Australian War Memorial Tour of the Western Front 2007
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The Australian Memorial Park, Fromelles
The Park is situated around the remains of fortifications on the part of the German line, which was captured by the 14th Australian Brigade and held overnight on 19-20 July 1916. The Park and the nearby VC Corner Cemetery, some 3 kms from Fromelles, in northern France, are 8 kms south of Armentieres, and 16 kms west of Lille. The central feature of the Memorial Park is the sculpture "Cobbers" by Peter Corlett of Melbourne. The sculpture is based on 3101 Sergeant Simon Fraser of 57th Battalion, a 40 year old Victorian farmer turned soldier who rescued many men from the battlefield, carrying a man of 60th Battalion. Later, Fraser, as a Lieutenant of 58th Battalion, was Mentioned in Despatches before being killed at Bullecourt on 12 May 1917. His name is recorded on the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.
The battle at Fromelles: 19–20 July 1916
The worst scene of slaughter of Australian troops in a single day in the war
’The Battle of the Somme’ started on 1 July 1916. To reinforce its army, the Germans began to bring troops from other fronts. When battalions from Lille were reported entraining for the Somme, the British devised ‘an attack at Fromelles’ which would, they hoped, persuade the Germans to keep their men there. The task was given to the XI British Corps which brought together the 61st British Division and the 5th Australian Division for the attack. Both were inexperienced, the Australians having arrived 29 June and the British a month earlier.
The German blockhouses at Fromelles
In a hurried and poorly planned operation the Divisions attacked on a front of 4 kilometres. The German lines had been consolidated, often
behind concrete block-houses, over the previous 15 months, with their artillery ideally placed behind them on the high ground of Aubers Ridge. In contrast the Australian artillery only began to organise on 9 July. Over the next few days the Australian infantry, in full view of German
observers, carried forward ammunition, sandbags, picks and shovels, duckboards, a tramline, food, water and medical supplies, often working 24 hour shifts. The British troops had carried in 1500 gas cylinders (four men to a cylinder). When it was realised there was no wind to blow the gas over the German lines, and that they were a danger if kept unused in the front line, nearly all the cylinders were carried out. Thus, the rank and file were ‘on their knees’ when the attack was scheduled for the morning of 17 July. That day early mists prevented
the artillery from registering its fire onto its targets, and the attack was rescheduled for 19 July at 6 pm in case of further mists.
The Bavarians on the other side held up a notice on 18 July ‘Why so long?—you are 24 hours late’—a most revealing event. While the significance of this was lost on those directing the operation, it was not lost on the men in the trenches. Because of the low-lying, water-logged nature of the area, the deep trenches used elsewhere on the Western Front were not possible at Fromelles.
Breastworks had to be built instead. These were walls up to three metres thick, constructed of bags filled with local mud and built up in front of shallow trenches. These breastworks, often known as parapets, provided very poor protection from artillery shell fire. It was over these parapets, or through ‘sally ports’, exits built through the breastworks, that the men had to begin to attack the German Line. The Australian and German lines were separated by a strip of land known as ‘No-Man’s Land’. In front of the Australians, No-Man’s Land ranged in width from 80
to 400 metres. Running through it was a small river much diverted by shell craters. The whole area had become a marsh in which neglected crops and wild grass, about a metre high, hid the treacherous nature of the terrain. Barbed wire was everywhere.
The German machine guns were well sited and covered their entire line. The most formidable installation was at the Sugarloaf, a heavily
reinforced building, perhaps once a farmhouse, on ‘the elbow’ of the line overlooking the widest part of No-Man’s Land and so able to provide enfilade fire over more than half the front. Against such odds, after a heavy but inaccurate artillery bombardment, described by some as worse
than anything they had experienced on Gallipoli, the men of the two Divisions (12 Battalions, 2 from each of 6 Brigades) went into battle.
On the far left of the Australian sector was 8th Brigade, next to it 14th and then 15th. On their right the 184th British, then 183rd, and at the far
right facing the Wick salient, another substantial blockhouse, was the 182nd. The 8th, 14th and 182nd Bdes were able to capitalise on the relative narrowness of No-Man’s Land to their front and penetrate the German lines before dark. The 183rd fell victim to a particularly accurate bombardment, and the 184th faced the full fury of the Sugarloaf’s machine guns and was inoperative after 15 minutes. That then allowed all the Sugarloaf’s firepower to concentrate on the 15th Bde men trying to work their way over 400 metres of No-Man’s Land. It was of course impossible, and they were cut down wave by wave. It is thought that a few men might have reached the wire immediately in front of the
Sugarloaf as pieces of Australian uniform were found there after the Armistice. Later in the evening, XI Corps HQ asked whether it
was possible for the 184th, supported by the 15th, to mount another attack on the Sugarloaf. This was not possible for the 184th because they were not permitted to use their reserve battalion. HQ Australian 5th Div, however, authorised the use of the reserve battalion in the 15th Bde. A complete shambles in communications resulted in the 58th Bn and survivors of the first attack (59th Bn) going forward alone. They failed. Only darkness saved them from extinction.
It was the 14th Bde’s success that was the most spectacular. They captured their objective and advanced well beyond it, aware that the 8th on their left were also well placed, but unaware of the total absence of any support on their right. A small party moved half a kilometre behind the lines, but they were very much alone. At 5 am on 20 July it was decided by XI Corps HQ to withdraw, leaving the men of the 8th, 14th and 182nd to find their way back. In all instances the Germans had reorganised overnight and came round behind the intruders, so that they had to fight back through a German line to return to their own. The losses would have been even worse had not the reserve battalions provided assistance but even so some 470 prisoners were taken from 8th and 14th Bdes. On the next day, these, and the few British captured, were paraded in Haubourdin: it is said that the populace came forward and gave them chocolates. By mid-morning on 20 July there were, by
German estimates (later proved to be very accurate), 2000 corpses on No-Man’s Land. There were also thousands of immobile wounded sheltering in shell holes, ditches, in the river or in thick grass. Stretcher bearers, together with everybody else who could not withstand the call of broken men, worked continuously bringing the wounded off the battlefield, and in most cases were left by the Germans to do that work. Around noon, opposite 8th Bde’s position, a truce was offered by the Saxon Regiment that had relieved the Bavarian Regiment overnight, to enable the dead and wounded to be evacuated. This was rejected by the British and Australian HQs. However, at a lower level, an arrangement was reached whereby the wounded were taken back under cover of darkness. The dead were left where they fell. Later, men were sent out to take from the bodies their identity discs and personal belongings, and these were subsequently posted to the next of kin. This is one reason why there are so many unidentified Australians in the surrounding cemeteries.
Both sides then set about rebuilding their parapets and trenches, in full view of each other, later conducting raids, but little more than that. The
5th Division remained in the line till October when it moved south to the Somme region, where the great battle had now finished.
The 5th Division’s 5533 casualties were made up of 1917 killed in action and died of wounds, 3146 wounded, and 470 POWs. In terms of Bns, the casualties were: 29th—216, 30th—352, 31st—544, 32nd—718: 53rd—625, 54th—540, 55th—341, 56th—151: 57th—35, 58th—248, 59th—695, 60th—757.