Since early May archaeologists have been unearthing the remains of some 250 soldiers who died on one night in 1916 at Fromelles in northern France. For the course of the first world war, the battle was irrelevant, but nearly 3,000 men died, among them some 2,000 Australians and 500 Britons. Eight grave pits dug by German soldiers for some of their attackers’ bodies were recently located, and a unique team was assembled to examine them.
There has never been a project quite like this. It is, says Margaret Cox, exactly how the site of a human atrocity should be investigated – and she should know, she co-edited the book on the scientific investigation of mass graves. Yet there has been criticism in Australia (where there has been considerably more interest in the project than here in the UK): the site should not be dug, the DNA analyses should not be conducted and (as Robin Corfield, author of a book on the Battle of Fromelles, has put it) the whole thing is “some pathetic cost-cutting amateur excavation that finds it necessary to lock down the site, censor information and learns nothing from previous work”.
Almost none of the protestors has seen the excavation. I have (courtesy, it should be said, of Oxford Archaeology who are running the field project). I am in no doubt that for standards of excavation, recording and analysis, the Fromelles project is in a class of its own – and as a practising archaeologist and journalist, I’ve seen a few digs in my time. My guides, who included Air Commodore Steve Martin (head of Australian defence staff in London), Louise Loe (OA’s head of heritage burial services) and Cox, were at pains to tell me that this was a humanitarian task, not archaeology. But the techniques are archaeological, and should be judged as such. They pass with honour.
I was moved to write about this at greater length, and I’ll let you know when (if) I have been able to place the piece in a publication. The photo shows the indomitable Martial Delebarre, in the attic museum at the town’s Mairie. He is talking about an extraordinary artefact. Adolf Hitler survived the Battle of Fromelles, and when he returned to the entirely rebuilt town in 1942, was celebrated with this plaque. When the second war ended, it was thrown down, but was later pieced together by local historians.