Jul 6, 2009 A stamp licked by a British soldier now lying in a mass grave in northern France could be enough to identify his remains 90 years after he fell in battle.
Armed with the latest forensic techniques used in modern murder investigations, DNA experts are to try to match around 400 soldiers' remains to their genetic signatures.
A team of British-based experts has just been chosen to attempt to unravel one of the largest-scale genetic conundrums ever They hope to obtain DNA profiles from bodies that have lain underground for nearly a century on a scale never previously attempted.
The soldiers were buried in woodland shortly after the Battle of Fromelles of July 16, 1916, which was part of the Somme campaign. At Fromelles, 5,553 Australian and 1,547 British soldiers were mown down by German guns in a catastrophically planned offensive considered the worst 24 hours in Australian military history.
German forces placed them - without their dog tags - in pits in a site known as Pheasant Wood near the village of Fromelles.
A team of British-based forensic archaeologists and DNA experts will now try to identify samples of teeth, small bones, hair and even soft tissue and then match these to soldiers' family members or even to objects the dead men touched in their lifetime.
"If DNA is preserved in a dry state it can go back to dinosaurs and mammoths," said Dr Paul Debenham, a DNA expert with LGC Forensics, the group chosen to conduct the tests.
"So testing for DNA on the back of a stamp a soldier licked, between the stamp paper and a postcard, would certainly be worth a try if the card was stored in a dry place like the back of a desk. It's definitely a feasible approach. Even a trophy they handled might do," he said.
While such objects could prove helpful, the bulk of the detective work will be done by matching the soldiers' DNA to that of relatives – even distant ones. The Y chromosome can be tracked through the paternal lineage, while the mother's mitochondria – tiny DNA elements found in all cells – are present in soldiers' siblings and right down the female line.
Some 15 samples from soldiers' remains have so far been collected in a pilot project, taken from different pits of varying soil conditions. These were placed in evidence bags, signed, sealed and sent back to London. "The pilot will indicate how valuable DNA tests will be or whether sadly the passage of time and soil types have worked against us," said Dr Debenham.
"Then it will be down to relatives coming forward."
Anyone who believes a family member might be among the dead is being asked to come forward and provide DNA from a simple mouth swab for identification.
The British and Australian governments have already published the names of soldiers they believe may be buried at the site on a dedicated website: www.fromelles.net
A new military cemetery, to be completed next year, will be built next to the mass grave on land donated by the owner. There will four types of graves: named; unknown British; unknown Australian and simply unknown.
It will be the first created by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission since the end of the Second World War.
Jul 6, 2009 Somebody's father, somebody's son? An Australian Rising Sun badge was unearthed from the Fromelles grave in France
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says the Government will make "doubly certain" that the exhumation of Australian soldiers in France is being handled properly, following reports it is in disarray.
Fairfax newspapers say the project to exhume, identify and rebury hundreds of soldiers killed on the French battlefield of Fromelles in World War I is in trouble because the Defence Department has employed a "cut-price" contractor.
The report says that the dig has been interrupted by poor drainage following heavy storms, and hand-sieving of soil from soldier's graves for personal effects has been abandoned because of funding constraints.
This morning Mr Rudd said Government officials had told him that precautions are being taken to ensure the diggers' remains are being treated with respect.
"We'll now make doubly certain of that in the case of this particular sensitive matter," he said.
"Every Australian who has lost their lives in service of our country must be treated, should be treated, with absolute respect."
Work began in early May to recover the remains of around 400 British and Australian soldiers who were buried in mass graves at the Pheasant Wood site of the Fromelles battlefield in northern France.
The July 1916 fighting was the first major battle to involve Australian soldiers on the Western Front, and resulted in heavy losses for the allies.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission says it expects work on the site to take six months.
The remains of the soldiers are to be buried at a new grave site at Pheasant Wood.