Wartime 44 - The missing of Fromelles and the Kriegsarchiv, Munich

The German archives are immensely detailed, and have proved to be a great resource.

By Peter Barton

I first met Lambis Englezos in July 2005, after I’d delivered a lecture on Great War military mining at Melbourne’s Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. Englezos gave me an unexpected, but typically comprehensive, verbal summary of the theories relating to the missing of Fromelles. I knew something of the Australian attacks of July 1916, but nothing of the speculation surrounding the fate of the casualties: in British narratives, the ”action of 19–20 July” has been largely subsumed by the ghastly events of the battle of the Somme.

Our discussion resulted in my promising to bring the topic to the attention of the British All Party Parliamentary War Graves and Battlefield Heritage Group, but only if concrete documentary evidence could be produced. Englezos and I remained in (very) regular contact. The counsel I most often gave was that Englezos and his colleagues should find a way to search the files of the Kriegsarchiv [War Archive] in Munich, for I was certain it was there that substantiation (or otherwise) of their thesis was likely to be found. Some time later, following a request from the Australian Army History Unit to the German Embassy, the critical document was uncovered by the curator of the Kriegsarchiv himself, Dr Lothar Saupe. This was Oberst Julius Ritter von Braun’s Order 5220, dated 21 July 1916, which listed his requirements for the collection, treatment and burial of not only Bavarian dead (at Fournes cemetery), but also the bodies of their “English” enemies at Fasanenwald – Pheasant Wood. Von Braun was the commanding officer of Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 21 (RIR21), which had borne the brunt of the Australian assaults.

For me, the document was clearly important in three ways. It provided further, and more reliable, evidence of burials around Pheasant Wood. The order specified 400 bodies, while Englezos and his colleagues maintained that around 160 Australian soldiers lay in the pits; this strongly suggested that British soldiers made up the rest, which engaged British support for the project. Lastly, having found this crucial document in the Munich archives, it was important to check for more in the same place.

In Germany the study of twentieth century conflict may never develop the magnetic appeal (perhaps obsession is the better word) that it appears to enjoy in Britain and Australia; curators continue to look wryly upon our eternal enthralment by the two world wars. Having researched in the Kriegsarchiv on prior occasions, I was pleased to visit again. The first time was on behalf of Dr Tony Pollard and Dr Iain Banks as part of the non-invasive study of the Pheasant Wood site in 2007 conducted by Glasgow University’s Archaeological Research Division (GUARD). The second was for the Australian Army History Unit in advance of the spectacular “proving” excavations of summer 2008.

A01566 The body of an Australian soldier the day after the battle, 20 July 1916. The photograph was one of a series taken by a German officer and presented to Captain Charles Mills, 31st Battalion, AIF, after the Armistice in 1918.

These two visits were made in the knowledge that an earlier report had been commissioned by the Australian authorities. This had described the Kriegsarchiv’s holdings as “minor and limited” and questioned the necessity for further investigation.

Remarkably, no evidence or even general information had been uncovered in Munich or elsewhere, and the report concluded that if remains were present they were probably Portuguese; if not, the features seen on trench maps and aerial photos might well be trench mortar emplacements.

From my own experience, however, I knew the Kriegsarchiv to be an astonishing resource, huge and immensely comprehensive. It does suffer from underfunding, under-staffing, and in the case of its First and Second World War holdings, underuse. For socio-historical reasons it is also still undervalued by the wider German museum fraternity and by the public. Its overburdened staff, however, are helpfulness itself. Above all, the collections are as complete and undisturbed as any archive I have ever used.

It was clear that the Red Cross could only have compiled their files on the dead through information supplied by the German units that had either killed or buried the men concerned. The files relating to those killed at Fromelles in July 1916 all exist in the Australian War Memorial; indeed they constituted a key part of Englezos’s theory. Only personnel of the 6th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Division (6th BRD) could have passed these details to the Red Cross. A telephone call to Munich was sufficient to ascertain that 6th BRD records exist in abundance.

In many ways, as a resource the Kriegsarchiv far outstrips any of our “allied” counterparts. In the Fromelles case, it is the accounts and orders written during and immediately after an action that form the keystone to research. Bavarian war diaries are vast, supremely detailed and comprise every branch of the military, including padres and cemetery designers! There is also a file entitled “Crimes against humanity”. Whereas in Australia or Britain one might find reports to battalion and occasionally to company level, in Munich they regularly exist at Zug (section), machine-gun crew and even individual soldier level.

Maps illustrating every aspect of both defensive and offensive events abound, allowing a clear and simple topographical association to be made with the written data, and indeed with the landscape of battle as it exists today. Utilising the mass of technical drawings made by Pionier (engineer) units, it would almost be possible to reconstruct the entire Bavarian system of defence, including trenches, tunnelled dugouts, concrete pillboxes, bridges, trench mortar, machinegun, signals and artillery emplacements.

Likewise, drawings of the enemy front lines are so abundant and meticulous that the Australian or British breastworks might be rebuilt anew exactly where they stood in 1916. One can even find note of the daily temperature of the divisional swimming pool (there is a file, with photographs, recording its entire construction). The archive is equally invaluable from the French viewpoint, for among other data there exist many thousands of orders, invoices and receipts for goods and services supplied by local tradesmen and commerçants during the 6th BRD’s long tenure of the Fromelles–Aubers sector. This fascinating aspect of military occupation has never been studied.

E04046 A German observation post from where the enemy watched the movements of the 5th  Division, AIF.

The foreign researcher faces three fundamental problems. First, the language. A non German-speaker (or reader) will benefit immensely from having an interpreter on site to make unusual requests, complete the complex documentation for services such as copying, decipher difficult text or handwriting, and confirm specific elements within key documents or passages. I was assisted in this work by Dr Claudia Condry, a German academic living and working in London, who has extensive experience in military archives.

Second, it is essential to have a skilled specialist translator. In order to start at once on the flood of translation, during the last period of research (November–December 2007) it was necessary to digitally photograph each day’s batch of photocopies and e-mail the re-sized pictures to Mr Michael Forsyth in London. He was eventually to produce over 65,000 words of translation. As the archive’s photocopying service was placed under abnormal pressure by our requirements, many hundreds of documents had to be taken offsite and produced as digital scans. The third problem is time and money. Given the scale and historical potential of the holdings in relation to the Fromelles project, it was clear that a fair bit of both would be needed to harvest the required knowledge. Money buys time: to uncover, read, copy, translate, assimilate and report.To understand the big picture, we sought not only information directly associated with the burials at Pheasant Wood (and potentially elsewhere), but a comprehensive appreciation of how the battle unfolded from the Bavarian perspective – how, and where, and when, and why the dead came to meet their end. It is probably safe to say that no other battle on the Western Front has received such in-depth study. We are more than fortunate that the Kriegsarchiv’s holdings survived both Allied bombing during the Second World War and subsequent culling – for despite the scale of the surviving catalogue, it is clear culling has taken place.

Apart from the search for the names of the missing, the Fromelles project has for the first time presented an opportunity to look in a detailed and balanced way at a single Great War action. Incomplete as they still are, the results to date have clearly revealed how the customary one-sided approach to Great War military history is defective and often seriously misleading. But the building of a balanced and full historical narrative is a costly and time-consuming business. In this respect it is fortunate that the battle, or Gefecht bei Fromelles, lasted for just 15 hours; had it continued for even a week, the research task may have been beyond both the time available and the pocket of the commissioning body.

Cite as:  Barton, Peter, “The missing of Fromelles and the Kriegsarchiv, Munich”, Wartime 44 (2008) 3437

Text © the Author