The first major action by the AIF on the Western Front occurred near a small village in northern France called Fromelles. The battle was originally designed to prevent German reinforcements from moving south to the Somme. However, the plans and objectives for the battle changed regularly in the lead up and the final outcome was a poorly planned and executed debacle that cost the 5th Division of the AIF 5533 casualties including almost 2000 dead. This remains the single most bloody day in Australia's military history, yet until recently very few knew about this sad episode. Even the relatives of those who were lost in this battle new little of their fate or even where they died. Of those who died almost 1300 had no known grave. Many of these men died in ""No-Man's Land" and as such their remains lay exposed to the elements until after the war was over and they could be collected. But technology at that time did not allow for identification and these men were either laid to rest under a headstone marked "Known unto God" or, in the case of 410 of them, were buried together under roses in 2 mass graves at the VC Corner Australian Memorial near Fromelles. During the battle a number of men made it across no-man's land and in to the German lines. Many of these men were either captured or died here. Those that died were buried by the Germans in a series of mass graves at a place called "Pheasant Wood". Their remains lay undiscovered for over 90 years and, in 2009, 250 of them were carefully exhumed and examined for evidence of their identities.
During our first Connecting Spirits trip in 2006 we visited Fromelles to remember 2 men from Meningie who were killed during this action, William Bennett and Archibald Scott. Unbeknown to us at this time, the possible existence and site of a mass grave was being discussed in Canberra and London as we walked on the land where they bravely fought and died on that night so long ago.
In the two years between our first and second trip the site was agreed upon and an archeological team was given the task of excavating the area to determine if such a grave existed and if so how best to treat the remains of those buried there. By the time we arrived there on 5th December 2008, the excavations were complete and it had been decided to exhume the graves, attempt to identify as many of the remains as possible and rebury them in a new cemetery on land that had been donated to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. On this trip we again commemorated William and Archibald, as well as Arthur Brooks and Joseph Stead. We had also discovered that Raymond Pflaum had not died in November 1916, but had died during the battle or shortly after and may well be among those buried at Pheasant Wood. Joseph Stead had also been identified as possibly being among those buried there.
Friends of Connecting Spirits, Rod Bedford and Johan Durnez, attended the burial of the first of the 250 soldiers at the new cemetery in January 2010.
We look forward to returning to Fromelles later this year to be among the first to pay their respects at this new cemetery and to finally commemorate Raymond Pflaum and Joseph Stead at their gravesides. First time CS traveller Amanda Hartley will also be able to commemorate her relative Frank Loader.
There are a number of excellent books written about both the battle itself and the discovery of the mass burial at Pheasant Wood if you wish to learn more.
Lambis Englezos the man credited with the discovery of the remains being interviewed during the excavations