The near complete skeleton of a soldier killed by shrapnel a century ago during the First World War lies in a hospital mortuary in eastern France. Undeterred by the decades that have passed since the young man died, forensic doctor Bruno Fremont is working around the clock to identify him ahead of Armistice Day this weekend.
The man sustained his fatal head injury at the Battle of Verdun, which was fought between French and German troops for much of 1916, and was the longest and among the deadliest of World War One, where almost 300,000 soldiers were killed.
Many of this soldier’s bones are blackened, though his leather boots remain virtually intact, the laces tied tight. What’s crucially missing is his ID tag.
For months, Dr Fremont has searched for clues as to the identity of the soldier, whose remains were found in March by workmen resurfacing a road. He has all but lost hope. A DNA test is useless without a known relative to compare against.
“A tag is the only item that would have allowed us to formally identify him,” said the specialist, acknowledging the sadness and frustration of not being able to find out who the man was.
“The boots are those that were on his feet when he died, and they are French army boots. But they’re not proof of his nationality. On his left side, he carried a wallet that contained two French coins. And we found a gas mask near his skull, a French-issued M2 gas mask.
“So in all likelihood he was French. But we cannot be wholly certain.”
A century after the end of the war, President Emmanuel Macron will lead commemorations to mark the anniversary this weekend. World leaders will attend, including US President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But even as the world marks the passage of so much time since the conflict, the tumult it caused continues to affect families whose relatives never returned from the battlefields.
Even now the ground continues to give up the fallen.
On Tuesday, Macron lit a flame at the Douaumont Ossuary, a memorial containing the remains of soldiers who died at Verdun and where Fremont’s skeleton will be interred if it cannot be identified.
“It’s frustrating,” the doctor said. “Because perhaps somewhere there is a family hoping they will one day find their relative.”