Wartime 44 - Feature Article: Another brick in the wall

It has been a long and complex process to prove the existence of a mass grave containing Australian and British soldiers buried in 1916 by the Germans after the battle of Fromelles.

By Nigel Steel

Professor Peter Simkins, one of Britain’s leading military historians, once remarked that history is like building a wall. Each new book or article adds to the strength and stature of the whole, and no single one is more important than those around it. It is the total size that is important – what we know and understand.

The aftermath of the battle, showing the bodies of Australian men covered with blankets, 20 July 1916.A01560

For more than a decade now Lambis Englezos has been building his wall, driven by his passionate commitment to the “missing” of Fromelles. Others, professionals and amateurs alike, have played their part, but many of these have been inspired and informed by Englezos’s research and unwavering conviction. The result – Englezos’s wall – is a remarkable achievement, leading to the discovery of the “missing” of Fromelles in May 2008.

A selective outline of the long and complex historical research process is given by Patrick Lindsay in Fromelles (2007), but a full and objective account is unlikely to be written for some time. My intention here is to highlight some key stages along the journey of discovery. It began, as it always should, with a series of questions. The subsequent process of research and archaeological investigation has answered a lot of these, though many still remain unanswered.

Englezos’s interest in Fromelles dates back to the late 1980s. He became perplexed by the nature of this shocking battle that has few, if any, mitigating features. In 1992 he helped to found the Friends of the 15th Brigade, an AIF unit drawn from Victoria. With other Friends, Englezos got to know Victorian veterans of the First World War and Fromelles in particular. He continued to read about the battle, and in 1996 he made the first of many visits to France.

It was in 2002 at VC Corner Cemetery, just outside Fromelles, that he first began to ask himself why so many of the Australian dead from the battle were unaccounted for. There are unknown soldiers buried the length and breadth of the Western Front. But something about the numbers at Fromelles began to eat away at Englezos.

VC Corner Cemetery holds the remains of 410 Australian soldiers found and interred after the war. It proved impossible to identify “even a single body” so they were placed in collective graves. Instead of individual headstones, two large crosses were set into the ground to honour the nameless dead. Overlooking the graves, a memorial wall recorded the initial 1,299 Australians missing, presumed dead, from the battle of 19–20 July 1916. Five of this number were later found and identified in the 1920s, reducing the number of Australian “missing” to 1,294.

Englezos began to question the idea that the “missing” had simply disappeared. He established that, in addition to the 410 unknown burials at VC Corner, there were unknowns from the battle buried in cemeteries like Rue David (266) and Ration Farm (142), Rue Petillon (22) and Y Farm (72). But even then, something did not seem to add up. Englezos began to do the maths.

There were 1,131 unknowns buried in the region of Fromelles; 1,294 remained on the memorial at VC Corner. Where were the “missing” 163 men? Were they buried some distance from Fromelles, and thus absent from the received number of unknown burials. That seemed unlikely. If so, were they still there, undiscovered, close to the place where they had died?

Englezos began an energetic process of research and investigation. His zeal inspired others to join him, like John Fielding, Ward Selby and Robin Corfield, author of Don’t forget me, cobber, a detailed account of the battle. They became a formidable team and undertook meticulous research, scouring documentation and following any new lead they could find.

Gradually they built up a picture that suggested the Germans had buried a significant number of Australian and British dead after the battle. They found references in written accounts, including the regimental history, published in 1923 by Generalmajor Julius Ritter von Braun of the Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 21 (RIR21) that had defended the centre of the line during the battle. There were photographs of the dead being carried on light railway wagons. Aerial photographs, taken before and after the battle, showed that eight pits had been dug behind the battlefront only days after the fighting. Of the eight pits, five were filled quickly, with three remaining open for the rest of the war.

Wartime Red Cross records, compiled in an attempt to account for each of the missing, showed that about 160 Australians were buried by the Germans after the battle, with a number of records specifically referring to burials behind Pheasant Wood. The eight pits in the aerial photographs were located just behind the wood. Combined, the evidence suggested that a mass burial had been carried out by the Germans behind Pheasant Wood in the days following the battle. Had this burial been missed by the battlefield clearance teams after the war? Was it still there?

