The Australian Memorial Park was opened on 5th July 1998 to commemorate the Australians who fought and died during the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916.
Just a few hundred yards south east of V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery (above, looking across the old No Man’s Land to where we were last post),…
…the park is located on the site of the German front line, which, again as we saw last post, crossed the field surrounding the park and disappeared through the gap between the trees on the horizon.
There are the remains of a number of bunkers here that we shall take a closer look at later in the post.
The centrepiece of the park is a seven foot bronze statue…
…entitled ‘Cobbers’, by sculptor Peter Corlett, and we will, of course, also take a detailed look around it, but not yet.
Because first, and I know it’s been a long while coming, it’s time to tell the story of what actually did happen here on the night of 19th/20th July 1916, and why so many men died for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
Three weeks into the Battle of the Somme, and fifty miles to the north, another battle was about to take place that would, like the tragedy of 1st July in the United Kingdom, bring grief and despair into thousands of homes on the other side of the world. Fromelles was not even really a battle. It was merely supposed to be a diversionary attack, to be carried out by one Australian and one British infantry division, the intention being to break through the German lines on the Aubers Ridge, and by doing so ensure that German troops would be pinned down in Flanders and would be unable to reinforce the men defending on the Somme, where, by the third week of July, the second phase of Haig’s great offensive was under way.
And it had all been tried before, when the British attacked the Aubers Ridge on 9th May 1915, with disastrous results, as we saw a few posts back, so quite why it was going to succeed on this occasion, the Germans having had a further year to strengthen their defences, is anyone’s guess.
As progress, where progress had been made, on the Somme slowed during the early days of the offensive, the proposed action at Fromelles was reduced to a limited local attack (why not just call it off? Please?). Supported by relatively weak, and certainly inexperienced artillery units, the two divisions would attack the Germans along a two and a half mile front which contained two strongpoints, the Sugarloaf in the centre of the attack, and the Wick Salient to the south west. No Man’s Land was several hundred yards wide in places in this sector, and four hundred yards wide in front of the Sugarloaf, whose well-positioned machine guns had a field of fire of well over 200 degrees.
This trench map shows the main area of the attack, the Wick Salient in the bottom left corner and the Sugarloaf in the centre, opposite which the Australian and British sectors met, the British attacking from north west of the Sugarloaf to a little west of the Wick Salient, the Australians attacking from north of the Sugarloaf across to the far right of the map. Quite whose bright idea it was to have a divisional boundary (marked in pink) directly opposite a German strongpoint, with the inevitable potential for mis-communication or worse, I don’t know, but it doesn’t exactly seem the smartest course of action. Anyway, V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery is marked in orange, with the Australian Memorial Park in yellow. Now you can see how important it was that the machine guns at the Sugarloaf were nullified, because if they weren’t, enfilade fire from the salient could sweep through the men attacking across the fields where we are now as well as, in the other direction, as far as the Wick Salient to the west. To the right (east) of the memorial park on the map, where you can see that No Man’s Land is considerably less wide, the Australians managed to take the German trenches and push south beyond them, as we shall find out shortly.
As the Sugarloaf was situated at the extreme north of the British sector, it was intended that they would be the first to assault it, with the Australians joining the fray once it was under attack. If the British attack failed, however, the German machine guns at the Sugarloaf would be able to turn their full attention on the Australians, and the whole attack would, in all likelihood, fail. Look closely (enlarge the photo) at the horizon immediately to the right of the figures; the spire of Fromelles church is just visible up on the Aubers Ridge, and you won’t be surprised to hear that, notwithstanding the destruction caused by British and Australian artillery, the church tower was used as an observation post by the Germans and gave them a superb view of the whole battlefield.
The 5th Australian Division, made up of men from across a number of different Australian states, had been formed earlier in 1916, training in Egypt before arriving in France at the beginning of July and taking over the front line trenches in this sector from the 4th Australian Division between 10th & 12th July. Although some men had seen action at Gallipoli, for many this was to be their first, and last, experience of warfare.
