Fromelles (Fleurbaix) (World War 1, 19 July 1916 to 20 July 1916)

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About This Campaign

 

Fromelles (Fleurbaix) 19/20 July 1916

The Battle of Fromelles occurred in northern France between 19 and 20 July 1916, midway between the British-occupied village of Fleurbaix and that of Fromelles behind the German lines.  The battle was initially named for the village of Fleurbaix at the time.

 

This area was known as "The Nursery" because it was a relatively quiet sector and was used to introduce new troops to trench warfare.  The First Second and Fourth Divisions were all rotated through the sector after arriving in France, with the Fifth Division the last to come into the line.  While it was 'relatively' quiet, death still reached out to the unlucky, and tragic coincidence was not unknown. The Knight family, of Westbourne Park in Adelaide,  lost their two sons within three weeks of one another, serving in different (32nd and 52nd) Battalions in this sector as a result of small scale raids and shelling.

By July 1916, the dynamic had changed.  The British had opened their Somme offensive on 1 July, resulting in a disaster that eclipsed anything the British had previously endured, sustaining 60,000 casualties in the first day.  Near Fleurbaix, the British Staff decided that it would be useful to retake a salient (a projection of the German line into the Allied front), situated at about 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) from the city of Lille.  The action was intended as a diversion, to fix the German forces in place and prevent their being used to reinforce the Battle of the Somme that was taking place about 80 kilometres (50 miles) to the south. 

At that time XI Corps commanded by General Sir Richard Haking, comprised the British 61st and the Australian 5th Divisions. It was the first occasion that the AIF saw a large-scale action on the Western Front. The Australian Fifth Division comprised three Brigades; the 8th, 14th and 15th. The 8th was a composite Brigade comprised of units drawn from across Australia. The 14th Brigade was comprised of Battalions from New South Wales.  The 15th was drawn from Victoria.

From a South Australian perspective, most South Australians in the 5th Division were in the 8th Brigade; the 32nd Battalion was comprised of men from South Australia and Western Australia.  They were to take their place on the left of the Australian line.  Because of that fact, fate would prescribe a tragic but fascinating course of events.

The area is very flat with a high water table.  Instead of trenches, both sides used raised earthworks for protection from small arms and artillery fire,  in order to manage the water that would have flooded below-ground defences.  The Germans controlled the only "high ground" in the area;  a feature called "The Sugarloaf", built around the ruins of a farmhouse destroyed in 1914. 

Preparation for the attack was extended and in full view of the Germans.  In terms of the overall aim, the fact that the Germans could see the Allied preparations was not necessarily a problem.  The folly was to proceed with the attack, having already achieved their aim by causing the Germans to 'stay put' in anticipation of an attack.

The Australian War Memorial describes the battle as "the worst 24 hours in Australia's entire history."  It was a decisive victory for the German defenders, and the Australian and British losses were sustained without the Allies gaining any ground. After a night and a day of fighting, 1,500 British and 5,533 Australian soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

 

This battle is perhaps most evocatively described in an eye witness account.  Walter Downing, author of ‘To the Last Ridge" published in 1921, produced a gripping first-hand account of the War through the eyes of an infantry soldier.  At Fromelles, he was in the Victorian 57th Battalion, the 15th Brigade's reserve. They were on the right of the Australian line and their objective was "The Sugarloaf", bristling with machine guns. His battalion watched in mute disbelief as their colleagues in the 60th and then the 59th Battalions were annihilated.  

“Scores of stammering German machine guns spluttered violently, drowning the noise of the cannonade.  The air was thick with bullets, swishing in a flat lattice of death.  There were gaps in the lines of men – wide ones, small ones.  The survivors spread across the front, keeping the line straight.  There was no hesitation, no recoil, no dropping of the unwounded into shell-holes.  The bullets skimmed low, from knee to groin, riddling the tumbling bodies before they touched the ground.  Still the line kept on...

Hundreds were mown down in the flicker of an eyelid, like great rows of teeth knocked from a comb, but still the line went on, thinning and stretching….

