Prince Charles attends last Fromelles soldier reburial

Relatives of those killed during the battle paid tribute to their family members

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The last of 250 British and Australian World War I troops recovered from mass graves has been reburied with full military honours in northern France.

Prince Charles and the relatives of identified soldiers attended a commemorative ceremony at the new Fromelles Military Cemetery.

It comes 94 years after the soldiers were killed in the Battle of Fromelles.

Work to excavate and identify the soldiers began two years ago, after the bodies were discovered.

Of the bodies recovered, 205 have now been identified as belonging to Australian soldiers, three served with the British army and 42 are still classified as unknown.

The remains of the first soldier were reburied in January.

Opening the ceremony to mark the anniversary of the battle, the Duke of Kent, president of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said the soldiers were "lost no longer... here, at last, in peace".

'Go under'

Relatives of those killed during the battle paid tribute to their family members, reading moving extracts from diaries and letters home.

The last letter from Thomas Sidney Wharfs, to his wife, dated 18 July 1916, said: "My darling wife I am writing this to be sent to you in case anything happens and I am killed tonight. I have just been ordered to attack tomorrow and I'm taking my company over, in the front line.

At the scene

I first met Australian Army Major General Mike O'Brien at a muddy dig site in 2008. At that time, the hopes of families in Britain and Australia rested with the patient detective work being carried out in three burial pits on the outskirts of Fromelles.

Today General O'Brien's voice rang clear across the white headstones on a baking summer's morning, exactly 94 years after the officers' whistles summoned thousands of men to their deaths.

The words were those of an Australian officer who survived the ensuing carnage: "Nothing could exceed the bravery of those boys... the first wave went down like wheat before the reaper."

In the stands, Lembas Englezos watched proudly. Mr Englezos, a teacher in Australia, had traced the whereabouts of the mass graves, and campaigned ceaselessly for the soldiers to be reburied with the dignity denied for so long.

"They're in blessed ground at last," he told me, "But there are so many more yet to be discovered." And that's the thought that haunts British families who have so far failed to establish a firm link with the losses of Fromelles.

"I am absolutely confident of my men and we'll get through, all correctly but we're certain to have casualties. Cheer up and take care of Dick. You will need all your strength to bring him up and look after him. God bless you my darling wife and boy. I love you with all my heart."

Another Australian relative said: "My grandfather, Private Frank Flowers, was killed on this day 94 years ago, leaving his wife and three small children. I would like to read a few lines from his last letter to home.

"It may be of help to you to know that every day of my life I pray to God to protect and help you and our children. I pray to him for your sake and for the kiddies' sake that I may be sent back to you, not for my own sake... as I know the heart would go out of your life were I to go under.'"

The relative added: "Thank you, Grandad, for the lives we have been able to live."

During the ceremony, a general service wagon, which had been restored after its use during WWI, carried the last coffin on its poignant journey. Behind it, Prince Charles processed with members of the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery.

Following the Last Post and a one-minute silence, the Prince of Wales and the Governor-General of Australia, Quentin Bryce, laid the first wreaths.

Dedicating the ceremony, the prince said: "In laying this last hero to rest, we honour them all."

He continued: "I am profoundly humbled by the outstanding bravery of these men who fought so valiantly in the indescribable mud and carnage, many thousands of miles from their families and from their homes."

L/Cpl Christopher Ryan Relatives of L/Cpl Christopher Ryan are among those attending the ceremony

After the reburial of the last unknown soldier, the Prince of Wales, accompanied by the Duchess of Cornwall, attended a reception for relatives.

The BBC's Robert Hall said the reburials had "united families from opposite sides of the world".

He said the Battle of Fromelles - a diversionary tactic in the wider Battle of the Somme - was a "terrible and bloody encounter".

About 1,700 British servicemen and more than 5,500 Australian soldiers lost their lives in the two-day battle.

In the aftermath of the battle, the dead Allied soldiers were buried by their German counterparts. The mass graves were only discovered in 2008.

As part of the identification process, overseen by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, experts took DNA samples from the bodies to try to find a family link with the help of the soldiers' relatives.

Earlier, the Duke of Kent unveiled a Eurostar train called Remembering Fromelles at St Pancras station, London.

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