The Fromelles Disaster
It is fitting, perhaps, that a small cemetery in a corner of the Fromelles battlefield should be the final resting place of 211 recently identified Australian soldiers. It is a reminder that today, a hundred years after the bloody battle of Fromelles, there are still eleven hundred plus Diggers officially listed as missing, their final resting place unknown.
Once, the German front line ran close to the edge of this cemetery. Today, the Line is marked by the ruins of an old block house. This little bit of German trench was the only part reached and captured, by Australians on the night of the 19th/20thJuly 1916. The attack was a fiasco that resulted in 5533 casualties from the newly formed 5th Division of the AIF. In addition there were 1547 British casualties. The German losses numbered about 1000. When those still listed as missing are added to the official death toll, a total of 2634 young Australians were killed during their first battle on the Western front.
When planning the campaign on the Somme, the British conceived an idea of a smaller deceptive attack, about 80km to the north near the village of Fromelles. It was hoped that the Germans would think Fromelles was the site of a major offensive. The Battle of the Somme began without this feint attack but later the idea was reconsidered. There would be an artillery bombardment from 288 guns and 72 howitzers for three days. The Germans would think that a major attach was imminent and not transfer troops to the Somme. Just before the guns were due to begin firing, the plan was changed to include an infantry attack.
From the beginning it was a huge mistake. At every turn, those in command increased the possibility of failure and the corresponding probably of a large number of casualties.
At Fromelles, the line of German trenches projected into ground held by the allies. In other words the Germans were surrounded on three sides by English and Australian troops. In the centre was a low rise facing North West. This was the Sugar Loaf Salient. The British commanders believed that it was not well defended and a good place to launch the feint attack. However, the Germans held the high ground at the top of the rise. They overlooked no-man’s-land, a flat area of bogs and overgrown vegetation. The British commanders were wrong; the German trenches of the ‘Sugarloaf Salient’ were very well defended.
Three divisions took part in the attack. The British 31st and 61st Divisions attacked from the centre and right flank. The Australian 5th Division was on the left. The 31st Division had been fighting at the Somme. They were battle weary and had been posted to the Armentieres area for a rest. The British 61st and Australian 5th Divisions were new to the battlefield and totally inexperienced.
The 5th Division was the newest of the Australia forces. It had been cobbled together from some experienced Gallipoli troops transferred from the 1st and 2nd Divisions but mostly from new recruits who had never been into battle. Not only were many of its soldiers raw recruits but many of the officers were newly appointed with little experience in leading men into battle. Once formed, the Division was involved in intensive training for three and a half months in Eygpt. When it disembarked in Marseilles on 23rd June 1916, it was still considered far too inexperienced to go into battle. The 5th Division was sent to the Armentieres area, considered a quieter part of the Front. On the nights of the 10th and 11th July, it relieved the 4th Division, which moved to the Somme. A week later it was ordered into battle at Fromelles about 10km to the south.
The attack was planned for the 17th but was delayed due to heavy rain. On 19th July, it went ahead. The 58th and 60th Battalions were part of the 15th Brigade, one of three brigades in the 5th Division. At 11am, men of the 60th Battalion moved up to the ‘jumping off’ trench. At Fromelles, the front consisted of barricades constructed, above the ground, from sand bags. The soil beneath was boggy and unsuitable for digging trenches. The Germans, on the high ground, watched the preparations of the Australian and British troops.
When the 4th Division of the AIF moved to the Somme to fight in the battle of Pozieres, their artillery unit was left behind. It was considered too inexperienced for a major conflict. The 4th Division artillery was merged with the 5th Division artillery. The artillery bombardment that preceded the infantry attack at Fromelles was in the hands of units these units from the 4th and 5th Divisions. Inexperience was not the only problem with the vital artillery support for the battle. The bombardment was reduced from three days to eleven hours. There were fewer guns than promised and less ammunition. The bombardment was late starting. It failed to destroy the barbed wire in front of the German trenches. The Germans were well entrenched deep below ground. The Australian shells had no major impact. They did, however, alert the Germans that the attack was imminent. They began shelling the British and Australian positions. There were many casualties long before the battle began.
By 4.20pm the men of the 60th Battalion were strung out behind the sand bags. They could hear their artillery barrage but had no way of knowing that most of the Germans had moved back from their front line and were waiting safely in underground bunkers. When the barrage lifted, the Germans moved back into their trenches and waited with machine guns and rifles, ready for the Australia’s to climb over their barricades. At 6.45, the first of four waves of men scaled the sand bags and charged the German line. The last men left the relative safety of their trench a 7pm. Artillery shells continued to fall and there was no way to avoid them. Machine guns sprayed no-man’s-land and the German rifle fire was accurate and deadly. Casualties were heavy and soon the ground was littered with the dead and wounded. The Australian advance was halted ninety metres from the German trenches. The attack was a horrific failure. During the night, survivors, many of them wounded, made their way back to the allied line. The next day patrols were sent into no-man’s-land to attempt to rescue those who were still alive. The Battalion was relieved on 20th July. When they reached their billets a roll call was made. Only four officers and 61 soldiers were present. Seven hundred and fifty-seven had become casualties.
The 58th Battalion was also part of the 15th Brigade. The battalion did not take part in the initial battle. A and B Companies were in reserve while C and D Companies provided support. C Company carried ammunition to those fighting. D company was told to construct a communications trench across no-man’s-land. At 9.30pm A and B Company soldiers were called to battle. They left their trenches and began moving across no-man’s-land. In the dark, many trod on those who had perish earlier in the battle, as they too, experienced the full brutality of the German machine gun attack. Meanwhile, those in D Company were digging a communications trench into no-man’s-land in the middle of the battle. They were hit by shell fire with many casualties. During their charge to the German trenches, A and B Companies were annihilated. Altogether the battalion lost a third of its strength.
The 55th Battalion, 14th Brigade was also part of the newly formed 5th Division of the AIF. Held in reserve when the battle began, they were involved in capturing and holding part of the German trenches. The ruins of that part of the German Front are visible today to the side of the new Pheasant Woods Cemetery; the final resting place of the 211 recently interred Australian Diggers. The commanding officer of the 55th Battalion described the involvement of his troops than night thus-
‘Marched out of billets to join in the attack, which was launched about 6.00 pm. The attack was successful and the German trenches were carried. The trenches were held during the night and communication established with our own lines. Owing to strong counter attack by the enemy, and to being exposed on both flank, a retirement was necessary and this was effected.
The losses were heavy, but the battalion, four-fifths of which were strangers to battle, acquitted itself honourably in its first engagement and returned with 40 German prisoners.’
In reality, the encounters during the night were ferocious. There were bomb fights on the flanks. The Germans managed to enter old trenches behind the Australia positions, so they were attacked from both sides of the captured trench. This made the retreat very difficult. Soldiers were killed and many were taken prisoner. When heads were counted at the end of the retreat, 339 soldiers were missing from the line-up. Of these 37 were killed, 159 were wounded, 5 later died, and 143 were missing. Some of the missing had been taken prisoner, the majority were dead.
In September, there were still members of the 5th Division on the front at Fromelles. They looked across no-man’s-land, a churned quagmire, still littered with the bodies of many comrades who died in the battle. They were still shelled by the Germans on the high ground opposite. Periodically one was killed several were wounded. A hundred years later, many of those killed on the 19th July 1916 still lie beneath the fields around Fromelles, their identities unknown.
Lest We Forget.