Mystery of Great War's lost army uncovered - TelegraphThis story might be of interest to those of you interested in the Aussie troops in the Great War
Mystery of Great War's lost army uncovered
By Jasper Copping, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 1:46am BST 23/07/2007
They made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, hurling themselves from the trenches before vanishing in a hail of German bullets so thick that it was described by one witness as a "crisscrossed lattice of death".
Fromelles field: Mystery of Great War's lost army uncovered
Now, more than 90 years after hundreds of British and Commonwealth soldiers died and disappeared in the First World War killing fields of northern France, historians believe they have found several mass graves containing the remains of the "lost army".
The find is the biggest of its kind since the end of the Great War and may lead to the discovery of 399 soldiers who were killed but whose bodies were never found and the building of the first new British war cemetery since the Sixties.
Of the dead, 239 are thought to be from the British 61st Division and 160 from the Australian 5th Division.
The soldiers perished in an Allied attack at Fromelles, 10 miles from Lille, which was fought 91 years ago last week. The battle, in which Adolf Hitler, then a 27-year-old corporal in the Bavarian reserve infantry, is believed to have fought, was intended to divert German attention and troops away from the Battle of the Somme, the main offensive which was raging 50 miles to the south.
The attack on heavily fortified German positions on July 19/20, 1916 was, however, a disaster, leaving 5,500 Australian and 1,500 British troops dead or injured.
The missing 399 troops were known to be among the dead because their bodies were recovered by the Germans and their names and personal belongings passed to their families via the Red Cross. However, their final resting place remained a mystery, despite repeated attempts to locate them.
Now, however, after scouring German wartime archives in Munich and carrying out extensive surveys of the area around Fromelles using geophysics, radar, topographic surveys and metal detectors, historians from Glasgow University's Archaeology Centre for Battlefield Studies are confident they have found the "lost army".
Dr Tony Pollard, the centre's director, said: "These men were lost to history. If you walked across the field you wouldn't have a clue that there are 400 men lying under your feet.
"The German archives proved very illuminating and cast new light on the site. We now have an order from the commander of the Bavarian troops in the area that grave pits were to be dug to accommodate 400 Allied dead and our survey has identified exactly where these pits are. We think the bodies are still in there. There is nothing to suggest they were ever moved."
Among the soldiers believed buried in one of the graves is Percy Charles Bliss, an 18-year-old private in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who enlisted a year before the battle after lying about his age. His nephew, Roy Bliss, 71, from Balcombe, West Sussex, said: "The family always thought he had died at the Somme, but this battle was quite different."
While researching his own family history, Allan Bowden, 57, from Calne, Wiltshire, discovered that his grandfather's cousin, John Charles Bowden, a second lieutenant in the 59th Battalion of the Australian Army, had also fought in the battle and was listed as missing presumed dead.
Mr Bowden, who attended a service near Fromelles to mark the battle's anniversary on Friday, said: "We now presume John is one of these people under the ground. These guys have been laying in this hole for 91 years. I would like to see them exhumed and given a proper resting place."
The graves lie in a field, next to an area called Pheasant Wood, which is owned by a woman who lives in Fromelles and rented out to a tenant farmer.
During the war, Fromelles formed part of the German front line and, with the villagers displaced, there was no one to record the site of the mass grave.
The historians have -presented their findings to the House of Lords War Graves and Battlefield Heritage Group and the Australian government, which commissioned the search.
If the governments approve the project, further tests will be conducted to establish exactly what the graves contain and assess the feasibility of removing the bodies so they can be re-interred in a new war cemetery. Because so many soldiers are believed to be in the graves, a new site would have to be established.
Peter Barton, a historian and author who is also part of the team, said: "The idea ultimately is to recover the bodies. The Germans recorded all the details and took all their personal belongings from them. That's how we know about them."
French authorities have been informed of the discovery and will decide whether to grant a piece of land nearby to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the men to be reburied.
The previous largest recent find of British soldiers buried together was 27 men discovered in 1998 near Arras.