This growing hypothesis was first made public in 2003. Others became involved, supporting and enhancing the work of Englezos and his colleagues. Chris Bryett, a Sydney lawyer, formed an association called Recovering Overseas Australia’s Missing Inc (ROAM). Public interest grew, along with political pressure on the government to take some kind of official action.

If strong circumstantial evidence suggests that unrecovered bodies might be those of Australian soldiers, then the army is obliged to investigate. The Army History Unit (AHU), headed by Roger Lee, was told to look into the growing body of claims being made about Pheasant Wood. In June 2005 the AHU convened a panel of investigation to consider the claims: it comprised representatives from bodies such as the Office of Australian War Graves and leading Australian military historians, including Bill Gammage, Jeffrey Grey and Peter Stanley.

Lambis Englezos, John Fielding and Ward Selby presented their evidence, but despite the depth of their research, the panel emained unconvinced. That is the job of a historian – to remain sceptical until clearcut, incontrovertible proof has been found.

The panel knew that the effort made by the battlefield clearance teams had been thorough. They found it hard to believe a documented grave of this size would have been missed; even the evidence that there had been mass burials was considered to be sketchy. Englezos and his colleagues were able to offer no firm proof that the men buried there had not been recovered, just that this might be the case. The evidence was not yet strong enough to justify a more detailed investigation of the site.

The remains of some of the barbed wire entanglements that stood in the path of the 15th Brigade’s advance at Fromelles. This photograph was taken at war’s end.E03968

For more than 12 months Englezos and his colleagues went back to work. They gathered more evidence, each small piece, like the slow drip of a tap, increasing the likelihood the bodies had not been recovered. One new clue came through contact with the family of one of the missing, Lieutenant Eric Chinner. His family sent Englezos copies of correspondence between Chinner’s brother, Mervyn, and Charles Bean, the Australian official historian, in the 1920s. Bean tried both in 1916 and 10 years later to establish what might have happened to Eric Chinner. In September 1927 he relayed information from the Australian Imperial War Graves Commission representative in France, Major G.L. Phillips, that Chinner had apparently been buried by the Germans at Delangre Farm and later moved to VC Corner – and also referred to the published history of the Bavarian RIR21.

In July 2005 Englezos met the British historian Peter Barton, who was co-secretary of the All Party Parliamentary War Graves and Battlefield Heritage Group, headed by Lord Faulkner. Barton stressed to Englezos that he believed the key to unlocking the mystery lay in the untapped resources of the Bavarian regimental archives. He encouraged Englezos to explore them once again. If any substantive new evidence was found, Barton promised to raise the matter with the All Party Group.

The AHU’s panel had also recommended another look at the archive records held in Bavaria. A request was sent for a search to be made for any files relating to Fromelles. It was a year before a reply came, but it was worth the wait. In September 2006 Roger Lee received a copy of an original document written by von Braun, then a colonel commanding RIR21. It ordered the construction of mass graves for up to 400 “English” soldiers behind Pheasant Wood and set out in detail the procedures for burying them. This document changed everything. As agreed, Lee set about reconvening the AHU panel. At the same time in Britain, Barton prepared to present both the new evidence and Englezos’s original body of work to the All Party Group. In December 2006 matters finally came to a head.

When the panel met again, they were presented with the new evidence and a proposal by ROAM to mount a private speculative exploration of the Pheasant Wood site. It was agreed that the burials had taken place at Pheasant Wood, but there was still no clear evidence to show that the bodies had not already been recovered. The documents relating to Chinner confirmed that the Australian Graves Service (AGS), which was responsible for recovering Australian dead between 1919 and 1921, was fully aware of burials around Pheasant Wood; this suggested they were unlikely to have overlooked such a large mass grave.

The available evidence could not justify a full-scale excavation, but the panel recommended instead a preliminary, non-invasive archaeological survey of the Pheasant Wood site, using sophisticated geophysics. Without actually undertaking a dig, the physical characteristics of the ground could be established to determine whether or not burial pits had been dug and if they had, whether they appeared to have been opened up again after the war. The aim was not to recover any bodies, but to determine the probability they might still be there.

