Wartime 44 - Reflections on a battlefield

The resonances of a dreadful night more than 90 years ago can still be felt in the fields below Fromelles.

By Peter Pedersen

Sitting atop the speed bump that passes for Aubers Ridge, Fromelles today is what it has always been, a sleepy French Flanders village. But on any Sunday after the harvest, a sense of excitement hangs in the air. In the fields below Fromelles, clusters of men dripping with ammunition bandoliers check their weapons as if gearing up for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, move off in a line, stop as one to send a volley of shots rippling through the stillness and then pause to reload. Weekend hunters blasting rabbits and anything else that moves to smithereens, they unknowingly create an atmospheric link to the past.

The 5th Australian Division attacked across these same fields on 19 July 1916 with the aim of preventing the Germans from transferring troops from the area to the Somme, where the great British offensive, which the other Australian divisions would shortly join, had started on 1 July. The result was the highest loss rate in all of Australia’s conflicts, 5,533 men in a single night. Assaulting on the right of the Australians, the British 61st Division sustained 1,547 casualties. Not an inch of ground was gained. The defending 6th Bavarian Reserve Division (6th BRD) lost fewer than 1,600 men. For connoisseurs of military incompetence the attack constitutes a rare vintage. Even the usually restrained British official history reckons it was ill-advised.

For a start, the Germans were ensconced on Aubers Ridge. Calling it a ridge may be an abuse of the word but it still gave them a grandstand view. From the tower of the new church in Fromelles, the advantage they enjoyed from the concrete observation post built inside the original church on the ridge becomes breathtakingly obvious. Beyond Pheasant Wood, a stone’s throw away, the plain below, across which the front lines snaked, stretches northwards, ironing-board flat, to the Lys River and the town of Armentières several kilometres distant. Traffic can be seen crawling along the Rue Tilleloy, which ran behind the Australian line, and the odd tractor chugs through the fields puffing blue smoke. In mid-July 1916 the Germans erected a sign that read “Advance Australia – if you can!”

E04029  No man’s land, across which the 15th Brigade, AIF, attacked, from the Sugarloaf, the remains of which can be seen on the right. This photograph was taken at war’s end.

Apart from a table and some stained glass that grace the new church, nothing remains of the old church and the observation post went long ago. Bayern Nord, the German forward headquarters during the battle, stands on the reverse slope between Fromelles and nearby Aubers, complete with an observation level that peeks over the crest. In fact, from any part of the ridge, the way that the plan for the attack played right into German hands is obvious.

Although Lieutenant General Sir Richard Haking of XI Corps never doubted his own scheme, others did. The resulting vacillation turned the planning process into a dog’s breakfast. The German support line on the plain, a few hundred metres behind the front line, became the objective. This meant the attackers would end up closer to the German artillery observers on the ridge, and hence worse off than before. From the Somme, the senior Australian commander, Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood, and Brudenell White, his chief of staff, protested that the Germans would have to be nincompoops to take such a limited attack by two divisions seriously. It would hardly deter them from reinforcing the Somme with local units.

Tracing the course of the German line on the plain highlights the tactical difficulties that confronted the assault. The Germans held two salients, the Sugarloaf and the smaller Wick. Machine-guns in each enfiladed the ground on either side. Owing to the flatness, they could also provide grazing fire, in which the centre of every burst does not rise above the height of a standing man, for hundreds of metres along no man’s land.

The combination of enfilade and grazing fire maximises a machine-gun’s lethality. As a result, the Germans were able to man their line thinly, which released men to strengthen the farmhouse strong points and concrete blockhouses strung out along the foot of the ridge, or to keep back reserves for counter-attacks. Tactically, the layout could not have been bettered.

As if the Germans did not already hold enough aces, Haking gave them another by setting the boundary between the Australian and British divisions virtually on the Sugarloaf. This meant the strong point could devastate both the British and Australian assaults, especially since no man’s land, at 400 metres across, was at its widest there.