Here one man alone, there two or three, walked un-hurrying, with the mien of kings, rifles at the high port and tipped with that foot of steel that carries the spirit of an army – heads high, that few, to meet the death they scorned.  No fury of battle but a determined calm bore them forward.  Theirs was an unquestioning self sacrifice that held back nothing.  They died, all but one or two who walked through the fire by a miracle….

Fifty six remained of a full thousand.  It was over in five minutes.”

Casualties continued to occur among the survivors over the next five days as attempts were made to retrieve the wounded.  The dead were left where they fell, although their colleagues in many cases retrieved their identity discs at great and frequently  fatal risk to themselves.  The remains of the dead still littered the battlefield at the Armistice in November 1918.  

C.E.W. Bean recounted;

“We found the old No-Man’s-Land simply full of our dead,” he recorded. “The skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere.”

With their ID discs removed, the remains were unidentifiable. They were buried in an unmarked, common grave in what is now VC Corner cemetery.  The names of all those lost are engraved on a series of tablets across the back of the cemetery.  

Large numbers of soldiers were not accounted for.  On the left flank, the 8th Brigade penetrated the German lines looking for a supposed second line of trenches.  Instead all they found was a muddy ditch and having over-extended, and with their right flank exposed by the failure of the neighbouring Brigades to neutralise the enemy machine guns, they were enfiladed, progressively cut off and destroyed piecemeal in counterattacks and clearance actions by the German defenders throughout the night and early morning of the 20th July.  Many had been killed or captured  behind enemy lines, mainly from the 8th Brigade.  The dead were were buried by the Germans.  

The tragic irony is that the British aim had been achieved prior to the battle without barely a shot having been fired.  It is arguable whether a massed attack (described as a 'raid' in some British accounts) was really necessary to fix the Germans and prevent them being sent south to reinforce the Somme.  The  Allied preparations were visible to the German defenders, so the Germans were not about to send their troops anywhere.

What happened at Fromelles was very similar in all but scale to the slaughter that occurred on the Somme just a week later.  Unfortunately the lessons seemed lost on many of those in the Staff and higher Command.  It would take a full year before significant change in British tactics became evident on the battlefield, at Messines and then again in mid 1918 when the tide turned.

Fromelles (or Fleurbaix as it was known at the time) was a disaster and news of it was not widely promulgated.  It was described as a 'series of important raids' in which '140 German prisoners were captured' in some British documents.  Downing’s account , detailed above, was the first eye witness account published; but not until 1921.  Of the very few awards made, Sergeant Walter Banning of the 32nd Battalion was one of the few recipients, winning a Military Medal.

The casualty lists from this battle set the tone for communities at home in Australia for the remainder of the War on the Western Front.  The 32nd Battalion sustained 17 Officers and 701 Other Ranks killed wounded or taken prisoner and like the rest of the Fifth Division had to reinforce and rebuild before being able to take part in further operations.

After extended research by a Melbourne school teacher, Lambis Englezos, a mass grave was discovered near Pheasant Wood in 2008.  Many of those buried there have subsequently been identified by DNA analysis and are buried in a new cemetery closer to Fromelles opened in 2010. Many are South Australians from the 32nd Battalion.

 

© Steve Larkins Dec 2013

Steve commanded the 10/27 RSAR Honour Guard which officiated at the opening of the Fromelles Memorial Park in July 1998.  He has subsequently worked as a Battlefield Guide.

 

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Stories

A family smitten........

The 24 hours of the Battle itself marked another Adelaide family like no other.

Emerging from that dreadful period is one of the most remarkable stories of coincidence and tragedy, concerning the Choat family of Clarence Park, a suburb of Adelaide in South Australia.

Three sons, with consecutive service numbers were all serving in A Company of the 32nd Battalion.

All three were listed as Missing or Killed in Action as a result of the battle. It is not clear if three separate telegrams were despatched without the connection having been made. One can only imagine what the Choat family must have endured on hearing this news.

However some weeks later it emerged that the second son, Wesley Paul Choat, had survived but had been captured by the Germans. Most remarkably after an initial, unsuccessful bid for freedom, he later escaped from captivity in Germany and made it first to Holland and then on to England. He was awarded a Military Medal and promptly repatriated back to Australia.

