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War Graves

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 5 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether, following the recent discovery of large numbers of human remains, they will initiate discussions to establish a Commonwealth war graves site at Fromelles in northern France.

First, my Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Marine Dale Gostick, who was killed on operations in Afghanistan on 25 May.

Turning to the Question, I can confirm that human remains, likely to be British and Australian, have been found at Fromelles. There has been close co-operation with Australia and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on this project. When we receive the archaeologists’ report, we will, along with representatives from Australia, France and the commission, decide how best to commemorate those brave men, British and Australian, interred at the site. All of us should acknowledge their sacrifice.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer and associate myself wholeheartedly with her tribute to Marine Dale Gostick.

On behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary War Graves and Battlefields Heritage Group, which I chair, I thank the MoD and the Government of Australia for the support they have given to this unique and very special excavation. Their support has been both material and financial and they are working together, as my noble friend says, in an extraordinarily constructive way. We should also express our appreciation to archaeologist Tony Pollard and his colleagues, who are working this week at Fromelles in distressing and difficult circumstances.

Is my noble friend aware that I spoke yesterday to Major-General Mike O’Brien, who is heading the excavation on behalf of the Australian army? He confirmed that, on opening up five pits, extensive human remains have been found there. Does she accept that there is strong support for the site to become an official war grave and for an appropriate service of commemoration to be held there to honour the Australian and British soldiers who died at Fromelles on 19 and 20 July 1916?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments about the co-operation from the MoD. He was instrumental in obtaining it, and the all-party group deserves some credit for it. With regard to what happens from here, as I said earlier, we want to work with those in Australia and in France and with the commission to decide what it is best to do. It is a principle of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is accepted by all the Governments concerned, that the remains of those members of Commonwealth Armed Forces who died during the two World Wars are not repatriated, recognising that those who fought and died together should be buried together without distinction on account of military or civil rank, race or creed. That is one of the factors that will have to be borne in mind.

My Lords, we on these Benches also send our condolences to the family of the marine killed. Turning to the Question, a number of Australian journalists and politicians are asking for these bodies to be DNA’d. How practical is that?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that there has been a great deal of speculation about the possible use of DNA to identify individuals. While that is understandable and while DNA techniques have developed, we should not underestimate the difficulties that might be involved in that, not least because of the conditions in which these bodies have been kept. We need to think carefully before we go down that route, but of course all these issues will be considered by everyone involved.

My Lords, does the Minister have any estimate of the number of Australian troops who were buried at Fromelles?

My Lords, it is difficult to give estimates on this particular site, not least because it is early days. It is thought that about 400 bodies could have been buried there, but those would include Britons, Australians and possibly even some Germans. There have been rough estimates that about 150 could be buried on this site.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer and my noble friend for raising this Question. Will she note that the church has a particular interest in this matter, first, because of the concern about the appropriate treatment of human remains; secondly, because of the pastoral care of all those who are related to those who died—I speak with some feeling, since I had a great-uncle who was killed around that time, although not at that site; and, thirdly, because I presume that there will eventually be some sort of service in which we would naturally expect to be involved? Will the Minister take care to inform the church as the matter goes forward of what plans are being laid and keep us in the loop, perhaps in Australia as well as here?

My Lords, I am happy to take that suggestion on board. It is absolutely right that we deal with this matter very carefully, that we have the appropriate treatment and that we do not forget those who may have relatives involved. Many of us, including me, have had great-uncles who were involved or died in the First World War. I have visited the cemetery where my great-uncle is buried and I know that all those involved do a great deal to show the appropriate level of respect and to involve everyone, be it churches or others, in what should happen.

My Lords, I must declare a past interest as a one-time ex officio commissioner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I am sure that everyone who has ever been to one of its cemeteries around the world must admire hugely the dedication of the gardeners and the way in which they care for the people in those cemeteries. One of my constant concerns at that time was that the subvention to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission should be enough to keep the gardeners employed around the world. Therefore, if there is to be an additional cemetery at Fromelles, will the ministry assure us that additional funds will be made available to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission rather than it having to provide for it out of its subvention, which is already severely constrained?

My Lords, the budget of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is currently provided by all the countries concerned on a pro rata basis depending on the number of bodies they are looking after. The UK currently provides 78 per cent of the funding, more than £34 million a year. We all admire the dedication of those involved in the care of those cemeteries. If we go down the route suggested, we would have to make sure that the resources were available.