Gunshots rang out across the frozen cemetery on Saturday as the first of the 250 unknown British and Australian soldiers, who all died in the 1916 Battle of Fromelles, was lowered into an individual grave.
Lambis Englezos, whose work was central to bringing the Pheasant Wood grave to light, said he was moved watching the burial at the weekend.
“It was wonderful to see the services and that’s what its all been about – dignity, and, in time, identity for the soldiers of Pheasant Wood,” he said.
“Seeing the Army burying their own, our own, was really quite moving. And hopefully in time we can give as many of these soldiers as possible their identity.
“For me, it’s wonderful to see the burial of that soldier and to know that our boys are in good hands in the village of Fromelles.”
The full military honours burial took place in a specially-built ceremony just metres from where the grave was discovered.
The fallen soldiers, who remained undisturbed for over 90 years, are being buried without headstones as a panel aims to identify as many as possible.
The final soldier will be buried and the cemetery will be dedicated on July 19, the 94th anniversary of the battle.
Mr Englezos said while it would have been preferable for families to be present to witness the individual burials of their loved ones, the sheer scale of the operation meant this was impossible.
“I think we’ve got a moral obligation to recover our war dead, I think the Australian Army has to be congratulated, having established and maintained a process which has brought us to this point,” he said.
“However I would have hoped that maybe the panel of identification could have sat prior to the burial, so that families could have been given the opportunity to be there.
“But having said that, Pheasant Wood and the work there, it’s not blood specific, there’s a general ownership of the Pheasant Wood work, and it’s just been remarkable to see this.”
The 1916 Battle of Fromelles was the first offensive involving Australian troops on the Western Front.
In 24 hours Australian forces suffered over 5,000 casualties as troops charged German trenches in broad daylight.
The end of the offensive, which had been deemed unnecessary days earlier by senior commanders, found the Australian troops forced back to their original positions.
Veterans’ Affairs Minister Alan Griffin described the Battle of Fromelles as “the bloodiest 24 hours in our military history, before, or since.”
While identifying the soldiers has been central to the recovery process, DNA consultant Dr Peter Jones says many gravestones may remain nameless.
Dr Jones says with 1,600 soldiers missing after the battle and only 800 families having come forward to give forensic samples, it is a difficult task.
“At the very, very best, with everything working completely perfectly, the most we’re likely to match up is about 100,” he said.
But the organiser of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, David Richardson, says he is hopeful the team will be able to put names on some of the headstones.
“I think, in a way, that’s a little bit of a bonus,” he said.
“There are so many cemeteries here in France and Belgium and all over the world where we work, where there are unknown soldiers, so I think individual burials for us are just fantastic.
“I think any individual identities afterwards will be really the icing on the cake.”
Mr Richardson says it is a relief to see the soldiers reburied.
“I’ll be more relieved at the end of February when we’ve buried the full 250, but it’s great to see the cemetery fit for burial,” he said.
“It’s the first new cemetery since World War II, but to build something from scratch on a brand new site in a limited time scale in a wet field in northern France has posed some challenges.”