Unlike the movie "Saving Private Ryan", Private Wesley Choat had saved himself and the Choat family had one of their sons restored to them.

Nathan Rohrlach

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"The worst 24 hours in Australia's history....."

On the 19th, an artillery barrage began at 11am which continued throughout the day. The Australian 5th Division attacked at 6pm together with the British 61st Division on the right. They attacked though ‘sally ports’ or gaps in their breastworks.

The Australian 15th Brigade quickly became pinned in no man's land in front of The Sugar Loaf.

The 8th and 14th Brigades to the left of the 15th, captured 800 metres of the enemy front line trench. They penetrated towards what they thought was a second line of trenches; in reality just a string of muddy ditches.

They became over-extended and enfiladed (having their flanks exposed to enemy direct fire) and risked being cut off because of the inability of the 15th Brigade or the British 61st Division to neutralise the Sugar Loaf.

The British 61st Division, to the right of the 15th Brigade, now planned another attack and asked the already heavily strained Australian 15th Brigade to assist at 9pm as dusk fell. The attack by the 61st Division was cancelled, but news of this didn't reach the Australians in time.

A brave but futile attempt was made by half of the Australian 58th Battalion, which was snuffed out with heavy losses.

General Haking decided to withdraw all troops to the old front line trenches and renew the attack the next day. German forces who had been driven from the line attempted to recapture both flanks of the Australian lines.

As night fell the troops tried to improve their defences while others tried to reinforce. The Australians realised the situation and counter attacked the Germans and managed to stop the enemy from infiltrating further but were unable to drive them out.

At 2am the forward commander of the 14th Brigade realised that his right flank was exposed to the enemy. The Bavarians attacked again and forced their way further behind the 14th Brigade. Australian troops now found themselves being fired from both the front and rear.

By morning the only option was to charge the German troops holding the old German front lines behind the Australians in an effort to return to their lines.

By 3.45am the Australian who were left were now fighting their way back through German lines, making a charge back to their original battle starting positions. By 5.45 am on the 20th of July, the Australian 8th Brigade was forced out of the German lines.

By 8am, the general order to withdraw had been given. However, many parties of troops of Australian remained cut off and unable to break out, they continued fighting until finally silenced about 9.20 am.

The next five days were spent recovering wounded. Many more casualties were sustained in this process. A German offer of a truce to recover the dead and wounded was refused by the Corps Commander (Haking), so this activity was conducted under fire with many more casualties sustained.

The dead were left where they fell, although many had their ID tags recovered by their colleagues who braved enemy fire to look for the wounded.

Their remains were still on the field at the Armistice two and a half years later. The skeletal remains could not be identified as their tags had been removed during the recovery of wounded. That is the reason there are no headstones in the VC Corner cemetery; they are all ‘known unto God’.

Some 400 Australians from the 8th and 14th Brigades were captured, marooned in the mythical second line of German trenches. Many dead remained in the German positions. Some of these men were buried by the Germans.

A mass grave was discovered adjacent to Pheasant Wood close to Fromelles, in 2008 after a lot of dedicated research by Melbourne school teacher Lambis Englezos. A new cemetery to take the remains of the men discovered there was opened in 2010.

In just 27 hours, the Fifth Division lost nearly 5,500 casualties of whom nearly 2,000 men killed, a quarter of the total lost at Gallipoli in nine months.

This work prepared for OOAD 2008 by John Howells updated 2012 by Steve Larkins

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A tragic coincidence........a family's loss

For some families the name 'Fleurbaix' had already impacted their lives in the most profound way.
The Knight family from Glenelg in Adelaide's beachside suburbs had already lost both sons there in the weeks prior to 19 July.


The first, Lance Corporal Tom Knight, a Gallipoli veteran with the 12th Battalion, wounded in action, subsequently transferred to and serving in the 52nd Battalion, had been killed in a German raid on the Australian lines on 29th June 1916.


Then just three weeks later, on 17th July, Tom's younger brother Private Alfred Knight serving in the 32nd Battalion, was killed by artillery fire on the Australian lines within a few hundred metres of where his older brother had so recently perished.


