'From Fromelles to Pozieres – we remember'

22 mins read
The Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO

“…in Australia, they will be proud of this”


See the ABC's video of the speech here.

You don’t realise what you’re learning when you’re learning it.

We are most shaped and transformed in quiet, unexpected moments of revelation.

The power is in the story.

Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.

Sung often, seldom do we pause to consider its meaning.

The paradox is that what is most important to us we tend to take for granted, including the political, economic and religious freedoms given us as Australians.

With a sense of awkward humility, abiding reverence, infused with overwhelming pride, 55,000 Australians paused at the Australian War Memorial in the pre-dawn darkness of Anzac Day this year.

We came to the cenotaphs, memorials and places of commemoration throughout the nation and overseas - free and confident heirs to a legacy born of idealism, forged in self-sacrifice and passed now to our generation.

We gathered in renewed commitment to one another, our nation and the ideals of mankind.

Charles Bean was Australia’s First World War historian.

He landed at Gallipoli with the troops on the 25th of April and stayed with them at the front through the entire war. It was said of Bean that no one risked death more often than him.

He was witness to it all.

Over a quarter of a century he would write and edit the twelve volumes of the official history.

At its end he wrote:

What these men did, nothing can alter now. The good and the bad,
the greatness and the smallness of their story….it rises, it always rises…
above the mists of ages, a monument to great hearted men
and for their nation – a possession forever.

The great 19th century English philosopher, John Stuart Mill concluded two essential pre-conditions for a nation to exist and be sustained.

The first was that a people would want to be governed as one, as a single nation.

And so it was over a generation and a half in the late 19th century, our forebears finally resolved we would become a nation. The legal architecture for the Commonwealth of Australia was born in 1901. Two years later we gazetted a flag.

Mill’s essential second precondition was that people are bound by a ‘common fellow feeling’, deeply rooted in language, literature and history.

This continent has millennia of rich indigenous history and then, the devastating impact upon it of the arrival of the first fleet in 1788. But from it and the pioneers who joined them through the 19th century, origins of the Australia we have become.

But it was not until the cataclysm that unfolded in late 1914 and everything that followed at home and abroad, that we got our ‘story’.

We were 4.5 million people in 1914, overwhelmingly supportive of the ‘mother country’ in the ‘Great War’.

One million men were of an age that could volunteer. From a nation that twice said ‘no’ to conscription, 417,000 did.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders only four to five generations after the arrival of the First Fleet, living in a desperately unequal Australia, enlisted to fight for the young nation that had taken so much from them. In the AIF, they found equality.

We sent 330,000 overseas in an Australian uniform with an Australian flag.  

A series of largely catastrophic military battles ensued until the stunning leadership of General Sir John Monash of the Australian Corps in 1918.

Australia was never more divided than we were during the First World War, principally but not only around the conscription referenda. Whether Tasmanians or Queenslanders, people looked to the federal government for answers to increasingly unanswerable questions.

We emerged four years later, victorious - but inconsolably mourning 62,000 dead. Another 60,000 would die within a decade of returning to Australia.

With deeply embittered public discourse and facing privations beyond the comprehension of our generation, we remained true to our democratic principles.

We emerged Australians. 

Every nation has its story. This is our story.

The most tragic and heroic chapter to our story unfolded 100 years ago this month at Fromelles and the small French village of Pozieres.

The AIF’s arrival in France

As two weary AIF Divisions withdrew from Gallipoli to Egypt, leaving 8,700 dead, recruitment was surging in Australia. Regrouping, the AIF expanded to four Divisions, unaware the worst was yet to come.

The inexperienced AIF was ill-prepared for the Imperial German Army. Less than a third of its troops had fought on Gallipoli.

France was now Germany’s western border.

With two years on the Western Front, the battle hardened Germans were better trained and equipped. Germany’s complex of trenches, fortified villages and belts of barbed wire marked no man’s land strategically covered with machine-guns and German artillery.  

Troops of I ANZAC Corps arrived in March 1916, into the relatively quiet “nursery” sector near Armentières on the Franco–Belgian border.

They learned the routine and rigours of trench warfare and new weapons - the Mills bomb (hand grenade), Lewis light machine-gun, and the Stokes trench mortar.

They made forays into no man’s land, fighting patrols and short, violent trench raids to kill and capture German troops and intelligence.

Disparate units gained cohesion and vital combat experience before the looming battles.

By June’s end, 600 Australians were dead and Private William Jackson had been awarded the first Victoria Cross to a member of the AIF in France.

Then all hell broke loose.

