Battle of Fromelles 19th/20th July 1916 – “Brief”
The 19th July 2023 will be the 107th Anniversary of the “Battle of Fromelles” on the Western Front – WW1. Fromelles is situated in France near the Belgian Border just south of Ypres & west of Lille.
It was the First battle undertaken by Australian Troops on the Western Front.
It was carried out by the, 8th – 14th & 15th Brigade’s of the Aust 5th Division & on their Right, the British 61st Div. – (Territorial troops)
(The 31st Bn led by LTCOL Fred Toll was part of the 8th Brigade)
Fromelles was planned by the British as a Diversionary Attack to convince the Germans not to move troops south to the Somme, where the British & French had started a major push on the 1st July. 11 Divisions of the British 4th Army had sustained massive casualties exceeding eighty thousand, on the Somme around the Pozieres area, up to the time of 19th July, with little to show for it.
A British General, LTGEN Richard Haking planned the attack at Fromelles. This was unfortunate for the Australians, as he had previously been involved with planning an attack 14 Months earlier with British troops, over exactly the same ground, with absolutely no gain & very heavy casualties. His plan for the Australian 5th Division was basically the same plan with less Troops & less experienced Australian Artillery, against a now improved, fortified in-trenched enemy.
After the previous attack, the Germans spent the period improving & fortifying their Defences around Fromelles with Concrete Bunkers, & O/head protective cover of their trenches from Artillery. They had a clear view of the Australian Front line and an excellent observation of the battlefield from the Church Spire in the village of Fromelles. The Germans also had the Australian Front Line & supporting areas well ranged by their Artillery & Mortars. They had a year to practice their ranging.
The Battle of Fromelles attack started with Artillery Bombardments at 11.00 AM & at 6.00 PM (in broad daylight) the troops advanced, with the 8th Bde – 31st & 32nd Bn’s leading the attack on the left, with the 14th Brigade’s 54th & 53rd Bn’s on their right. These two Brigades had to cross about 100 yds of clear open ground of No Mans Land in front of the 31st & 32nd Bns, & up to 200 yds in front of the 54th & 53rd Bns. But, the 15th Bde on the extreme right, had to cross about 350 yds of clear open ground to reach the German Front Lines. The 15th Brigade’s two leading Battalions were almost wiped out in “No Mans Land” by heavy machine gun fire, from the “Sugarloaf position” & very few Diggers managed to reach the German Front Line, let alone penetrate it.
The 31st& 32nd – & 54th& 53rd Bns although, taking heavy casualties, over ran the German front line. The 31st Bn CO, LTCOL Fred Toll proceeded forward Approx. 400 yards looking for the proposed 3rd & 4th Lines of German Trenches, but found only muddy ditches. They returned back to a dry Ditch about 200 yards behind the main German Front Line & started to dig in as their defensive line. They managed to hold it against heavy German Artillery Barrages, & overwhelming German counter attacks, but at about 2.00AM, LTCOL Toll decided to move back to the Main German line.They held out until about 6.30 AM on the following morning, when they were forced to retreat back over No Man’s Land to their own lines due to lack of ammunition & reinforcements, sustaining further heavy casualties in the process.
The Attack was over in 18 Hours but wounded were still trying to crawl back & diggers going out to try to rescue them for many hours after.
The Battle achieved nothing, and was a disaster. There were no more attacks at Fromelles for the rest of the war. The bodies of the dead Australians lay in No Man’s Land, until after the War, and many who were killed behind the German Lines, remained as missing. After the war the 410 unidentified remains, in NO Mans Land were buried in Groups of 10 at “VC Corner” Cemetery at Fromelles. Those who were killed behind the German Lines remained as missing & would remain unheard of for about 80 Years. That’s another story. (Refer Below)
Roll call after the Battle recorded a total of 5533 Casualties by the 5th Division (Including almost 2000 Dead). This was the highest casualties sustained by any Div. within a 24hr period in Australian Military History.
However, due to the high casualties, the Battle was basically kept a secret, by high authority, and as the Aust. 1st – 2nd & 4th Divisions entered the Battle of the Somme on the 23rd July capturing Poziers & the high ground of the “Windmill” behind it, with a Casualty high of 23,000 over the following weeks, the Battle of Fromelles was forgotten & the casualties conveniently became part of the Somme offensive. The British never ever recorded Fromelles as a separate Battle & it is not recognised as such to this Day. We Australians regard it as a Battle, & the 31st Bn being the only Unit of the 5th Div. WW1, still operational & on strength in the ADF, will continue to recognise it & commemorate the Diggers who fought & died there.
LAMBIS ENGLEZOS AM
In the late 1990’s a Greek born, Arts Teacher & amateur War Historian from Melbourne started taking an interest in the Battle of Fromelles as he had interviewed old WW1 Diggers of the Victorian 15th Brigade living nearby in Melbourne. He became convinced after checking Casualty records, and reading Corfield’s Book on Fromelles “Don’t forget me Cobber” that there were approx. 250 missing Diggers unaccounted for. Lambis was on a mission. After research of German Aerial Photographs & a visit to Germany to inspect German War records, he identified that a probable Burial site, was an area astride “Pheasant Wood” which was behind the original German front Line. Lambis requested authorities to investigate the site, but they weren’t interested. However, due to his drive & persistence, it wasn’t until 2007, that authorities allowed an Archaeological team to investigate the Site. They found evidence of Australian & British Badges on the site, almost immediately, and with the lay of the Ground etc it proved to be enough evidence of a burial site, to make a dig. It wasn’t until 2009 that the dig was made & the bodies recovered.
All remains were reinterred in a New Cemetery named “Pheasant Wood Cemetery” with Blank Headstones. DNA was taken of each Body. As remains were identified by DNA, new Headstones with their Names & Units etc replaced the Blank ones. Due to modern DNA, remains have continued to be identified each year, & their Graves noted, including quite a few 31st Bn men. It was due to the publicity of the find of the Bodies at Fromelles that knowledge of the Battle became more widespread.
Since Lambis’s discovery, new Books have been written, a new Cemetery established, & a new Museum Built in Fromelles. In 2009, Lambis Englezos was recognised for his outstanding Service and exceptional Achievement, and awarded a Member of the Order of Australia, AM. Lambis is continuing his search for burial grounds of unaccounted missing Soldiers, in various WW1 Battle Fields. Australia owes a great deal to this man.
TONY WADESON (Secretary 31st Bn Association – Brisbane Branch)