Australia’s Fromelles prisoners

Among the 5th Division’s 5,533 casualties at Fromelles were about 470 Australians who became prisoners of war. Almost 4,000 Australians were captured on the Western Front during the war, and the Fromelles prisoners constitute the second largest group of Australians to be captured in a single engagement – surpassed only by the 1,100 4th Division men captured at Bullecourt the following year.

It wasn’t only inexperience that led to so many Australians being captured at Fromelles. In part, they were too successful in gaining ground, but without sufficient support. Having survived the devastating machine-gun fire sweeping no man’s land, groups along the 8th and 14th Brigade fronts succeeded in breaking through the German front line. But the Australian toehold on the German positions deteriorated as the few able-bodied men holding the line began running out of ammunition. And the lack of adequate reinforcements only made the situation worse.

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Australian soldiers captured during the battle of Fromelles being marched to a German collecting station, 20 July 1916.

Then came the German counter-attacks, which cut off and surrounded the advanced pockets of Australian attackers, forcing them to lay down their arms. Much to the chagrin of those still willing and able to fight, the order to surrender was passed along the 14th Brigade front, and a white flag produced by an Australian officer sapped whatever morale remained. When the Germans recaptured the front line, those preparing for a final stand or attempting to withdraw were also taken prisoner.

The treatment of prisoners varied greatly, but they generally fared better the further away from the front line they were moved. After capture, officers were separated from their men, the latter being paraded through the streets of Lille and interrogated at a Napoleonic fort known colloquially as “The Black Hole of Lille”. Haking’s orders for the attack had fallen into German hands early on in the battle, so the revelation to emerge from the questioning was the degree of fighting experience and the qualities of the 5th Division.

The Fromelles prisoners were gradually distributed across Germany, where they were imprisoned in camps alongside British, French and Russian troops. Their treatment would turn out to be appalling; however, this was probably shaped as much – if not more – by the effects of the British naval blockade than by any brutal treatment at the hands of their captors. And as bad as it was, it was not nearly so awful as Australians would experience at the hands of the Japanese during the Second World War.

Aaron Pegram

Cite as:  Pegram, Aaron, “Australia’s Fromelles prisoners”, Wartime 44 (2008) 23

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