Australian Army’s Single Bloodiest Day of War




What is described as “the single bloodiest day in the history of the Australian Army” and one of Australia’s greatest 20th century tragedies, took place at Fromelles (Northern France) on the 19 and 20 July 1916.

Fromelles - VC Corner Australian Cemetery (Credit Wikipedia)

Fromelles – VC Corner Australian Cemetery (Credit Wikipedia)

In 2014 two significant anniversaries will take place in Europe: 100 years since the outbreak of the Great War (World War I) and the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. Continuing our remembering the Great War Series, French News Online here records aspects of the battle which cost most Australian lives in the history of that nation’s armed forces. (Acknowledgements and thanks to Delphine BARTIER head of media relations at ADRT Nord, (Agence de Développement et de Réservation Touristique):

Despite massive losses in the first 24 hours of the Somme offensive, British GHQ came to believe, in the days that followed, that the situation was in fact more encouraging than it seemed and that the German enemy was set to beat a large-scale  retreat.  On the 9th July 1916 and further to destabilise the German front, it was decided to launch a major diversionary offensive to take Aubers Ridge and cut round to the rear of the enemy.

The near 4 km long attack front was overlooked by very strong German defences from positions such as the Sugar Loaf salient, a well-armed concrete bunker that dominated British lines.  The plan called for a slow, methodical, massive bombardment, immediately followed by an infantry advance and attack. With the situation on the 16th of July deteriorating sharply along the Somme, the Fromelles operation certainly came at a challenging moment. Nevertheless the mass offensive planned by IX British Army Corps commander Lieutenant-General R. Haking, prevailed over all counter arguments raised by high command,

Launched at 0600 on the morning of 19th July, 1916, the infantry attack immediately came under intense machine-gun and artillery fire as it moved, via sally-ports that became death traps, across a 300 m extent of no-man’s land. The four waves of infantry were mowed down one after another, five minutes apart.

The few Australian soldiers who managed to penetrate the German front line were immediately isolated and subjected to counter-attack. No-man’s land was littered with Australian corpses, a scene that reminded some eye-witnesses of an open-air slaughterhouse. Even though the failure was immediately perceived, a second attack was launched at 0900. On the morning of 20th July two totally isolated Australian survivors from the first attack wave who had spent the night in German trenches, moved to return to their lines. They were mown-down by German machine guns however.

The final fatality count in this battle says all there needs to be said about the brutality of an industrialised war that made intensive use of artillery and machine guns:  2000 Australians killed or missing, 3,500 wounded and taken prisoner, 1500 Britons out of action while the Germans, in their defensive position, reported 1,600 casualties.

After the destruction wrought by World War I, the village of Fromelles was reborn rising from devastation and ruin. Farmers returned to producing crops on once-ravaged lands and by the end of the 20th century only Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries and some German blockhouses remained to mark what had been a ferocious battlefield.

In 2007 the discovery of five mass graves dug by Germans two days after the battle, and their subsequent careful excavation, unearthed the remains of 250 people — mainly Australians — a good many of whom were later identified through DNA analysis. Their remains now lie buried in a new cemetery in the village. A Franco-Australian museum stands as a memorial to the tragedy of the Battle of Fromelles, described as the worst 24 hours in Australian military history.

Fromelles- Cobbers statute in the memorial park (Credit: Wikipedia)

Fromelles- Cobbers statute in the memorial park (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Australian Memorial Park

For three days and nights after the fury of the Battle of Fromelles men ventured into no-man’s-land, despite the potential danger of enemy fire, to bring in their wounded comrades. It is this spirit of camaraderie that is so clearly reflected in the statue that now stands in the centre of the Memorial Park. The statue depicts Sergeant Simon Fraser carrying a wounded man of the 60th Battalion on his shoulders to safety. The work is entitled ‘Cobbers’ — Australian slang for “mates”. In a diary he kept Simon Fraser describes how he came to the aid of some of the wounded soldiers, acts which prompted his selection as the model for the Fromelles Memorial Park statue sculpted by Peter Corlett of Melbourne.

