Just came across the following story in the Sydney Morning Herald. Photos included at the link.
Somme gives up the body of another Anzac
January 17, 2011
It is at once extraordinarily unnerving, very moving and a great privilege to help retrieve the bones of a long-dead Australian soldier, who has lain beneath the mud of the Somme for the best past of a century.
That is what we experienced last Saturday after a friend, the battlefield guide Dominique Zanardi, phoned us in Belgium and urged us to come quickly to France. "I have found a soldier today and I think he is an Australian," said Zanardi. "You must come quickly."
We had spent the previous five days visiting countless cemeteries and battle sites on the Somme while researching a forthcoming book for Melbourne University Press.
In spring, when most tourists visit, the Somme is renowned for its tranquil beauty and serenity, with its vivid flourishes of red poppies in verdant fields beneath turquoise skies. But in winter, whipped by bitter winds, snow and icy rain, it is a grey, foreboding, malevolent place of low leaden clouds and knee-deep mud.
A few nights earlier, Zanardi had taken us on a tour of public works diggings on the battlefields, where he had unearthed what is known colloquially as the "iron harvest" - old bullets and shells, gun parts and hand grenades.
And so it is that we find ourselves standing in the bitter wind, the mud sucking at our boots, beside a one-metre deep newly excavated drainage ditch outside Mouquet Farm near Pozieres - the scene of a bitter three-week battle in August 1916 that claimed 11,000 Australian casualties - as Zanardi passes us the bones which we, in turn, place in a hessian sack.
It is a distressing scene that is not for the squeamish as Zanardi uncovers the soldier's boots, still holding the bones of his feet, and places them on the side of the ditch.
As we carefully carry the rest of the man's remains from the ditch to the bag containing his skull and his jawbone, his arms and his legs, one thought dominates: dignity and glory do not belong to the battlefield.
Our soldier has a birth name, to be sure. But like the many thousands of others who lost their lives in the terrible fighting on the Somme during World War I, the battlefield has claimed his identity.
And were it not for Dominique Zanardi, the soldier would probably have stayed anonymously beneath the sticky mud of the Somme for an eternity.
Now, perhaps, the experts from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will be able to recover the soldier's identity courtesy of his watch or possibly by using dental records.
Zanardi found the soldier's partially exposed body in the drainage ditch late last Friday.
He recovered some of the bones immediately and the rest with us the next day.
Unable to contact anyone from the war graves commission at the weekend, Zanardi and the mayor of Pozieres, Bernard Delattre, were planning to remove the body from the site today to prevent it from being reinterred by the bulldozer on the site.
Mr Delattre, meanwhile, had tried unsuccessfully to inform the Australian embassy in Paris at the weekend that a WWI Digger had been found near his village.
Zanardi, who regularly searches excavations for roads and drains around the Somme for war relics, believes the body is definitely that of an Australian officer who died in the battle of Mouquet Farm.
While there was no identity disc on the body, the soldier's pistol holster is stamped "AUSTRALIA" and "WA".
Zanardi believes it is possible to conclusively identify the man as an Australian because of the unique buckle on his tunic. "It is a typically Australian buckle - no other soldiers from any country that fought here on the Somme had this buckle," said Zanardi, who has found the bodies of 15 WWI servicemen around the Somme during the past two decades.
"Also, the holster is stamped as being Australian and the metal stud on the holster is unique to Australian leather apparel and fittings used in WWI."
Had the body been that of a member of the Canadian or the British armies, brass buttons would have been found among the remnants of the uniform.
But none were found on this body, further indicating that he wore an Australian uniform that typically had biodegradable buttons.
"I would expect to find brass buttons if he was British or Canadian. In my experience the buttons on the Australian uniforms dissolve when they have been in the ground for many decades," Zanardi said.
While his name still eludes us, there are some things that we do know about the soldier.
The first is that he died terribly - probably, given the amount of shrapnel surrounding his body, as a result of shellfire.
The second is that he was heavily armed and up for a fight. The remains of a Lee-Enfield rifle and 150 rounds of ammunition, eight Mills bombs, a bayonet scabbard and a Webley service revolver were buried with him. Shell shrapnel or bullets had penetrated the leather cover of his watch and his holster.
Zanardi carefully dug from the mud the soldier's other possessions that included a few French francs and British pennies, his gas mask, canteen, webbing, a spoon, a pencil and his British-made toothbrush.
Judging by the size of his boots, he was not a particularly big man. His fob watch gave no obvious clues about his identity. According to maps of the trench system around Pozieres, the soldier died in the No Man's Land that stood between Mouquet Farm and an Allied redoubt that was secured with barbed wire.
Mouquet Farm stands on the gently rolling fields 1.7 kilometres behind Pozieres. It was a German stronghold on the Somme. Between August 8 and September 3, 1916, it was the target of nine fierce attacks from the three Australian divisions of the 1st Anzac Corps.
Although the Australians gained some ground during the three-week battle, they failed to take Mouquet Farm itself.
In just under seven weeks of fighting at Pozieres and at Mouquet Farm, three Australian divisions suffered 23,000 casualties, of whom 6800 men died of wounds.
Thousands of Diggers died in the area and the name Mouquet Farm connotes Australian military tragedy on par with Gallipoli, and Fromelles in nearby Flanders.
Australia's official WWI historian, Charles Bean, wrote of Pozieres and Mouquet Farm in July 1916 that "there is no undamaged surface here".
Tens of thousands of the dead, including scores of Australians, remain in unmarked graves across the fields of the Somme and Flanders. Farmers and excavation workers routinely plough bodies back into the earth rather than deal with the bureaucracy associated with reporting and investigating such discoveries.
Ten to 15 bodies of WWI servicemen from Canada, Germany, France, Australia, Britain and elsewhere in the Commonwealth are found on the Somme each year.
Slowly, slowly the Somme is now giving up the secrets of its dead. The Australian Digger who we helped, with heavy hearts, to recover on Saturday is the latest.
As we placed his bones carefully into the hessian bag beside his muddy grave, it was poignantly satisfying to know that he would next be at rest in a coffin and that he would, at last, be afforded some dignity almost a century after his death.
Hopefully now his identity will be returned.