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Putting names to the lost soldiers of Fromelles (WWI) - BBC News


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Putting names to the lost soldiers of Fromelles


The first of the remains of 250 World War I soldiers found in France are being reburied
with military honours after painstaking efforts to identify them. How do you put the right
name on a headstone after so long?

When the first chipped and battle-scarred bones were excavated from a muddy field in
northern France last May, the story of the forgotten battle of Fromelles began to emerge.
The remains of 250 British and Australian soldiers had lain undiscovered for 93 years since
falling on the Western Front. Boots, purses, toothbrushes and other personal artefacts lay
amongst the twisted skeletons at Pheasant Wood, offering partial clues about the men's
identities. But it is the unique genetic codes within these remains that offer the best chance
of putting names to each unknown soldier.

So far, more than 800 UK families who think they may have lost a relative at Fromelles have
given DNA samples, but many will be disappointed. The man whose job it is to help identify
the soldiers says it is like finding a needle in a haystack, albeit with a very good metal detector.
"The problem with DNA that's been in the ground for 90 years is it degrades in quality and
quantity," says molecular geneticist Dr Peter Jones. "If it's a very acidic site, there's no chance
of DNA at all because acids attack DNA rapidly. If it's dry and arid like in a desert, you get good
DNA. If it's wet, less good."

The remains extracted from Fromelle's muddy burial pits have produced small but workable
amounts of DNA, says Dr Jones. The teeth, which preserve well because they are encased in
enamel, give by far the best samples. "The hardest part is finding the right families and getting
them to come forward... you can have good DNA profiles, but no family to match it up to."

Although 250 bodies have been recovered from the graves, it's thought about 1,500 British and
5,500 Australian troops fell in the battle, making it all the harder to match. And when it comes
to matching DNA samples across several generations, Dr Jones says the methods are far from
perfect. Unlike the seven "markers" used for more exact matches on the National DNA Database,
he only has two at his disposal - the Y (paternal) and mitrochondrial (maternal) profiles.

"If we had the children of the soldiers, we could use the same markers as the DNA database.
But because we are three generations away, the markers get diluted out through each mother
and father." Families searching for their ancestors have been asked to give maternal and
paternal samples - preferably two each - using a simple cheek swab. The DNA results will be
added to the anthropological, archaeological and historical information to try to get positive
identifications. Families will be told sometime after March, once the remains of all 250 soldiers
have been buried. Their final resting place will be a new war cemetery nearby, the first to be
built in 50 years.

The £3m project, funded by the British and Australian governments, is overseen by the
Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Waiting for news will be Richard Parker, 47, who has
spent 25 years trying to retrace the footsteps of his ancestor Leonard Twamley. His father's
uncle was just 19 when he volunteered for the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Six months later,
the 20-year-old died at Fromelles. "He was an ordinary working class lad from Coventry working
in a cycle factory, who gave his life because it was considered his patriotic duty to do so."

Although interested in Len's story since his 20s, Mr Parker did not know he was killed at Fromelles
until an amateur historian contacted him last year. Since then he has made a pilgrimage to the
French village with his father, who supplied DNA, along with Len's surviving nephews and nieces.
"Even if his body isn't found, in some respects his memory is even more alive now. By researching
what sort of person he was, we now know much more about him," Mr Parker says. "My grandmother
died without knowing where Len was buried... this would bring proper closure to a family tragedy that
goes back 95 years."

Unknown soldiers

The bodies that remain untraceable will be buried with a headstone marked simply "Known Unto God".
Dr Jones fears many will suffer this fate. He estimates the final number identified to be up to 100, but
more likely tens. Even if there is a DNA match, it may not necessarily be the right family because some
DNA profiles are relatively common. Adoptions, women who married and changed names, and paternity
issues can also throw a spanner in the works. Other families simply die out.

But a match can be made through cousins, nephews or nieces on the family line. So if a family is missing
a paternal link, they can trace the soldier's father, grandfather or brother, then locate their living relatives.
Dr Jones says one family went back seven generations on the maternal side then came forward five to find
a suitable relative. Forensic anthropologist Professor Margaret Cox says the team is so reliant on DNA matches
as 90% of British enlistment records were destroyed in the Blitz. And the painstaking methods of extracting
and cataloguing remains have been refined at the scenes of genocide and war crimes in Rwanda, the Balkans
and Iraq. As at those sites, the bodies recovered gave clues to their fate - in this case, fractured bones showing
damage from machine guns, rifles, mortar shells and shrapnel. But they were buried in deep graves with order
and respect. "You try not to imagine what it was like, it makes it difficult to do our work," she says, adding that
this is easier said than done at times.

What brought the tragedy home were the artefacts - the inscribed bibles and lucky charms. For her, the two
most poignant came from Australian soldiers. The first was a small lucky charm in the shape of a boomerang,
to symbolise returning home. The other was the return half of a railway ticket from Freemantle to Perth,
intended for the soldier's journey home to his family.
A Follow Up

"Fromelles dead offer reminder of 'preciousness of life'"

"...The new cemetery is the first built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) since World War II.

Its creation follows the discovery two years ago of the remains of the 250 men in a nearby communal grave, where they had been buried by their German counterparts.

As efforts using DNA tests are ongoing to try to identify the dead, they are honoured with the dedication of the cemetery on the battle's 94th anniversary.... "