WORCESTERSHIRE and Warwickshire soldiers who died in a First World War battle which began 19 days after the opening of the Somme Campaign could have their bodies removed from mass graves and accorded a proper military burial.

The UK’s Veterans Minister, Kevan Jones, and his Australian counterpart, Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Warren Snowdon, have announced that Oxford Archaeology has been awarded the contract to undertake the archaeological excavation of six mass graves at Pheasant Wood, near Fromelles, France.

The 1916 Battle of Fromelles saw significant losses from both countries.

Excavation work is due to start in May and is expected to take up to six months.

The existence of the mass graves was confirmed in 2008 and a decision was made by both Governments to conduct a full archaeological excavation of the site.

Mr Jones said: “We are pleased to announce that work will start next month.

“There has been a particularly close and amicable working relationship between our two countries on this project to excavate potentially 400 sets of human remains from the WWI burial site.”

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is overseeing the project on behalf of the UK and Australian Governments.

Mr Jones added: “By the end of the project in 2010 all the bodies will be permanently laid to rest in individual graves at a new Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Fromelles. Wherever it is possible to identify the remains, named graves will be provided.”

Local families who believe they have connections to, or information on, the soldiers who may be buried at Fromelles are being encouraged to come forward to assist with the process.

DNA samples will be taken from a small cross-section of the remains to determine the viability of a larger testing programme, and the potential for a formal identification.

*************************************** The Battle of Fromelles was the first major battle involving Australian and British troops on the Western Front. The 5th Australian Division suffered 5,533 casualties, of which 1,917 were killed, and the 61st British Division suffered the loss of 1,547 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner The destruction of the majority of British WWI Service records during the Blitz in 1940 has made it difficult to establish who may be buried at Fromelles.

Among the main British regiments involved in the battle, and therefore the most likely to have men buried at Fromelles, were the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (now The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers), the Worcestershire Regiment (now The Mercian Regiment), and the Machine Gun Corps (disbanded and no modern equivalent).

Anyone believing they may be related to British soldiers buried at Fromelles should contact the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre, Historic Casualty & Deceased Estates Casework, Services Personnel and Veterans Agency, Building 182, Imjin Barracks, Gloucester GL3 1HW, jccchistcasso3@spva.mod.uk, 01452 712612 extension 6303.