Last year we reflected on the Centenary of that battle that forged our commemorations tonight and tomorrow. The mistaken yet colossal battle in the Dardanelles, the Gallipoli campaign.
Last year’s Gallipoli Centenary, for Australia, marked the beginning of four years of commemoration of the Centenary of the Great War and the involvement of our young nation in battles so far from our shores.
The significance of the Australian involvement on the Western Front took time to establish itself in the minds of Australians. Indeed, to this day, these battles, and the staggering loss of life, still fail to resonate like Gallipoli resonates. Perhaps this is the fault of the war censors at the time, or perhaps it was always going to be that first great battle in the Dardenelles where Australian attention would lie and legends grow.
Tonight I want to reflect on two battles that took place a century ago this year. On two villages in Europe. Just 50 miles apart. One in French Flanders, the other on the still waters of the Somme. The Western Front. July 1916. The villages of Fromelles and Pozieres.
While the Great War changed the world, it was these battles on the Western Front that changed war. Until the arrival of the more modern military leaders like John Monash, 1916 was the year the general leadership was taught the brutal lesson of trench warfare and the impact on men of heavy artillery. As written by Les Carlyon in his epic 2006 book ‘The Great War’: ‘winning was about firepower, which meant artillery, but another year would pass before this notion began to take on’.
Fromelles was a typical French village in French Flanders and is where Australians in 1916 fought their first battle in France. Thousands died in a single night, 19 July 1916. A battle that was, strategically, a feint. To stop the Germans sending reinforcements further south to the Somme. Carlyon writes that ‘Fromelles may be the most tragic battlefield in Australia’s history. Yet it had no place in Australian folklore during the Great War and none now’.
Indeed, the Generals Birdwood and Godley who commanded the two ANZAC Corps for most of the Great War both wrote autobiographies. Neither book mentions a battle in France in 1916 near a village called Fromelles.
Just fourteen hours long that night at Fromelles became one of the worst in Australia’s history. It would be long after the war ended before Australia understood the scale of the losses at Fromelles. At Gallipoli, over eight months, 8,709 Australians died with total Australian casualties of just over 28,000.
The one night of Fromelles had total Australian casualties of 5,533.
Fromelles became, in hindsight, a classic ill-prepared and ill-conceived battle. Intelligence was wrong, the allied artillery failed to knock out the machine guns and the Australians were asked to cover, by way of frontal assault, an area of ‘no man’s land’ twice the distance recommended.
Unsurprisingly, the ‘VC Corner’ Cemetary outside Fromelles is the only solely Australian war cemetery in France. 410 unidentified Australians are buried here.
It is easy to be critical of decisions that led to battles like Fromelles from a distance of 100 years with all the information, and none of the panic, horror and doubt. To a certain extent, there is some logic to the strategy behind the assault of Fromelles. Less than three weeks prior to Fromelles, on 1 July 2016, the battle for the Somme commenced. On that one day British casualties were 57,470, of whom 19,240 were dead. It was the worst day for casualties in British military history.
So Fromelles was an attempt to weaken the German positions in the Somme. Logic can be seen despite the failure in the execution of this plan.
Pozieres, a subsidiary operation, became the focal point for assault due to the high ground it contained and the German trenches that ran across this ground. It also was a salient in the British front.
Two British divisions had tried but failed to take Pozieres on 15 July. General Haig decided to give this task to the 1st Australian Division. Whilst the Somme battle had begun two weeks earlier as an attempt to break through, by Pozieres, it was a war of attrition.
The Australian assault on Pozieres, on 23 July 1916, began in a most unusual way for the Somme battles of July. It seemed an early success. The Australian 1st Division actually gained its objectives, that is, it took the village of Pozieres. However, the Australian flanks were wide open. When the German howitzers began to land shells on the Australian trenches on 24 July, the terrible ordeal of Pozieres began. This, as with Verdun, was the battle of the screaming shell, of shell shock and loss of life on an industrial scale. The Australian historian, Charles Bean, wrote in his diary of Pozieres:
‘They have to stay there while shell after shell descends with a shriek close beside them, each one an acute mental torture, each shrieking, tearing crash bringing a promise to each man instantaneous – I will tear you into ghastly wounds, I will rend your flesh and pulp an arm or a leg; fling you half a gaping, quivering man like these that you see smashed round you to lie there rotting and blackening like all the things you saw by the awful roadside’.
At Pozieres, despite the ‘success’ of having taken the village, saw the Australian 1st Division run up 5,285 casualties. This meant that more than 10,800 Australians had been killed or wounded in less than a fortnight. More Australians lie in the ground at Pozieres than in any other battlefield.
As Carlyon writes, ‘Fromelles was a failure and Pozieres was a success, and the cost was much the same’.
The Battle of the Somme, between July and November 1916 saw some 1million men killed or wounded. It was the bloodiest battle in human history.
This is what we remember tonight, this year, this Centenary of the fighting on the Western Front. Young men from Australia and New Zealand who, after the Dardenelles found themselves in a completely new war that had been changed by the Industrial Revolution.
While it was Gallipoli that commenced our ANZAC tradition it was the Western Front in Europe where the ANZAC soldier was embedded for it was here that the war had to be won. 1916 was the year of the Somme and it is this we remember tonight knowing that as the Centenaries progress the battles of Flanders – Passchendaale, Villiers-Bretonneax – will continue the test of a new nation fighting a war far from home.
Lest we Forget.