The brothers are buried one row apart in Rue de Petillon Cemetery. Alfred's gravestone is close against those of his neighbours, signifying the fact that the remains of the men were indistinguishable from one another - all too often the signature result of artillery fire.


From private research 2008 Steve Larkins

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Prelude to Disaster

Preceding the Battle
• Ferocious fighting took place in the area in in the early stages of the War in late 1914 early 1915
• Australian troops began arriving from the Middle East in March / May 1916.
• By mid 1916, this part of Flanders near Armentieres was known as “The Nursery”.
• It was used to introduce new troops to trench warfare. Raids and intermittent shelling took place
• The 1st 2nd and 4th Divisions were moved to the Somme in early July.
• On 5th July 1916, the newest Australian Division, the Fifth, occupied the line in their place.
• On 1 July 1916, the Somme Offensive began. The British lost 60,000 casualties on the first day.
• Suddenly the area around ’The Nursery’ gained new significance.
• The British General Staff planned to create a diversion here, to keep German reinforcements from being sent to the Somme.

The orientation here is not what one would expect, with the Allied lines north of the German line along the northern edge of the German salient (a projection into the Allied lines)

The water table was very high so rather than trenches dug into the ground, defensive positions comprised breastworks built up above ground level. Rather than “hopping the bags” or going “over the top” to attack, attacking troops would be forced to exit the position through ‘sally ports’ in the forward walls of the breast works – which would make excellent aiming points for enemy machine guns.

The village of Fromelles was behind German lines.
A line through the present day VC Corner Cemetery to the "Condonerrie Farm” to the north east approximates the Australian Front Line.

The 'River Lais' is a somewhat overstated term; it is a shallow indistinct ditch running approximately NE-SW
The key German position was ‘The Sugar Loaf’, a fortified location (probably an old farmhouse) that anchored a salient jutting out from the German lines. It is barely distinguishable today.

VC Corner Cemetery marks the approximate boundary of the 15th and 14th Brigades.

The Australian memorial park – opened in 1998 is somewhat misleading in the context of the battle in July 1916. The German pillboxes were built later in the war.
The dam to the east near Fromelles marks the farthest point reached by Australian troops in the attack (the 8th Brigade).

The 5 Div Front was about 2km, from opposite the Sugarloaf to Cordonnerie Farm away the East.
See map.R-L , 16th 21st and 17th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiments of the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division.
On the other side, a young Lance Corporal named Adolph Hitler was a runner in the 16th, which held the Sugarloaf on 19-20 July.

Preparations for the attack took place in full view of the Germans so forfeiting any notion of surprise. Given the aim was to hold the Germans in position, this was perhaps a reasonable course of action.

Stores ammunition and supplies were hauled forward by the Allied troops. Originally, the attack was planned for the 17th but was postponed. The Allied troops were exhausted from hauling supplies for the attack.

Ironically, on the 18th in what should have been a portent, the Bavarians held up a sign to the effect ‘Why so long – you are 24 hrs late”.

The tragic irony is that at that point, the Allied objective had been achieved, notionally 'without a shot being fired'. Perhaps they should have quit while they were ahead.

Steve Larkins commanded the Guard of Honour which opened the Memorial Park in July 1998

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Names

Showing 8 people of interest from campaign

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STEELE, James Norman

Service number 624
Private
32nd Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 18 Feb 1896

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DONCASTER, Charles Christopher

Service number 2439
Private
53rd Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 25 Dec 1897

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HUTCHINSON, Arthur Justin Sanford

Service number Officer
Major
58th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 25 Aug 1894

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ELMER, Thomas William

Service number 1618
Private
32nd Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 12 Jan 1892

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CONNOR, Eden Dennis

Service number 4783
Private
59th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 17 Aug 1887

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PHILLIPS, Edwin John

Service number 1743
Private
60th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 1881

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MOMPLHAIT, Alfred Victor

Service number 3282
Private
32nd Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 14 Jan 1887

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VOWLES, Eric Lacy

Service number Officer
Brigadier
Royal Military College
Australian Army
Born 13 Jul 1893

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