Feb 3, 2010

Finding of bodies at Beaucamps-Ligny and lack of proper procedure by French

It was reported in November 2009 that the bodies of fifteen men from the York and Lancaster Regiment were found in the French village of Beaucamps-Ligny. It seems likely that these men (from the 2nd Battalion) were killed in the fighting of 18 October 1914 and their bodies lay undisturbed until found by workmen working on a building site. Apparently their regiment has been determined from surviving buttons.

There are two things about this discovery that I want to comment on. Firstly, I will be most interested to see what decision is made about using DNA samples to try and identify these bodies. The decision to excavate the mass grave at Pheasant Wood, Fromelles and use DNA in the aim of establishing identities for the remains now means that a precedent has been set. It would be unthinkable that DNA testing be carried out on the Pheasant Wood remains but denied to the bodies of the York & Lancs men found at Beaucamps-Ligny. After all, only it is less than three miles between Fromelles and Beaucamps-Ligny. I would be amazed if the CWGC refused DNA testing for these remains, especially considering the high probability of successful identification. These fifteen remains amount to nearly half of the known ‘missing’ of that Battalion when in that area. Pitting this against the Pheasant Wood mass grave where the chance of successful identification is much less, there is simply no way that the CWGC can refuse DNA techniques. It certainly means that a real can of worms is now open. Fromelles was always going to be a test case – having announced that the usual “decisions regarding investigation or attribution of identity are a matter for the relevant service authority – in this case the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence and their Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre” it will be fascinating to see the long-term CWGC response for this and other cases.

Secondly, I know I was not alone in being disgusted at photographs published in the French newspapers of the remains being excavated. A group of Frenchmen surrounded a hole in the ground. Another colleague was digging into the skeletal remains. I should think a few archaeologists shuddered when they saw that photo. It is simply unbelievable that the remains of fifteen men can be removed in such a way. The whole process should have been done archaeologically – in a systematic and dignified way as opposed to the (frankly awful) mess as seen on the photos. Even a the most casual viewer of television programmes such as ‘Time Team’ & ‘CSI’ would know that bodies are removed delicately, layer after layer – most definitely not by having a workman’s spade dug straight into a mass of bones. The pictures show a shameful scene – at the graveside is Martial Delebarre – curator of the Fromelles Museum and member of the Association Souvenir de la Bataille de Fromelles. It is simply beyond belief that someone with his knowledge and position in local matters can stand idly by and watch this amateurish excavation without thinking to halt it and call in professional archaeologists.

It is about time that standardised and proper archaeological practices surrounding the finding of human remains on the old battlefields are brought in so we do have to witness a mess like this again. I know I am not alone in this opinion. Surely this is the least these men deserve?


11 Responses to “Finding of bodies at Beaucamps-Ligny and lack of proper procedure by French”

  1. Mark says:

    It seems quite shocking that after all the fuss and ultimate care that was put into the Fromelles exhumations that such an amateurish appraoch has been taken here. Good job they weren’t Australians!

    Irrespective of nationality, all humans remains from the First World War should be properly treated and the locals haven’t done themselves any favours here, which is suprising.

    It will be interesting to follow this story through, so keep us updated Jeremy!

  2. The way that the men just digging among the bones is typical of the French attitude to English soldiers who fought and gave their lives, not only for their own country, but for France.
    It is possible that one of the soldiers bodies is my grandfather and this displeases me and my family. I and the family are willing to give our DNA. I think that the law should deal with the ones responsible

  3. R. Carr says:

    I agree, I hadnt seen these pictures until today and its awful to see … I have in the last week heard that one of them may be my great great great uncle, DNA proving of course but really this is an awful thing to see.

  4. admin says:

    Hi Ruth, I am glad you left a comment. The pictures really are shocking. It defies belief that the CWGC could let their gardeners and their friends exhume a mass grave, especially after the strict forensic procedures adopted during the Fromelles excavations. Let us hope that with suitable pressure a common procedure can be put in place when human remains are found. It is imperative that it excludes amateurs such as those involved in the Beaucamps-Ligny 15.

  5. P Dore says:

    What has happened with the research on the remains? It is possible that some of these remains belong to my Grandfather. As far as I knew CWG were possibly going to DNA but have heard nothing for a year now.

  6. admin says:

    Like you, I am perplexed at the time that the CWGC have taken to make any sort of announcement. I made a couple of enquires and was told that there was no news thus far. As you have a possible connection to one of these men I would suggest you email the CWGC and see if they can give you any more information. If you do found out more information then please do let me know.

  7. my great grandfather was george edward william darrington and i was led to believe that my great grandfathers remains was one of those found could you possibly confirm

  8. P. Dore says:

    I wrote my MP – I wrote CWGC and it is like meeting a stone wall. I am told that the remains are at CWGC but that DNA testing is not yet in the budget. How come that DNA testing was so rapidly carried out on Richard 111’s remains? Do we not deserve to know whether these are our forbears?

  9. P. Dore says:

    Has anyone/any organisation started an e-petition whereby if enough people sign up the Government will be compelled to discuss the matter in Parliament? I would have thought this would be the ideal thing for The Western Front Association or the Sheffield History Group to get involved in.

  10. P. Dore says:

    Things seem to be moving forward. For my grandfather’s line suitable DNA & Y chromosome donors have been found and I am expecting contact in the near future regarding further progress.
    Whatever happens, it is my understanding that the remains of the soldiers will be buried with full military honours in October 2014 – the 100th anniversary of their being posted missing.

  11. P Dore says:

    Well, it is now almost all over. Regrettably, my Grandfather was not one of the 15. However, there are several families who will be rejoicing that their loved ones have been identified and will be buried, presumably with full military honours.
    I am so pleased for them and send them my good wishes.

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