Le Musée de la Bataille de Fromelles, seen from Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Commonwealth military cemetery

New French museum remembers Australian & British war dead at Fromelles

Posted on centenarynews.com on 28 October 2014
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Centenary News' Deputy Editor, Peter Alhadeff, has visited the Museum of the Battle of Fromelles, which tells the story of how the remains of 250 soldiers were recovered, almost a century after they fell on the Western Front.

This new museum, opened in Northern France in July 2014, sits alongside the Commonwealth cemetery where those soldiers, the majority of them Australian, are buried.

The Battle of Fromelles, fought on July 19/20th 1916, was the first major action involving Australian troops on the Western Front. It's also remembered as one of the bloodiest days in Australian military history.

The British-led attack on a short stretch of the line near Lille was aimed at diverting German attention away from the much larger Allied offensive further south on the Somme.

The Australians suffered more than 5,500 casualties, including almost 2,000 killed. The 61st British Division lost over 1,500 men, with more than 500 dead.

Perhaps the most poignant feature of the Fromelles Museum is a line of 21 panels (below), telling the stories of just some of the soldiers who fell, pieced together with the help of families who took part in the identification process. For the Museum, these personal histories, and more like them, are as much part of its collections as objects unearthed from the battlefield.

 Museum spokesman Thomas Boucknooghe talking about the fallen of Fromelles

The museum building lies just a few hundred metres from Pheasant Wood, where the remains of 250 soldiers, buried according to German military custom, were found in 2008 on the outskirts of the village of Fromelles.

Their mass graves were overlooked for decades after the First World War. But research by local historians in the 1980's, coupled with renewed Australian interest and documents found in the German archives in 2006 resulted in a joint Australian and British operation to recover the remains.

DNA sampling and analysis were carried out after the exhumations, and followed up with research of archives and documents provided by soldiers' families.

Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Cemetery was dedicated at a ceremony attended by the Prince of Wales and the Governor-General of Australia on July 19th 2010, the 94th anniversary of the battle, when the last of the 250 soldiers was laid to rest with full military honours. 

The opening of the Battle of Fromelles Museum in the Centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War marked the culmination of years of local and international effort to remember the men who died here in 1916.

Australia contributed more than $1 million towards the Museum's construction. Speaking at Fromelles in July, Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Michael Ronaldson, declared that it would help to ensure that the 'story of Australian service and sacrifice in this bloody battle' were never forgotten.

More information about the Museum of the Battle of Fromelles can be found here.

© Centenary Digital Ltd

Sources: Le Musée de la Bataille de Fromelles; Australian War Memorial; UK Government

Posted by: Peter Alhadeff, Centenary News