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Mass grave yields testimony to Australia s bloodiest day

FROMELLES, Aug 19 – The train ticket was found tucked in a gas mask pouch near the Australian soldier’s remains and told the story of a journey home that was never made.

The folded piece of paper for travel by rail from Fremantle to Perth is one of the most telling items recovered alongside skeletal remains from a mass grave of World War I soldiers in northern France.

Most of the dead were Australian troops who fought in the disastrous Battle of Fromelles in 1916 and who will be reinterred in individual graves in a cemetery being built near the site.

Working under a white marquee in a muddy field, a team of 30 archeologists and forensics experts have been unearthing remains over the past three months and finding clues about the soldiers’ lives.

"I found it really, really moving when we found the ticket," said David Richardson, the project manager from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

"We could picture a young guy full of life signing up to fight with the empire and he never came back."

Perth was a major military recruitment centre in western Australia during World War I and Fremantle was where the soldiers embarked for Europe on their way to the Western Front.

More than 5,500 Australians were killed, wounded or went missing in the Battle of Fromelles on July 19, 1916, cut down by German machine guns as they advanced in open fields.

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The date stands out as Australia’s bloodiest day.

British losses were more than 1,500 in the failed bid to seize a German position and prevent them from sending reinforcements to the Battle of the Somme, a few dozen kilometres away.

— A glimpse into soldiers’ lives —

"We are getting glimpses of what life was like on the Western Front," said lead archeologist Louise Loe. "We’ve found a few keepsakes. It shows you the very human side to this awful battle."

Among those is a hand-stitched, heart-shaped leather pouch, with two crosses inside — one made of solid gold — and containing a smaller heart-shaped bag.

Inside the second pouch was a piece of fabric wrapped around a strand of human hair, possibly from a wife or girlfriend left behind.

Several crosses were found, some of which were believed to have been given to the troops by French locals, a crucifix and a prayer book.

"These give us an idea of their faith and the things they were using to help them through such a terrible experience," said Kate Brady, the finds specialist.

An impressive collection of Australian army badges and belt-buckles have also been recovered along with buttons identified as those from British military jackets.

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The burial site — the largest found since World War I — was discovered in 2007 at the edge of a forest surrounded by fields of grazing Charolais cows and not far from the village church.

German forces are believed to have wrapped the bodies of the fallen men in canvas and transported them by train from the frontlines to the grave site less than two kilometers (just over a mile) away.

"They were laid in a very systematic way into the graves. They definitely weren’t just piled in. It wasn’t just a big jumble of bodies," said Richardson.

The grave initially was believed to hold up to 400 remains, but experts now expect to recover between 250 and 300.

So far 104 sets of bones have been unearthed and excavation work is set to wrap up in late September.

Tests on the bones recovered from the clayish mud have revealed that most of the soldiers were under 20 years of age — teenage boys, some of whom probably lied about their age when they signed up.

DNA samples from the remains have been sent for laboratory testing and experts hope they will be in good enough condition to match with descendants who will finally know where a lost relative lies.

The mass grave was discovered after the Australian government ordered a survey of the site that had been identified by an amateur historian.

The soldiers’ remains are to be buried in February and the new cemetery is to be formally opened at a ceremony on the anniversary of the battle, on July 19, next year.

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