The commanders on either side of the boundary had to be able to act instantly without compromising each other, not easy when they were out of touch in the heat of battle. The boundary should have been drawn so that only one of the divisions was directly affected.

Moreover, the Germans knew the area intimately: 6th BRD had held it for well over a year and many in its ranks, such as Gefreiter (Lance Corporal) Adolf Hitler, had been fighting since the start of the war. In May 1915, they had helped to maul a British assault on Aubers Ridge in which Haking and his superior, General Charles Monro, were senior commanders. What experienced divisions had been unable to do on much the same ground then, two green divisions were being ordered to do now against improved defences manned by veterans.

A lowly territorial formation, the 61st Division only reached France in May 1916. The 5th Australian Division arrived in June and half of it had yet to see the front line when Haking warned its commander, Major General James M’Cay, on 13 July of the attack less than a week hence. Despite the difficulties and the lack of notice, M’Cay, a former Australian defence minister, was gratified that his division, the last to reach France, would be the first to see serious action on the Western Front. But many of his men were uneasy at the rushed preparations. Most had not even been issued steel helmets. Even so, spirits lifted on the day of the assault.
From Sailly-sur-Lys, where Haking and M’Cay had their headquarters, a sign for Fromelles points down the arrow-straight D175. Leaving their billets in villages nearby, the Australians linked up on this road and headed down it several kilometres for whatever fate intended. The walk is easy – no hills, little traffic – although the thought of their naiveté brings a lump to the throat.

Some men relaxed with a pre-battle drink in one of the local estaminets. Accustomed to puny bombardments, the Gallipoli veterans were awed by the intensity of the firing as they passed the gun lines in fields that have barely changed since. But the gunners were also inexperienced. Many of their shells landed on the Australian front line. The German observers on the ridge brought down a crunching fire on it as well.

Still, the Germans seemed to be taking a pounding. Watching with his men, Brigadier General Harold Elliott of the 15th Brigade, who had earlier been very concerned about the Sugarloaf danger, assured them that they were in for a pushover. But the Sugarloaf had barely been scratched, which is grimly ironical because hardly anything remains of it today.

The assault started at 6 pm. Shot down before the Wick and the Sugarloaf, the 61st Division made only small gains elsewhere, which they could not hold. The Sugarloaf defenders then had a free run at Elliott’s men and swept them away.

A 400-metre march on a compass bearing is necessary to find the Sugarloaf site. Not much imagination is needed to visualise what it must have been like to be lashed by torrential grazing fire from several machine-guns at every step, in particular while crossing the Laies, a prominent drainage ditch along the way. A lump or two of concrete and the spent cartridge cases that still come to the surface indicate that the Sugarloaf has been reached, ending the depressing walk. Such minor relics sometimes speak so eloquently that the absence of more substantial remnants matters little.

The 8th and 14th Brigades assaulted on the other side of the D175 extension, called then, as now, the Rue Delvas, which bisected the Australian line. Marked today by VC Corner Cemetery, no man’s land was much narrower on that side and the Australians stormed over the German front line and the muddy ditches behind it. These ditches were the objective – an empty support line the Germans had abandoned when they thinned out their forward defences months earlier. XI Corps intelligence had missed the change.

Expecting to find formed trenches, the Australians ignored the ditches and pressed on. Some went 600 metres further and probably saw the big blockhouse in which Hitler may have sheltered as a runner during the battle. It stands just as it was when he inspected it while touring his old Western Front haunts in 1940.

Realising they had overshot, the Australians, now hopelessly scattered, turned about and set up in the German front line and the ditches. They had been left unoccupied during the advance because M’Cay’s instructions were to hold only the furthest line captured. That suited the Germans. They launched a lightning counter-penetration with a scratch force of survivors from the forward garrison and men from the closest strong points. It not only hemmed in the Australians but also threatened to cut them off. The German counter-attacks from the ridge started soon after.

