Tuesday 19 July 2011 by Emma Campbell. 4 comments
News

 

It has become known as Australia’s blackest night.

On 19 July 1916, the troops of the 5th Australian and 61st British Divisions attacked a strong German position, at the centre of which stood the Sugar Loaf salient, near the small French village of Fromelles. The overnight assault – the first major battle fought by Australian troops on the Western Front – was mainly intended as a diversion to draw German troops away from the Somme offensive further south.

The attack failed, and losses were great: the 5th Australian Division suffered 5,533 killed and wounded; the 61st British Division suffered 1,547.

A Victorian farmer, Sergeant Simon Fraser, was a member of the 57th Battalion AIF – one of the 5th Division not in the initial “hop over” that night, but who were present throughout the battle of Fromelles. In a letter home dated 31 July 1916, Fraser tells of the battle, its preparations and its aftermath.

“I have been through the mill and came out without a mark,” Fraser wrote, “except for scratched hands through cutting and putting up wire entanglements. “I have been in the trenches since the 10th ... for the first ten days, we were in Hell, bombardments of high explosives and shrapnel from both sides every day, but two nights in particular were ‘horries’.”

Fraser was sent out over several nights before the main attack “to get the barb wire ready for the charge over”. He had become something of an expert in cutting through the enemy entanglements, and was told he would be Mentioned in Despatches for his work – “though why I don’t know, but it is satisfactory to know that you have been appreciated.”

The 57th Battalion were “supporting” when the charge was made, he wrote, “and had to hold our old line; the battalions who went over, met with too hot a reception and suffered severely; the distance was too far: when we came up the artillery was mixing things up a bit; high explosives and shrapnel were flying everywhere. The bombardment kept up all night and a good few of my mates passed out that night; so far, three of my section have been killed and two wounded badly out of twelve.”

When the battle was over, Fraser and others began the dangerous and difficult task of retrieving the wounded from no man’s land. “I must say Fritz treated us very fairly, though a few were shot at the work,” he wrote. “Some of these wounded were game as lions and got rather roughly handled, but haste was more necessary than gentle handling and we must have brought in over 250 men by our company alone...It was no light work getting in with a heavy weight on your back especially if he had a broken leg or arm and no stretcher bearer was handy. You had to lie down and get him on your back then rise and duck for your life with the chance of getting a bullet in you before you were safe.”

 

Sergeant Simon Fraser, 57th Battalion AIF, wrote home about the battle of Fromelles Sergeant Simon Fraser, 57th Battalion AIF, wrote home about the battle of Fromelles H05926

Over three days the men made these missions to no man’s land, looking and listening for those still alive. “One foggy morning in particular I remember, we could hear someone, over towards the German entanglements calling for a stretcher bearer; it was an appeal no man could stand against so some of us rushed out and had a hunt,” Fraser wrote.

“We found a fine haul of wounded and brought them in, but it was not where I heard this fellow calling so I had another shot for it and came across a splendid specimen of humanity trying to wiggle into a trench with a big wound in his thigh: he was about 14 stone weight [90 kilograms] and I could not lift him on my back, but I managed to get him into an old trench and told him to lie quiet while I got a stretcher. Then another man about 30 yards [27 metres] out sang out ‘Don’t forget me cobber’. I went in and got four volunteers with stretchers and we got both men in safely.”

Fraser was not decorated for his great courage in retrieving the wounded from the battlefield; his efforts were just part of what had to be done. However, his heroism has since been recognised in a sculpture of him by artist Peter Corlett that stands in the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles. More recently a copy of the sculpture was unveiled on Melbourne’s St Kilda Road.

The Victorian farmer never returned home: he was killed at the second battle of Bullecourt on 12 May 1917, aged 40. His body was not found.

Comments

Marita

My grandfather, aged 19, was with the 59th Battalion, his diary entry for 19th July 1916 reads: 'rose at 7am then got ready to go in to the trench. 13.00 heavy bombardment. Charged at 19.00 and got hit in the wrist and knee it was a direct hail of bullets.' The last sentence was written with a very shaky hand and no more entries were in the diary, however he later told family that he crawled into a shell hole for 3 days until they found him and sent him to England for 3 months in hospital before he was sent home to the farm in Victoria.] The men who rescued the wounded saved many lives or the fatalities would have been even worse.

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Pauline Mitchell

Such heroism by so many in such a debacle. My great uncle was one who owed his life to such heroes. As part of the 30th battallion, my great uncle Sydney Bryden Wells, became embroiled in the battle when their carrying duties became assault duties with the huge losses incurred so quickly by the 5th Division. As part of a company known as 'Krinks Eleven', these heroes became cut off behind the German lines and after bravely defending a German communication trench, realised that those left alive were retiring to the Australian lines. These men made a pact to look out for each other in their dash for safety. As they fought their way back, my great uncle became entangled in wire and subsequently badly wounded. This occurred in the early hours of 20th July. On nightfall of the same day, four of his mates, in keeping with their pact, crept out and located my uncle, still hung up in the wire and as one could imagine, in a very bad way. They placed him on a stretcher and made their perilous journey back through no-man's land to the Australian lines. But this is where the story takes a tragic twist. Upon reaching their trenches, a nervous Australian sentry took them for the enemy and with a single shot killed both the rear stretcher bearers, the bullet passing through the neck of one and into the head of the other. These heroes, Tommy Watts, a nineteen year old from Sydney died instantly and Johnny Wishart from Newcastle died soon after. My uncle survived to be patched up to fight and be wounded twice more before being sent home to Australia. His stretcher bearing mates are both commemorated at Fromelles and I visited their resting places last year, Tommy at Rue Petillion Cemetery and Johnny, whose body strangely was lost, is remembered at VC Corner. I left this quote from Virgil on their resting places: "Blessings on your young courage boy, for that is the way to the stars."

Phil Boyd

My grandfather Pte Arthur James Boyd,3010 of the 54th Battalion enlisted in Liverpool NSW Australia with the 2nd Infantry Battalion 10th reinforcements embarking from Sydney aboard HMAT Warilda ship # A69 on the 8th October 1915, at Fromelles, serving in B, Coy. VIII. while cutting the wire for the allied advance was wounded and taken POW on July between the 19th and 20th, 1916, sent to Cologne Hospital, then on to Stendal prison, then Quedlinburg 27A, by January 1917 sent on to Wittenberg, then on to Ripon in yorkshire.from there back to Australia lived a full life and passed away 1967 ashes inturned in Rookwood cemetery Sydney.-Written by Grandson Phil Boyd 1st Commando Regt.