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.”
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.