The descendants of the Missing soldiers of Fromelles are tantalisingly close to the resolution that has eluded them for 93 years. We must not fail them now in honouring the missing by identifying them and giving them an individual, named grave.
And it seems a pity that artificial deadlines will mean that the vast majority of the missing will be buried before they are identified, thus depriving their descendants of the chance to be present when they are interred in the new cemetery now being constructed across the road from the Fromelles Church.
Thanks to the unceasing work of Lambis Englezos and his supporters, around 250 individual remains have now been exhumed from the mass grave at Pheasant Wood, just below the village of Fromelles, where the Germans buried them after the Battle of Fromelles on July 19 1916.
I say this because it should not be forgotten that were it not for Lambis and his team’s dogged determination, the missing would still be languishing, unrecognised, in Flanders mud. Almost to a man, the authorities denied Lambis’ claims every step of the way – the same authorities which denied Lambis a meaningful role in the recovery process.
The current plan is that all the remains will be buried in the new cemetery on the anniversary of the battle next year – whether they have been identified or not. Those identified will be buried under an individual tombstone; those unidentified will be buried in an ‘unknown soldier’ grave, which will be changed to their name later should they be subsequently identified.
Last June, a British forensics firms was awarded a five-year contract to try to identify the missing soldiers. That means the process will continue through to 2014. Is it not possible to wait until remains are identified before burial so descendants can be present at that sacred ceremony.
For descendants like Tim Whitford, whose great uncle Harry Willis almost certainly lies amongst the Pheasant Wood missing, it has been a long and painful journey. Tim, a former Australian soldier himself, has played a leading role with Lambis Englezos in his quest to first discover the final resting place of the missing and then to identify them.
Harry Willis was a 20-year-old private from Gippsland who died in the disastrous attack that saw almost 2000 Australians killed and another 3500 wounded, missing or taken prisoner. Harry’s family, along with those of hundreds of his mates, have lived for almost a century without any knowledge of his final resting place.
Now we are so close to finding Harry Willis and his mates, surely we can grant them the honour of an individual funeral.