Saturday 23 February 2013

The Battle of Fromelles - First World War Tragedy

On the evening of 19th July 1916, British and Australian infantry attacked across a 4,000 yard section of the German front line at Fromelles.   It is situated south of Armentieres on the Aubers Ridge and an attempt to dislodge the Germans from this position in the previous year, 1915, had already cost the Allies many casualties. The battle was partly planned to divert German attention and resources from the battle of the Somme that was raging 80 kilometres to the south, but there was another major battle objective of taking a German salient called the Sugar Loaf.  The British troops were from the 61st Division, also known as the 2nd South Midland Division, and the Australians were from the Australian 5th Division, which had only arrived in France a few days before.

Australian 53rd Battalion at Fromelles, July 1916
Australian 53rd Battalion at Fromelles, July 1916

They went over the top at 6pm and advanced in broad daylight and in clear view of the German defenders, the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division, over treacherous ground.  The battle plan of General Richard Haking was to mount a daylight surprise attack past the first line of German trenches and advance around 400 metres to a secondary line.  As this was preceded by an 11 hour preliminary artillery bombardment, it was hardly surprising that the Germans were prepared and ready to meet their attackers.  Within minutes the British and Australians had sustained heavy casualties, and tragically they failed to make any ground at all.

The Australian 8th and 14th Brigades did largely hit their objectives, but they found that the German secondary line when they fought their way through to it was merely an indefensible, water-filled ditch.   On the eastern flank, the Australian 32nd Battalion suffered heavy losses attacking a German stronghold at Delangre Farm, although parts of the 14th Brigade reached the main road 400 metres to the south before they were forced to retreat back to the ditch. On the right flank, the British 184th Brigade and the Australian 15th Brigade were mown down as they attempted to cross no man’s land and reach the German front line.

With a display of ineptitude that unfortunately characterised the implementation of many battle plans in the First World War, the British 61st Division requested the Australian 15th Brigade to join in a renewed attack at 9pm.   The British cancelled the attack and failed to inform the Australians that they had done so, so the Australian 58th Battalion attacked the salient again with disastrous consequences.  The Germans managed to get in between the Australian 14th and 15th Brigades, isolating the Australians and forcing the 8th and 14th Brigades to withdraw the next morning.  As they were retreating, the Australian troops sustained heavy casualties from the machine gun enfilades that the Germans had managed to set up.

 In the night and day it took to fight the battle, 1,500 British and 5,533 Australians became casualties and for Australia it is still one of the highest number of casualties that they have suffered in 24 hours of conflict.  The Australian 5th Division was rendered virtually inoperable by the Battle of Fromelles and had to be rebuilt over several months.  These high Australian losses and the way in which the High Command had been perceived to be conducting itself before and during the battle, had the unfortunate effect of souring relations between the Australian Imperial Force and the British.  Although Gallipoli had taken nearly 9,000 Australian lives in 1915, that battle has stretched over several months.  This was 5,533 casualties, effectively all being sustained in one day.

Allied Dead Behind the German Lines at Fromelles, 1916
Allied Dead Behind the German Lines at Fromelles, 1916

After the battle was over, great courage was shown by the surviving troops as they braved the German guns and sniper fire to crawl out into no man’s land and bring in their injured comrades.  On the outskirts of Fromelles is the Australian Memorial Park which has a moving statue of one Australian soldier carrying another over his shoulders to safety.  It is inscribed with one word ‘Cobbers’.  This comes from the story told by Sergeant Simon Fraser of the Australian 57th Battalion who was out between the lines rescuing an injured man.  He was about to lift the wounded soldier when he hears another voice calling out ‘don’t forget me, cobber’.  Luckily, Fraser was successful in rescuing both men, but he lost his own life to the Great War a year later.  Even the new school in Fromelles does not have a French name; it has been called ‘Cobbers’ by the local mayor and has a kangaroo as a weather vane.

In May 2008 eight mass graves were found in Pheasant Wood near Fromelles in Northern France, although only six were found to contain bodies, after several years’ painstaking research and work by an Australian schoolteacher called Lambis Englezos.  They dated from the First World War; from the futile battle that raged over that ground from 19th-20th July in 1916 and were discovered behind the old German lines.  These would have been the bodies of the Australian and British soldiers who had been killed in the German lines and removed by them after the battle.

From May 2009 archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology excavated the site unearthing the remains of the 250 British and Australian soldiers and carefully removing them by September 2009.  The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was asked to oversee the work on the site by the British and Australian governments.   A new military cemetery at Fromelles was created for the reburial of the bodies, the first new one in Europe in over 50 years, with each set of remains having their own individual plot and commemorative headstone.

Every effort was made to identify the remains and the archaeologists and DNA specialists worked hard to try and link names to the bodies and then inform their families.  DNA samples were taken from all the bodies and a list was compiled of all the casualties from Fromelles who have no known grave.   Out of the 1685 soldiers with no known grave, 450 were British and the rest Australian.  Relatives of all the missing men were encouraged to come forward for DNA testing, in the hope that all 250 of the bodies could be positively identified and have their names carved on their new headstones.

There were also six anthropologists working on the remains, who provided a range of anthropological information on each body that has been added to other data collected about the body, including analysis of any artefacts that were found that with the remains.    The artefacts included boots, coins, fragments of their bibles, rings and probably most poignantly of all, the return half of an Australian train ticket from Fremantle to Perth.  After the remains were removed from the mass graves, they were washed, dried and x-rayed and any anatomical details noted that might help the Commonwealth War Graves Commission identify the body.

The bodies were temporarily stored in a mortuary on the site and then reburied in individual ceremonies with full military honours in the new military cemetery from early 2010. The first burial took place with full ceremony on 30th January 2010 and there was a special commemoration ceremony held on 19th July 2010, the anniversary of the battle.

Fromelles Military Cemetery
Fromelles Military Cemetery

General Ludendorff once made the famous statement about the Allies that ‘these men are fighting like lions, but they are led by donkeys’. So we have to ask ourselves this question.  Even if the British and Australian infantry had gained their objectives on that long ago evening in July 1916, would it have been worth the loss of so many young lives?  It is the fact that the battle proved to be a total catastrophe and that no ground was gained at all, which makes it all even sadder.  That these brave young men gave up their lives fighting for what they believed in and for their country in a futile, pointless battle.  One of the great ironies of the Battle of Fromelles is that a young German Private named Adolf Hitler was serving with his regiment in the German trenches in that area.  One stray allied shell or bullet could have changed the course of world history.

So whatever we think of war and the First World War in particular, let us salute the soldiers who fought and never forget that they were young men with their whole lives ahead of them who were prepared to pay the price asked and selflessly lay down their lives.

53rd Battalion image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain (Australian War Memorial A03042)

Allied Dead at Fromelles image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain (Australian War Memorial PO6285.001)

Fromelles Military Cemetery image Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic

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