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Today was the 106th anniversary of the World War 1 Battle of Fromelles. Its commemoration is a significant activity for the military remembrance organisation ‘Friends of the 15th Brigade’ to which I belong with my good friend, and fellow Vietnam veteran, Ken.
I’ve written about the history and significance of this battle before (see here) but this year’s commemoration focused not only on the battle, but more on the human cost. It is the first service that we have been able to hold in two years because of Covid. It was held at the ‘Cobbers’ memorial statue in the grounds of our war memorial – Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. More about that statue later.
The Battle of Fromelles took place between 6pm on the 19th and 9am on the 20th of July 1916. That is a period of approximately 15 hours. Australia suffered its most significant loss of life at Fromelles, unsurpassed in any war since. The official number of casualties in this fifteen hour period is 5,533 men. They were up against a crack Bavarian regiment who were well armed with machine guns, artillery and who were well dug into substantial trenches.
As you can read in my previous post, (here) this unfortunate action had no justification and was a disaster from the start. The 200 metres of open ground over which the men of Australia’s 5th Division attacked (400m in some places) was twice the distance recommended for a frontal charge at enemy defences. Preparations were rushed and the artillery was inexperienced. Commanders dithered more than once as to whether this attack should proceed.
The main culprit in the Fromelles catastrophe was British Corps commander, Sir Richard Haking. At the time, the Australian Army served under the command of the British. General Haking had a notorious reputation for pernicious incompetence. He 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.’ His philosophy sent thousands of men to their death and he had the gall to later say “I think the attack, although it failed, has done both divisions a great deal of good.” He became known as ‘Haking the Butcher’.
The heartbreaking impact of this battle at home began when telegram boys across Australia delivered so many communications of terrible news, mates wrote to families with sad stories and the Army wrote to families about the loss of a loved one. Most immediate families were so traumatised, that they never again, spoke of their lost loved one. Many families were grief stricken and posted, sometimes yearly ‘in memorium notices’ in the newspapers of the day, quite often with poems to remember their dead loved ones fondly.
To this date, many soldiers remain in unmarked graves. About 410 bodies are interred in a mass grave at the Australian cemetery at VC Corner near the little village of Fromelles but none can be unidentified. More recently a discovery of a previously unknown mass grave at nearby Pheasant Wood began a quest to identify these soldiers and record their stories. Around 200 more families are now able to know the fate of their sons, brothers, fathers, uncles and grandfathers.
Some Australians were captured. The treatment of prisoners varied greatly, but they generally fared better the further away from the front line they were moved. The Fromelles prisoners were gradually distributed across Germany, where they were imprisoned in camps alongside British, French and Russian troops.
Many men from this battle and other engagements in the war returned as broken men, never recovering from the horrors that they experienced. My grandfather died when I was very young but I understand that he was a ‘different man’ after returning home. I can only imagine what the difference was between his personality before and after the war. Fortunately, for him, his Battalion was held in reserve during this battle, although they were fully engaged in other parts of the WW1 conflict.
“Cobbers” is a prominent 1998 sculpture by Peter Corlett of Sergeant Simon Fraser from my grandfather’s battalion (57th) rescuing a wounded compatriot from No Man’s Land after the battle. The British insensitively refused an enemy offer to hold a ceasefire after the battle so that the injured could be recovered. Sergeant Fraser, a wheat farmer from Rural Victoria couldn’t stand to hear the cries of the wounded, so under his own initiative, he ventured out beyond the trenches to recover as many men as he could. He inspired others to join him. So began an informal rescue effort. As the rescuers passed wounded men, they would call, out “Don’t forget me cobber”. (Cobbler is an old fashioned word for a friend, mate or buddy. It was a term still used when I was a child but it has since passed into history). Sgt Fraser’s efforts are truly worthy of statue that honours his actions.