Excavators near a rural village in northern France began work Tuesday unearthing the remains of as many as 400 long-lost Australian and British soldiers who perished in World War I.

The remains, buried in a cluster of mass graves discovered in 2008, are to be individually reinterred in a cemetery being built near the site.

Australian, British and French dignitaries gathered in the village of Fromelles for a ceremony marking the launch of the project, which is expected to conclude in just over a year.

"Today marks the beginning of the journey to afford many of those killed at Fromelles with a fitting and dignified final place of rest," said Admiral Sir Ian Garnett, Vice Chairman of Australia's Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is charged with overseeing the excavation.

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