On the 1st of July, 80 battalions of the British and French armies went ‘over the top’ in the Somme Valley. They advanced into heavy, enfilading machine-gun fire, brutally finding the week-long artillery bombardment had inflicted little damage on German defences.

At that first day’s end, British forces had suffered 60,000 casualties, almost 20,000 dead in Britain’s greatest military disaster - ever.

Australia’s would follow 18 days later.


In mid-July as the Australian divisions of I ANZAC moved south to support the British offensive raging on the Somme, the Germans erected a sign:


Australian and New Zealand troops of II ANZAC Corps arrived from Egypt in June. Just two weeks in the “nursery” sector, they were committed to a British attack against heavily fortified German positions near the village of Fromelles. The ‘plan’ was to stop German reserves moving into the main Somme battlefield.

It was a disaster.

The front of the attack was 4 kilometres. They would advance across 80 to 400 metres of open ground in broad daylight under direct observation from waiting German lines. German defences included 700 concrete blockhouses and a strong redoubt, known as ‘Sugarloaf’ overlooking most of the allied advance.

Major Geoffrey Gordon McCrae of Hawthorn, Victoria wrote his last letter home before leading the 60th battalion:

"Today I lead my battalion in an assault on the German lines and I pray God that I may come through alright and bring honour to our name. If not I will at least have laid down my life for you and my country, which is the greatest privilege one can ask for. Farewell dear people, the hour approacheth."

The seven-hour artillery bombardment on the German trenches failed miserably. It ended at 6 pm on 19 July 1916. Assaulting troops of the Australian 5th Division and British 61st Division “hopped the bags” to attack across no man’s land.

Lumping scaling ladders, picks, shovels, rifles and bags of grenades, they ran into a fusillade of withering machine-gun fire.

Private Walter ‘Jimmy’ Downing of the 57th battalion described the 15th Brigade’s carnage:

Hundreds were mowed 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 ….swishing in a flat lattice of death…
there were gaps in the line…wide ones, small ones.
Survivors spread across the front and kept the line straight.
There was no hesitation, no recoil, no dropping of the unwounded into shell holes.

McCrae’s 60th Battalion was annihilated crossing open ground in full view of German machine-gunners.

Carrying parties followed the initial assault with sandbags and ammunition into withering machine gun fire. Blood stained water filled ditches and craters in no man’s land were filled with the dead, dying, wounded and terrified - others struggled past, pushing on.

Australians of the 8th and 14th Brigades captured enemy positions and penetrated deep into German defences. But without flanking support under fierce German counter-attacks, they were forced to withdraw under brutal fire early in the morning.

By dawn on the 20th of July, Australian trenches were teeming with wounded and dying.

Geoffrey McCrae was killed leading his men. He was 26 years old.

Of the 886 officers and men of the 60th battalion who went into the attack with him, only 1 officer and 106 men answered the Roll Call after the attack.

Victorians of the 15th Brigade suffered mightily in their assault on the German Sugar Loaf. Their commanding officer, Brigadier Harold “Pompey Elliott” – a much loved and respected veteran of the Boer War and Gallipoli, had vented opposition before the attack.

Lieutenant John Schroder was in brigade headquarters with ‘Pompey’ when his 15th went ‘over the top’:  

Pompey got tired of sitting in advanced brigade headquarters, and took me up the line with him…..it was impossible to walk far without falling over dead men….there must have been dozens of German machine guns operating….Pompey never thought of ducking, but went on right along the line. A word for a wounded man here, a pat of approbation to a bleary-eyed digger there - he missed nobody. He never spoke a word all the way back….but went straight inside, put his head in his hands, and sobbed his heart out.

Bean described Pompey Elliott as ‘speechless with grief’, tears streaming down his face as he shook hands with returning survivors.

In less than 24 hours, Australia suffered 5,533 casualties - 1,917 dead; 3,146 wounded; 470 taken prisoner – our nation’s worst day ever.

Bean absorbed the tragic aftermath:

One man was seen on July 20th with the skin shot from his forehead and hanging over his eyes (or shot out eyes) near the German wire. He was walking about with his hands outstretched, going in a circle and then would flop down again. The Germans did not fire at him. This man was walking about for two or three days in this way. The Germans let him walk but noticed where he fell and searched all no man’s land between him and our lines with machine-guns .… After three days they blew him to pieces with a bomb”.

Sergeant Alexander Ross of the 57th Battalion reveals the Australian character, volunteering to recover wounded from no man’s land. Captain Hugh Knyvett was with him (Over there with the Australians, published 1918):      

We found a man on the German barbed wire….so badly wounded that when we tried to pick him up, one by the shoulders and the other by the feet; it almost seemed that we would pull him apart.

