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- Wartime Issue 36 - Disaster at Fromelles | The Australian War Memorial
There are few certainties in war. But one is that governments will coerce or force young men to fight it. Another is that many of them will die. It is for the politicians to justify the cost; this, they predictably tried to do after the abysmal slaughter at Fromelles, just as they continue to do in conflicts where Australian involvement, and death, seems no less pointless.
Australian war memorials across the country, from swimming pools in suburban Brisbane to obelisks and stone diggers that mark junctions in countless country towns, are inscribed with the names of Australians who died at Fromelles on 19 and 20 July The memorials around Fromelles signal broadly what happened.
It has two big stone crosses under which about Australians are buried en masse. On a nearby wall is inscribed 1, names of Australian men who went missing at Fromelles or who could not be identified at death. In recent decades, hundreds of Australian and other bodies have been located and exhumed around Fromelles. On Tuesday at Pheasant Wood cemetery in Fromelles there will be a dedication ceremony for the headstones for some of those whose bodies have been discovered and identified.
The attack on Fromelles was essentially a diversionary tactic to stop the Germans from sending reinforcements south in order to help counter the great British offensive on the Somme that had begun on 1 July. Intent on minimising casualties while creating the intended diversion, Haking proposed an assault on a distant German position, Aubers Ridge.
Soon after the war these remains were gathered to construct VC Corner Cemetery, the only solely Australian war cemetery in France. It is also the only cemetery without headstones. There are no epitaphs to individual soldiers, simply a stone wall inscribed with the names of 1, Australians who died in battle nearby and who have no known graves.
The unidentified remains of are buried in mass graves under two grass plots in the cemetery. For nearly 80 years this sombre monument remained the only conspicuous reminder of the tragic events of Fromelles until, in July , a new Australian Memorial Park was dedicated there. Then in , following persistent research by retired Melbourne teacher, Lambis Englezos, archaeological investigations began to uncover the remains of some Australian and 50 British soldiers who were buried in a mass grave at Pheasant Wood by German troops in Between 30 January and 19 February , the remains of soldiers were reinterred with full military honours in Fromelles Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery, newly constructed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Over 90 Australian soldiers were identified by name and more may still be identified. On 19 July , the 94th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles, the last of Australian soldiers recovered from the excavation were buried in a solemn ceremony with full military honours. Whether or not Howard was able to do so, remains unclear, but by the morning of the 19th the only result has been a delay in the operation. German defences on the Aubers Ridge and at Fromelles are substantial and continue to cause immense tactical difficulties for the British and Australians. By July , the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division holds more than 7 kilometres of the German front line.
Each of the Division's regiments has been allocated a sector, each in turn manned by individual infantry companies. The trenches never run in a completely straight line, but are zig zagged to limit the damage from artillery, machine gun fire and bombing attacks. At their strongest, the German trenches are protected by sandbagged breastworks over two metres high and six metres deep, which makes them resistant to all but direct hits by artillery.
This line is further protected by thick bands of barbed wire entanglements. There are two salients in the German line where the opposing forward trenches are at their closest. One is called the Sugarloaf and the other, Wick. Both are heavily fortified and from where machine gunners overlook no man's land and the Allied lines beyond. Along the German line, there are about 75 solid concrete shelters. From their front line trenches, the Bavarians have dug tunnels under the wire and out around thirty metres into no man's land, which they use as listening posts.
At night searchlights, flares and star shells illuminate the frontline.
A trench tramway network, known as a 'push line', has been constructed along the entire length of, and parallel to, the trenches. Other tram lines branch off towards the rear. These supply lines are in some locations connected to tracks for horse-drawn or petrol-driven vehicles, and in turn meet up with the standard-gauge French railway network.
A buried telephone network and electricity supply is also in place, powering lighting, water pumps, concrete-mixing stations and other amenities. It is by far a more sophisticated and solid defensive system than that occupied by the British and Australians. Aubers Ridge itself provides a good screen for German artillery positions but is not high enough for effective, direct observation of the enemy. As a result, the Bavarians have constructed platforms in trees, observation posts in church towers and chimneys, and concrete structures within taller farm buildings.
Having occupied this part of the line for about two years the Bavarians also know the terrain intimately, in contrast to the newly arrived Allied units.
Blighty born and bred
The British and Australian Artillery bombardment of German lines commences at 11am, seven hours later than planned, due to poor visibility. The artillery has two decisive objectives. Firstly, to put enemy machine guns and their crews out of action or at least keep them from firing until the infantry reach the German trenches. Secondly, to destroy the barbed wire and collapse the German parapet, depriving the German infantry of their defences and preserving the lives of the attacking troops.