The British 61st Division – men from Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Berkshire & Buckinghamshire – were also inexperienced, although they had been in the front line slightly longer. Raised in January 1915, their first year was spent on home defence duties in England, before they were deployed to France in May 1916. Taking over the sector opposite the Aubers Ridge in mid-June 1916, during the next month they undertook eight major raids on the German lines, and had suffered steady casualties throughout their tenure.
It should be mentioned at this point that, as one of the later divisions to arrive in France, 61st Division was already under-strength on its arrival, and the casualties it received over the next month meant that, by the time of the Fromelles attack, Australian numbers considerably outweighed British, which accounts, to a great extent, for the difference in casualty figures at the end of the battle.
Originally intended to begin on 17th July, wet weather postponed the attack for two days before the morning of 19th dawned fine, and at 11.00am, a seven hour artillery bombardment opened up on the German lines. Unfortunately the effect of the bombardment, both on the German wire, and the concrete blockhouses, proved negligible; the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division, who had occupied the lines in front of Fromelles since March 1915, were seasoned troops, and their positions remained strong.
As we’ve mentioned on many previous occasions, the high water table* in Flanders made the digging of deep trenches virtually impossible; breastworks had to be created above ground using sandbags, wood, and frankly anything that came to hand. This in turn made the very action of leaving the trenches to enter No Man’s Land somewhat problematic.
*Don’t for a moment think, however, that this prevented underground warfare completely; the sappers on both sides were quite capable of tunnelling beneath the boggy land (as one of the bunkers in this park proves), and mines were just as likely to bring a swift end to a soldiers’ war here as on any other sector of the Western Front.
One solution, gaps, or sailly-ports, in the breastworks, that could be opened to allow troops through, is all very well if the artillery has done its work and the enemy trenches have been destroyed; if not, it would be relatively easy for the German machine gunners to concentrate their fire on the gaps, causing untold damage as the attacking troops exited their trenches into a curtain of fire.
And so it proved. Some British troops had already crept into No Man’s Land from saps and tunnels dug beneath the front lines, where they were now lying in hollows awaiting the order to proceed. At 6.00pm, as they rose to advance amidst a torrent of shellfire from the German artillery, the machine guns opened up on them. Elsewhere on the British front, many men were inevitably caught as they left the sailly-ports in full view of the German observers. On the extreme right of the British attack, south of the Wick Salient, some men of the Warwickshires crossed No Man’s Land and gained a foothold in the German front line, but elsewhere, the men of the Gloucesters, Bucks & Berkshires were cut down in droves as they left their trenches. And, as predicted, at the Sugarloaf, the German machine guns were able to turn their attention towards the Australians.
The Australians had begun their attack in line, the men literally going over the top as opposed to using sailly-ports. On the left and centre of their attack, east of the Sugarloaf, all seemed to begin well. The Australians reached the German front line just a few yards east of where we are now standing in the Memorial Park, fought their way through, and began to establish positions beyond.
At the Sugarloaf, little progress had been made, and, once the initial shock at the attack had worn off, the Germans to the east of the strongpoint turned to the Australians, in particular those who were holding part of the German front line and were pushing on beyond, creating what was, in effect, a salient behind the German lines. Reinforcements made their way across No Man’s Land from the Australian lines, dodging the enfilading fire from the Sugarloaf, but the pressure on the Australians behind the German lines would only increase as German counter-attacks began to take their toll.
The British intended to make another attempt at the Sugarloaf in the evening, but when it was realised that no British troops had yet set foot in the German lines at this point (as well as the Warwickshires, whose occupancy of the German trenches further west had been brief, some men of the Bucks had been seen crossing the German parapet, although that, sadly, was the last sight of them), the attack was cancelled. Tragically, word of the cancellation failed to reach the Australians immediately north of the Sugarloaf who were due to support the second British attack, and at 9.00pm, the Australians of 15th Brigade attacked alone, with predictable results; the Germans waited until they were two thirds of the way across No Man’s Land before unleashing a torrent of fire on the line of approaching troops, many of whom were hit immediately, others seeking sanctuary in a small ditch that traversed the battlefield at this point. The survivors would attempt to retire to the relative safety of their own lines as darkness fell.
