Anzac Cemetery was begun by the 2nd Australian Field Ambulance, close to an advanced dressing station, just before the attack at Fromelles in July 1916, and was used from then until the German advance of April 1918.
Sailly-sur-la-Lys is a small town about six miles north west of Fromelles, and although it suffered some damage during the Race for the Sea in October 1914 when French, British & German troops fought in this area, from late 1914 until the spring of 1918 the village was some way behind the British lines and remained relatively unscathed.
The town was captured by the Germans in early April 1918 and stayed in their hands until September.
By far the majority of the burials in Plot I are Australian; of the 320 burials in total in the cemetery, 111 are identified Australians.
There are also many Australians buried in Plot II; the five in the second row (Row B) are all Fromelles casualties, as are 69 of the other identified Australians in the cemetery, along with a further ten who died in the days immediately before and after the battle. It’s important not to forget all these men, so badly wounded on the Fromelles battlefield that, although they were brought these few miles back to the A.D.S., this was where their voyage through life, and all their hopes for the future, ended. Some would have died on the desperate journey back from the battlefield, others’ lives trickling away on the stretchers outside the dressing station where the worst cases were lined up, or in the hands of the doctors who desperately, but ultimately unsuccessfully, tried to save them.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Fromelles (for years the British referred to it as the Battle of Fleurbaix), the failure of the British 61st Division on the right of the attack was seen as the main reason for the disaster; indeed the division was accused, by their own staff, of lacking offensive spirit. Hardly fair, considering the division was understrength on its arrival in France, had suffered steady casualties during their months’ tenure of the line before the battle, one company losing 78 men the day before the attack when an Australian shell fell short into the British trenches detonating gas shells that had been brought up for the attack (in the event they were not used), and the British suffered hundreds of casualties due to accurate German artillery in the overcrowded trenches before the attack even started (can you imagine the scene?). Another company found itself down to just 120 men along a frontage of 400 yards, with an equal distance of No Man’s Land to cross in front of them – in general the Australians had a much shorter distance to cross to the German front lines than on the British front. Nonetheless, mud sticks, and the Australian soldiers’ view, already wary after events on Gallipoli, that the British were unreliable in a stiff fight, hardened.
Panoramic view from the eastern corner, looking west, Plot III nearest the camera. Time, by kind permission of the CWGC, for a look at the cemetery plan.
Nearly all the burials in Plot III are casualties from the final year of the war, those who died in the summer of 1918 being buried here by the Germans.
Men of The King’s (Liverpool Regiment), casualties of August 1917, in Plot I Row J; the single headstone near the centre beyond the gap in Row K (behind & below) simply says ‘Twenty two soldiers of the Great War’, and I can only apologise for not spotting it at the time and taking a close-up.
Along with these twenty two men, there are a further forty unidentified burials in this cemetery.
Panning right from the previous shot…
…and continuing right, Plot I Row I in the centre, Plots II & III beyond.
Along the western boundary wall, special memorials…
…commemorate three British soldiers who died as prisoners of war of the Germans and were originally buried in Sailly-sur-la-Lys churchyard, but whose graves were later lost.
Plot III Rows M (left), N & O. The four special memorial headstones we have just visited are furthest from the camera. Seven other special memorials that, according to the cemetery plan, were once placed along the southern boundary in the left background of this shot, appear to have disappeared.
They have clearly been moved at some time, and are now placed alongside the four special memorials in the background of the shot above. Originally there were seven, as the cemetery plan confirms, all men who died in 1918, but an eighth has at some time been added, the newest headstone at the far end, interestingly an Australian private who died, another casualty of the fighting at Fromelles, on 19th July 1916.
View down the length of the cemetery from the western boundary. The five graves in Plot II Row M, which is not to be found on the cemetery plan, but is to be found nearest the camera on the right of the picture, are all Second World War casualties.
Looking across Plot I towards the cemetery entrance, and yes, those are more headstones you can see beyond the car in the background. Across the road is Sailly-Sur-La-Lys Canadian Cemetery, but as it is not a cemetery directly associated with the fighting at Fromelles – nineteen Australians are buried there, but none died on the 19th or 20th July – we shall be visiting it on an entirely separate tour.
There are supposed to be six Germans buried in this cemetery according to the CWGC, but I can’t spot them.
It would seem most likely that, with a German military cemetery just down the road, these six men have long since been exhumed and reinterred there.
All of which brings us to the end of these series of posts where we have, I hope, paid our respects to the many men, Australian and British, who died over one terrible night in French Flanders a hundred years ago. And it’s raining again. Of course it is.
So it’s au revoir to Anzac Cemetery and au revoir to the cemeteries of Fromelles. But not to Sailly-sur-la-Lys, where we shall return, at some future point, to see the cemetery across the road, and the British graves in the churchyard of course, and the German cemetery just mentioned, and it would be remiss of us not to visit the town war memorial, and…
…well, you know how this website works. Back soon.
The battlefield of Fromelles after the Armistice. Never forget.