DNA Tests for Fallen and Buried Soldiers at Fromelles

Members of the Australian 53rd Battalion on July 19, 1916 before the Battle of Fromelles. Only three of the men pictured survived the battle and all three were wounded.

Members of the Australian 53rd Battalion on July 19, 1916 before the Battle of Fromelles. Only three of the men pictured survived the battle and all three were wounded.

On 19-20 July 1916, the Battle of Fromelles was fought in France during World War I. It was the first time that Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) saw action on the Western Front, and 5,533 Australian soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner in an operation that the Australian War Memorial describes as the “worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history.” To compound the misery, the Germans buried the bodies of the Australian dead in mass graves shortly after the battle.

Although most of the graves were discovered by official post-war burial campaigns during the 1920s, one area was missed. In 2007, a non-invasive geophysical survey hinted at a pit containing the remains of hundreds of soldiers, and a subsequent metal detector survey led to the discovery of Australian Army artifacts at the site. On 25 May 2008, an archaeological team from GUARD (Glasgow University Archaeological Research Department) began an exploratory dig at the site, located in a field at the edge of Bois Faisan near Fromelles. The first conclusive evidence of human remains was discovered on 29 May 2008. Six burial pits were excavated and human skeletal remains were found in five of of those mass graves.

In July 2008, the public learned that all human remains would be exhumed from the mass burial pits and re-buried with full military honors in individual plots at a new war cemetery, located as close as possible to where the soldiers were found. In the meantime, DNA testing proved possible in April 2009, and today Greg Combet, Minister for Defense Personnel, Materiel and Science, announced that full analysis and matching of DNA from Australian and British World War I soldiers discovered in France will proceed.

The pilot DNA study tested a cross section of the Fromelles remains, and samples were taken from teeth and bones of those remains. But, the delicate condition of the remains and the high water table has made some DNA extraction difficult. Mr. Combet warned that the possibility of identifying all remains is low. But, the Australian and UK governments are committee to identifying as many of the fallen as possible.

The steps to preparing a sample DNA are difficult, and more so with DNA samples taken from old bones that have been saturated with water. The steps, which take much longer than any CSI television program would have you believe, are:

  1. Extracting the DNA: Agents that destroy the cell membrane and break down proteins are used to release DNA from bones and/or teeth.
  2. Cutting or amplifying DNA: When DNA is not in huge supply, technicians may need to amplify (or multiply) the sample using a technique called PCR (polymerase chain reaction).
  3. Separating the fragments with electrophoresis: After amplification by PCR, the double-stranded fragments are chemically converted into single-stranded DNA and separated according to length by gel or capillary electrophoresis.
  4. Transferring fragments to a nylon membrane: The technician places a sturdy nylon membrane on top of th gel to make it easier to handle in a process called Southern Blot.
  5. Tagging fragments with DNA probe: The DNA bands are made visible using radioisotopes.
  6. Visualizing fragments through autoradiography: The technician places the Southern blot between two sheets of X-ray fil to make an autoradiograph, or autorad.
  7. Making the match: With the exception of identical twins or siblings of other identical mulpile births, no two individuals have the same DNA fingerprint. However, DNA samples can be matched for lineage.

To date, over 1,300 descendants of Australian soldiers who died in the Battle of Fromelles with no known grave have registered with the Australian Army to offer their DNA to match with the remains. If people believe that they are relatives of a soldier who died at the Battle of Fromelles, they are encouraged to contact the Australian Army on (free call) 1800 019 090 or visit www.army.gov.au/fromelles to register their interest.

View a video about the exhumation, offered by BBC News.

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