The Battle of Fromelles (19 July 1916)


Fromelles in Northern France was the scene of one of the greatest tragedies suffered by the Australian nation during the 20th century.

Despite the enormous losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British command considered that the situation in the coming days would be encouraging and that a major German retreat was to be expected. In order to destabilize the German front to a greater extent, the Allies decided on 9 July 1916 to launch an attack on Aubers Ridge in order to take the high ground there and break through to the enemy's rear (it was hoped the operation would not be a repeat of the disaster of May 1915 in the same sector). The area of attack was four kilometres wide and comprised heavily-defended German positions which overlooked the British lines. One such position was the "Sugar Loaf", a concrete bastion bristling with machine guns. The plan called for a heavy bombardment, carried out slowly and methodically, immediately prior to the infantry attack. On 16 July, with the situation deteriorating on the Somme, the prudence of the offensive at Fromelles was momentarily brought into question but determined support for the operation from General Haking, commander of the British XI Corps, eventually tipped the balance.

Two divisions were fielded at Fromelles, the British 61st and the Australian 5th, both recently arrived in France and devoid of any combat experience, and for the Australians it was their first engagement on the Western Front. They were faced with the experienced soldiers of the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division who were victorious at Aubers the year before. To make matters worse for the soldiers of the Commonwealth, the preliminary bombardment, which lasted eleven hours, was very badly executed.

Launched at six o'clock in the morning of 19 July 1916, the infantry attack was immediately subjected to intense machine gun fire and shelling in a section of no man's land which was very wide (over 300 metres). The four waves of infantry were mown down one after the other; although a few Australian soldiers succeeded in penetrating German lines, they were quickly isolated and subjected to counter-attacks. No man's land filled with the bodies of dead and wounded Australians, some likening the macabre scene to a giant butcher's stall. In spite of the initial failure a second attack was launched at 9 a.m. Totally isolated after a night in the German trenches, the Australian survivors of the first attack attempted to regain their lines on the morning of 20 July but the enemy's machine guns once again accomplished their deadly work.

In a period of twenty-four hours the Australians lost 5,533 men and the British 1,400 with absolutely nothing to show for it. The proportion of those killed was exceptionally high, for example of the 887 men of the Australian 60th Battalion engaged in the battle only 107 survived. It seems that Adolf Hitler, then a corporal in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment, also took part in the battle.

Yves Le Maner
Director of La Coupole
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