The Australian Memorial Park covers one end of the German front line today. Just beyond the park’s eastern side, a deep luxurious dug-out served as the Australian headquarters. The Rue Delvas swings past the front of the park to enclose the field where the ditches were. Running several hundred metres eastwards through the field, a row of telegraph poles follows the route of the German line through a copse, into which the detritus of battle was supposedly dumped when the land was refurbished after the war, and then passes some overgrown shell-torn earth. This was Delangré Farm, before which the other end of the Australian attack halted. Subsidence problems afflict the house near it, a legacy of wartime mining. One mine was blown in the hope that its spoil would shield the Australian flank from the Tadpole strong point a little further on. It did not.

As the night wore on, the heaviest fighting developed around the park site. Stand there late on a northern summer’s evening, when darkness never descends fully, and the sights and sounds of more than 90 years ago come alive. Arcing flares and the flashes of exploding grenades, whose dull crumps often drown out the harsh cacophony of machine-gun and rifle, light up the area. Mud-covered figures splash along the ditches in response to the unceasing call for more grenades and men to throw them. The desperation in the voices leaves no doubt that things are critical. Up to their knees in water, others trying to improve the ditches curse at the futility of trying to fill sandbags with mud. Awful moans come from the wounded sheltering in the old German front line.

Having directed the 61st Division to attack again, Haking wanted the Australians to hold on and the battle became a black hole that sucked them in. Carrying parties stayed to fight instead of returning to the Australian line for another load. Their replacements did likewise. The calls for reinforcements were endless. By midnight M’Cay had few troops on which to draw. Making matters worse, his headquarters failed to pass on to the 15th Brigade advice that the British had postponed the 61st Division’s fresh assault, in which the 15th was to attack in support. Elliott duly sent more of his men off and the Sugarloaf duly consigned them to oblivion.

The British attack was eventually slated for the morning but by then the Australians had almost been ground down. At 5 am on 20 July, Monro ordered their withdrawal. Those with no hope of escape fought on to the end. Others who struck out across the open were shot down. The lucky ones used the communication trench that had been dug 150 metres across no man’s land during the night, an incredible feat in itself.

One witness described the scene in the Australian line afterwards as worse than “the stock of a thousand butcher-shops”. It was just as bad in no man’s land, where the wounded lay in the scorching sun tormented by thirst and ants. Their mates brought them in over the next several nights.

A German photograph taken after the fighting shows some Australian and British corpses, which the Germans recovered, stacked on a trench railway flatbed. As a track ran from the site of the Australian Memorial Park past Pheasant Wood, they may well have been destined for the recently discovered burial pits that the Germans dug there. Ironically, the communication trench that saved numerous Australians left the park on the opposite side.

Of the 700 blockhouses that the Germans constructed in the area, 96 survive, though many, such as the three in the park, postdate the battle. Of these, the one closest to the Rue Delvas was an infantry shelter, the furthest from it a stores dump and the one in the centre marks the head of an unfinished mine gallery, along which members of the local battlefield preservation group were able to crawl 40 metres towards the British line a few years ago.

The group has also excavated some dug-outs at Cellar Farm, which was on the left of the Australian attack. Its concrete revetting imprinted with thousands of rat paws, the system was designed to accommodate a battalion and started by Australian engineers in September 1916. The restored German heavy mortar pit near Delangré Farm predates the battle. Its fire made life miserable for the Australians.

In the museum set up in the Fromelles town hall, the display of personal relics recovered from the battlefield seems to go on forever. A well-worn pipe, a wedding ring, a watch, a badly dented cigarette case or tobacco tin, each signifies a life lost, a husband, father, son or brother missing.A purpose-built facility for the museum, which will include a library, is planned.

For all this, Fromelles has never evoked the knowing nod among Australians that names like Gallipoli, Kokoda and Long Tan do. Unlike them, it has never been an example of how war can sear an obscure location into a nation’s collective memory. The extensive publicity given to the discovery at Pheasant Wood may well change all that. The magnificent courage displayed at the sharp end at Fromelles deserves no less.

Cite as:  Pedersen, Peter, “Reflections on a battlefield”, Wartime 44 (2008) 2429