The land held a secret

A few years before the people of Fromelles returned to their homes, Mrs Mendelsohn wrote the first of many letters to the authorities. Her son Berrol had been killed in a ‘terrible battle’ not far from those same woods. The ‘official telegram’, she protested, was simply not enough.

In time the details drifted in, though they offered little solace. Berrol’s life had been full of promise—a handsome lad with a bright career ahead of him, he was accomplished at sport and one of Bondi’s best swimmers.

The men who fought beside Mendelsohn confirmed his death was instantaneous  and that he had died bravely. Still, Mrs Mendelsohn suffered not knowing what became of that ‘dear boy’s’ body. She believed if she knew where her son was buried it might be ‘some … consolation’. Mrs Mendelsohn died in 1945, ‘tormented by not knowing where [Berrol’s body] lay.’ And that mystery would remain unsolved until 2010, when the first bodies from that field in Fromelles were recovered and identified.

The exhumations from a mass gravesite at Fromelles were deeply controversial. An expert panel was appointed in 2005 to investigate the claim that German forces had buried Australian and British dead in three deep pits dug not long after the battle. Despite aerial photographs taken in 1917, despite evidence that bodies were carted to that very field, despite page after page of verbatim testimony, Canberra refused to initiate a physical search. Then one of the historians appointed to the panel produced compelling new evidence: a letter had come to light confirming War Graves units in the 1920s had acknowledged the existence of these mass graves, searched for them but never found them. Faced with the growing weight of archival evidence, besieged by lobby groups, and embarrassed by the media, the government capitulated. In 2007, Australia would resume the search for the missing.

In many ways the government's reluctance is understandable. It set an alarming precedent. If this search began, others would be sure to follow. And what length should we go to identify these men? Today forensic techniques and DNA testing have made that search an exacting—and expensive—science. Then there is what you might call the inequality of commemoration. Mrs Mendelsohn longed for news of the burial place of her son; she would die never knowing. Almost a century on, science now offers the certainty denied the generation that most needed it. Finally, in commemoration—as in war—there are winners and losers. Australian and British dead recovered from the mass pits of Fromelles were reverently reburied barely a kilometre away in a purpose-built cemetery. No one has recovered the bodies of Algerian troops also slaughtered in their droves at Fromelles: who cares to put a name to them? The moral, ethical, and political questions raised by the exhumation at Fromelles may never be answered, least of all by historians.

The dedication of the cemetery took place in July 2010, 98 years since the day of the battle. The Cross of Sacrifice, the last to be raised on French soil, was piled high with tributes. And at the base of that white stone memorial, the Jewish Ex-Servicemen’s Association laid a wreath shaped in the Star of David. It was placed there in honour of Berrol Mendelsohn and the mother who never ceased her search for him.