The last of 250 World War One soldiers killed in the Battle of Fromelles was laid to rest in a ceremony yesterday at the first Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery built in Europe for 50 years.
The new cemetery, built near the site of the battle in northern France, was dedicated in the ceremony by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales.
The soldiers were recently discovered in mass graves, and yesterday’s ceremony, on the 94th anniversary of the battle, marks the end of a two-year project to give them a fitting final place of rest.
The ceremony began when the coffin of the last soldier was borne out of Pheasant Wood, location of the original graves, on a WWI Mark X General Service Wagon pulled by horses from the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery.
The procession journeyed through the village of Fromelles, and was joined by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales and Her Excellency The Governor-General of Australia, Quentin Bryce, along with Chief of the General Staff, General Sir David Richards, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, Australian Chief of Army, and soldiers from the British and Australian Armies.
Defence Minister Lord Astor, who attended the service, said:
Today saw the last of the 250 WWI Battle of Fromelles soldiers honoured with the dignity of an individual burial.
“So far we have been able to identify by name 96 of these soldiers and many others have been confirmed as having served in the Australian and British Army. It is hoped that over the next four years we can determine the names of more.”
The service was attended by hundreds of members of British and Australian families whose relatives were killed in the battle.
Many took part in the service, reading extracts from letters and diaries from those they lost.
The coffin was borne by soldiers from the British and Australian armies, and a joint firing party fired three shots, followed by a one minute silence.
Wreaths were then laid by HRH The Prince of Wales, Her Excellency Quentin Bryce, and Monsieur Hubert Falco, the French Minister of State for Defence and Veterans, and the cemetery was dedicated by His Royal Highness.
Chief of the General Staff, General Sir David Richards, said:
The British and Australian soldiers who fought and died at the Battle of Fromelles faced tremendous adversity. This splendid new cemetery is a moving tribute to them all, and will serve as a reminder of their sacrifice for generations to come.
HRH The Duke of Kent, President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said:
It is right and fitting that these men - comrades, allies, and even two brothers - lie side by side in this beautiful cemetery - the first new war cemetery to be built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in fifty years. They are lost no longer, and are here at last, at peace.
Reverend Mitchell Collins from Fife, grandson of Private Mitchell Collins of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment who was killed in the Battle of Fromelles, said:
My father grew up never having met his father, so the Battle of Fromelles will leave an indelible mark on our family.
Although we have not yet been able to identify Private Collins as one of the soldiers buried here, I am hoping that over the next few years new evidence will come to light which will help us to do so.
The ceremony today was very moving for my family, and a fitting tribute to those who fell in the battle.
The Battle of Fromelles began on 19 July 1916, 19 days after the opening of the Somme campaign, and was the first major battle on the Western Front involving Australian troops.
The 5th Australian Division suffered losses of 5,533 either killed, wounded, taken prisoner or missing; and the 61st British Division suffered 1,547 similar losses.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s records suggest that between 19 and 20 July 1916 the Australian dead at Fromelles amounted to 1,780, the British 503.