Gallipoli may have been the campaign that served as Australia’s initiation to modern warfare, but it was on the Western Front of northern France that the Australian Imperial Force suffered its geatest losses in World War I.
Australian troops sheltering from the rain
shortly after their arrival in France.
The battle of the Somme was a major British offensive orchestrated by General Sir Douglas Haig in conjunction with French commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch. The plan coincided with several other offensives being planned in other theatres, but was intended to create a rupture in the German line that could then be exploited with a decisive blow.
It was hoped that tying down the German army on the Somme would relieve pressure on the French Army, which was locked in a campaign with the Germans at Verdun.
The battles at Fromelles and Pozieres were two of the side offensives that were meant to tie up the Germans.
Fromelles is a tiny village near the French border with Belgium and about 16 kilometres from Lille. Its population today doesn’t quite top 1,000.
It was here that the worst 24 hours in Australia’s military history occurred 100 years ago on the night of July 19–20. The Australians, who had arrived on the Western Front only three weeks previously, suffered 5,533 casualties, equivalent to the total of Australian casualties in the Boer War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War all put together.
Yet the attack had no tactical justification whatsoever. Brigadier General H.E. “Pompey” Elliott described it as a “tactical abortion”. Elliott’s 15th Brigade took one-third of the Australian casualties at Fromelles.
Historian Ross McMullin, writing in the October 2006 issue (no. 36) of the Australian War Memorial’s journal, Wartime, described the disaster of Fromelles much as Elliott saw it (Elliott survived the war itself but committed suicide in 1931; a casualty nonetheless.
“In July 1916 Elliott and his men had just arrived at the Western Front. But he and his senior officers had scarcely begun to familiarise themselves with their surroundings when they were told that Elliott’s 15th Brigade would be participating in the 5th Division’s imminent full-scale attack against the Germans.
“Elliott was worried: preparations would be rushed, the artillery was inexperienced, and no man’s land was too wide (400 metres in places). Elliott’s men would also have to advance in full view of the German strongpoint known as the Sugarloaf, an elevated concrete bastion bristling with machineguns.
“The preparations were rushed and inadequate. Moreover, the Germans on higher ground enjoyed sweeping visibility and could see what was happening. Crucially, the attackers’ inexperienced artillery units did not achieve their objectives in the preparatory bombardment. In particular, they failed to deal with the Germans’ Sugarloaf machineguns.
“The unsubdued Sugarloaf machineguns inflicted calamitous casualties on the 15th Brigade. Its attacking battalions, the 59th and 60th, were practically wiped out.”
“The 59th and 60th Battalions advanced in four waves five minutes apart. Each line surged forward to be cut down in its turn. Lieutenant Tom Kerr, ascending the parapet as part of the third wave, expected to see the previous lines pressing forward ahead of him, but there was no movement at all. He could see plenty of Australians, but all were lying still.”
More than 1,800 officers and men in the 15th Brigade became casualties.
A few days later, the Anzacs were sent in to battle to capture the village of Pozieres.
On July 23 the 1st Division attacked and captured the German-occupied village, making an advance of over 1,100 metres. The capture of the village pushed a bulge in the British line, thereby allowing German artillery to shell the Australian positions from several sides. The 1st Division incurred 5,285 casualties over five days.
Official war historian Charles Bean said that Pozieres Ridge was “more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth”.
The battle of the Somme came to an end with the onset of the most severe winter in 40 years. By then scarcely any of the objectives the British had set themselves for the first day of the campaign had been achieved.