Remains of WW1 soldier found in mass grave identified by his DNA

Remains of WW1 soldier found in mass grave identified by his DNA

An Australian soldier killed in the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916 has been formally identified using a DNA sample from his living relatives.

Private Thomas William Francis is one of 5 Australians newly identified among the remains of 250 Australian and British soldiers exhumed from a mass grave near Fromelles, northern France, in 2009.

The Battle of Fromelles occurred between 19 and 20 July 1916 and was a combined operation between British troops and the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).  It was the first occasion that the AIF saw action on the Western Front, but it became “the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history” when 5,533 Australian soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner, along with 1,500 British soldiers.

The bodies of Allied soldiers killed in the area were buried by German troops in mass graves behind the German lines.  Most of these burial pits were discovered during the 1920s and the bodies re-interred in war cemeteries, but one mass grave in a field on the outskirts of Fromelles lay unmarked and forgotten, until it was identified by an Australian amateur historian, Lambis Englezos, in 2007.  Of the 250 skeletal remains recovered from the site in 2009, 203 were identified as Australian.

DNA samples were taken from the bodies before they were reburied in Fromelles Military Cemetery in 2010, and 124 of the samples have now been matched with those of their relatives.  Descendants have been vital to the identification process with over 3000 family members providing DNA samples, but still more are needed to identify the remaining soldiers.

New headstones will be erected for the 5 men, with a dedication ceremony to be held at the site on 19 July 2013, the 97th anniversary of the battle.

Private Tom Francis, from the city of Bendigo, in Victoria, Australia, was a single, 25 year-old grocer’s clerk when he volunteered for service in the AIF in July 1915.  When he was killed 12 months later, his father John, mother Edith and sister Elizabeth were informed that he was ‘missing’, as his body could not be accounted for.

It was only 12 months after that, in July 1917, that he was officially listed as ‘killed in action’ when his details were confirmed by a German Red Cross report and his personal effects, comprising letters and a note book, were sent from Germany to the War Office in London; then forwarded on to Tom’s father in Bendigo.

In 1921, Tom’s family received a copy of the pamphlet “Where Australians Rest”,  designed to bring comfort to the next of kin of members of the AIF who died on active service and were buried overseas.  The foreword to the pamphlet assured relatives that, “the authorities have been making every effort that not one soldier whose remains can be found on these old battlefields shall go without a soldier’s honourable burial.  Too often there is left no trace or clue to the soldier’s name.  Private or officer he lies there ‘an unknown soldier’.  Sometimes even the Germans so mark the graves of our soldiers.”

Tom Francis had to wait over 90 years for his “soldier’s honourable burial”, and for his modern day relative Helen Harper, it is ”a relief” to be able to lay to rest her father’s cousin.  Ms Harper, who also lives in Bendigo, said she would attend the service in France to ensure “he isn’t forgotten”.


The report confirming Pte Francis 'Killed in Action'
The report confirming Pte Francis ‘Killed in Action’


The personal effects of  Tom Francis were sent from Germany, via London, to his father in Australia
The personal effects of Tom Francis were sent from Germany, via London, to his father in Australia

Source:  Bendigo Advertiser

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