71. Fromelles

Twelve of the men associated with the Shire of Alberton were killed at Fromelles (19-20 July 1916), or Fleurbaix as it was commonly referred to at the time. Based on the research so far, this number represents the largest single loss of life for those from the Shire in any single battle of WW1.

Each of the 12 men is covered in following posts which are organised by battalion:

29 Battalion

Reginald Maurice COLE 417
David Frederick LIVINGSTON 1168

31 Battalion

Harold MATES 515
Henry Victor WILLIS 983

59 Battalion

Herbert GILFOY 2641
Vincent GRENVILLE 1811
Isaac James LEAR 4130
Aubrey LIDDELOW Captain
Frederick Archie LIDGETT 4832
Leonard John NEIL 2406
Stephen SLEIGH 3244

60 Battalion

Charles John CLAYTON 850

For an account of Fromelles see Beaumont (2013. pp 189-200). Fromelles featured the litany of military failures that characterised so much of the fighting on the Western Front. Beaumont notes the following: the military objective was compromised from the start and there was little if any chance of a successful strategic outcome; the Germans knew the attack was imminent; the planning was poor and rushed; the British and Australian artillery was not up to the task and failed in its pre-attack objectives; the Germans held the higher ground and their defensive fortifications had been well-developed over nearly 2 years; previous allied attempts to overcome the German lines – and in particular to neutralise the infamous ‘sugar loaf’ machine gun fortification – had failed, and only very recently; part of the attack plan involved troops moving over an expanse of no-man’s land that far exceeded the agreed maximum limit for such an operation on the Western Front; the troops, both British and Australian, were inexperienced in terms of the Western Front; communication failed at a critical point in the battle; and, finally, senior leadership was poor. Given this background, it was hardly surprising that the attack, which began late afternoon on 19 July and ended early morning the next day, was a failure. The level of casualties was unprecedented for the AIF. Beaumont writes of the 5th Division losses: 5533 casualties, of whom 1917 were killed or died of wounds, 3146 wounded and 470 taken prisoner.

Fromelles was the first major battle involving the AIF on the Western Front. Admittedly, it was overshadowed by Pozieres later that same month (July 1916) and everything that followed, but the remarkable feature of Fromelles was how little knowledge, or even awareness, of the battle and the scale of the casualties was known in Australia at the time. It was only after the War that the ‘truth’ of Fromelles emerged. For example, in its Saturday edition of 10 April 1920 (p.7 ) The Argus ran a story under the headline: Fromelles 1916! A Glorious Failure. What Really Happened. The last sentence read,

The Total casualties among the Australians from noon on July 19 to noon on July 20 were 178 officers and 5,335 of other ranks.

However, in 1916 the details were heavily censored. There were reports in the Australian press immediately after the battle, but the account was highly qualified. Bean’s official report was published in both The Age (p.7) and The Argus (p.7) as early as Monday 24 July 1916. Both papers did include Bean’s comment that, The losses among our troops engaged were severe. But ‘severe’ was not quantified. Moreover, other details in Bean’s report gave a contradictory picture. For example, when he described the efforts made to enable Australian troops trapped in the German trenches to return to their own lines Bean played down the level of casualties:

This work [cutting communication trenches through to the German trenches] enabled the troops to carry out the retirement with loss which was slight when the extraordinary difficulty of the operation was considered.

Given what Bean had heard, and seen for himself, the entire account was very disingenuous. Moreover, in both papers, the story of Fromelles was presented as part of the wider Somme offensive. The headlines, for example, in The Argus on July 24, 1916 for the section where Bean’s report was included were as follows: Australia’s Share In Great Offensive.  A Heavy Engagement. All is well on Somme Front. Important Russian Gains.

For Bean there was the obvious potential to make the connection between Fromelles, which was after all the first major AIF action on the Western Front, and the heroic story of Anzac. Fromelles presented the AIF with the opportunity to prove and strengthen their reputation from Gallipoli. This would have been a point of considerable interest for those back in Australia: the next chapter as it were in the story of Anzac. But Bean did not have the heroic style of an Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett. Moreover, his praise for the men was decidedly qualified:

Our troops in this attack had faced shell fire heavier and more continuous that was ever known in Gallipoli. Many of them were quite untried previously. The manner in which they carried it through seems to have been worthy of all the traditions of Anzac.

Overall, Fromelles was effectively ‘buried’. Presumably, the primary intention was to conceal the level of casualties and therefore it was important not to represent Fromelles as some separate and highly significant battle. And the idea of using the battle to position the Anzacs on the Western Front was, given the level of casualties and the total failure of the action, far too risky. At the time, Fromelles was little more than the AIF’s wretched introduction to truly industrial-scale killing. Fromelles had been a disaster and all involved needed to move on from it as quickly as possible.

One great irony of the reporting of Fromelles appeared in The Argus in the same edition of Monday 24 July 1916.  Immediately after Bean’s account – the one that had as its last sentence, The losses among our troops engaged were severe. – the paper included a very short article headed, A German Claim. It probably attracted very little attention, and would have been easily dismissed as enemy propaganda, but in fact the figures it quoted were remarkably accurate:

London, July 23.
The following official German communique was received in London on Friday night:-
“An English (sic) attack in the Fromelles region yesterday by two strong divisions was repulsed. We made prisoner 481 men, and counted 2,000 bodies in front of our lines.”

In the posts that follow, the protracted and generally unsuccessful efforts made by families back in Australia to uncover exactly what had become of their sons, husbands and brothers who had gone missing on either 19 or 20 July 1916 in France, highlighted the extent to which levels of mystery and confusion were allowed to mask the horror of Fromelles.

The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative carried no report at all of the  battle at either Fromelles or Fleurbaix.

References

Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW.
The Argus
The Age
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

 

2 thoughts on “71. Fromelles

  1. Linda

    Hello Phil – excellent research – thank you.
    Not sure if this one fits your criteria – Leonard Noonan 217, appears on the Tarraville State School honour roll. He attended there while his father was a policeman at Tarraville, but then had no further association. I have him as killed in action on 25 July, which is between Fromelles and Pozieres (I think).
    I do have one or two others, but they are definitely (to my limited understanding) Pozieres, rather than Fromelles.

    Reply

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