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Certain battles stand out not just for their strategic significance, but also for the profound human cost they exacted. 

The Battle of Fromelles, fought during World War I, is one such chapter. 

It took place on July 19–20, 1916, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France. It was part of the wider Somme Offensive, a British and French joint operation aimed at breaking the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front. 

It was planned to stop the Germans from reinforcing their unit on the Somme, where the Allies had launched a major offensive earlier that month. The feint was unsuccessful. The attack was a disaster for the British and among the worst 24 hours in Australian military history.


Of course, one must ask why did Australia get involved in World War I in the first place? 

At the outbreak of the war in 1914, Australia, as a member of the British Empire, pledged its support to Britain and its allies. This commitment stemmed from various factors:

Australia, as a dominion of the British Empire, maintained strong ties with Britain. Many Australians felt a sense of loyalty to the Empire and believed it was their duty to support Britain in times of conflict. Also, the war provided an opportunity for Australia to assert its national identity and demonstrate its willingness to contribute to international affairs. For many Australians, participation in the war was seen as a way to prove themselves on the world stage and secure their place among the nations. 

Australia shared cultural, political, and historical ties with Britain and other Allied nations. The ideals of democracy, freedom, and justice espoused by the Allies resonated with many Australians, reinforcing their commitment to the war effort. 

But there was also this: 

Australia had economic and strategic interests in maintaining the balance of power in Europe. The outcome of the war could have significant implications for Australia's security and prosperity, making it imperative for the country to play an active role in the conflict.

By way of example, in 1906, 4.2 million hundredweight of butter per annum was being exported to England, so by 1910 Australia was the second largest supplier of butter to the British market, with 15 per cent of imports. In 1920 the termination of the Imperial Butter Control released huge war stocks of butter onto the open market, causing the price of butter to fall from a high of 2s 6d per pound down to 7 pence per pound.

But back to the story.

And so we found ourselves in a field of war. Our lads left their farms and families and headed off across the world to fight in a battle for the Empire. 

The Battle of Fromelles marked the concluding fight of the first of three phases of the Somme Offensive which had begun in February of 2016 at the Battle of Verdun.  

Brigadier General Harold "Pompey" Elliott, commander of the Australian 15th Brigade, part of the 5th Division, had great misgivings about the battle before it began. Among many appropriate concerns were that the Australian artillerymen, whose role would be crucial to the operation's success were inexperienced and their guns were unreliable. The distance to be covered across no man's land was highly variable across the line of attack, and in some places was up to 400 metres wide.

Many aspects of the planning for the British and Australian attack are considered to have been rushed, and the power of the German defence was significantly underestimated.

On 19 July 1916, the Australian 5th and British 61st Divisions tried to seize 4000 yards (3.7km) of German front. The German positions centred on the ‘Sugar Loaf’, a heavily fortified strongpoint bristling with machine-guns, with clear fields of fire over much of the ground that an attacking force on that part of the line would have to cross. The Germans spotted the troops as they moved into position. They shelled the Allied positions, causing hundreds of Australian and British casualties before the attack commenced.

The assault began at 5:30pm with 3.5 hours of daylight remaining. The Australians quickly crossed no-man’s-land, seizing the German front, and then pushed on for another 140m in search of a third and last line of the German trench system. No third line existed. The Australians began forming a thin disjointed series of posts in the the German line. Other Australians attacked opposite the Sugar Loaf, where the Germans had survived the British shelling. Within 15 minutes, the Germans had destroyed the attacking waves of Australians, as well as the British soldiers attacking to the south of the Sugar Loaf.

 The Australians faced a baptism of fire, enduring a hail of machine gun and artillery fire as they had advanced across no man's land.

The battle devolved into a brutal horror of close-quarters combat, with soldiers on both sides fighting ferociously amidst the mud and barbed wire of the trenches. Casualties mounted rapidly as the Australians and their allies struggled to make headway against entrenched German defenders.

Despite their valiant efforts, the Allied forces were unable to achieve their objectives. By the morning of July 20, it became evident that the attack had failed disastrously. The cost was staggering. With the over 5,500 Australian casualties and nearly 1,500 British casualties, it was one of the bloodiest engagements of the war.

Today, the memory of the Battle of Fromelles is largely forgotten. 

The Fromelles Memorial Park stands as a testament to the sacrifice of those who fought and died in the battle, ensuring that their legacy lives on for future generations to honour and remember. 

It is situated around the remains of fortifications on part of the old German line captured by the 14th Australian Brigade and held overnight on 19-20 July 1916.

The central feature of the memorial park is the sculpture ‘Cobbers’, a soldier carrying a wounded man.

Nearby is the VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial. The Park is situated on the German front line position where the Australian 5th Division, along with the 61st British (South Midland) Division, attacked on July the 19th, 1916.

The ‘Cobbers’ sculpture is modelled on Sergeant Simon Fraser of 57th Battalion, a 40 year old Victorian farmer turned soldier who rescued many men from the battlefield. He is carrying a man of 60th Battalion. Later, Fraser, as a Lieutenant with the 58th Battalion, was Mentioned in Dispatches before being killed at Bullecourt on 12 May 1917. He is commemorated on the wall of the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.

The memorial is located about 3km to the north-east of Fromelles itself, and is a fairly small area set in a cornfield.


Sculptured by Peter Corlett of Melbourne.

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