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The Significance of the Battle of Fromelles to Australia

Although the pandemic has prevented descendants, dignitaries and community members participating in the Fromelles Commemorative Procession and Commemorative Service in Sydney this year, a single wreath will be laid at the Anzac Memorial acknowledging the commitment to honour the Battle of Fromelles and the men of the Fifth Division AIF made 55 years ago by the Trustees of the Anzac Memorial to the veterans of the Australian Fifth Division on the occasion of their final parade. It also recognizes that despite the passing of those soldiers, some killed in the battle, and their surviving comrades in ensuing years, the memories of their service and sacrifice are held strongly and carried forward by subsequent generations. This single wreath therefore also symbolizes, and carries with it, the collective mourning of many Australian families as well as the broader community’s recognition of the tragedies of war. It demonstrates our commitment to keep their memory alive, lest we forget.

The Significance of the Battle of Fromelles to Australia

When the Australian States federated in 1901, the State based military forces were transferred to the Commonwealth Government under The Defence Acts of 1903-04 and The Australian Army, was established for home service. The Army consisted of the Permanent troops and Citizen Forces, made up of Militia Forces, Volunteer Forces (infantry) and a Reserve of specially trained officers, retired officers and members of rifle clubs. Compulsory military training commenced in November 1911 and by 1914, the Army had 45,000 men (mostly youths in their first or second year of compulsory military service), with 150,000 school cadets aged 12 to 17 years and 35,000 members of rifle clubs.

In escalating European tensions, Germany declared war on Russia on 1st August 1914 and on 2nd August, Germany demanded free passage through Belgium. On 3rd August, Germany and France declared war on each other. On 4th August Belgium refused Germany’s request followed by Germany declaring war on Belgium. Great Britain mobilised its forces and issued an ultimatum to Germany to guarantee Belgium neutrality by midnight or the two countries would be at war. On 4th August, the Australian Government offered 20,000 troops to sail within six weeks to the British Government. When the British ultimatum expired, Britain and her empire, including Australia, were at war with Germany.

There was an immediate impact in Australia when the British Government’s ultimatum expired at midnight in London on 4th August as it was 10am on 5th August in Melbourne, where the Australian Government was located. Shortly thereafter the first “British” shot of the war was fired from Fort Nepean in Melbourne across the bow of the German ship Pfalz to prevent its escape from Port Phillip Bay. The Pfalz was seized by Australia, renamed the SS Boorara and served as a troop transport during the war. The only method available to the Australian Government to rapidly create a force of 20,000 size trained troops was by enlistment from the general population and so recruitment commenced on 10th August and one week later the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (A.N. & M.E.F.) embarked on 18 August to occupy German New Guinea, which they did in early September. New Zealand forces similarly occupied Samoa.

The new recruits to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) after only two months training and kitted out with the Australian uniform, marched out of camp for overseas duty. In Sydney, soldiers of the 1st Battalion marched along a route that was later commemorated by the local Randwick Council as Anzac Parade. On 18th October, they sailed from Sydney, to join other units of the Australian and New Zealand Expeditionary Forces Convoy. The First Contingent convoy departed Albany, Western Australia on 1st November, 1914 bound for England via Colombo, Aden and the Suez Canal. The troops aboard thought they were bound for active service in Europe.

On 31st October 1914 Turkey declared war on Britain and her allies. As a consequence the convoy received orders after leaving Aden to disembark in Egypt and defend that country. The Australian Imperial Force reached Egypt and began disembarking at Alexandria on 3rd December and in mid April were committed with the New Zealander to the Gallipoli campaign as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). Also landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 1915 were 2 British Divisions at Cape Helles while across the Dardanelles Straits at Kum Kale, the French Corps Expeditionnaire d’Orient commanded by General d’Amade landed.

Following evacuation from the Gallipoli peninsular, the AIF returned to Egypt and was re-organised to double in size and then embarked in June and July 1916, bound for Marseilles and thence Southampton for further training, or for the Western Front in France.

The Allied war strategy for 1916 was for simultaneous offensives mounted by the Russians on the Eastern Front, the Italians in the Alps and an Anglo-French attack on the Western Front in the Somme Valley. However, the major German offensive at Verdun commenced in February and the French Government pressured the British Government for the attack in the Somme Valley to become largely a British attack to draw German forces away from Verdun.

The Battle of the Somme commenced on 1 July 1916 and the British High Command sought actions to prevent the German Army reinforcing their forces on the Somme. General Plumer of the British Second Army noted that where the Second Army joined the First Army opposite the Sugar Loaf Salient (between Fleurbaix and Fromelles), the Germans held their front more lightly and he proposed a joint operation to General Monro, the commander of the First Army. Consequently, General Haking prepared a scheme aiming at the capture of the Fromelles-Aubers Ridge.

