Battle of Fromelles: The Australian Army’s worst day – ever!
Posted on July 24th, 2015
I have to be honest and admit that, over the last couple of months, I have not been anything like as regular in posting blogs as I had hoped to be ; since my return from Australia at the beginning of May I have struggled to get back into the rhythm. Not, of course, because there is anything like a dearth of subjects for me to write / comment upon! But rather I suppose that, having focused so much upon the Australia New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACS) over the period of my visit – which included celebrating the 100th anniversary of the landings on Gallipoli – I have been re-familiarising myself with the Western Front in Belgium and northern France. Which makes it all the more interesting that today, I feel driven to write a blog again and, even more curiously, that it should be about another Australian experience during the course of the Great War? Although it is certainly true that this one happened on the Western Front.
The Battle of the Somme: A horrendous warning
Not quite three weeks ago now, Wed 1st July 2015 marked the 99th anniversary of the opening day of the Battle of the Somme and preparations are afoot already for next year’s centenary commemoration. Undoubtedly the focus will very much be upon the Monument to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, inscribed with the names of 72,195 soldiers from Britain and South Africa who were denied the dignity of a known grave, towering as it does over the heart of the Somme battlefield. 19,240 of those deaths were sustained during the first few hours of the battle, on 1st July 1916, the greatest loss of life that a British Army has sustained – ever! Whilst some first day objectives were achieved, the vast majority were over before they began, littering the 15 mile battle front with the bodies of the men of Kitchener’s New Armies – those super keen young men who had volunteered in the early days of the war in the autumn of 1914. And, given how tragic these facts are, that is usually as far as most people travel in their consideration of the whole Battle, pausing only perhaps to recall that, by the time the Battle was brought to an end on 18th November, still the first day’s objectives had not been achieved comprehensively!
But the truth is that, whilst the first day was a devastating disaster for families and communities the length and breadth of Britain, the opening day was but one engagement in a whole series of assaults launched in phases over those five months. One, in the first phase carried out between 19th / 20th July 1916 to the north of the main Somme Battlefield, was undertaken by the men of the Australian Imperial Force (ANZACS), newly arrived from the horrors of the failed campaign at Gallipoli. And, almost unbelievably, it was to prove even more devastating than that they had experienced on that benighted peninsular.
Reeling from the shock of the disastrous first day – when the High Command had hoped that a week-long bombardment would have wiped out all but the most tenacious of German soldiers so that British troops would need do no more than walk across No Man’s Land into the enemy trench positions – there was now a need both to draw away enemy troops from the principal battlefield and to exploit any weak spots left by German troops having been rushed to the Somme. So, in very short order, it was decided that a divisionary attack would be made in the Fromelles / Fleurbaix region; specifically to rub out a German salient – a three sided strongpoint jutting out into British territory – known as Sugarloaf.
Given that the opening assault of the ‘Big Push’ – as the Battle of the Somme had become known amongst British Troops – had been several months in the planning, this diversionary attack received only a few days preparation; planning began on 8th July and the first orders were issued by Lt Gen Richard Haking on 14th July 1916. Consequently, the troops of Australia’s 5th Division had little time in which to grapple with and appreciate the differences between fighting at Gallipoli – where the ground was hard and the temperature hot – and fighting in the water-logged trenches of the Western Front.
Furthermore, although the troops were to be well supported by artillery bombardment prior to their attack, the Sugarloaf Salient held by the Germans was on higher ground, affording them visibility and control of the ground! Consequently, the opening bombardment was by no means a surprise and, by the time the infantry attack set off, the enemy was already pouring counter-attack fire into the assaulting troops. Finally, although it was true that some German troops had indeed been sent south, to shore up defences around the Somme, those left behind were by no means weakened by their leaving. Indeed, having been in possession of the Sugarloaf salient and the surrounding countryside since shortly after the beginning of the war, their defences were heavily fortified. From these positions the German troops were able to pour down enfilading fire upon the attacking Australians.
Barely 24 hours had passed
The Battle of Fromelles was brought to a close barely 24 hours after it had started by which time it had failed completely to achieve any of its objectives and in the course of which a total of 5,513 men – principally of the 5th Australian Division – had been killed or wounded. That is more than those Australians killed during the Boer, Korean and Vietnam Wars combined. Once more Australian families and communities were devastated by loss. True, with the Battle for Pozieres Ridge about to commence on the Somme and with at least two full years of fighting around the world still to come, many more thousands of Australian deaths would be experienced.
But what makes the losses sustained at the Battle of Fromelles all the more poignant is the fact that, by the time the Exhumation Companies began their grim work at the end of the war, many could not be identified and were buried at VC Corner with no headstones. And, of course, for those whose bodies had been collected and buried in mass pits by the Germans, their location, let alone their identities, would not be uncovered for almost another 83 years!
That final chapter in the story of the Battle of Fromelles I wrote about in one of my first blogs, “Fromelles Re-visited” which was posted on 13th August 2013. And, of course, if you would like to pay a visit to the ground over which Australian troops sustained their greatest loss ever in one day, or would like to visit the new cemetery at Pheasant Wood, I would be delighted to conduct your Great War Tour.
About the Author
Debbie Coupland is an experienced researcher and former Lieutenant of the Women’s Royal Army Corps. These days Debbie has put her passion for history into running truly bespoke WW1 battlefield tours to France and Belgium, with Great War Tours.