were still there. A non-invasive survey of the possible site was ordered, the aim being to ascertain whether the physical appearance of the ground suggested a mass grave, and if so, were there any indications that it had been opened after the war.
Plot II. The mathematics also suggested that, if 400 soldiers were indeed buried in the mass graves, some, indeed the majority, were probably British (English soldiers). The AAHU commissioned Glasgow University’s Archaeological Research Division (GUARD) to undertake a full geophysical survey of the Pheasant Wood site; their findings not only confirmed the presence of eight mass graves, items found linking them with the Australians, but the scattered fragments of metal across the site strongly suggested that the area had lain undisturbed since the battles of late 1918 passed through as the war neared its end. There was now little doubt that the Germans had buried men behind Pheasant Wood after the battle, and the likelihood appeared to be that their remains were still there, lying undisturbed all these years later.
The grave third from the left in the front row of Plot III is that of 36 year old Lieutenant Colonel Ignatius Bertram Norris, who commanded the Australian 53rd Battalion at Fromelles and was cut down by a German machine gun either while crossing No Man’s Land, or just beyond the German first line trenches, depending on which account you read. Back to more recent times. In May 2008 GUARD were asked to conduct a limited excavation at the site, without any intention of removing anything, simply cutting exploratory trenches across the mass graves to once and for all ascertain the truth. And they did. The truth was that somehow, during the post-war battlefield clear-up, these mass graves had indeed been overlooked, and the men buried in them were all still there. The question of why they were overlooked remains to be answered, but the next stage was, of course, to excavate and identify as many of them as possible, and to give them a proper burial.
Plot IV. Once the remains had been located, but before the excavations began, the CWGC began the task of designing a brand new cemetery to hold up to four hundred burials that, at the time, it was believed might be buried in the mass graves. And this is the site chosen, on the gently sloping Aubers Ridge just outside Fromelles village.
The excavations began in May 2009, and the next seventeen weeks revealed a total of 250 bodies, nearly all found in five of the eight pits. Two pits were unused, and one contained the remains of just three men. The Germans, it seemed overestimated (possibly because so many of the attackers were cut down near their own trenches). By the time of the reburials, the identification project had yielded 75 positive identifications out of 203 men definitely established as being Australian. Despite the lack of identity tags, removed by the Germans to be sent to the International Red Cross, and from there back to the families of the deceased, an astonishing 6,200 items were found with the bodies which, along with the modern magic of DNA, helped in the identification process. Only a couple of so far unidentified British soldiers were found in the mass graves, quite likely explained by the fact that the British attacked further to the south west, and any that were found afterwards and buried by the Germans would have likewise been buried somewhere further to the west. And presumably discovered after the war, and buried, some perhaps identified, but many as unknown men in one of the many cemeteries hereabouts. Presumably.
Private William Thomas Connolly, aged just 19, Plot IV A1. His name has been inscribed on the Australian Memorial at V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery these many years, but now he is missing no more, although you will note that the exact date of his death remains uncertain.
And likewise Private John Edwin Crocker, aged 20, Plot IV B1, also to be found on the memorial panels at V.C. Corner.
View looking roughly west across the cemetery from the eastern corner. The cemetery was started in the autumn of 2009 when the earth here was removed, the first layer of schist laid, and the construction of the cemetery walls and terrace begun. By the end of the year the cemetery entrance had been completed and the Cross of Sacrifice positioned, the sarcophagi were in place and the graves were ready for the reburials. Between 30th January and 19th February 2010 249 burials, sometimes as many as thirty a day, were made, the graves then being filled and the headstone supports put in place. Tons of topsoil were brought in, grass laid, the ubiquitous Portland Stone headstones inscribed and placed, and flowers and shrubs planted in the style that Gertrude Jekyll suggested to Sir Edwin Lutyens back in the 1920s, and can be seen to this day in numerous British military cemeteries across the world.
Graves in Plot IV. On 19 July 2010, ninety four years after the Battle of Fromelles, the coffin holding the last of the soldiers discovered on the mass graves at Pheasant Wood was placed on a First World War service wagon and drawn by horses through Fromelles, the Prince of Wales & the Governor General of Australia, Quentin Bryce, among other dignitaries walking behind.
Among the crowd at the cemetery were relatives of the men buried within, and as the official dedication ceremony neared its end, the 250th and final coffin was lowered into the ground near the Cross of Sacrifice; interestingly, and I am sure quite deliberately, the remains were those of an unknown soldier, buried at Plot II Row A6 (far right, front row above).
