Not many young (or even old, for that matter) Australians know very much about the the WW1 Battle of Fromelles even though it was the darkest day ever in Australian history.
Today is the 103rd anniversary of that battle and I attended, along with other members of The Friends of the 15th Brigade Association, a wonderful commemorative service at the ‘Cobbers Statue’ in the grounds of the Shrine of Remembrance here in Melbourne. This statue is a copy of the original one on the battlefield at Fromelles in France. It depicts a sergeant of the 57th Battalion rescuing a wounded soldier from No Mans Land between the British and German trenches.. Jill and I attended the unveiling ceremony of this statue in 2008 and you can read about that event HERE.
The Friends of the 15th Brigade commemorate the leadership of Brigadier General ‘Pompey’ Elliot whose five battalions formed the 15th Brigade within the 5th Division of the WW1 Australian Imperial Force. After the war, he was one of the three most famous names of WW1 in Australia and my grandfather served as a Sergeant in one of his Battalions, the 57th. My good friend, Ken Wriedt’s grandfather served in the 60th Battalion, another component of the 15th Brigade, as a Lieutenant.
The action at Fromelles was the first engagement that most Australian soldiers in WW1 experienced on the Western Front in France. It was a disaster because of the leadership of inept and pompous British commanders under whom we operated at that stage of the war.
The ultimate commander was General (later Field Marshal). Sir Douiglas ‘The Butcher’ Haig. He was an old fashioned officer who believed in the value of the cavalry as a decisive element of battle. His belief was made completely irrelevant by the invention of then Gatling Gun in the American Civil War, however Haig persisted with this view and sent thousands of young men to their death. He even held this view for over ten years after the war was over.
He is the primary reason that when you visit the battlefields in France, you find yourself going from one Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery to another. The graveyards are everywhere, some of them very small, comprising only a handful of white marble headstones and others are huge. Many bear the inscription, A Soldier of the Great War / Known unto God. One sees so many of these cemeteries and so many headstones—along with the vast memorials at Thievpal, Ypres, and the Australian Memorial at Villers Brettoneux that bear the names of thousands of soldiers whose bodies were never recovered—that after a few hours of it, you feel numb and overwhelmed.
The British commander to whom the Australians then directly reported to was Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Haking. It was the inept performance of commanders like him that gave many of he British generals a reputation for stupidity and incompetence. Haking had a simplistic faith in all-out attacks. According to Haking, even if a defending force was stronger than the unit attacking it, the attackers would win. Such absurdity during a war dominated by heavy artillery, machine-guns and barbed wire had clearly been demonstrated by mid-1916 but Haking ordered the Fromelles attack without any consideration of the men and their lives.
The magnitude of the Battle of Fromelles still stuns my imagination. It was only a feint – a skirmish to draw the German’s attention and prevent them sending reinforcements to the main Battle of the Somme, 100 kilometres to the South.. Fromelles was an epic of both slaughter and futility; a real waste of men and materiel such as we had never seen before, or since. On July 19 1916, Australians went ‘over the top’ and suffered over 5,550 casualties – more than the whole 10 months of the Gallipoli Campaign. Some 2,000 men died (of whom over 1200 were never found) and 400 who were taken prisoner. Considering all of this slaughter, we did not hold a single one of our objectives. The brunt of The Australian part of this battle fell on the 15th Brigade commanded by Pompey Elliot. He is reported as standing in tears as he counted his men returning from No Man’s Land after it was all over.
Around 410 of the men who died in this battle are buried in an unmarked grave at a cemetery called VC Corner, near Fromelles. Over recent years, another mass grave was discovered and around 250 bodies have been exhumed and reinterred with full military honours in a cemetery near Pheasant Wood. DNA from their descendants has enabled the identification of many previously unknown soldiers and their families now have some closure. The retired teacher, Lambis Englezos, who discovered this mass grave did a superb job as MC of today’s commemorative service. Andrew Guest, another Vietnam Veteran, whose Great Uncle participated in the battle at Fromelles read the names of those recently identified.
Today’s service was superbly organised and well run. It was attended by well over 100 people including representatives from government, veterans organisations, military and representatives of both the French and British Governments. I hope even more people will attend next year’s commemoration service.