Last year was wonderful year for our missing Diggers from three world wars: Jim Bourke and his team brough home the last of our remaining six missing Vietnam vets, the HMAS Sydney was finally located and we confirmed that the mass graves at Pheasant Wood contained the remains of the missing soldiers from Fromelles.
The task of identifying the missing Fromelles Diggers is underway. But is it too little and perhaps too late?
The man behind the discovery of the Pheasant Wood missing, Lambis Englezos, is deeply concerned at the way the process of identification is heading. He, and many others, are also concerned at the paucity of detailed information emanating from the investingating team.
"There is a joint ownership, it is not blood specific. It has been suggested to me that the descendants are our constituents. With the recovery work at Pheasant Wood, I would suggest that our constituents are the soldiers of Pheasant Wood," Lambis says.
"Each of the soldiers will receive the dignity of individual reburial and hopefully, their identity. I believe that every effort should be made to identify as many of the soldiers as possible. To that end, I suggest that, if LGC Forensics don't get viable DNA from particular soldiers, then we should go back and re-sample them before their final burial. I ask that a full range of samples be taken, including load bearing bones, for example the femur and toe, and that those samples be sent elsewhere for testing. We can't be held back by a restrictive tender process, professional pride or the dollar. We must do everything we possibly can to get viable DNA from each set of remains. We must maximise the chances of identification."
And that's thre central question at this stage: are we doing everything to maximise the chances of identifying the remains found at Pheasant Wood?
Lambis again: "Given the veracity of the German list, I had hoped that donor samples could have been taken earlier. Once the decision was made to recover, samples could have been taken and sent over for matching, prior to the sitting of the Panel and before the soldiers are reburied. I'm not a descendant, however, if I was, I'd rather be given the opportunity to be there for the burial of my soldier, rather than be there for the changing of a headstone. Maybe it has all been too hasty, too neat. The process continues, research is fluid and ongoing. There has been a lot of speculation, perhaps misinformation, this has been amplified by what some might say is a lack of transparency and inclusiveness."
"We are guessing that the majority of the 250 recoveries are Australian, especially if the pattern of recovery from the first three pits was repeated in the remaining pits. As was suggested, they were not all at Pheasant Wood. The question of alternative sites is apparent. It has been contended that there is an even bigger British site behind the Wick Salient. If there are 25 British among the Pheasant Wood recoveries, there are as many as 306 ''missing'' British from the 19-7-16 battle. The ''missing'' of the 9-5-15 battle of Aubers Ridge are also to be considered."
Lambis and his team forced the hand of the bureaucrats over Pheasant Wood. They encountered a solid wall of negativity and skepticism when they initially tried to persude them to investigate their claims. Without their tenacity and the weight of their research, the Fromelles missing would still be languishing unrecognised behind the wood at the foot of the town.
The bureaucrats are now concerned that Pheasant Wood has set a precedent that could open the floodgates for other discoveries of war dead. To me that's not even a consideration: we have a unbreakable moral obligation to recover our war dead, to try every means within our power to identify them and to give them a dignified individual burial
Lambis has no doubt: "What I saw at Pheasant Wood was certainly very grim and confirmed for me that they were not at rest. We had to recover. We have a moral obligation, it offers dignity, hope, identity, ownership and pilgrimage. If our ''missing'' can be found, they should be recovered. The passage of time has not diminished our obligation, our honouring of their sacrifice. They will be restored."
On a positive note, it's possible that Tim Whitford's great uncle, Harry Willis, may be one of those who is identified by DNA matching with his descendants. Harry Willis' medallion was one of the first artefacts found during the original non-invasive examination of the Pheasant Wood site in 2007 and was one of the items confirming the presence of Australian remains in the graves. The Army's team of experts has asked for DNA samples from Harry Willis' surviving niece, Tim Whitford's grandmother, Marjorie Whitford from Yarram, Victoria.
The Army is seeking comparative DNA samples from two of Harry's descendants: Marjorie Whitford and Harry Willis' nephew "young" Harry Willis from Melbourne. Tim Whitford reports: "The experts believe these two sources offer the best chance of getting a match, should our soldier-relative's remains produce viable DNA, now that he is out of the burial pit and into a temporary mortuary."
Tim was concerned that other surviving relatives may feel slighted and added: "Please don't think that the choosing of these two DNA donors detract from your own contributions or indicate a lesser relationship to our soldier uncle, far from it. The two donors are simply the closest and best sources of a match with either Mt DNA or Paternal DNA based on uninterrupted female-female-female line or the shortest possible male-male line. To those who have supported our search and fight for Harry in any way over the years, thanks so much."
Tim points out that although DNA testing brings no certainties, it takes the family another step closer to the resolution they've sought for more than 90 years.
Let's hope this signals a concerted effort by the Army's experts to exhaust every avenue possible - including modern and ancient DNA testing - to identify the missing so as many as possible can be buried under a named headstone next year on the anniversary of the battle, July 19 2010 at the new cemetery at Fromelles.
If you're a relative of one of the missing, please call the Army, between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday on 1800 019 090 and register your contact details so they can take DNA samples from you if needed.