Identifying Soldiers from 100 Year-Old Remains

Jim Thomson of LGC describes how they worked to identify 250 skeletal remains of soldiers who had fallen during the Battle of Fromelles in 1916.






My name is Jim Thomson. I work for LGC, who are a large forensic service provider in the UK. I lead the DNA R&D team there who support our forensic DNA groups in delivering their services to the police.

So, the Fromelles War Graves Project is something we’ve been involved in since 2009. There was some war graves discovered near the town of Fromelles in Northern France in 2008 which were believed to date to the First World War In fact, they’ve been linked to the battle of Fromelles, which took place in 1916. So, there were 250 skeletal remains removed from those graves following excavation in 2008, and LGC was asked to identify as many of those soldiers as we could link those to living relatives.


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So, yes, it was very challenging to get enough good quality DNA from those remains which were obviously almost a hundred years old and lying in the ground all of that time. So, we’ve had to adapt our extraction methods for collecting enough good quality DNA, and we’ve had to use some very sensitive detection methods to get enough information to link those to the living relatives.

The thing about the Battle of Fromelles, it was a really important battle in terms of the numbers of Australian soldiers in particular, who have lost their lives and were casualties. It’s known as the darkest day in Australia’s history. So, it’s a battle and a date that lives very strongly in the Australian national memories. So, I think from our point of view, from my point of view personally, I’m not a particularly good historian, and I wasn’t aware of this battle. Once this project was publicized in Australia in particular, because most of the soldiers were believed to have been Australian that had been found in this grave, I think there was a very great interest amongst the population there, amongst people who had had missing relatives from that battle. So, there were many people who had come forward.

Before we started the project, we really weren’t sure on whether we’d be able to get enough good quality DNA results from these ancient samples that had been sitting in the ground for 100 years. So, the first thing we did was a pilot study to test our results out on a relatively small number of these samples and also to try and establish which parts of the remains was gonna give us the best DNA results. So, we tested some bone materials, some tooth materials, and even some soft tissue materials that were left and preserved within the ground, and that was a really useful initial exercise, because it helped us to identify that teeth were really going to give us the best results, so the rest of the project was focused on using teeth from the skeletal remains as the main sample time which was pretty useful to us.


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I think it was a really rewarding project for everybody who was involved with it, both at LGC and elsewhere. It was one of those real opportunities to connect with people and see the benefits of what you were doing. The part of the project was the construction of the building of the first new war cemetery on European soil for, I think, about 70 years or so. So, it was constructed to rebury these 250 remains that had been dug up. And there was a service to commemorate that reburial after the first year that the project was complete, at which the relatives of the 94 named soldiers were invited to attend.

So, myself, and a number of other people from LGC were able to visit and attend that commemoration service and meet a number of the relatives who we’d helped to identify their loved ones and put names on those graves. So, I think that was really rewarding for both myself and many other people involved in the project.

As we move towards the end of the project – it started in 2009, as I say, and every year since then we’ve had more potential relatives coming forward and offering themselves for testing. Next year, 2016 is the hundredth anniversary of the battle, and I think the intention is to have one last main effort to try and see if there are any families who’ve not been contacted and who have not come forward. So, if there is anybody out there that’s still waiting to be tested, this is really probably the last chance before we accept that there will be a number of these soldiers we will never be able to identify.