DNA identification of First World War remains at Fromelles
This work is exploring the social, ethical and political aspects of the recent joint project of the British and Australian armies to identify the remains of 250 First World War soldiers found in a mass grave in Northern France. Work so far has been supported by the HASS Faculty Research Fund and the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology Small Grants Fund, with further funding being sought.
Why do this research?
In 2008 a mass grave was discovered in Pheasant Wood, just outside the village of Fromelles in Northern France, containing 250 bodies believed to be British and Australian soldiers killed during the battle of Fromelles on 19-20 July 1916. The discovery led not only to the construction of the first new cemetery by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for 50 years, but also to the first attempt to use DNA sequencing technology to help in the identification of individual military remains of such age and in such number. The project, overseen by the CWGC on behalf of the British and Australian governments, attracted a lot of popular interest especially in Australia, where the battle of Fromelles has strong cultural resonance. Australian casualties in that battle were over 5333, making it the worst 24 hours in Australian military history. So far over 100 bodies have been identified and reburied by name, all Australian.
DNA-based identification has become the ‘gold standard’ for the identification of contemporary remains, and where possible in the study of historical ones. But perhaps surprisingly there has been relatively little examination of the technology’s impact on our cultural understandings of identity, the body, memorialisation and kinship, nor of the ethical issues – including problems of confidentiality and information storage – that it may generate. The Fromelles case was particularly interesting since the age of the bodies mean they occupy an ambiguous position between being treated as contemporary or historical remains.
What does the research involve?
The funding I have obtained so far has enabled me to interview personnel at the CWGC, the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC) of the Ministry of Defence, and members of the Fromelles project team at the Australian Defence Department in Canberra. The interviews have explored the background to the work, their roles in the project, and their views on some of the social and ethical issues that have been raised. The next stage of the research will involve interviewing British and Australian family members (relatives of the unidentified men) who provided DNA samples in the hope of identifying their ancestor.
This research on Fromelles now forms part of a wider exploration of the social, ethical and political aspects of disaster victim identification (DVI) today, the subject of a workshop which I am organizing together with Professor Robin Williams of the Northumbria University Centre for Forensic Studies and Andreas Kleiser of the International Commission on Missing Persons. The workshop, Naming the dead: social, ethical, legal and political issues of disaster victim identification by DNA, is supported by a grant from the Brocher Foundation, Switzerland, and will be held on 4-7 December 2012 in Geneva.
A first publication from this work, co-authored with Rachel Woodward, was published in the Journal of War and Culture Studies in 2012 (see Publications page).