The trenches at Fromelles, 1916. Image Credit: AWM

Centenary of the Battle of Fromelles

  • BY Marlene Even |
  • July 18, 2016

It's been 100 years since the darkest day in Australian military history, which saw the most casualties in 24 hours of any Australian battle.

AT 6PM, ON 19 July 1916, Australian and British soldiers fought grimly in dying daylight near the village of Fromelles in northern France. After a slow start in the Pacific and Middle East, Australia's first major battle on the Western Front was a disaster.

A century later, it is remembered as the largest casualty toll in 24 hours of any battle in Australian history, with more than 5500 Australian casualties and about 2000 lives lost.

What went wrong? Australia officially joined allied forces in World War I on 6 August 1914; but confined its action to German New Guinea, Egypt and Turkey, until Fromelles. The stand at Fromelles was an attempt to divert a German reserve from reaching the main front, 70km south. But, inexperienced Australian troops were faced with a number of obstacles. For example, preparations for battle that were meant to be secret were being spied on by German troops on higher ground.

In addition, many Australian soldiers had never fought in trenches before; some had yet to even receive their weapons. Germans on the other hand had occupied Fromelles for many months and were familiar with the terrain.

Fromelles

Private Victor Rudolph Offe. (Credit: Courtesy Paul Fullston and Victoria Petho)

After the assault began, Australian and British soldiers fought throughout the night, and while some soldiers were able to advance, high casualties meant the troops withdrew on the morning of 20 July.

Problems with the plan at Fromelles 

"The intensity of the slaughter at Fromelles is a special horror," says Professor Peter Stanley, a historian at UNSW Canberra.

"It was the first Australian mass death on the Western Front."

Peter says the actual battle was not of military significance as it failed to distract the Germans, but the shocking death toll is what Australians remember 100 years later.

In early July, Australian Brigadier General H.E. Elliot has urged a staff officer from the Commander-in-Chief's headquarters to tell British command the concerns of the battle plans, including the inexperience of troops, a vast no-man's land and the German machine guns on higher ground. While the attack was delayed, these concerns were ultimately not addressed.

The Battle of Fromelles changed the way the Australian military perceived the war, Peter says, suggesting they were  becoming more skeptical about British decision making regarding the use of Australian troops.

Because of the Battle of Fromelles and the subsequent Battle of Pozières, British commanders changed their trench warfare tactics. Colonel Christopher Austin, who is leading commemorations in Queensland, says that early on "troops [were] often charging across open ground in the face of machine gun fire." From 1917, battles at the Western Front used additional weaponry and tactics simultaneously.

The Battle of Fromelles according to Victor Offe

Descendants of a soldier who fought in the battle, Paul Fullston and Victoria Petho – siblings from Adelaide – are in France for the centenary, and plan to return a sign from the local village of Fleurbaix. Their grandfather, Private Victor Rudolph Offe – a watchmaker from Tanunda, South Australia – had stolen it after surviving the Battle of Fromelles, which was in fact known as the Battle of Fleurbaix for many years. Victor also wrote letters about the battle to his sister Mollie at home.

In one letter, Victor described crossing no-man's land, the area "torn and knocked about by shell fire with masses of barbed wire strewn all over the place", with "shells whistling over [their] heads". He took care of the wounded, placing sandbags under their heads and feet, he wrote "the sight of them was terrible; I never knew before that men could be so brave and bare so much pain". 

Victor went to England in late 1917 to recover from trench fever. He returned to Australia in October 1917 and later received the 1914-15 Star, a Victory medal and British War medal for his service.

Commemorations around Australia have included a centenary flame lit yesterday by Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith, VC, MG in Maroochydoore combined with a virtual centenary flame that can be shared online.

A Last Post ceremony will be held today at the Australian War Memorial. Sydney will hold a ceremony at the Anzac memorial in Hyde Park, and Melbourne will lay a wreath at the Cobbers statue commemorating the Fromelles sacrifice in the Shine of Remembrance. 

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