By Judith Lappin
Many new emigrants to Australia and many sons of British emigrants enlisted in the Australian Army because they felt the pull of ‘home’ and wanted to fight to assist the British. The Australian Army, comprising mostly volunteers not conscripts, entered France in the summer of 1916.
So it was that the very first battle involving the 5th Australian Division took place in Northern France between Bethuné and Lille near Fromelles, where they fought alongside British troops of the 61st Division.
The battle plan was to attack a 4,000 yard section of the German front line that was, unfortunately, masterminded by General Sir Richard Haking (known as Butcher Haking, whose battle plans tended to fail and leave thousands of bodies in their wake). It was virtually the same as the one he had set in motion a year before. That failed then, leaving 11,600 casualties.
Meanwhile, the Germans had had a whole year to dig themselves in and build defences made of concrete, making their front line formidable, especially around a point called the Sugar Loaf.
That month, the Battle of the Somme was proving disastrous for the British, with massive casualties and for the French at Verdun with even greater numbers of dead. This battle of Fromelles was a diversion, to make the Germans think the Allies were launching a new front and it was hoped the Germans would send men and machinery from the Somme and thus weaken that area to allow the Allies through.
The 5th Australian Division were new to France and to warfare - these were not battle hardened troops. Plans were made in haste and were muddled and did not allow for the fortifications made by the Germans. Even after several days of artillery bombardment the German defences were barely damaged. When the bombardment intensified, the Germans merely responded with equal ferocity, shelling the waiting Allied troops in their trenches.
At 5.30 pm on 19th July 1916, the British made their move into No Man’s Land and were promptly blasted by machine gun fire. At 6 pm the main thrust began and was met by blasts from artillery and bullets of every description. The bodies piled up. Some inroads were made on the flanks, but these men were unable to hold the ground since there were no others to help them because the men who fought in the middle at Sugar Loaf, were annihilated. By morning the tragedy was clear and 5,533 Australians and 1,547 British men were killed, missing or wounded.
Another failed Butcher Haking plan with thousands dead but him alive and able to pompously blame the men, who in his opinion were “not sufficiently imbued with the offensive spirit to go in like one man at the appointed time.” Adding insult to injury he said, “I think that the attack, though it failed, has done both divisions a great deal of good...” Tell that to the crippled, the widows and orphans.
Among other errors made, an officer had taken orders with him into battle that fell into the Germans hands. From these orders it was clear to the Germans that this was not a true attempt to start a new front, but a feint to get them to send troops from the Somme. No German troops were diverted, so the carnage there also continued.
A ‘Friend of the 15th Australian Brigade,’ Mr Lambis Englezos AM, always wondered what had happened to so many missing soldiers. Many bodies would naturally disappear after a battle, being blasted to nothing by artillery, etc., but following the war, the burial parties were only able to locate a relatively small number of bodies at Fromelles. There were too many ‘missing.’ So it was that Mr Englezos personally paid for aerial photographs to be taken and lo and behold, evidence of 5 rectangular plots where earth had been moved showed up.
This information was given to a British historian, Peter Barton, who travelled to Germany and searched archives there and eventually found evidence that the Germans had needed to dispose of the many Allied bodies which were festering in the July heat, so they had used a light railway to transport many of the bodies to these newly dug mass graves. And so they remained for decades, undisturbed, whereabouts unknown.
The find resulted in many relatives of the missing coming forward, and by using DNA and artefacts found at the site, many soldiers were identified. The excavation of the bodies took place by archaeologists during May - September 2009. Painstaking work was involved, not just to recover the bodies, but as many of their belongings as possible to aid identification. The remains of 250 soldiers were recovered.
A new cemetery was built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on land given them by the French Government and so the Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery came into being. Every soldier was reburied with full military honours involving British and Australian troops and Chaplains. New white headstones marked each grave and because of the DNA, many bear a soldiers name.
Of the 250 soldiers found, 94 Australian soldiers now have names. 3 British and 111 Australian bodies have been identified as belonging to each Army, but 42 soldiers remain unidentified by name or nationality. 3,000 DNA samples were taken from various relatives and work will continue to try to identify the men for a further 4 years. Many poignant items were found with the bodies, the saddest perhaps being a return ticket from Freemantle to Perth.
All three Governments involved (Britain, France and Australia) co-operated to arrange a fitting ceremony that would take place 94 years after that battle on Monday, 19th July, 2010 to recognise the service these men had rendered and one ‘Unknown Warrior’ would be buried at this service.
As the Honourable Secretary of the Machine Gun Corps Old Comrades’ Association (MGC/OCA), I was honoured to be invited to represent the Machine Gun Corps, along with Committee Member Graham Sacker. (Seven of our MGC men went missing that day and have never been identified.) Lt Col Edward Waite Roberts and Major John Butler of the Logistics Corps (and also MGC/OCA members) played a significant part in the preparations for the service, including providing the gun carriage that carried the Unknown Warrior to his final resting place. Major Butler’s work in personally doing much of the restoration of the gun carriage (and indeed personally paying for many of the parts, with Lt Col Roberts chipping in too), meant he spent several weekends working on repairs. These soldiers and others were in France some days prior to the ceremony rehearsing so that all would be perfect on the day.
The service was due to commence at mid-day and we had to take our places in the stands by 11.30 am. With the sun high in the sky and not a cloud to be seen, the heat was intense. With no shelter, those attending were soon bathed in sweat and showing signs of sunburn. I could only wonder had the troops also been under such an unforgiving sun while they waited, packed into their trenches, laden with equipment. Water was passed around but even so, guests were being helped to get first aid to deal with burns and dehydration.
Many dignitaries from all three countries were in attendance, including HRH The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, HRH The Duke of Kent, HE The Governor General of the Commonwealth of Australia and the French Minister for State for Defence and Veterans. HRH Prince of Wales accompanied the Unknown Warrior through the village into the cemetery.
A film was shown depicting details of the battle of Fromelles and about the wonderful work done by the archaeologists and scientists. Hymns and prayers followed and then the Unknown Warrior was buried. During the service, family members of the men read letters sent home by the men, which proved to be extremely emotional, and I felt, the most moving and significant part of the service.
Hundreds of Australian family members had travelled thousands of miles to witness the service and to pay homage to their dead. There were many families of several generations and children in attendance.
Following the service, I laid a wreath on behalf of the Machine Gun Corps Old Comrade’s Association and signed the Book of Remembrance. We, who were there, were proud to represent the Corps and just sad that none of our missing seven Machine Gun Corps soldiers had been identified (so far).
The cemetery is on the edge of the village of Fromelles and like all CWGC cemeteries, has a beauty which seems at odds with a graveyard. But while millions were sent to their deaths by bungling Generals and home coming soldiers found a changed society, the ones left behind were treated with great care and reverence in beautiful ‘cities’ of the dead, with the perfume of roses in the air.
May those brave men who died on that tragic day now rest in perpetual peace at Pheasant Wood.
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