During the course of the night the Germans continued to strike hard at the Australians in their lines, in most places pushing them out and back across No Man’s Land, or cutting them off from any chance of retreat, after which ammunition and water could only last so long, and the survivors would be forced to surrender (they did, and four hundred captured Australians were later marched through Lille, to the dismay of the local population). In the centre, some Australians held on until morning, but as dawn broke on 20th July, it became clear that their position was nigh on untenable, and they were forced to withdraw as best they could. By morning, all along the line of the attack, Australian and British troops were attempting to gain the sanctuary of their own lines, ”We were powerless to assist them, and had to watch them being shot down at point blank range…it seemed an eternity of time before the lucky ones reached our parapets, to be pulled in by willing hands. No sooner was our field of fire clear than we blazed into the German troops who lined their parapets to punish the retiring troops.” The Battle of Fromelles was over. We shall return to the aftermath later.
The bunkers in the park were not here in 1916; they are 1917 vintage,…
…and the damage to them is primarily down to local farmers’ attempts to remove them after the war, than by any Allied artillery shell.
This bunker at the eastern end of the park…
… now flooded,…
…was originally used as a store dump.
Looking east down the length of the park,…
…the French and Australian flags fluttering against the grey Flanders sky; the Sugarloaf was sited half a mile away across the field beyond the Australian flag.
The statue shows Sergeant Simon Fraser, 57th Bn. A.I.F. carrying a wounded man of the 60th Bn. Note the clutched slouch hat, perhaps more symbolic than real, although a number of slouch hats were found on the battlefield after the war, suggesting that at least some of the Australians had yet to receive their new Brodie helmets, or chose not to wear them.
Fraser, from Byaduk in Victoria, had enlisted in July 1915 at the age of 38, having previously spent nine years with the Victorian Mounted Rifles.
He embarked for Egypt in November 1915, where he joined the 57th Bn., gaining promotion to Sergeant in April 1916.
The 5th Australian Division left Alexandria for Marseille in June 1916, Fraser and the men of the 57th moving into the lines just a matter of days before the attack at Fromelles.
Fraser described the incident upon which the statue is loosely based in a letter to his family at the end of July 1916:
“It was no light work getting in with a heavy weight on your back especially if he had a broken leg or arm. You had to lie down and get him on your back, then rise and duck for your life with a chance if getting a bullet in you before you were safe. One foggy morning…we could hear someone over towards the German entanglements calling for a stretcher-bearer; it was an appeal no man could stand against, so some of us rushed out and had a hunt. We found a fine haul of wounded and brought them in; but it was not where I heard this fellow calling, so I had another shot for it, and came across a splendid specimen of humanity trying to wriggle into a trench with a big wound in his thigh…another man about thirty yards out sang out, ‘Don’t forget me, Cobber’. I went in and got four volunteers with stretchers and we got both men in safely.”
Fraser was Mentioned in Despatches for “distinguished and gallant services and devotion to duty in the field” in a despatch dated 13th November 1916; whether for this incident, or others, or both, I don’t know.
At some point Fraser was sent to England where, whilst based at the A.I.F. depot at Tidworth in Wiltshire, he was commissioned into the 58th Bn. as a Second Lieutenant.
On 1st May 1917 Fraser left England to join the battalion in France.
Sadly, his war was nearing its end.
Second Lieutenant Simon Fraser was badly wounded in the head by shell fragments in the early hours of 12th May 1917 during the attack on Bullecourt, to the south east of Arras. He must have died soon after, and was buried in a shell hole some three hundred yards behind the front line by the men of his unit. Although they later returned to erect a cross over the grave, after the war Fraser’s remains were undiscovered, or if discovered, unidentified, and he is commemorated on one of the memorial panels at Villers-Bretonneux Australian National Memorial on the Somme.
