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.