The Battle of Fromelles (19 to 20 July 1916)
Most of our ANZAC Day on the Western Front tours visit Fromelles.
Fromelles is a small village located in northern France, approximately 10 miles from the city of Lille. This area of the front line was generally quiet throughout World War One, apart from two days in July 1916. The Battle of Fromelles took place on 19 and 20 July 1916, and was originally intended to be a diversion from the main battle of the Somme which was raging 50 miles to the south.
The battle took place between the British held town of Fleurbaix and the German held Fromelles, and the aim was for Australian and British soldiers to capture a small salient nicknamed sugarloaf by the allied soldiers. This was the first time the Australian Imperial Force fought on the western front, and the Australian 5th division (which had only just arrived in France days before) joined forces with the British 61st Division for the attack. The Australians would attack the left flank, and the British would attack the right flank. They would be attacking the experienced 6th Bavarian Reserve Division, which contained a young soldier called Adolf Hitler.
The battle plan was relatively simple, after a long bombardment the allied troops would storm the German lines in broad daylight, rush past the first line of German trenches and capture a second line of trenches approximately 300 metres behind the first line. They would then hold this second line until Allied soldiers could reinforce the newly won positions.
When the attack started, some elements were very successful, with two Australian brigades quickly reaching their objectives, however when they arrived they found these second line was in fact a shallow ditch full of rainwater, which was impossible to defend. On the right hand side, Australian and British soldiers ran straight into strong machine gun fire and were slaughtered in large numbers. As the battle raged into the night, the Germans counter attacked and managed to cut off the 2 Australian brigades trying to defend the ditch. Without any other option, these two brigades retreated and were again cut down by heavy German machine gun fire.
After the fighting, the land was littered with dead or injured men, and Australian soldier Sergeant Simon Fraser wrote a letter home a few days later describing the scene.
“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. He was about 14 stone weight, and I could not lift him on my back; but I managed to get him into an old trench, and told him to lie quiet while I got a stretcher. Then another man about 30 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.”
This letter is quoted in Australia’s official history of World War One, and the Australian Memorial Park was opened in 1992 with a bronze statue called “Cobbers” on the land where these men fought.
It is rumored the Germans offered the Allies a temporary truce to collect their dead, but this idea was rejected. As a result many of the allied soldiers were transported behind enemy lines and buried in mass graves by the Germans. After the war, these mass graves were identified and in 1920 VC corner memorial park was built.
However recent research by Australian amateur historian, Lambis Englezos identified more mass graves next to woods near the church in Fromelles. After various investigations, Australian and British soldiers were found in these mass graves, and the decision was taken to exhume all human remains from the mass burial pits and re-bury with full military honors in individual plots at a new war cemetery called Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery. Through the use of modern DNA techniques, many of the soldiers have been identified.
All in all, the battle was a total disaster and unquestionably a German victory. It did little to divert German attention away from the Somme, and Allied losses were shocking. After just one day and night, 1,500 British and 5,533 Australian soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The Australian war memorial describes the battle as “the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history.
When we visit Fromelles during our tour, you will see the new military cemetery at Pheasant Wood, and you will also see the area where the latest mass graves were found. We will also visit the Australian memorial park and see the “Don’t forget me, cobber” statue, and you will visit the original VC corner memorial park. Our professional WW1 guides will give a full account of the battle and answer any questions you may have.
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