Generals, ministers and villagers gathered in a muddy corner of the French countryside yesterday to pay their respects to those buried in the biggest Great War grave discovered in decades.
Up to 400 soldiers from Britain and Australia are thought to lie in eight pits by woodland in northern France, where they were buried by German forces after a bitter battle.
British, Australian and French dignitaries joined locals for an on-site ceremony before a mechanical digger moved in to scrape away the first layers of earth, marking the beginning of the operation to recover the bodies and give them a proper resting place.
The work in Pheasant Wood, which lies near the village of Fromelles, is expected to last until the end of September.
Yesterday morning Rev Ray Jones of St George’s Memorial Church in Ypres led a prayer for the soldiers who “fought and died in the hope of bringing peace to this land and the world beyond”.
Defence Minister Quentin Davies, addressing the crowd in French, said: “I do urge everybody who may have some distant relative in the past who may have died here on July 19 in 1916 to get in touch so we might possibly be able, through DNA, to identify some of those bodies.”