FROMELLES, France – The remains of a World War I soldier left in a mass grave for more than 90 years were moved by four-horse cart to a new cemetery for reburial with full honors Monday in a ceremony attended by Prince Charles, relatives and high-ranking government officials.
German machine guns and artillery left more than 5,500 Australians and more than 1,500 British killed, wounded or missing in under 24 hours at the Battle of Fromelles, the first Australian combat operation on the Western Front.
Many of the dead were buried by Germans in a mass grave, which was covered by plants over time and discovered by an Australian amateur historian in a muddy field on the edge of a small wood in 2008.
After more than two years of exhumation and identification work by archaeologists, 249 of the bodies were reburied under marble gravestones laid out in a V shape in a new cemetery in the French town of Fromelles.
A coffin containing the remains of the last soldier was moved and laid in a new grave Monday, as relatives of the dead read out letters and diary entries from the soldiers, as well as letters from commanding officers commending the men's bravery. The ceremony was attended by Australian officials and Britain's Prince Charles, who was wearing a grey suit adorned with military decorations. The event comes on the 94th anniversary of the 1916 battle.
"In laying this last hero to rest we honor them all," Charles said in a speech. "Somehow, he and his friends mustered the incredible courage to climb over the parapets" and into the battle, he said. "We will never know the impact that apocalyptic scene had upon him."
Photos of the dead were shown on a large screen at the ceremony, along with photos of objects found on in the mass grave, like a torn and crumpled return ticket to Perth, which an unknown soldier had stashed in the waterproof pouch of his gas mask.
Retired Australian banker Jim Parslow, 71, made the trip from Melbourne to honor his second cousin, William Moore, of the Australian infantry, who died at Fromelles at age 25. Parslow, an amateur genealogy buff, said Moore had been officially identified thanks to DNA provided by an unidentified family member.
"This represent closure for us. Finally, he's been identified and honored as someone who served his country," said Parslow, who added that Moore's brother was also killed in France in WWI. He said that Moore's death had long haunted the family.
"My father passed along all the information he had about him (Moore) before he died and I picked up where he left off," he said.
Riki Samuel, 59, a London-based communications companies owner, made the trip to honor his great-uncle Edward Samuel, who died at Fromelles at age 30. Edward Samuel was a Scotsman of Jewish faith who emigrated to Australia a few years before his death. He was known to have fallen at Fromelles, but his body has not been identified.
"This is one of the most important days for the Samuel family," said Riki, who was one of ten of Edward Samuel's relatives attending Monday's ceremony. "We're hoping he'll be identified during a second wave of testing later this year, but you never know. So many of them were blown to bits."
Only 96 of the remains found have been identified by name, all Australians.
An additional 109 of the bodies were confirmed to have belonged to the Australian army, but not named. Three were confirmed to be British. The other 42 are classified as unknown, the organizers said.