Men of the 53rd Battalion, AIF, in the front line a few minutes before “hopping the bags” to start their attack, Fromelles, 19 July 1916. H16396

In London Barton explained the evidence to the All Party Group; he also did some maths of his own. The newly-found German order required graves to hold up to 400 “English” dead, and it was agreed that only about 160 Australians were missing; then surely the remaining 240 men buried at Pheasant Wood must be the dead of the British 61st Division, which had attacked alongside the 5th Australian Division. For every two dead Australians in the grave, there were likely to be three British: it was no longer just an Australian issue. Lord Faulkner began to mobilise political interest in Britain, just as the Australian research was being fed back into the same high circles in Australia.

During the previous year Englezos had already been in touch with Tony Pollard, Director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow. Pollard was an acknowledged expert in battlefield archaeology and had recently pioneered the use of multiple, comparative geophysics, including magnetometry, ground-penetrating radar, resistivity and metal scatter pattern analysis, to explore other First World War sites. Based in Europe and well versed in the Western Front, a team from Glasgow University’s Archaeological Research Division (GUARD), led by Pollard, seemed a sensible choice for a geophysical survey in France, with further archive research in Germany to be carried out by Barton.

A full geophysical survey of the Pheasant Wood site was made in May 2007. The GUARD team confirmed that eight pits had been dug there. The metal scatter pattern suggested that these had not been disturbed since the fighting had passed over them in 1918, shortly before the end of the war. Two small objects found on the edge of the site established a clear Australian association. The balance of probability had finally turned. Combined with the documentary evidence collected by Englezos over the years, it now appeared that the Germans had buried the dead from the battle behind Pheasant Wood and the bodies might still be there.

In May 2008, GUARD conducted a limited excavation of the Pheasant Wood site, cutting exploratory trenches across the surface of the pits. Nothing was removed; no bodies were exhumed. This was not the point of the exercise. It was simply intended to confirm once and for all whether a mass grave, containing several hundred of the missing of Fromelles, was still there. It was.

The results were extraordinary. There, for the first time in more than 90 years, the dead of the battle could be seen. A mix of Australian and British soldiers, they had been buried by the Germans in the aftermath of the battle. Yet three years later, when so many of their mates had been located and reburied within the dignity of an Imperial War Graves Commission cemetery, they had been overlooked. What had happened?

As the excavation was being prepared, the archive work continued. I was given a lead by a researcher at the Australian War Memorial. I found that in reply to a letter written by Bean in January 1925, Major Phillips had forwarded a two-page statement, dated February 1925, entitled “Australian Remains found at Fromelles”. Giving map references to locations from where the bodies had been gathered, it referred to reburials in cemeteries such as Rue Petillon, Y Farm and Rue David, as well as briefly explaining the background to VC Corner. The statement ends: About 3 years ago … there was many surface indication [sic] of very heavy death-toll and traces everywhere of bodies blown to pieces. A great number must still be in the ground and too deep to be located by ploughing or probing.

The statement contains no reference to Pheasant Wood, or the map reference of the mass grave.

Later a colleague and I found another letter in Bean’s files that no one had seen. In December 1927, Major Phillips replied again to Bean’s questions raised on behalf of Mervyn Chinner. Phillips explained: Delangre Farm and Pheasant Copse are in the Area which was covered by the Australian Graves Department in their search for isolated graves. They re-buried the unknowns in V.C. CORNER AUSTRALIAN CEMETERY. (This is correct as this work was carried out under my personal instructions.) … The map references are as follows:- DELANGRE FARM 36.N.10.d.15.20, PHEASANT COPSE (centre of wood) 36.N.17.c.2.3. The unknown bodies buried in V.C. CORNER AUSTRALIAN CEMETERY were recovered from map squares 36.N.6.9 and 10. Those reburied in RUE DAVID MILITARY CEMETERY (approximately 240) came from 36.N.9.c.6.8, and of these 115 were found in one trench grave and 49 in another.

These documents confirmed that the AGS did carry out meticulous searches of the Fromelles area. The AGS found and reburied many Australian bodies, and no doubt soldiers of other nationalities too.

But for some reason they did not find the grave at Pheasant Wood. Possibly the clue lies in the map reference: 36.N.17.c.2.3, which is the centre of the wood (as Phillips states). The grave is a short distance behind the wood at 36.N.17.c.3.1. Maybe this will eventually explain it all: the AGS looked in the wood for graves, but not behind it. Although the “missing” 400 have now been found and will soon be laid quietly to rest, there is still much to be found out and explained. The story is far from over.

Text © the Author