Discovery of the Pheasant Wood mass graves

Following independent research by French and Australian historians, the Australian Government conducted tests in 2007 and 2008 on sites located on the edge of what the Germans during the Great War had called Pheasant Wood. The tests revealed the presence of five mass graves dug by the Germans after the Battle of Fromelles. In 2009 it was decided to exhume the bodies and carefully recover all evidence so as to identify the remains using DNA samples and other records.

The remains of 250 servicemen were exhumed following a careful study by a team of archaeologists, anthropologists, forensic experts and military historians, and the bodies were reburied at Pheasants Wood the new military cemetery. Using all the evidence collected during the excavations, a research program is to be carried out in 2014 to identify the remains: with data to be matched to military records of soldiers missing in action. DNA samples will be compared with those of Australian and British families whose relatives were known to have disappeared during the battle.

Australian 53rd Bn Fromelles 19 July 1916  (Credit Wikipedia)

Australian 53rd Bn Fromelles 19 July 1916 (Credit Wikipedia)

 

As part of the 100th anniversary Remembrance events which start in 2014, a series of  trails have been established for visitors to the war memorial sites.

The Australian Remembrance Trail along the Western Front and the Musée Jean et Denise Letaille Bullecourt 1917.

This Australian Remembrance Trail connects all World War I sites in France and Belgium where Australian forces saw action. Each year on 25th April Anzac Day is celebrated in remembrance of the sacrifice made by the Diggers, the nickname earned by these courageous soldiers from the other side of the globe. This trail passes through the various sites where Australians fought — Villers-Bretonneux in the Somme and Ypres in West Flanders Zonnebeke. In Nord-Pas de Calais, they are honoured at Fromelles and Bullecourt. This is why the Australian Government supports two major museum projects: the rehabilitation of the Jean et Denise Letaille Bullecourt 1917 Museum (which was re-opened on 25th April, 2012) and the creation of the new Fromelles memorial visitor centre.

At Bullecourt, Australians fought and died in two battles on 11th April 1917 and between 3rd and 17th May 1917. The Jean et Denise Letaille Bullecourt 1917 museum displays a collection of personal effects carried by soldiers from various countries (watches, cigarette cases, pipes, spoons, forks, knives, wallets, pencils, dominoes, cards, etc).

It includes weapons, helmets, ammunition, tank tracks, machine guns, remains of correspondence, kitchen utensils, cans, bottles …  The artefacts in the M. Delebarre Collection have been painstakingly assembled over several . (Coll) (CK) decades by local farmers, Jean et Denise Letaille, who are determined to ensure that “the memory is never lost.” The scenography is a mix of classic and modern. The audio-guide offers visitors a commentary in English and French. The collection is displayed in a 210 m2 area covered from floor to ceiling. The Diggers portrait gallery is particularly moving.

The Museum of the Battle of Fromelles

Its opening is planned for early 2014. The new museum project — a centre hosting the FWTM 14-18 (Association Fromelles-Weppes – Terre de Mémoire 14-18) and collections — is made possible through the support of the Government of Australia and includes objects loaned by Australia. It will reflect the archaeology of the site of the mass graves at Pheasants Wood, an extraordinary discovery.

Story (from ADRT media pack): Ken Pottinger
editorial@french-news-online.com

More information and guidebooks available in English see:

 

In the footsteps of Wilfred Owen

In the footsteps of Wilfred Owen

Click here to preview the walking guide for the Wilfred Owen trail: Guidepedestre_ORS_GB_VDEF_web.pdf

The Battle of Fromelles guide

The Battle of Fromelles guide

Click here to preview the walking guide for the Battle of Fromelles: Guidepedestre_Fromelles_GB_VDEF_web.pdf

—  part of a collection of local walks now in place in memory of the Great War in the Nord-Pas de Calais region.

 

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