Blood was gushing from his mouth, where he had bitten through lips and tongue, so that he might not jeopardize, by groaning, the chances of some other man who was less badly wounded than he.

He begged us to put him out of his misery, but we were determined we would get him his chance, though we did not expect him to live.

But the sergeant threw himself down on the ground and made of his body a human sledge.

Others joined us, and we put the wounded man on his back and dragged them thus across two hundred yards of No Man's Land, through the broken barbed

wire and shell-torn ground, where every few inches there was a piece of jagged shell, and in and out of the shell-holes.

So anxious were we to get to safety that we did not notice the condition of the man underneath until we got into our trenches; then it was hard to see which was worst wounded of the two.

The sergeant had his hands, face, and body torn to ribbons, and we had never guessed it, for never once did he ask us to "go slow" or "wait a bit."

Such is the stuff that men are made of.

Realising the significance of Fromelles to our young nation, Charles Bean returned to walk over the ground on the day of the Armistice to think, reflect and record:

We found the old no man’s land simply full of our dead. The skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere.

He described Fromelles as:

One of the bravest and most hopeless assaults ever undertaken by the AIF

On this site today at ‘VC Corner’, is the only Australian cemetery without headstones and epitaphs. A stone wall sits in the middle of the former no man’s land inscribed with the names of 1,299 Australians with no known grave. Two mass graves nearby contain the remains of 410 unidentified Australians, casualties of muddled planning and reckless decision making.  


The Australian 1st Division marched through the town of Albert, unsettled by the gilded Virgin dangling above the square. On their long march to the small village of Pozieres, they were unaware of Haig’s disastrous first day on the Somme.

Sergeant Ben Champion wrote of moving from the eerie quiet of Albert into Sausage Valley, marching on to Pozieres:

……we realised at last that we were at war…. litter of all kinds. We came to an area with the sickly smell of dead bodies….half buried men, mules and horses came into view. Here was war wastage properly. Germans and British mixed together, lying in all positons and there wasn’t a man but thought more seriously of what was ahead.

Ahead for the Australians over the next six weeks were 24,000 casualties – 6,800 dead, five Victoria Crosses.

Just after midnight on 23 July 1916, the Australian 1st Division attacked the village of Pozières.

British and Australian artillery had pounded the German defences for days before the attack. In capturing Pozières, the Australians occupied a position that dominated the ridgeline helping neighbouring British units to take the high ground towards Thiepval.

However, the capture of Pozières cruelly exposed troops of I ANZAC by pushing a significant bulge into German territory. German commanders turned the guns of an entire army corps onto the Australians along with an intense three sided artillery bombardment.

Pozieres was rendered brick dust.  

Private Archie Barwick of the 1st Battalion described 24 July:

All day long the ground rocked & swayed backwards and forwards from the concussion …… men were driven stark staring mad and more than one of them rushed from the trench over towards the Germans. Any amount of them could be seen crying…. sobbing like children, their nerves completely gone.

Bean simply wrote:

The shelling at Pozières did not merely probe the character and nerve; it laid them stark naked as no other experience of the AIF ever did.

When the 1st Division was relieved after three days fighting, it had suffered 5,285 casualties.

Australians repeatedly attacked the surrounding German defences. On 28 July troops of the 2nd Division unsuccessfully attacked the formidable OG (“old German”) lines to the east of the village under a massive German artillery bombardment – another 3,500 Australians killed or wounded.

On the 31st of July, Charles Bean narrowly missed death getting to the front:

Everywhere were blackened men, torn and whole – dead for days.

Lieutenant John ‘Alec’ Raws had been a correspondent for The Argus on enlistment. He abhorred the ‘absurdity of war’ but felt a duty to serve. Then self-described as a man who could not ‘tread upon a worm’, he documented the suffering and courage of his men of the 23rd battalion who would dig the new front line for the 2 August assault:

Our battalion ... had to march three miles, under shellfire, go out into no Man’s Land in front of the German trenches, and dig a narrow trench to be used to jump off in another assault.

I was posted to bring up the rear and prevent straggling.

We went in single file along narrow communication trenches….shelled all the way up, but got absolute hell when passing through a particularly heavy curtain of fire which the enemy was playing on the ruined village of Pozières ...

…our line was held up. I went up….and found that we had been cut off, about half of us, from the rest of the battalion, and were lost.

I would gladly have shot myself, for I had not the slightest idea where our lines or the enemy’s were.… shells were coming at us from three directions.

