Australian Soldiers' Remains Among Those Found in World War I-Era Mass Grave in France

The remains of Australian soldiers who fought in a 1916 World War I battle are among the bodies recently found in a mass grave in northern France, Australian military officials said Monday.

Archeologists excavating a small field at Fromelles have uncovered "Rising Sun" badges worn by Australian soldiers, said Maj. Gen. Mike O'Brien, who is leading the excavation.

Previous clues, such as British bayonets and other Commonwealth military equipment, had narrowed down nationalities of the buried to British, Australian, or both.

The field is believed to be the long-searched-for burial site of about 400 British and Australian soldiers killed by German forces during one of Australia's bloodiest World War I battles.

The Battle of Fromelles, which took place July 19-20, 1916, was the first major battle in France in which Australians were involved.

No equivalent evidence has been found so far indicating that the bodies of British soldiers were among those discovered.

Australian Tim Whitford, who believes his great-uncle Harry is among those buried, traveled to France to watch the dig, which started May 28.

"This to me means repaying a debt that is 90 years old," he said. "But it's not only important to me and my family, it's important to the whole nation."

As he heard the news confirming that some of the bodies were Australian, he was standing at the site with a British national, another presumed descendant of an Australian soldier.

"It's a very emotional time when you're standing there and you know your people are in there, and you just needed that little bit of proof," Whitford said by telephone.

According to Whitford, who was part of a team that initially encouraged the government to dig in Fromelles based on clues from aerial photographs, descendants have already started dropping by the site to pay their respects.

"I think this will soon become a place of pilgrimage," he said.

More than 30 bodies have been unearthed so far. O'Brien estimates that several hundred bodies still lie under the soil.

The excavation will continue until June 13, when the site will be returned to its previous state, skeletons included. O'Brien said no decisions have been made yet on whether the French, British and Australian governments will do anything further with the site — such as acquire it from its current private owner or run DNA tests on the bodies to check for matches with descendants.