The Allied artillery averages one gun for every eight metres of German front line; a denser ratio than was available for the first day of the Somme Offensive. As the bombardment begins, the quiet landscape is transformed into a deafening, shuddering tumult. I put wadding in my ears while we were down in the supports waiting to go forward.
Fromelles and Pozières: 100 years on
They report many German shelters and dugouts appear buried and wire defences cut. At midday, the bombardment increases. German commanders send up two aircraft to locate the British artillery positions. By 1pm, two hours after the Allied bombardment began, German artillery is responding. The German 32nd Battalion's commanding officer reports 'Hostile trench mortars and pounders [are] smashing our parapets and trenches to pieces.
At about 2. An order is sent to increase the barrage in order to cut the wire but the message is not received until after 5pm by which time it's too late. It is now 5pm and German artillery is pounding the Allied front line where Australian and British troops prepare for the charge. This artillery is supported by heavy machine guns unsilenced during six hours of bombardment.
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Later a 14th Brigade non-commissioned officer recalled, "The first thing that struck you was that the shells were bursting everywhere, mostly high explosive; and you would see machine-guns knocking bits off the trees in front of the reserve line and sparking against the wire When men looked over the top they saw no man's land leaping up everywhere in showers of dust and sand At ten past 5, Brigadier-General 'Pompey' Elliott, receives a warning that the barbed wire surrounding the Sugarloaf in front of his Brigade's position was uncut by the bombardment.
Observers note three intact German machine-gun emplacements. Adding to Elliott's problems, part of his force is not in position because of the ferocity of the German artillery. Five minutes later, to the right of the Australians, British soldiers begin to leave doors called sally ports in the trenches and enter no man's land. The effect is very different to a line of soldiers going over the parapet - the small doorways naturally funnel the soldiers, causing congestion and making them an ideal target for German machine gunners who shoot them down as they try to fan out from these narrow exits.
The effect is horrific as bodies pile up around the doorways. Elsewhere along the line, British and Australian soldiers begin a series of movements from the rear trenches to the forward line.
So congested are the Australian trenches that many of these men need to go out over open ground to reach their starting point. They come under intense artillery and machine gun fire as they do so.
The Battle of Fromelles (19 July 1916)
The first wave of Australians goes over the parapet into no-man's-land just after 5. Throughout this first hour of the infantry attack, sheer chaos reigns as men charge, fall or inch forward across no man's land under the storm of artillery and machine gun fire. By 6pm, British and Australian troops have in some sectors reached the German front line and are beginning to break into the trenches as Allied artillery lifts its range to target areas behind the enemy's front. It's 6pm and the fourth wave of infantry is advancing.
Two and a half hours of daylight remain. The Allied artillery barrage lifts its range to target the rear of the German line as successive waves of British and Australian troops advance against the enemy's front line trenches and the salients. Major Geoff McCrae, a Gallipoli veteran, leads the fourth wave of the 15th Australian Brigade, including the 59th and 60th Battalions - about men including 60 officers.
His men include signallers with wire and telephones to keep headquarters informed of the battle's progress. All McCrae's signallers also fall dead or wounded. Messages now have to be to be carried back across no man's land by runners. Private Walter 'Jimmy' Downing of 57th Battalion is watching the attack unfold. 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 The bullets skimmed lo, from knee to groin, riddling the tumbling bodies before they touched the ground. Still the line kept on. Wounded wriggled into shell holes or were hit again. Men were cut in two by streams of bullets. And still the line went on It was the charge of the Light Brigade once more, but more terrible, more hopeless.
With parts of the German front line trenches being captured by both British and Australian units, the soldiers press their attack and move on towards the German second line. Ignatius Norris arrives with battalion headquarters in the fourth wave, calling 'Come on lads! Only another trench to take! Norris's last words are reported to be, 'Here, I'm done, will somebody take my papers? Others with Norris are also killed and wounded by German machine guns, including his young adjutant, year-old Lieutenant Harry Moffitt. According to Sergeant Patrick Lonergan, when he sees his colonel hit, Moffitt instantly calls for four men to carry him back to the Australian lines.
As he does so, he too is hit and falls dead across Norris' body.
Wartime Issue 36 - Disaster at Fromelles | The Australian War Memorial
A little before half past six 53rd and 54th Battalion soldiers who are now occupying the German front line from Rouges Banc to near Delangre Farm press forward in an attempt to locate the key objective, the German second line. Some of these men are further than metres but only find occasional enemy soldiers taking cover in shell craters, many of whom retreat on sight.
The Australian soldiers are under orders to resist the chase, instead some Germans are taken prisoner and sent back to Australian lines.