Fromelles: Australia’s tragedy

The Battle of Fromelles, on the evening of July 19/20 1916, was Australia’s bloodiest ever day of battle. In just 24 hours, more Australian men were lost than in the Boer, Korean and Vietnam wars together. This was no heroic, glory-laden mission either, with the ends justifying the means. The idea was to divert German reinforcements from the Somme, but since the Germans knew all along that this was an Allied bluff, no such diversion occurred. The men fell, in their thousands, in a badly planned attack that achieved nothing. The offensive was a calamity from start to finish.

Men of 53rd Battalion Australian Infantry waiting to attack; 3 returned, The Great War I Was There Part 19

For a start, intelligence received prior to the battle was wrong. Most of the Allied resources were, at that time, being concentrated on the Somme region, so the fact that the Germans had left their front trenches and moved about 200 metres back, to heavily reinforced and raised positions with a perfect view of the battlefield, was missed. Therefore, a seven hour bombardment of the ‘German lines’ had not just little effect, but no effect whatsoever – not that the men knew this. H R Williams recalls in ‘The Great War… I was There! Part 19’ that: “The forward area was shrouded in a pall of dust and smoke and shell-bursts, and we believed that no man could live in such an inferno.”

Imagine the men’s surprise, then, when they ran forward over a narrow front and the German bombs began to rain down upon them. The Allies’ own barrage had given ample warning that an attack was imminent. According to The History Learning Site, the 61st Division of the British Army attacked the Sugar Loaf Ridge, but found itself being rapidly driven back by heavy machine gun fire and bombs. Some of the Australians were also driven back. Ironically, the units that were most mercilessly pummelled in the first instance suffered least casualties, as they were forced to retreat towards the shelter of the Allied trenches. The Australian 5th Division, attacking from a different angle, speedily crossed No Man’s Land, only to find itself not in a sheltered trench full of dead Germans, as imagined, but in a shallow, muddy ditch, utterly exposed to the fire of the all-too-numerous German guns.

Cheerier days in training, Australian troops in Egypt before being sent to the Western Front

The chaos is described in this manner by H R Williams: “All the while we were losing men. Some of the wounded lay in pools staining the water with their blood. Dead men, broken trench-material, scattered duckboards that tripped us as we passed, the smell of the fumes of high explosives, and the unforgettable odour of death made this trench a place of horror.” He explains that there was precious little opportunity for the Australians to attack anyone, they were too busy trying to stay alive. All efforts were focussed on reinforcing the collapsed trench line, against impossible odds. Not only were the men outnumbered, outclassed (they had only been on the Front Line for three days before the attack commenced) and trapped on low, boggy ground, but the Germans had been in the area for a long time and knew it very well. They kept appearing from all angles, lobbing grenades at the unfortunate Australians and disappearing before any retribution could be taken.

Although the 14th Australian Brigade had carried its objective, without help from the 61st Division and 15th Brigade it was forced to beat a very, very hazardous retreat. H R Williams’s description of this stage of the battle is nothing short of heart breaking: “The enemy’s bombing attacks could not be held long enough to allow all to retire through the sap. Therefore, the remnants of the rearguard, at a given signal, leaped out of the German front-line trench to run back over the open. We were powerless to assist them, and had to watch them being shot down at point-blank range. Regardless of anything else, we stood up on the fire-step to assist this race with death. It seemed an eternity of time until the lucky ones reached our parapets, to be pulled in by willing hands.”

An old ditch, the objective for the 8th and 14th Australian Infantry Brigades at Fromelles, The Great War I Was There Part 19
In all, 1,547 British troops and 5,533 Australian troops (90% of the 5th Division) became casualties that day… yet, while the battle is properly remembered as an Australian tragedy, it is largely forgotten by British historians. Probably this is because it went unreported at the time; after all, what government would go out of its way to publicise an atrociously planned dismal defeat, with no gains, in which many a brave man fought desperately, only to be cut down in his prime?
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