Transcript of an address delivered in the Commemorative Area of the Australian War Memorial by Ashley Ekins, Head of the Military History at the Australian War Memorial
Welcome to this evening’s special closing ceremony. Today marks the 94th anniversary of the battle of Fromelles in 1916. On this day, 94 years ago, Australia suffered one of the most tragic events in our nation’s history. In a bloody initiation to warfare on the Western Front, thousands of Australian soldiers became victims of a pointless and futile attack.
In the late afternoon of 19 July 1916, soldiers of the 5th Australian Division, together with the British 61st Division, assaulted a heavily fortified German front line near the Aubers Ridge in French Flanders. The Australians, who had only recently arrived in France, were still undergoing acclimatisation in the trenches of the ‘nursery sector’ near Armentières.
The attack was intended as a feint to hold German reserves from moving south to the Somme where a large Allied offensive had begun on 1 July. It was a disastrous failure. Australian and British soldiers assaulted over open ground in broad daylight and under direct observation and heavy fire from the German lines. Over 5,500 Australians became casualties. Almost 2,000 of them were killed in action or died of wounds and some 400 were captured. This is believed to be the greatest loss by a single division in 24 hours during the entire First World War.
The Australians attacked in the late afternoon, with just two-and-a-half hours of summer daylight left. They went over the top, heavily laden with scaling ladders, picks, shovels and bags of grenades. Almost immediately they came under heavy enemy machine-gun fire.
Sergeant “Jimmy” Downing of the 57th Battalion, recalled: “Hundreds were mown down in the flicker of an eyelid, like great rows of teeth knocked from a comb . . . men were cut in two by streams of bullets. . . It was all over in five minutes.”
The 15th (Victorian) Brigade was destroyed within fifteen minutes, entire companies of infantry being virtually annihilated. Their commander, Brigadier General Harold “Pompey” Elliott, was speechless with grief the following day, “the tears streaming down his face, as he shook hands with the returning survivors”.
One of Elliott’s battalions, the 60th, had gone into the attack with 887 officers and men. When the survivors gathered at brigade headquarters the following afternoon, only one officer and 106 men answered the roll call.
The 14th (New South Wales) Brigade and the 8th Brigade (made up of battalions from Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia) succeeded in capturing some 1,000 metres of the German second line. But they were unable to locate their final objective, a supposed ‘third’ German trench line. This was later found to be merely the remains of abandoned trenches.
Some units began to retire under cover of darkness about 4.00 a.m., while others pulled back later in broad daylight and with heavy casualties. As daylight approached, all those Australians who could were forced to fall back. Wounded men had begun to crawl back during the night while others still lay in no man’s land, calling for help. By dawn on the morning of 20 July the Australian trenches were packed with wounded and dying men.
Hundreds more wounded men still lay out in no man’s land. For the next three days and nights, Australians risked death or wounds to go out under enemy fire in an attempt to retrieve them. A brief truce occurred in one sector and the Germans allowed the Australians to carry in some of their wounded. Two German soldiers even carried a wounded digger to the parapet of an Australian trench, saluted and then walked away. They were shot by Australian soldiers in the next trench bay, unaware of the action they had just carried out.
Some wounded men remained in no man’s land for up to a week, scavenging food and water from the dead, hiding by day, and crawling by night until at last they reached their own lines.
One survivor wrote in his diary, “Thank God I am still alive . . . it was like a butchers shop . . . We look a sorry crowd covered with mud from head to foot, arms, legs, eyes, noses, fingers bound up.”
But many were never recovered and remained missing for decades.
The commander of the British XI Corps, Lieutenant General Sir Richard Haking, who had directed the operation, later reported: “I think the attack, although it failed, has done both divisions a great deal of good.” This was an astonishingly callous judgement from a man who had, in the words of Australian official historian Charles Bean, recklessly thrown away “7,000 troops in a single night for so small a result.”
Over two years after the battle, on the day of the Armistice of 11 November 1918, when the guns of the Western Front finally ceased fire, Bean, wandered over the battlefield of Fromelles and observed the grisly aftermath of the battle: “We found the old No-Man’s-Land simply full of our dead”, he recorded, “the skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere”.
For over 90 years, 1,335 Australian soldiers remained ‘missing’ from the Fromelles battle, having no known grave. Then in 2007, investigators began to uncover the remains of some 200 Australian and 50 British soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave at Pheasant Wood by German troops in 1916.
Between 30 January and 19 February this year, the remains of 249 soldiers were reburied with full military honours in ‘Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery’, newly constructed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Ninety-six Australian soldiers have been identified by name and more may still be identified.
Today, on this 94th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles, the last Australian soldier of the 203 recovered from the mass grave will be buried at Fromelles in a solemn ceremony with full military honours. Later, a private ceremony will be held for families of identified soldiers to dedicate the named headstones within the cemetery.
In honour of those Australians who served and died in the battle of Fromelles, I ask you please to stand in quiet reflection while the traditional Last Post is performed this evening by bugler Catherine Savage.
Thank you ladies and gentlemen for attending this closing ceremony on this important 94th anniversary of the battle of Fromelles.