On Monday I attended a Dedication & Burial Service at the new Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery in Northern France.
Fromelles is a small village close to Lille and was the site of a major battle on 19th July 1916. Two divisions of Australian and British infantrymen attacked a four thousand yard section of the German front line centred on the Sugar-Loaf salient strong point near the village. Advancing over unfavourable terrain, in clear view of the expectant German defenders, they suffered terrible casualties in a matter of minutes. There was vicious hand to hand fighting. It is believed that Adolf Hitler himself participated in the Battle.
The Australians had 5,533 killed, wounded and missing; the British reported 1,547 killed, wounded and missing. No tactical advantages resulted from this action.
Fromelles Military Cemetery is the first new war cemetery to be built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for fifty years. I became involved with the project during my time as the Minister for Veterans. The discovery of the communal graves at Pheasant Wood came about from research undertaken by an Australian, Mr. Lambis Englezos. I visited the area in 2008 to see the opening of six pits where 250 dead soldiers had been buried at Pheasant Wood just a few metres from the new Military Cemetery.
From viewing some of the pits it was clear that a large number of the bodies had just been thrown in and not buried properly. I quickly came to the conclusion that these brave soldiers should receive a proper burial in individual graves. I spoke with my Australian counterpart and we agreed that the remains of the 250 soldiers would be carefully recovered and buried in a new cemetery. It was further agreed that DNA data would be carefully considered in an attempt to positively identify the bodies or establish the army in which they served.
It was with some pride that I was able to attend the dedication of the new cemetery and see the results of the decision I had took over two years ago. It was a very moving ceremony attended by the Prince of Wales and over four thousand people on a beautiful sunny day.
The new cemetery is worthy of the sacrifices made by these men and will become a place of dignified pilgrimage and remembrance for generations to come.