Panorama from the northern corner, Plot IV in the foreground…
…and walking south west, Plot III now ahead of us. I have always presumed that these large empty grass areas were originally intended for the rest of the anticipated 400 bodies, but I can find no confirmation if this anywhere, so perhaps it is just part of the design.
In the years since the cemetery was inaugurated more of the men buried here have been identified, and in July 2016, when six* headstones were dedicated at a commemoration service at the cemetery, the total number of identified Australians buried here reached exactly 150. The identities of a further 78 of the remaining unknown burials are also known, again all Australian, but they have yet to be matched to a specific grave.
*Of these six, two were born in England, as were quite a number of men who fought in the Australian Army during the Great War.
Corporal Herbert Thomas Bolt, aged 22, Plot III B6, and the only headstone in this cemetery I photographed in close-up that I subsequently could not find on the memorial panels at V.C. Corner, nor at the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, where a few other Fromelles casualties are remembered.
Plot II Row A4 & 5, Private William Joseph Cuckson and Lance Sergeant Ernest Augustus Jentsch, the names of both still to be found at V.C. Corner…
…as is that of Private Samuel Charles Wilson, Plot II E1.
I hadn’t realised at the time that Samuel’s brother, Eric, was also killed at the same time and is buried alongside him.
You may have spotted the well-visited grave of Lieutenant Berrol Lazar Mendelsohn (Plot II F2) behind that of Samuel Wilson two photos back.
Twenty six year old Private Thomas Richard Webb, Plot II F10. The names of both Mendelsohn & Webb are on the panels at V.C. Corner.
Looking south east across Plot II, Fromelles village beyond. The villagers, I gather, were insistent that the cemetery was integrated with the village in position and design, and I trust they are very proud of their recent acquisition.
Private William Charles Tucker, Plot II F6, still remembered at V.C. Corner.
And of course, still the unknowns, these two unidentified men (above & below) in Plot II…
…both bearing the dual dates of 19th-20th July 1916.
Plot II Row F. Talking of numbers, which we weren’t, even with such a recent cemetery, some of the details are beginning to vary, depending on your source. This is what the CWGC website says; ‘Within Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery there are 219 Australians of which 75 are unidentified, 2 unidentified British soldiers and 29 entirely unidentified soldiers.’ Which, as we have seen, is no longer accurate.
However there are 153 entries for this cemetery on the CWGC Casualty Details List, so that clearly must have been updated. Four identified men served under an alias (okay, four aliases), and thus they are entered on the CWGC list twice (always worth remembering when checking figures, as is the fact that every ALIAS on the CWGC database is identified as coming from the United Kingdon, notwithstanding the reality. Really! Anyway, I digress.). So we have 149 identified men according to the CWGC, except that the most recent identifications, as we have seen, and as I have seriously checked, bring the total to 150. It appears that someone has gone missing! Again.
Whatever the figures…
…at least all these brave men have now had a proper burial, and are no longer just lost ‘somewhere in France’.
As we leave, it’s worth mentioning that although only two British soldiers, both unidentified, are buried here, and there were considerably fewer British, some of whom we have seen on our travels, than Australian casualties at the battle, many more British casualties of the battle are buried in the cemeteries at Laventie Military Cemetery, where over eighty men of the 61st (South Midland) Division who were killed or died of their wounds at Fromelles are buried, and at Aubers Ridge British Cemetery, where approximately 120 men of the division are buried, alongside a similar number of unidentified Australians also killed during the battle. The names of many of the missing can be found on the Loos Memorial, and a small number of British casualties who died of their wounds after the battle can be traced to cemeteries as far away as Boulogne Eastern Cemetery.
Unfortunately Baldrick & I have yet to visit any of them.
You might think, therefore, that this is the end of our tour of the Fromelles cemeteries…
…but you’d be wrong.
There is one more cemetery where many more Australian casualties from Fromelles are laid to rest, but for that we must travel some six miles north east of here, to Sailly-sur-la-Lys, where 5th Australian Divisional Headquarters was located during the battle. And I think we ought to visit Fromelles war memorial before we leave the village.
The story of the catastrophic events that took place at Fromelles is told in the Battle of Fromelles Museum (above), which opened in July 2014 as part of the Australian Remembrance Trail.
And of course one of the always useful CWGC information boards.
But we’ll leave the last words for the moment to a London lad, Alex from Lewisham (above), and the Reverend Catie Inches-Ogden, Senior Chaplain of the Australian Army at the time of the burials here, “When the sergeant is about to call his coffin bearers to march I look down at each coffin I have committed and I think of the mothers and fathers who never knew where their sons were buried.”
Next: Fromelles War Memorial.