FROMELLES: Considered The Worst 24 Hours of Australia’s Military History

 
 
SHARE:

Nothing in Australian military history before or since has matched this murderous advance at the battle of Fromelles.

Today, Fromelles in northern France is a small village with a population of approximately 900. Little has changed since July 19, 1916 when Australia suffered its highest military casualties in a single 24-hour period.

The Australian 5th Division—approximately 10,000 men, although some official figures put it higher—suffered over 5,500 casualties, including almost 2,000 killed, over 3,100 wounded, and approximately 400 captured by German soldiers. To put that into an even starker tragedy, the 60th and 32nd battalions had a 90% casualty rate. In fact, after 24 hours only a single officer of the 60th Battalion was still alive.

The Australian and British troops were ordered to seize about 2.5 miles (4 km) of front line German trenches in occupied French territory. These trenches were constructed before July 1916 after a German offensive and consisted of well-established concrete bunkers with trenches in front.

Destroyed church in Fromelles.Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2008-0064 Braemer, W. CC-BY-SA 3.0
Destroyed church in Fromelles.Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2008-0064 Braemer, W. CC-BY-SA 3.0

The area named the Sugarloaf salient. The Germans in these trenches were quite content to stay put and wait until German artillery had softened the British and Australian troops enough to enable a forward attack.

If this was successful, the Germans would then advance over no man’s land and overwhelm the Australian and British defenses and advance the front line by almost 0.3 miles (500 m).

A German strongpoint in the Fromelles salient, July 1916. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1994-105-20 Unknown CC-BY-SA 3.0
A German strongpoint in the Fromelles salient, July 1916. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1994-105-20 Unknown CC-BY-SA 3.0

After weeks of little happening, the Germans were surely aware something was about to happen once British artillery began bombarding the German defenses on July 16, 1916.

The artillery was relentless in an attempt to both destroy German defenses and give Australian and British troops time to assemble and prepare for the attack. Yet despite the relentless bombardment, the Germans were able to observe the Australians moving into an attacking position.

5th Australian Division positions during the Attack on Fromelles (on the Aubers Ridge), 19 July 1916
5th Australian Division positions during the Attack on Fromelles (on the Aubers Ridge), 19 July 1916

Having seen the Australians moving into their attacking positions and preparing the necessary equipment and supplies, German artillery stationed about 0.6 miles (1 km ) from the front line defensive positions began its own shelling. The result was that the Australians, in mere trenches rather than bunkers, suffered hundreds of casualties.

Fromelles, in the trenches.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2008-0065 CC-BY-SA 3.0
Fromelles, in the trenches.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2008-0065 CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Australians regrouped and attacked across no man’s land at 6 pm on July 19, 1916. It was pure slaughter with the Australian troops cut down by concentrated German machine gun fire. Nothing in Australian military history before or since has matched this murderous advance at the battle of Fromelles.

Fromelles, German Post.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2004-0073 Unknown CC-BY-SA 3.0
Fromelles, German Post.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2004-0073 Unknown CC-BY-SA 3.0

Some Australian soldiers managed to reach the first line of German trenches but were forced to retreat because the German’s second trench line was less than 110 yards (100 m) away. In addition to making the Australians retreat, the gun fire from the second trench line also made rescuing the wounded soldiers impossible.

France, Fromelles, destroyed house during the battle.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2004-0070 Unknown CC-BY-SA 3.0
France, Fromelles, destroyed house during the battle.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2004-0070 Unknown CC-BY-SA 3.0

Many of the wounded in no man’s land either died there or attempted to return to the Australian lines after darkness fell. The Australians were eventually ordered to abandon their positions and were sent to other operations on the Western Front, leaving hundreds of dead and wounded Australians in no man’s land.

Soldiers of the 53rd Battalion, Australian 5th Division, waiting to attack during the Battle of Fromelles, July 19, 1916. Only three of the men shown survived the attack and those three were wounded.
Soldiers of the 53rd Battalion, Australian 5th Division, waiting to attack during the Battle of Fromelles, July 19, 1916. Only three of the men shown survived the attack and those three were wounded.

On Armistice Day on November 11, 1918, Charles Bean, Australia’s official war correspondent, visited no man’s land at Fromelles. The following day he wrote, “We found the old No-Man’s-Land simply full of our dead. The skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere.”

Common grave near Fromelles (or Vimy ) 1916 (or 1917). Fallen German and British soldiers in a common grave.
Common grave near Fromelles (or Vimy ) 1916 (or 1917). Fallen German and British soldiers in a common grave.

Commanders: Of course, in almost every major military avoidable disaster, those issuing orders that result in unnecessary casualties find excuses or downplay the seriousness of the event. Before the attack, the senior British commanding officer, General Richard Haking, who was 116 miles (190 km) from Fromelles suggested that the objective could be taken with a smaller force than what was envisaged.

General Sir Richard Cyril Byrne Haking, commander of Allied troops in Danzig (now Gdańsk)
General Sir Richard Cyril Byrne Haking, commander of Allied troops in Danzig (now Gdańsk)

This was in sharp contrast to the thinking of Australian commander, Brigadier General Harold Elliot. Elliot thought that the assault across no man’s land was inadvisable. To confirm this he asked one of his senior officers, Major Howard, what he thought, to which Howard replied, “a bloody holocaust.”

Brigadier General Harold Elliott
Brigadier General Harold Elliott

Nine decades after the Fromelles disaster, some 1,335 Australian soldiers were still classified as officially missing. In 2007, the remains of 200 Australian soldiers were uncovered from a mass grave and identified using DNA testing before being given a military funeral. A further 203 Australian soldiers were found in the same area in 2010. To date, 932 Australians lie in unknown graves.

Read another story from us: Fighting for Mother England: The Australian Infantry in WW1

Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles Nord. Photo: Pierre André Leclercq CC BY-SA 3.0
Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles Nord. Photo: Pierre André Leclercq CC BY-SA 3.0

Finally, approximately 10% of the Australian soldiers captured at Fromelles died in captivity, likely due to their wounds or disease.

We hope you enjoy our content. We think it’s important to keep war history alive. If you do too, please consider becoming a supporter. Thanks.

Become a Supporter
 
© Copyright 2019 - War History Online