You can help recover our lost ANZACS – with your DNA

This post is by Jeremy Austin and was originally published on the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) Blog, under the title “Recovery and identification of missing servicemen”

As we approach the commemoration of ANZAC Day, we are reminded of the more than 25,000 Australian servicemen missing in action who have yet to be recovered and identified. On the 17th June 1917, British and Australian forces launched an offensive against German lines at Messines in Belgium. Made famous by the film “Beneath Hill 60” , the Battle of Messines was one of the most successful campaigns by the Allies on the Western Front during World War 1. However, success came at a terrible price with more than 13,500 Australian casualties.

Cyril Wheatley was one of those casualties. He died on the first day of the Battle of Messines and his body has never been recovered. Cyril was the brother of my great grandfather. One day his remains might be recovered, but how could we identify bones and teeth that are almost 100 years old?

The Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) Unrecovered War Casualties (Army) is actively involved in the recovery and identification of the remains of missing Australian servicemen. Each investigation requires a comprehensive collaboration of expertise, historical records, volunteers, family descendants – and sometimes DNA.

Since 2007 I have been translating ACAD’s expertise in ancient DNA to forensic identification of human remains. This important work returns long-lost remains to their family, enabling appropriate reburial and commemoration. Our human identification group at ACAD often engages with the ADF on DNA-based identification of human remains from WWI and later conflicts. DNA-based identification of Australian war dead can be a complicated and time-consuming process. In addition to the difficulties of extracting and typing DNA from skeletal remains, there can be big problems finding suitable living family members to provide DNA references for comparison. Currently, we have DNA profiles from a number of recovered Australian war dead remains, but have been unable to identify them simply because suitable family members have not been located to provide a DNA sample for comparison.

We are leading a project to develop new methods to securely identify Australian war dead from 70-100 years ago. The DNA recovered from these historical remains is highly degraded. This requires specialist laboratory facilities and techniques to extract and profile the tiny fragments of surviving DNA. In addition, we will assemble an historical DNA database to assist with identifying the remains of Australian servicemen recovered in Europe and the Asia-Pacific battelfields of WWI and WWII. This database is needed because post-war immigration to Australia will have dramatically altered the genetic composition of the Australian population.

We need your help to build this important DNA database. You don’t need to be related to a missing Australian serviceman or woman. If you were born in Australia prior to 1945, or both your parents (or all four grandparents) were born and/or resident in Australia before 1945 then you could help us to build a DNA database that accurately reflects the genetic “makeup” of wartime Australia in the first half of the 20th Century. Please contact us if you would like to participate in this important project and we can send an information pack and DNA sampling kit. Your DNA sample could help identify a long-lost Australian whose remains rest in battlefields across Western Europe and the Asia-Pacific.

For the benefit of non-Adelaideans, we share our Commonwealth and State Government’s investment to honour and pay tribute to Australian service personnel lost in conflict. The approximately 350 metre long Centenary Memorial Walk wall is made of Adelaide black granite and includes gardens and artwork, and represents a place of tribute and recognition in perpetuity. It will be unveiled this coming ANZAC Day commemoration, April 25, 2016.

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