A forgotten front of the Great War (4): Gaining a name through DNA

In a series of 6 blogs Wim Chielens discusses the ‘forgotten front’ of Ploegsteert (Belgium) and Fromelles (France), with photos by Michaël Depestele. This is part 4: Gaining a name through DNA.

So let us return to Pheasant Wood Cemetery, where I now read 120 Australian names on graves which have only stood here for a few years. It was Greek-Australian historian Englezos who first became intrigued by the figures from Fromelles. Calculations showed that more than 150 Australian bodies were still missing. Could they have simply been lost in the ground of northern France?

The solution to the mystery of Fromelles came from aerial photos. Thanks to those images, eight mass graves were discovered, and 250 bodies. This time they were identified not by nameplates or other identity documents but for the first time by the use of DNA. There was a call for blood relatives of the missing soldiers of Fromelles. For the Australians that specifically meant the descendents of the 1294 names on the wall at V.C. Corner. This has resulted in the identification of 120 Australians so far.

Walking on the grass of Pheasant Wood is a very special experience. How do you respond to the knowledge that your grandfather or great uncle died for a useless distraction manoeuvre? Fury, I would expect, bitterness, disgust! But no, this is my second surprise at this graveyard. I read the epitaphs and am astounded by the peace, even acceptance, as moving an application of this sentence as can be imagined: “I once was lost but now am found.” There is no sense of outrage to be found. Or perhaps just briefly, in this tender epitaph for lance corporal W.A. Craigie: “The sun’s shining down on green fields of France, warm winds blow gently, the red poppies dance.” It might first appear almost a bucolic poem but it comes from the song “No man’s Land” by Scottish-Australian singer-songwriter Eric Bogle. Bogle’s final verse cannot be misinterpreted:

Did you really believe them when they told you 'The Cause'?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain.

Anyone who has a fragment of this song chiselled onto a gravestone must know how the song ends.

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