“The slaughter and confusion being worse than ever, we decided to… do something. Getting over the parapet we found No-Man’s Land a sort of hell on earth mainly through the moans of the wounded who were too numerous to get away, and the barrage was too heavy”
Private Sidney Donnan, 1 section 14th Field Company Engineers
The attack on Fromelles on 19 July 1916 was the first major battle fought by Australian troops on the Western Front. The 5th Division, that undertook the attack, was a mix of Gallipoli veterans and newly trained reinforcements.
The attack, meant to serve as a ploy to hold back German reserves from the Somme where the primary Allied offensive had commenced on 1 July, failed in its objectives and tragically caused catastrophic casualties for the Australian 5th Division.
Prior to the start of the Fromelles attack 2nd Lieutenant Waldo Zander, a 30th Battalion officer from Sydney, recalled how confused he was by mixed messages given to him and his men. He also noted that despite appeals for secrecy he had heard French citizens in the local estaminets asking when the big day would be.
The battle was never going to be the surprise that the Allies hoped for with cleverly situated German observation points, some camouflaged within trees, observing the troop assembly areas.
The Fromelles attack began at 6.00pm which provided clear visibility for the defending German troops. The Germans defenders were the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division a strong, well disciplined and experienced unit. In their first full- fledged attack on the Western Front the Australians launched themselves into it. Though suffering dreadful casualties, they performed well in this first stage and over-ran the German front line.
Operating on intelligence about the German positions the Australians then launched themselves into an attack with the objective of seizing the third and final German line. The attacking Australians were confronted with the fact that there was no German third and final line. What was thought to be this third line from aerial reconnaissance were simply deserted ditches. The attacking Australians formed their own defensive posts, as best they could, in an undefendable position.
When the Australians made their assault on the ‘Sugar Loaf’ defensive feature, a position described as, ‘an elevated concrete bastion bristling with machine guns’, they were almost decimated within 15 minutes of having left their own lines. Corporal Hugh Knyvett of the 59th Battalion noted,
“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.”
The Germans had survived the British preparatory barrage mostly intact. The same treatment was meted out to the British troops attacking south of the ‘Sugar Loaf’ who were similarly cut down like wheat falling to a harvester.
A second assault co-ordinated by the British to take the ‘Sugar Loaf’ led to another Australian attack being decisively cut down by the Germans. Tragically in this instance even though the British had subsequently cancelled the attack, this information was not communicated to the Australian units in time.
On the morning of the 20 July the devastated Australian units grimly withdrew from the field to the Allied lines.
Fromelles is generally considered the worst 24 hours of Australia’s military history, and viscerally described by ‘Pompey Elliott the commander of the 5th Divisions’ 15th Brigade as a ‘tactical abortion’. With more than 5,500 Australians becoming casualties over the course of one night and morning and 470 being captured, this is perhaps an apt description from an officer who greeted his returning men with tears rolling down his face, and whose untimely death in 1931 has been attributed by some to the debacle at Fromelles.