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Work starts on tribute to long-lost heroes

EXCAVATORS near a rural village in northern France began work yesterday unearthing the remains of as many as 400 long-lost Australian and British soldiers who died in World War I.

The remains, buried in a cluster of mass graves discovered in 2008, are to be individually reinterred in a cemetery being built near the site.

Australian, British and French dignitaries gathered in the village of Fromelles for a ceremony marking the launch of the project, which is expected to take just over a year.

"Today marks the beginning of the journey to afford many of those killed at Fromelles with a fitting and dignified final place of rest," said Admiral Sir Ian Garnett, Vice Chairman of Australia's Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is charged with overseeing the excavation.

An Australian amateur historian discovered the graves - which contain the largest group of Australian remains from World War I found to date - in a muddy field on the edge of a small wood in 2008, prompting an investigation by the Australian government.

Australia has since commissioned the construction of the nation's first war cemetery in more than 50 years near the site and dispatched a team of archeologists to exhume and attempt to identify the remains.

"This site is part of our national story," said Warren Snowdon, Australian Minister for Defence Science and Personnel.

The remains appear to date from a ferocious night of fighting more than 90 years ago. Late on July 19, 1916, Australian forces launched the battle of Fromelles, the first Australian combat operation on the Western Front.

The battle has since been regarded as "the worst wartime tragedy in Australian history," Snowdon said.

More than 5,500 Australians were killed, wounded or went missing at Fromelles in under 24 hours, along with more than 1,500 British, cut down by German machine guns and artillery. German troops buried them afterward, investigators say.

The bodies of more than 165,000 Australian troops killed in World War I have never been recovered, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and remain lost beneath the fields and woods of Western Europe.

Since the discovery of the site, about 400 people from Britain and Australia have been to Fromelles to pay their respects.


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