…we lay down terror-stricken along a bank. The shelling was awful. I took a long drink of neat whisky and went up and down the bank trying to find a man who could tell where we were.

Eventually I found one. He led me along a broken track and we found a trench; he said he was sure it led to our lines, so we went back and got the men.

It was hard to make them move, they were so badly broken. We eventually found our way to the right spot, out in No Man’s Land.

Our leader was shot before we arrived, and the strain had sent two other officers mad.

I and another new officer (Lieutenant Short) took charge and dug the trench. We were being shot at all the time and I knew that if we did not finish the job before daylight, a new assault planned for the next night would fail.

It was awful, but we had to drive the men by every possible means and dig ourselves.

The wounded and killed had to be thrown on one side - I refused to let any sound man help a wounded man: the men had to dig ...

….an officer of another unit, who was hopelessly rattled, ordered us to go. The trench was not finished. I insisted on the men staying, saying that any man who stopped digging would be shot.

We dug on and finished amid a tornado of bursting shells. All the time the enemy flares were making the whole area as light as day.

I was buried twice, thrown down several times - buried with dead and dying.

The ground was covered with bodies in all stages of decay and mutilation, and I would, after struggling free from the earth, pick up a body by me to try to lift him out with me, and find him to be a decayed corpse.

….The horror was indescribable.

In the dim misty light of dawn I collected about 50 men and sent them off, mad with terror, on the right track…. two brave fellows stayed behind and helped me with the only unburied wounded man we could find.

…I met another of our men, who was certain that his cobber was lying wounded in that barrage of fire.

I would have given my immortal soul to get out of it, but I simply had to go back with him...

We spent two hours in that devastated village searching for wounded - but all were dead. The sights I saw during that search, and the smell, can never be exceeded by anything…...

Aghast, Bean wrote of Pozieres:

The men are simply turned in there as into some ghastly mincing machine.

On 4 August attacking the same lines, the ridge was finally captured. The 4th Division relieved the 2nd and fought off determined German counter-attacks.

Private ‘Harry’ Hartnett of the 2nd Battalion ended his letter home to Tumblong:

If you have seen a battlefield, you would never forget. It is a cruel sight to witness, but we have upheld the honour of Australia and the ground we hold which was captured at such a cost…..we are proud of our victory, although we mourn the loss of many a brave comrade…they died for their country, and who could die a nobler death

The Australians held their ground under continued German artillery fire.

Bean concluded:

In those 45 days, Australians had launched 19 attacks…they knew their constant advance during a time of deadlock would compare with any other achievement on the Somme

And it did.

Once positions east of Pozières were secured, the focus moved north towards Mouquet Farm.

Australian troops from 1st, 2nd, and 4th Divisions rotated in and out of the line for second and third tours, launching a series of piecemeal attacks that failed to capture and hold the German defences.

When finally relieved by the Canadians on 3 September, more Australians had been lost in eight weeks of fighting in France than eight months on Gallipoli.

Today the site of the windmill the Germans had concreted into their strong point is inscribed with Bean’s words:

The ruin of the Pozieres Windmill which lies here was the centre of the struggle on this part of the Somme battlefield in July and August 1916. It was captured on August 4th by Australian troops who fell more thickly on this ridge than on any other battlefield of the war.

Pozieres, Bean wrote, is more deeply sewn with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth

It was in the depths of the bloody fighting at Pozieres that a mortally wounded Australian asked of Bean, “Will they remember me in Australia?”

Having conceived and resolved to build the finest Memorial to these men of the AIF and nurses, he wrote:

Many a man lying out there at Pozieres and in the low scrub at Gallipoli, with his poor tired senses barely working through the fever of his brain,
has thought in his last moments…well, well…it’s over.
But in Australia - they will be proud of this.

And we are. We are damned proud.

On Sunday night the 21th of August, ten letters a metre high will be projected onto the horizontal concrete beam immediately below the dome above the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial.

They will form one name – MARGETTS I. S.

His name, along with almost 62,000 Australians who gave their lives for us is being projected on thirty occasions for thirty seconds through the centenary of the First World War.

It is being projected for two reasons.

Firstly, it is tempting, human beings that we are, to settle for headlines - broad brushstrokes of our history. Our comfortable lives breed easy indifference to individual sacrifices made in our name and devotion to duty.

As Dame Mary Gilmore wrote (‘These Fellowing Men’):


They are not dead; not even broken.

Only their dust has gone back home to the earth;
For they, the essential they, shall have rebirth
Whenever a word of them is spoken.


