THE DIN OF machinery mingled with the echo of the 19th century Crimean War when an excavator bucket stumbled upon the yellowed remains of long-dead French soldiers at a construction site in a southern Ukrainian port city.
The haunting find at Sebastopol’s Cane Bay beach in December revealed the site of a large cemetery of French soldiers who died in the war against the Russian Empire during the 1854-1856 Crimean War.
The discovery has highlighted how many bodies could still be lying under the ground from the brutal conflict where an alliance of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire fought against Russia in what many see as one of the world’s first modern conflicts.
“Dozens of bodies have been discovered so far and I think there will be more as the site is quite large,” said Olexander Natalich, a volunteer with the historical research group Dolg (Duty).
The group’s members rushed to the construction site in December when local residents informed them about the discovery.
Natalich said that they first thought the yellowed bones belonged to the Russian or German soldiers who fought in World War II when the strategic Black Sea city again saw fierce battles.
The siege of Sebastopol
But later they found fragments of a military greatcoat with buttons of the French Army 39th infantry regiment which took part in Sebastopol’s siege during the Crimean War.
Historical documents prove that a huge camp of the French army was stationed on the Cane Beach shore, said local museum director Arkady Baiburtsky.
The camp housed tens of thousands of people and included inns, shops, theatres and even brothels.
Forensic experts concluded that the remains belong to people who died more than 100 years ago.
“All this evidence lets us say that this is a hospital cemetery belonging to the French contingent,” Baiburtsky said.
“Bodies in individual graves – all dug to the same depth of 0.8 to 1.4 metres – face west,” the historian said. “This is the first discovery of such an important burial of the Western (soldiers).”
The average age of the deceased does not exceed 30 years, but due to the absence of personal belongings or documents, there is “close to zero chance” of establishing their identity, he added.
Final resting place
French diplomats visited Sebastopol in February. Dozens of plastic bags with the bones of their countrymen had been piled up by the construction site’s fence but were then moved to the local church.
The bodies will most likely find their final resting place in the nearby 19th century French military necropolis that was destroyed under the Soviet rule and restored in the 2000s by the French government.
The Crimean War saw Russian forces defeated by the coalition of British, French, Ottoman, and Sardinian troops in the competition between great world powers for the dominance over the falling Ottoman Empire’s territories.
According to different estimates, the French lost in the conflict between 45,000 and 95,000 dead – mainly due to infectious deceases such as cholera that spread due to the poor sanitation and water supply problems.
Founded in 1783 under the Russian Empress Catherine the Great as the Russian Fleet’s port, Sebastopol – as well as the entire Crimean Peninsula – now belongs to Ukraine which became an independent state after the Soviet Union’s collapse.