This bunker once sheltered the head of an unfinished German mine gallery, as briefly mentioned earlier. Now partially collapsed and full of water, the gallery extends forty yards into No Man’s Land.
And this bunker nearest the road (above & below) was used as a troop shelter.
Back at the park entrance, these information boards are here courtesy of the Australian Government’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
Aerial view of the battlefield taken just before the battle; one of the problems encountered by the Australians who made it through the German front line was exactly what they were supposed to do next. There was no German second line in the fields beyond, as you can see in the photograph, the land as far as the Aubers Ridge being flat, relatively featureless, boggy farmland, defended by machine guns in Fromelles and along the ridge on either side of the village.
It’s difficult to imagine, looking across these peaceful fields towards the Australian lines (above & below), how utterly terrible this scene would have been just over a hundred years ago as the Battle of Fromelles ended, although the dying didn’t.
Back to Charles Bean, with whom we began this whole tour, “The scene in the Australian trenches, packed with wounded and dying, was unexampled in the history of the A.I.F.” An officer commented, “If you had gathered the stock of a thousand butcher-shops…it would give you a faint conception of the shambles those trenches were.” More bluntly, an Australian sergeant, found himself looking at “dead bodies lying in all directions, just as they had fallen, some without heads, other bodies torn about minus arms or legs, or pieces cut clean out of them by shells.”
The wounded who had made it back to the Australian trenches could at least be attended to; those lying in No Man’s Land were on their own, and those who had survived beyond the German lines were already prisoners. They were thickest close to the Australian front line, and, hour after hour, arms would be raised and bodies would roll slowly over in pain as the hot sun burned and the flies tormented and the bullets still flew. And always the cries for water. Brave Australians crawled out into No Man’s land to attempt rescues, and a German suggestion for a truce to collect the dead and wounded, although rejected by the Australian commander, Major General James Whiteside McKay*, allowed time for some men to be rescued. The Australians continued to go out anyway, and brought in 250 men on the night of 20th July alone.
*Why? It wasn’t, or shouldn’t have been, just the British commanders who took the blame for the utter failure of the operation.
The rescue attempts continued, but as the days went by, movement in No Man’s Land became less and less, although there are horrible stories of the ordeal suffered by some of the wounded men; one was allowed – allowed in the sense that the Germans allowed no chance of rescue – to stumble, blinded, around No Man’s Land somewhere near the German lines at the Sugarloaf into a third day before they decided to end his torment, and a week after the battle men were still being found and rescued. This view looks directly towards the Sugarloaf, half a mile away across this field; what you have just read happened here.
The scenes on the British sector were similar, a “spectacle of destruction and havoc”. 61st Division had suffered casualties totalling 79 officers and more than 1,400 men in the attack out of about 3,500 men involved. The scene above pans left from the previous shot looking south towards the German rear area and the Aubers Ridge (the trees on the horizon in the centre), from where the German machine guns could sweep these fields in front of them, the German front line, lest you forget, crossing the road almost exactly where we are standing.
Australian casualties were unforgivable; 178 officers, and over 5,300 men were dead, wounded, or missing (out of 481 prisoners taken by the Germans during the battle, 400 were Australian). German casualties amounted to about 1,500 men. The village of Fromelles would remain in German hands throughout the whole war. The view above continues our pan left from the previous two photographs and now looks south east, and it was here, don’t forget, that the Australians initially broke through and held the German lines before their enforced retirement the following morning.
The battlefield of Fromelles looking west towards the Sugarloaf. This panorama clearly shows how the Aubers Ridge, the wooded region to the far left, despite being nowhere more than 120 feet above sea level, dominates the landscape, so flat is the rest of the region. The remains of some men are undoubtedly still lying out there in these fields, despite the intensive post-war searches. Many of the missing would remain missing, or, if found, remain unidentified, as we have seen again and again in the cemeteries we have visited on this tour. But not all.
Next we shall visit the new cemetery at Fromelles itself, where 250 men, discovered in a number of mass graves near the village, were laid to rest in 2010.