On 12 July the newly arrived Australian 5 th Division’s 31st and 53rd Battalions took charge of part of the line south of Armentieres, as part of the First Army under the command of General Monro. To their south-east was the British 61st Division, the first “Second-Line” Territorial Division to serve on the Western Front, which had taken up its position in early June. Opposing them were the 21st, 16th and 17th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiments (BRIR) of the 6th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Division that opposed the British 8th Division 14 months earlier and had been refining its defences since then.

The Battle of Fromelles was the first battle on the Western Front for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and commenced on the evening of 19 July 1916 and ceased the following morning. In that short time, Australia suffered it largest loss of life in any 24 hour period in its history. The 5th Division sustained 5,533 casualties including 1,701 killed in battle, 216 died of wounds, 3,416 wounded and 496 taken prisoner. The British lost 1,547 and the Germans about 1,500.

For 3 days after the battle, Australian troops brought in wounded from No-man’s land, despite subdued but harassing enemy fire. This has been immortalised in the “Cobbers” statue depicting Sergeant Simon Fraser responding to a mate’s request “don’t forget me, cobber”.

Meanwhile the Germans re-established their front line and cleared the bodies of their own and Australian soldiers. Their commander, General van Braun, ordered that the bodies of the enemy soldiers be treated as if they were German soldiers, and be buried in communal pits behind their lines near Pheasant Wood. The Germans recorded the details of the Australian soldiers and removed their identity tags and personal effects and in accordance with The Hague Convention handed this information to the German Red Cross for transmittal through the International Red Cross to the British Red Cross. This information reached London in late 1916 and the personal effects were with families in Australia by March 1917.

After the Battle

After the Battle, the German’s released a communiqué on 21 July 1916 stating:

“The English attack in the region of Fromelles on Wednesday was carried out, as we have ascertained, by two strong divisions. The brave Bavarian Division against whose front the attack was made, counted on the ground in front of them more than 2,000 enemy corpses. We have brought in so far 481 prisoners, together with 16 machine guns.”

Later the British Commander in Chief, General Sir Douglas Haig reported:

“The Australians took part in important raids south of Armentieres along a front of two miles. One hundred & forty Germans were made prisoners”.

In Australia, casualties were advised through newspapers and with very little detail. The other Australian Divisions were participated in the fighting at Pozieres on the Somme starting on 23 July with heavy casualties. The location for all of these casualties was described as “somewhere in France” and for some families their soldier’s death was attributed to the “heroic” victory at Pozieres with the disastrous battle at Fromelles being covered-up. Adding to the confusion was that the British side referred to the area as near Fleurbaix (where their troops were billeted) rather than Fromelles (behind German lines).

The Germans held their lines until the Armistice in November 1918 after which the Graves Registration Unit located and recovered the remains of Australian soldiers killed in No-Man’s land. Most of these were not able to be identified and of the 410 buried at VC Corner Cemetery, none were able to be identified. VC Corner also recorded the names of 1,299 Australian soldiers killed in the battle with no known grave.

However, the Graves Registration Unit did not find the burial pits near Pheasant Wood and it was almost 90 years later that the research of Lambis Englezos resulted in investigations confirming the locations of the burials. Exhumations recovered the remains of 250 British and Australian soldiers, which in 2010 were reinterred in the Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery with full military honours. 166 of these soldiers have now been identified as Australians and by name, involving analysis of artefacts and DNA matching with descendants. The names of a further 67 Australian soldiers buried in the Cemetery are known and the search continues for relatives with DNA matching that recovered from the remains of the soldiers.

The Battle of Fromelles is commemorated at the Australian 5th Division Memorial at Polygon Wood in Belgium, The Australian Memorial and Cobbers statue at Fromelles and at the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing at Berks Cemetery Extension at Ploegsteert. The Foundation stone of the Anzac Memorial Building at Hyde Park was laid on 19 July 1932.

The Battle of Fromelles remains the greatest loss of life on any day in Australian history. The Battle of Fromelles is also commemorated on 19 July each year with a wreath laying ceremony at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne and a Commemorative Procession from the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park Sydney, to the Anzac Memorial for a Commemorative Service. The Archibald Fountain, created by Franois Sicard, commemorates the association of Australia and France in the Great War of 1914–1918.

Jim Munro

President Families and Friends First AIF
www.fffaif.org.au President@fffaif.org.au

* The Commemorative Procession leaving the Archibald Fountain.
All Images by Michael Mannington for Community Photography

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