Australia’s worst military nightmare
The 19th July 2016 marks the centenary of the Australian tragedy at Fromelles. It is a horrific story with an uplifting ending.
Fromelles is located in the north of France near the Belgian border. The Germans had held this ground for over a year. They were well entrenched in concrete bunkers, machine gun nests and a number of strategic lookouts.
The major battle of the Somme was occurring 80 km to the south. The battle was evenly poised. The allies needed a diversion to prevent the Germans from calling in reinforcements.
The 5th Australian Division and the 51st British Division under the command of British General Haking were to keep the Germans at Fromelles. Sustained artillery fire on German positions would have achieved this objective and avoided loss of life.
Haking was dubbed “”the Butcher” by his men. A year earlier 100s of men lost their lives when Haking attempted to engage the Germans on the same ground.
Haking viewed this as an opportunity to make amends. He could not have been more wrong.
This was the second engagement by Australian troops in World War I, the first being Gallipoli. It was their first engagement on the Western front.
At 6.00pm in broad daylight, Haking ordered three waves of Allied attacks on the entrenched Germans. They charged over flat ground, blinded by the sun in their eyes towards the German trenches.
Australian and British troops were slaughtered. A number of commentators have said it was worse than the charge of the light brigade.
Of 7,000 Australian troops there were 5,533 casualties which included 1,900 Australians killed.
Among the dead were 12 sets of brothers and 2 fathers with their sons
Some had served at Gallipoli.
This represents the greatest loss of Australian lives in a single day in any theatre of war.
Some Australians managed to break through the heavily fortified German lines but without any leadership and no support, these soldiers lost their way and were ultimately captured or killed.
On the battlefield that night, a German despatch officer and his terrier Fuchsl were running messages between German emplacements. His name was Adolf Hitler.
One bullet from an Australian rifle may have changed the course of history.
The embarrassment caused by the losses at Fromelles saw British and Australian authorities cover up the battle. There are several World War I memorials in England and Australia that do not mention Fromelles.
This story does have an uplifting ending.
British authorities refused to negotiate a truce to enable the collection of the dead and wounded. Several diggers were killed in “”no man’s land” in the days after the battle while trying to recover the bodies of their dead mates.
200 Australian soldiers were recorded missing. Their families and friends waited in vain for years for news of their whereabouts. No news came. There was no closure for the bereaved.
Then 90 years later an Australian-Greek arts teacher in Melbourne, Lambis Englezos. took it upon himself to locate the missing dead. Englezos is an amateur historian with an obsession for World War I.
Through years of painstaking research he discovered that the Germans had collected and buried dead Allied soldiers behind their lines. Apparently they were prepared to deal with the dead when the British were not.
What followed was a four year stand-off with the Australian government who were slow to accept Englezos’s research.
Englezos and his supporters found the remains of 203 missing soldiers.
Lest we forget.
PS If you have any interest in this subject I highly recommend Patrick Lindsay’s book “Fromelles”