On Saturday, July 19th, we attended a very moving ceremony at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance where a copy of the famous statue of ‘Cobbers’ by the sculptor Peter Corliss was unveiled by the Premier of Victoria and the visiting Mayor of the French Village of Fromelles.
This statue has special significance to us as we have previously visited the original one at the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles in France. The battle that it commemorates was the first major action that most Australians, including my Grandfather, Walter Wilson, would have seen shortly after their arrival at the Western Front in WW1. It probably changed Walter’s life forever.
The battle of Fromelles was ordered by the incompetent and bullying British General Sir Richard Cyril Byrne Haking who acquired a reputation as a “butcher” – a commander willing to fight battles of attrition that needlessly meant the loss of significant numbers of men. As a result of his terrible decision, July 19th 1916, became the worst day ever in Australian history. Most of the AIF’s 15th Brigade was annihilated and on that day Australia suffered 5573 casualties, including more than 2,500 deaths. Haking even had the hide to later write to the Australian (and British) field commanders saying “This engagement has probably done your units some good!”
My Grandfather’s unit, the 57th Battalion was in reserve on that day, and after the battle, they moved into defend the line. While a truce was refused by the British command, many men decided to take it on to themselves to venture into no man’s land and rescue as many wounded as they could. One of the leaders of this effort (conducted under fire) was Sergeant Simon Fraser. He is immortalised in this statue. Members of my grandfather’s battalion (57th Battalion) rescued over 400 men over the next days.
The term ‘cobber’ is now little used in Australia, but in the early 1900’s it was a common term meaning ‘mate’ or ‘buddy’. Apparently, as Simon Fraser was collecting a wounded soldier from a location deep in no man’s land, another wounded man called out from somewhere nearby “Don’t forget me cobber!” He was ultimately rescued by a returning stretcher party.
It is difficult for me to think of this battle without a feeling of anger and despair. Mostly I just feel a very deep level of sorrow for those men and their families whose lives were needlessly cut short. What would the future have brought to those thousands of young Australians had they survived?
‘Cobbers’ is a wonderful memorial. The Australian statue stands at the entrance to the Shrine reserve amidst parkland and is backed by modern commercial buildings. The French one stands in the original battlefield on the ruins of a German bunker, one of the targets of the battle in 1916. Both do an excellent job of portraying a terrible incident in Australian history and the outstanding heroism of our soldiers.