Following their well-organised withdrawal from the Dardanelles in late 1915, Australia’s Gallipoli veterans recovered in Egypt, before being dispatched to Europe with fresh recruits from home. It was at the Battle of Fromelles in northern France that Aussie diggers got their first taste of action on the Western Front. For many, it would also be their last.
The action at Fromelles was designed as a feint to discourage the Germans from moving troops to the Battle of the Somme. Taking place on the 19th and 20th of July 1916, the battle was advocated and orchestrated by British General Sir Richard Haking. Ultimately known as a ‘butcher’ by the men in the trenches, Haking was representative of the mindset of many British commanders at the time, and their reckless extravagance in the expenditure of life. The Battle of Fromelles would prove a devastating and tragic case-in-point.
Depriving the attack of any hope of surprise, the Allies bombarded enemy positions for many hours during the day of the 19th. At about 5.30pm, Allied troops rushed towards the high-ground held by the Germans. Although they gained some territory, the advancing brigades of the 5th Australian Division met a well-entrenched foe. The shelling had failed to nullify the most important German machine-gun posts, and, with ‘the air thick with bullets, swishing in a flat criss-crossed lattice of death’, hundreds of Australians diggers were scythed down in the blink of an eye. Even the little ground that had been taken was quickly lost, and the Australians suffered heavy casualties while retreating.
Undermined by a lack of preparation, poor planning, ineffective artillery support, and an underestimation of the German defences, the Battle of Fromelles was an unmitigated military disaster from an Allied perspective. Described as a model of how not to attack on the Western Front, and arguably the most telling example of military incompetence in the 1914-18 Great War, the consequences from a human perspective were appalling. The Australians bore the brunt of this ill-conceived operation, and, as one witness said, the Australian line looked like ‘the stock of a thousand butcher shops’. In an operation that even the Germans later assessed as ‘operationally and tactically senseless’, the 5th Australian Division suffered a horrific 5,533 casualties between 5.30pm on the 19th of July and 9am on the 20th of July.
That figure is approximately double the number of casualties suffered on the day of the Gallipoli Landings in April 1915, and around the same number of Australian casualties suffered during the Boer, Korean and Vietnam wars combined. Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that the Australian War Memorial has stated that the Battle of Fromelles represented “the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history”.
Whilst a catastrophic debacle, the Battle of Fromelles illustrated the commitment, courage and selflessness so readily exhibited by Australians throughout the First World War. As we contemplate the 100th anniversary of their sacrifice, we must also reflect upon the service of the men and women of the Australian Armed Forces in all conflicts, and give thanks for the free, independent country in which we live as a result of their unstinting efforts.
Proud to play a role in commemorating Australia’s wartime history, and to give every Australian the chance to honour those who have served, Downies has an array of Fromelles and other WWI commemoratives available. Please click here for more information.