Commemorating Those Lost in Battle

You might think that when an unknown soldier dies on the battlefield, his name will just be recorded on a list of ‘Missing in Action’ or his remains will be interred in a grave with a headstone simply marked as an “Unknown Soldier”. This is not always the case!

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Today I attended the annual commemoration of the Battle of Fromelles at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. I learned about the work of a specialist army unit – the Unrecovered War Casualties Unit (UWCU) which is staffed by specialist investigators, anthropologists and skilled forensic personnel..

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In 2009, a mass burial site was discovered in France and 250 bodies were recovered from a number of mass graves located behind nearby Pheasant Wood, where they had been buried by the Germans following the disastrous battle of Fromelles.This battle  took place on July 19-20, 1916, during World War I. It was fought between British and Australian forces against German troops in Fromelles, France. The battle was part of a diversionary attack to draw German attention away from the Battle of the Somme. However, it ended in a costly defeat for the Allies, with heavy casualties. It is remembered as one of the bloodiest battles in Australian military history.

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Before the commemoration service, I heard a talk given by the Fromelles Association (a volunteer organisation) who assist in Identifying soldiers from circumstances like this along with a Major who heads up the Army’s UWCU. He outlined the steps taken when the remains of a soldier are discovered anywhere in the world.

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Once a soldier’s remains are unearthed, the process of physically recovering these remains normally only takes a few days, depending on the location and environment of the recovery site. 

The first task is to use whatever fragments of information might be present that can be used to identify the nationality of the soldier – scraps of uniform, badges, buttons or just the location all help. The remains are then transferred to the care of the relevant government.

The investigation into the possible identity of a soldier is the longest, and most complex, part of the process. The remains are forensically examined to determine age, sex, height, ancestry, pre-existing injuries. Any artefacts recovered with remains are also examined.

This information is then cross-referenced with what could be thousands of paper records of soldiers who went missing in the same location. A short list of soldiers is developed, the families of these soldiers are sought out and potential DNA family reference sample donors are identified and samples obtained. Once DNA from the family is obtained, it is compared with the DNA profile of the recovered remains. The identification of soldiers may include:

  • DNA match although this isn’t always possible due to degradation of the remains
  • Artefacts (both military and personal)
  • Anthropological data
  • Dental records
  • Location of recovery.
  • Recorded information about the conflict at that site.

All of this work is done with the utmost respect. The goal is to give the soldier the dignity of a name and enable members of the family to have closure.I was so impressed with the care taken in trying to sensitively identify every individual. One hundred and seventy three bodies from the mass grave at Fromelles have now been identified.

I found it interesting to talk to people who attended today’s event. My grandfather’s unit (57th Battalion) was  held in reserve during that battle and that is probably the reason why he survived and I am here. Many participants were commemorating an uncle or grand uncle rather than a direct relative. The young men of their families did not live to return home and create their own family.


The commemoration service itself was conducted near the ‘Cobbers Statue’.After the battle was over, the British commanders refused to organise a truce with the enemy to recover the dead and wounded from no man’s land between the trench lines. The statue commemorates the bravery of Sergeant Simon Fraser, a wheat farmer from rural Victoria. He took it on himself to venture out from the trenches to rescue the injured and bring them back behind the lines for medical treatment. The name Cobbers comes from the Australian slang term of the day where ‘Cobber’ meant ‘Mate’ or ‘Buddy’. The significance of the statue comes from an unknown soldier calling out “Don’t forget me, Cobber” as The Australians worked to collect the wounded.

Fromelles Ceremony

The Battle of Fromelles holds great importance to Australia for several reasons. 

Firstly, it was the first major engagement of Australian forces on the Western Front during World War I. The battle marked the debut of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in a large-scale offensive operation. It was a significant moment in Australia’s military history and represented the commitment and sacrifice of Australian soldiers in the war.

Secondly, the battle had a devastating impact on the Australian forces. The high casualty rate, with over 5,500 Australian soldiers killed, wounded, or missing, deeply affected the nation. The loss of so many young men in such a short period of time (twenty four hours) had a profound and lasting impact on the Australian society and collective memory.

Thirdly, the Battle of Fromelles highlighted the shortcomings of military leadership and planning. The poor planning, inadequate reconnaissance, and lack of artillery support contributed to the failure of the attack. This led to subsequent reforms in the Australian military and a greater emphasis on training and preparation.

Lastly, the Battle of Fromelles has gained significance in recent years due to efforts to properly commemorate and honor the soldiers who fought and died there.



One thought on “Commemorating Those Lost in Battle”

  1. Thanks Bruce always enlightening to expand on war history

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