The other day I was speaking with a friend in Tasmania who has been researching the fate of a great-uncle who disappeared in the Battle of Fromelles. This was one of the worst defeats of World War I for Australia. In a single day, July 19-20, 1916, the 5th Australian Division was cut to pieces.
German intelligence later called the attack “operationally and tactically senseless”. The Australians were not well prepared for conditions on the Western Front, were poorly led, did not have the element of surprise, and were exposed to flanking machine gun fire from higher ground. There were 5,533 dead and wounded.
After 98 years, you might think that this classic “over the top” tragedy would have been forgotten. Not so. Australian authorities are still trying to track down each and every one of their fallen.
In 2009 a mass grave of 250 Australian and British soldiers was discovered. Researchers set to work to identify the remains. With DNA testing and Google this has become much easier for them. They scour records for descendants and relatives of fallen soldiers and then ask for DNA samples. These are matched against the remains. It is a painstaking and expensive project, but one worthy of a civilised society where no one’s life is ever without value.
What struck me as I read comments on the Army website and on newspaper articles was that identification had brought peace to relatives three or four generations later. “This is my great great uncle,” wrote one woman. “We never knew what happened to him until now. We just assumed it was a death in the war, but it’s now good to have some closure, even if we never had a chance to know him.
There is something deep, visceral, lasting, and even imperative about genetic ties. We are hard-wired to hunger for our roots. That’s partly why I am sceptical about contemporary moves to create genetic orphans through surrogacy, or possibly artificial gametes. Every child has a right to a biological mother and a biological father, not just to provide care and comfort, but to give them a sense of personal identity.
Every fallen soldier deserves a name.
World War I
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