Ministry of Defence
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DNA tests begin on remains of hundreds of WW1 soldiers

DNA tests begin on remains of hundreds of WW1 soldiers

News Release issued by the COI News Distribution Service on 07 August 2009

DNA tests will commence this week on the remains of hundreds of British and Australian World War I soldiers discovered in northern France – the largest undertaking to identify individuals killed in combat ever commissioned.

In a joint announcement with his Australian counterpart Greg Combet, British Defence Minister Kevan Jones has confirmed that a full DNA testing programme will be conducted to identify the remains so that these soldiers can be “laid to rest with the dignity they deserve”.

The group burial in Fromelles was confirmed during a limited excavation in May 2008 and it is thought that between 250-300 Australian and British soldiers were buried there by German forces after the Battle of Fromelles.

The Battle of Fromelles began on 19 July 1916 and was the first major battle on the Western Front to involve both British and Australian troops. In total, the 61st British Division suffered losses of 1,547 either killed, wounded, taken prisoner or missing and the 5th Australian Division suffered 5,533 similar losses.

The decision to start full-scale DNA testing has been made after a successful pilot study which tested a cross section of the Fromelles remains. Samples were taken from the teeth and bones of remains found in different parts of the burial sites to assess the overall quality and quantity of DNA that could be expected to be obtained.

A full archaeological excavation of the site is expected to be completed by the end of September and an identification board will convene in March 2010 to consider the available evidence that may lead to the identification of individual soldiers.

Veterans Minister Kevan Jones said:

“This is an important step forward in the process of trying to identify the WW1 soldiers buried at Fromelles. DNA is just one part of the identity puzzle and our experts will be examining all available evidence in their attempts to confirm the identities of these men. Each one of these soldiers will be laid to rest with the dignity they deserve and we owe it to them to do all we can to identify them.”

Greg Combet, the Australian Minister for Defence Personnel, Materiel & Science, said:

“It is a great result that viable DNA has been obtained. The delicate condition of the remains, the soil surrounding them and high water table have made the experts’ job extremely difficult. Every one of these men will be given a dignified burial with full military honours. Putting names on their headstones is an additional benefit.”

Anyone who believes they may be related to a soldier killed at Fromelles should contact the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre by calling 01452 712612, extension 6303, or by emailing Fromelles@spva.mod.uk Families already registered will be contacted with details about the DNA testing process.

Notes to Editors

1. Photographs of artefacts discovered so far and recent images of work in progress at the Fromelles site are available on the Defence News Imagery (DNI) website at www.dni.mod.uk including footage for broadcast.

2. The full list of names of Australian and British servicemen who may be among those buried at Fromelles is available on the Fromelles Project web site www.cwgc.org/fromelles

3. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is overseeing the work on behalf of both the British and Australian Governments, who are sharing the cost of the excavation and the initial DNA investigations.

4. The DNA pilot phase and the full testing programme is being carried out by LGC Forensics. www.lgcforensics.com

5. For further information, contact Tom Bennett, Ministry of Defence Press Office, 0207 218 5083, or Australian Defence Media Liaison, +61 (0)2 6265 3343 or +61 (0)408 498 664.

Contacts:

Ministry of Defence
NDS.MOD@coi.gsi.gov.uk

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