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Exhuming memory: The Fallen at Fromelles

Exhuming memory: The Fallen at Fromelles

It has been going on since the summer of 2007, when a mass grave of four hundred soldiers was found near the site of the Battle of Fromelles. The battle was an unmitigated and needless slaughter, particularly for the Australians. Some 5,500 losses, an assortment of killed, captured and wounded, were registered, along with 2000 British troops. But it was a time when industrialised mass murder on the battlefield was natural and what European countries did best. Peace was a punishable sin, and killing virtuous. Tony Pollard, head of the team surveying the site, noted that the brutal encounters at Fromelles were ‘overshadowed by the Somme in Britain.’

The battle itself, waged on a day in July 1916, is known, not merely for its stupidity and its astonishing waste of life, but for the small role played by a 27-year-old corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler. As the Australians of the devastated 5th Division were left to return back through German lines after a failed assault, Hitler was doing his murderous part for the 6th Bavarian reserve regiment.

Why the interest in this particular mass grave? It is, say those keen diggers from Glasgow University’s Centre for Battlefield Archaeology, one of the largest of its kind not to have resulted in genocide. But, despite this assertion, the principles of mass murder remain: nations keen to slaughter their young in time for a Christmas armistice have their own intentions and designs on the living.

Then there is the search to match faces to bodies, however unrecognisable. The desire to particularise death can be an acute sentiment. The wonders of DNA technology are being deployed with much industry. Of 203 Australians found so far, 75 have been identified. Descendants of the dead have been asked to contact such organisations as the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre.

The Illawarra Mercury (19 Mar) rushed out a piece the moment two men from its part of the world were identified. Private Robert Gladstone Fenwick of Helensburg and Kiama-born John Parker were the two on that occasion. Then there are those minute samples of memory and evidence of a life away from war - those return tickets found amongst the remains, the bits of life that would have mattered had these young men ever returned home.

Private Harry Willis, killed in action in Fromelles

Private Harry Willis, whose photo reveals a stubby looking fellow with moon shaped face, did not have much on his remains in terms of identification. He did have two horse-shoe shaped medallions, samples intended for good luck. And a bullet wound through his jaw received during his deployment as a member of a Lewis Gun crew. Willis’s great nephew Tim Whitford was beside himself with the identification. Memories came back from the family circle, of Willis as a humble, cheery farm boy employed in a local tannery, jolted into action by the receipt of a white feather. How dare he not enlist after the bloodbath at Gallipoli? His grandmother had a quick response to the news of Willis’s identification: ‘What took them so long?’


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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