Iodine ampoule : Pheasant Wood mass grave, Fromelles

Place Europe: France, Nord Pas de Calais, Nord, Lille, Fromelles
Accession Number REL44975.004
Collection type Heraldry
Object type Heraldry
Physical description Chemicals, Glass
Location Main Bld: First World War Gallery: Western Front 1916: Pheasant Wood
Maker Unknown
Date made c 1915-1916
Conflict First World War, 1914-1918

Hand blown glass ampoule containing iodine. For use with a first field dressing.

History / Summary

Intact iodine ampoule found with the remains of an unknown soldier in the Pheasant Wood mass grave at Fromelles. The ampoule came from a first field dressing carried by the soldier into battle - the accompanying gauze, cotton wadding and packaging having disintegrated in the grave.

Fromelles was the first major battle fought by Australian troops on the Western Front. Directed against a strong German position known as the Sugar Loaf salient, the attack was intended primarily as a feint to draw the Germans from the main Somme offensive, then being pursued further to the south. A seven-hour preparatory bombardment deprived the attack of any hope of surprise, and ultimately proved ineffective in subduing the well-entrenched defenders.

When the troops of the 5th Australian and 61st British Divisions attacked at 6pm on 19 July 1916, they suffered heavy losses at the hands of German machine-gunners. Small sections of the German trenches were captured by the 8th and 14th Australian Brigades, but, without flanking support and subjected to fierce counter-attacks, they were forced to withdraw. By 8am on 20 July the battle was over. The 5th Australian Division suffered 5,533 casualties, rendering it incapable of offensive action for many months; the 61st British Division suffered 1,547. German casualties were little more than 1,000. The attack was a complete and costly failure as the Germans realised within a few hours it was merely a feint, and made no impact whatsoever upon the progress of the Somme offensive.

The mass grave was discovered during an archaeological dig in May 2008. The dig revealed conclusive evidence of the bodies of hundreds of Australian and British servicemen. The following year the bodies were recovered and, in 2010, were reburied with full military honours in the newly constructed Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery.

Identification of the bodies proved difficult. Many of the objects that would identify them have decayed and disappeared over the last 90 years. DNA has been used to successfully identify of a number of the soldiers, though many may remain unknown.