Secondly, it is to remind us that we are Australians. In the end there are some truths by which we live – and they are worth fighting to defend; politically, diplomatically and at times – militarily.

We are Australians not only or so much because we have a constitution and the machinery of a democracy given us by the British.

We are defined by our values and our beliefs, the way we relate to one another and see our place in the world.

We are shaped by our heroes and villains, triumphs and failures; the way as a people we have faced adversity and how we will face the inevitable adversities coming and respond to emerging horizons.

We are bound by Mill’s ‘common fellow feeling’, what Arthur Schlesinger described as, common ‘historic purpose’.

This is our history. But it has much more to do with our future.

As the world moves from one age to another; as the tectonic plates shift with the re-emergence of China and we face a generational struggle against resurgent totalitarianism in the form of Islamic extremism, we must be clear about who we are and in what we believe.

Ivor Margetts was born in Launceston, Tasmania, in 1891 to Stephen and Charlotte. A teacher, Ivor was well-known throughout Tasmania as a footballer and ‘thorough sportsman’.

He left the Hutchins School in Hobart to enlist in August 1914. His 12th battalion was amongst the first ashore at the Gallipoli landing.

Promoted to captain, he described one narrow escape in which every officer in his company was killed or wounded, his own uniform riddled with bullet holes.

The night before the attack on Pozieres, Margetts explained the plan to his men, ending - “Remember lads, it is not hard to die.”

On the 24th of July, Ivor Margetts was in the Pozieres village marking places for trenches to be dug. Later leading his men to the new forward positions under fire, he was struck in the chest with a shell fragment and died within minutes. He was 24 years old.

Wounded himself, Private G.A McKenzie a stretcher-bearer and a fellow Hobartian, wrote to Margetts’ father:

I stayed with him to the end when he said, “McKenzie – if you get through this stink lad - which I hope to God …you do, let my people know how I got hit - and died thinking of them”.

He caught my hand and passed away

….I got him buried and put a cross over his grave…I was all through the Gallipoli muck with your son... I am only a private myself…..but there was never a better Officer living than Capt. Margetts…..any one of us would have gave their life for to save his little toe.

McKenzie told the Red Cross:

The men loved him. I cried like a kid when I found he was dead…I think he went because he was too good for the beastliness of war.

Margetts’ grave survived the battle, but not the war. We have a photograph – a desolate, small white cross on a moonscape.

Interred within the Hall of Memory since 1993, is the Unknown Australian Soldier, sprinkled with soil from the Pozieres windmill. Silent sentinels above him are fifteen stained glass windows, each a depiction of a serviceman and nurse of the First World War.

At the base of each window is a single word.

Charles Bean pondered the qualities, the values seen in these men and women, essential not just for victory in battle, but for depth and breadth of character.

Character derives from the Greek word meaning the impression left in wax by a stone seal ring.

Transcending money, rank, power, influence or talent – is character.

It is informed by worthwhile, intrinsic virtues.

Those fifteen values are:


A century after Fromelles and Pozieres, to young Australians – your search for belonging, meaning and values for the world you want - ends here.

Bean concluded that what made the Australian ‘digger’ so special, “lay in the mettle of the men themselves”.

To be the kind of man who would give way when his mates were trusting to his firmness….to live the rest of his life haunted by the knowledge that he had …….lacked the grit to carry it through -  was the prospect these men could not face.

Life was very dear, but life was not worth living unless they could be true to their idea of Australian manhood.

A century later, SAS Sergeant ‘S’ reflecting on the battle of Tizak in Afghanistan said:

To fail would be worse than death.
To let down your mates in combat….would be worse than death.
…that’s it – that’s the essence.
You don’t let your mates down.

That is the essence.

The most fragile yet powerful of human emotions is hope - belief in a better future, a better world.

Hope is sustained most by reaching out in support of one another – “mates who go over together” and even when gripped with fear as was Alec Raws at Pozieres, don’t let one another down.

Their spirit is here in these commemorations.

Amidst the horror, it is not about war.

It is about love and friendship.

Love of family, love of country.

We honour lives devoted not to themselves - but to us; and their last moments to one another.

They gave us greater belief in ourselves and a deeper understanding of what it means to be Australian.

Their ultimate legacy is that a life of value is one spent in the service of others, irrespective of the cost.

Like them, what we need most is one another.

After the bloodbath at Fromelles, Sergeant Simon Fraser spent three backbreaking days bringing in the wounded from no man’s land.

A lone voice pleaded through the fog, “Don’t forget me cobber”.

He didn’t.

We won’t.

We never will.

We are Australians.

We did advance, and we will.

We are young, and we are free.

Last updated: