Stammering scores of German machine-guns spluttered violently, drowning the noise of the cannonade. The air was thick with bullets, swishing in a flat, criss-crossed lattice of death … The bullets skimmed low, from knee to groin, riddling the tumbling bodies before they touched the ground. Hundreds were mown down in the flicker of an eyelid, like great rows of teeth knocked from a comb … Men were cut in two by streams of bullets [that] swept like whirling knives … It was the Charge of the Light Brigade once more, but more terrible, more hopeless – magnificent, but not war – a valley of death filled by somebody’s blunder.
– Private Jimmy Downing, 57th Battalion
Sugarloaf: no picnic
On the 19th of July 1916, the 5th Australian Division attacked entrenched German positions near the French town of Fromelles.
The AIF’s 1st battle for the on the Western Front has been described as the worst 24 hours in Australian military history.
The total casualties numbered 7,800 out of no more than 12,000 troops if there were that many. More than the losses at the landing in Gallipoli, and one of the hardest fought fights in the war to date. Men who were in Gallipoli told me personally that Gallipoli was a picnic to it.1
The objective of 3 Australian Brigades was to overrun a network of trenches around the fortified "Sugarloaf” salient.
Manning this sector were regiments of the 6th Bavarian Division. They had destroyed 3 previous attempts by the British. Defensive lines of reinforced dugouts, concrete blockhouses, pillboxes, and breastworks overlooked the AIF’s 8th, 14th and 15th Divisions. German machine gun posts had set up well-prepared ‘kill zones.’ Surely the ‘Tommies’ would not attack here again?
Wretched, hybrid scheme
Fromelles was doomed plan from its very conception. Australian Brigadier General ‘Pompey’ Elliot called it “
a wretched, hybrid scheme.2
Sir Richard Haking, architect of the previous failed attempts had known Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig from their Staff College days. Haig admired ‘Dicky’ Haking’s theories of attacking the enemy with élan] However, he was not popular with soldiers or staff. His indifference to casualties and bullying, earned him the nick-name ‘Butcher’ Haking.
Haking was obsessed with capturing the Sugarloaf. Haig amended and signed off on Haking’s latest plan. On 1 proviso, adequate artillery support was provided. Haking brushed these concerns aside and pushed on.
A few officers spoke up. Pompey Elliot tried to warn Maj. Howard (on Haig’s staff) a catastrophe was about to unfold. Howard looking over no mans land admitted
It is going to be a holocaust.
Sadly, the attack went ahead. Of Elliot’s 887 men only 1 officer and 106 Diggers turned up for roll call the next day. He shook hands with the survivors as they returned, holding back tears.4
What an insult!
British newspapers described the battle as ‘a raid.’ Allsop wasn’t impressed:
Whatever results were attained ours was the first Australian battle in France. Disgust and feelings of angry disappointment reigned for days afterwards when a report something like this appeared in the “Daily Mail”. “A raid was carried out south of Armentieres in which Australians took part. We captured 140 prisoners.” What an insult!8
General Haking in his official report falsely stated; that the German wire and defenses had been destroyed prior to the advance, and, the infantry had a “clear run” to the enemy trenches[!]:
With two trained divisions the position would have been a gift after the artillery bombardment.
Haking blamed the ‘newness’ Australian regiments for the attacks failing. He accused the British 61st Division for ‘not [being] sufficiently imbued with the offensive spirit.’9
Breathtakingly, he concluded
I think the attack, although it failed, has done both Divisions a great deal of good [author’s emphasis].
Reginald Hugh Knyvett, with the 15th Battalion witnessed how much good had been done by the attack, and the subsequent decision to leave the dead and wounded out on the battlefield..
The sight of our trenches that next morning is burned into my brain. Here and there a man could stand upright, but in most places if you did not wish to be exposed to a sniper’s bullet you had to progress on your hands and knees. In places the parapet was repaired with bodies—bodies that but yesterday had housed the personality of a friend by whom we had warmed ourselves. If you had gathered the stock of a thousand butcher-shops, cut it into small pieces and strewn it about, it would give you a faint conception of the shambles those trenches were …
Out in no man’s land –
There were men who were forty-eight hours without food or drink, without having their wounds dressed, knowing that the best they had to hope for was a bullet … again and again would they refuse to be taken until we should look to see if there was not some one alive in a neighboring shell-hole. They would tell us to “look in the drain, or among those bushes over there” … there were men there with legs off, and arms hanging by a skin, and men sightless, with half their face gone, with bowels exposed, and every kind of unmentionable wounds …
Simply put the Fromelles ‘diversion’ was an utter failure. German reserves were not diverted from the Somme offensive. German High Command was not tricked into thinking the main British attack would fall on the Aubers ridge. In fact, Haking’s battle plans found on a dead officer shortly after the attack started, confirmed this.10
The 5th Australian Division suffered over 5,500 casualties, rendering it incapable of offensive action for many months. The British and Canadians didn’t get much further than their starting points and also suffered heavy casualties.
The Germans lost over 1,600 men. Corporal Adolf Hitler, a message runner with the 16th Bavarian Reserve was, unfortunately, not among the dead.
The story continued…
1. Cobbers remembered: Fromelles 19/06/1916
2. Cobbers remembered: Allan Allsop’s ‘terrible night’
3. Cobbers remembered: Lost Diggers of the 53rd
4. Cobbers remembered: Mosman’s dead
Appendix: Bearing witness
Reginald Hugh Knyvett’s description of the aftermath, except from CHAPTER XIX THE BATTLE OF FLEURBAIX…
When darkness came the second night, we had organized parties of rescue, but we still had practically no stretchers, and the most of the men had to be carried in on our backs.
I went out to the bridge, and in between machine-gun bursts began topull down that heap of dead. Not all were dead, for in some of thebodies that formed that pyramid life was breathing. Some were conscious but too weak to struggle from out that weight of flesh.Machine-guns were still playing on this spot, and after we had lost half of our rescuing party, we were forbidden to go here again, as live men were too scarce.
But the work of rescue did not cease. Two hundred men were carried in from a space less in area than an acre.One lad, who looked about fifteen, called to me: “Don’t leave me, sir.” I said, “I will come back for you, sonny,” as I had a man on my back atthe time. In that waste of dead one wounded man was like a gem in sawdust—just as hard to find. Four trips I made before I found him, then it was as if I had found my own young brother. Both his legs were broken, and he was only a schoolboy, one of those overgrown lads who had added a couple of years in declaring his age to get into the army. But the circumstances brought out his youth, and he clung to me as though I were his father. Nothing I have ever done has given me the joy that the rescuing of that lad did, and I do not even know his name.He was the only one who did not say: “Take the other fellow first.”
There were men who were forty-eight hours without food or drink, without having their wounds dressed, knowing that the best they had to hope for was a bullet. That the chances were they would die of starvation or exposure, and yet again and again would they refuse to be taken until we should look to see if there was not some one alive in a neighboring shell-hole. They would tell us to “look in the drain, or among those bushes over there.” During the day they had heard a groan. A groan, mind you, and there were men there with legs off, and arms hanging by a skin, and men sightless, with half their face gone, with bowels exposed, and every kind of unmentionable wounds, yet some one had groaned. Why, some had gritted teeth on bayonets, others had stuffed their tunics in their mouths, lest they should groan. Some one had written of the Australian soldier in the early part of the war, “that they never groan,” and these men who had read that would rather die than not live up to the reputation that some newspaper correspondent had given them.
I lay for half an hour with my arms around the neck of a boy within a few yards of a German “listening post,” while the man who was with me went back to try and find a stretcher. He told me he had neither mother nor friend, was brought up in an orphanage, and that no one cared whether he lived or died. But our hearts rubbed as we lay there, and we vowed lifelong friendship. It does not take long to make a friend under those circumstances, but he died in my arms and I do not know his name.
There was another man who was anxious about his money-belt; perhaps it contained something more valuable than money. I went back for it, stuffing it in my pocket, and then forgot all about it. When I thought of it again the belt was gone, and the owner had gone off to hospital. I do not know who he was, and maybe he thinks I have his belt still.
One of the most self-forgetful actions ever performed was by Sergeant Ross. We found a man on the German barbed wire, who was so badly wounded that when we tried to pick him up, one by the shoulders and the other by the feet, it almost seemed that we would pull him apart. The blood was gushing from his mouth, where he had bitten through lips and tongue, so that he might not jeopardize, by groaning, the chances of some other man who was less badly wounded than he. He begged us to put him out of his misery, but we were determined we would get him his chance, though we did not expect him to live. But the sergeant threw himself down on the ground and made of his body a human sledge. Some others joined us, and we put the wounded man on his back and dragged them thus across two hundred yards of No Man’s Land, through the broken barbed wire and shell-torn ground, where every few inches there was a piece of jagged shell, and in and out of the shell-holes. So anxious were we to get to safety that we did not notice the condition of the man underneath until we got into our trenches; then it was hard to see which was the worst wounded of the two. The sergeant had his hands, face, and body torn to ribbons, and we had never guessed it, for never once did he ask us to “go slow” or “wait a bit.” Such is the stuff that men are made of.
It sounds incredible, but we got a wounded man, still alive, eight days after the attack. It was reported to me that some one was heard calling from No Man’s Land for a stretcher-bearer, but I suspected a German trap, for I did not think it possible that any man could be out there alive when it was more than a week after the battle and there had
been no men missing since. However, we had to make sure, and I took a man out with me named Private Mahoney; also a ball of string. We still heard the call, and as it came from nearer the German trenches than ours we knew they must hear as well. When we got near the shell-hole from which the sound came I told Mahoney to wait, while I crawled round to approach it from the German side. I took the end of the ball of string in my hand, so as to be able to signal back, and from a shell-hole just a few yards away I asked the man who he was and to tell me the names of some of his officers. As he seemed to know the names of all the officers I crawled into the hole alongside him, though I was still suspicious, and signalled back to my companion to go and get a stretcher.
As soon as I had a good look at the poor fellow I knew he was one of ours. His hands and face were as black as a negro’s, and all of him from the waist down was beneath the mud. He had not strength to move his hands, but his “voice was a good deal too strong,” for he started to talk to me in a shout: “It’s so good, matey, to see a real live man again. I’ve been talking to dead men for days. There was two men came up to speak to me who carried their heads under their arms!”
I whispered to him to shut up, but he would only be quiet for asecond or two, and soon the Germans knew that we were trying to rescue him, for the machine-gun bullets chipped the edge of the hole and showered us with dirt. In about half an hour Mahoney returned with the stretcher, but we had to dig the poor fellow’s limbs out, and only just
managed to get into the next hole during a pause in the machine-gun bursts. To cap all, our passenger broke into song, and we just dropped in time as the bullets pinged over us. These did not worry our friend on the stretcher, nor did the bump hurt him, for he cheerfully shouted “Down go my horses!” We gagged him after that and got him safely in, but the poor fellow only lived a couple of days, for blood-poisoning had got too strong a hold of his frail body for medical skill to avail. His name I have forgotten, and the hospital records would only state: “Private So-and-so received [a certain date]; died [such a date]. Cause of death—tetanus.”
2 Lindsay, Patrick Fromelles : our darkest day. Richmond, VIC; Hardie Grant, 2016. p73
3 Ibid. p70
4 Ibid. p75
6 Barton, Peter The lost legions of Fromelles : the true story of the most dramatic battle in Australia’s history. Crows Nest, NSW; Allen & Unwin, 2014. p216
9 Lindsay, p.157
10 Barton, p251