OXFORD archaeologists have defended their role in excavating the re-mains of hundreds of Australian and British soldiers killed in a First World War battle near the village of Fromelles in France.

So far the remains of 220 men have been removed from pits at the edge of Pheasant Wood, where they had been buried by the Germans 93 years ago.

More than 5,000 Australians and 1,500 British troops were killed or wounded at Fro-melles in 1916.

All the dead will be carefully examined and, where pos-sible, identified, before being reburied in a cemetery being created nearby by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

But Oxford Archaeology, based in Osney Mead, has come under fire from some Australian journalists, who have complained about the way the men’s remains are being excavated.

They claim the project is being rushed, remains and artefacts mixed up, and the pits compromised by rain.

There have also been questions raised about the tender process, which Oxford Archaeology won ahead of Glasgow University’s archaeological research division.

One report suggested that Oxford Archaeology won the job by bidding at almost half the price of its competitors, creating the risk of the dig becoming “a cut-price recovery of remains”.

Now the company has defended its work against claims of “nightmare” methods in use to exhume bodies.

Dan Poore, Oxford Archaeology’s head of fieldwork, said: “The task has been to excavate, record and exhume all the individuals buried at the site, along with the personal effects they were buried with.

“Some people have misunderstood the nature of the project, calling it a body retrieval exercise.

“It is different from work on a medieval site, where we might be looking for information about life-style and diet. But we are applying the same rigorous forensic archaeological techniques. And we are determined to do it with the dignity these people deserve.

“Good archaeological practice demands that archaeologists must remove recent deposits first, to avoid any risk of the site and results being contaminated.

“To the untrained eye it might have looked like we were burrowing into the pit, rather than dealing with it layer by layer.”

As for issue of tender, Mr Poore believes Oxford simply put in the best bid.

He said: “The tender process was fair. We complied fully with all requirements and submitted the highest-quality bid with a realistic budget.”

The Oxfordshire and Berkshire Light Infantry was involved the fighting at Fromelles and Mr Poore is urging local families to come forward if they believe they lost a relative in the battle.

All the soldiers will be buried in individual graves in the new cemetery between February and March next year.

It will be completed in time for a commemorative event scheduled for the anniversary of the battle next July.

Oxford historian Julie Summers has been asked to organise an exhibition about the project at the Imperial War Museum in London, which will also open next July.