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The Battle of Fromelles remembered

battle of fromelles

Five more names were added to the serried ranks of stark white headstones at the Pheasant Wood military cemetery in 2013. Each grave is planted with a bright blood red rosebush. Amanda Fisher visits Frommelles, whose name is commemorated by Australians as representing the darkest 24 hours in their  history…

The stones stand within a beautifully designed and maintained walled cemetery built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on gently sloping ground near Fromelles – a hill-top cluster of houses around a church – 12 miles west of Lille in Northern France. From the cemetery gatehouse, visitors are treated to wide open views over peaceful unspoilt countryside that rolls away into the horizon. It presents a patchwork of ripening cornfields, cattle-grazed pastures and flower-filled meadows, criss-crossed by drainage ditches lined by hedgerows, thickets, copses and spinneys as far as the eye can see.

The rural idyll is completed by the heady sound of bees and lowing cattle, mixed with skylarks, reed warblers and meadow pipits.

It’s hard to contemplate the fact that this small burial plot contains the mortal remains of 250 men – soldiers who died together in a nearby wood one terrible day in the summer of 1916, during fighting so intense and fierce that it resulted in more than 8,500 casualties.

The Battle of Fromelles

The Battle of Fromelles is infamous. A brief but bloody episode of the Great War, it marks the first action on French soil by Australian troops, and has the dubious honour of being described as ‘the worst 24 hours in the military history of Australia.’

Its purpose – to act as a major diversionary offensive intended to take pressure off the French and British forces in the Battle of the Somme, a major offensive that had started on 1 July 1916, some 50 miles south of Fromelles. On July 19, 1916, the 5th Australian Division led the attack on the German army at Fromelles.

Its outcome – one of Australia’s biggest defeats for no military gain – 5,533 Australian casualties (more than 2,000 killed/missing, 3,500 wounded/imprisoned); 1,500 British soldiers killed/put out of action and 1,600 German dead/ wounded.

Its impact – a significant reverse for the British and the Australian troops, Fromelles village left in ruins, its surrounding countryside ravaged and littered with the detritus of war, including the remains of several German blockhouses and concrete batteries. One of these was L’Abbiette Bunker, where, between March 1915 and September 1916, a Corporal Adolf Hitler, dispatch rider for the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment, carried messages between the bunker and the German command at nearby Wavrin.

Last Resting Place

In 2009, five mass graves, each containing 50 bodies – most of them Australian – were uncovered in Pheasant Wood on the outskirts of Fromelles. The pits had been dug, filled and covered over by the Germans two days after the battle. They lay forgotten for 93 years.

As each body was removed during an archaeological excavation, DNA testing was used to identify as many individuals as possible. The remains of all the soldiers were then reburied with full military honours in the new cemetery. Next to it stands The Battle of Fromelles Museum which, when it opens in early 2014, will reveal the effect the battle had on the emerging Australian nation.

Out of the 250 bodies interred in the cemetery, 124 have named gravestones. The rest remain carved with the words: ‘An Australian soldier of the Great War – Known unto God’. As the joint Australian Army and UK Ministry of Defence project to identify the dead continues, and DNA technology improves, more names will replace the anonymous titles. It is hoped that by the end of 2014 every one of the fallen from Pheasants Wood will be accounted for officially.

On 19 July 2013, an unveiling of the five gravestones naming the most recently identified soldiers took place at a poignant ceremony in Fromelles. It was attended by relatives, many of whom had made the long journey from Australia to commemorate their kith and kin who sacrificed their lives 97 years ago, far from home, in Northern France.

Fromelles historian Peter Pedersen – whose great uncle was killed on the battlefield but has no known grave – said the five ‘Diggers’ would have relied on the inspirational qualities of courage, determination, stoicism and mateship.”They were raw soldiers in a new division, who found themselves in a tactically flawed position against an experienced enemy,” Dr Pedersen said.

The dedication of the new headstones was held on a fine summer evening. Hundreds of villagers joined well-wishers and families from around the world to bring the living closer to the dead, their duty done, as the desperately sad notes of The Last Post carried across the burial ground.

The Australian Ambassador to France, Ric Wells, put a wreath at the foot of the Cross of Sacrifice, stating: “No matter how many years pass, Australians do not forget those who have sacrificed their lives in time of war.” Children from Fromelles laid roses on the graves of the newly-identified soldiers, and stood alongside descendants as they left flowers, flags, photographs and mementos of their loved ones, finally at rest 12,000 miles from home.

One family, the McKenzies from South Australia, was represented by five generations. Their floral tribute to Private John McKenzie carried a hand-written letter that read: “We are honoured to be here. Today is a mixture of sadness and emotional satisfaction as we are able to give you the dignity of recognition and place. Now, 97 years after that fateful day, we can close another chapter of the McKenzie family history.” Private McKenzie was remembered along with fellow soldiers William Barber, Thomas Francis, William O’Donnell and Thomas Bills.

Never Forgotten

Australian-born Kaye Bachelard, who lives in the UK was one of the many of the overseas visitors who attended the ceremony to represent and remember a relative who served in France during WWI.

“My grandfather was a Gunner in the Australian Artilliary Corps near here on the Western Front a year after the Battle of Fromelles,” said Kaye. “I wanted to see where he fought, and to pay my respects to all the soldiers who lost their lives at this spot in the space of 24 hours in such a brutal manner.“It was a tragedy on a massive scale,” said Kaye. “The Australians who were present, myself included, were clearly moved by the ceremony, the music and the setting.”

Diaries written by Kaye’s grandfather, Clarence Webster, were recently published in book form by her mother. “I was fascinated to read the section covering his military experiences on the Western Front in Northern France,” said Kaye. Despite being a pacifist, Clarence tried to enlist in 1915, writing: “I felt in my heart that thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of better men than I, had sacrificed careers and ambitions to die in Gallipoli or Palestine. They had answered the bugles and how could I stay?” Clarence’s application was rejected due to defective teeth. At the time, he wrote: “The army seemed to think that a recruit had to have natural teeth strong enough to bite the end off a bullet.”

A year later the criteria, at least on teeth, were not as strict, and Clarence was able to join the Australian Artillery, experiencing his first taste of action maintaining and operating the 18 pounder guns at the Battle of Messines Ridge in the Ypres salient. He went on to fight on the Somme at Villers-Bretonneux, Peronne and St Quentin.

At the Australian Memorial Park on the outskirts of Fromelles stands the ‘Cobbers’ statue, a life-sized bronze by Australian sculptor Peter Corlett. It shows Sergeant Simon Fraser of the 57th Battalion in an enduring image of the aftermath of the battle – the rescue of the wounded – as he shoulders a fellow soldier to safety.

French tourism authorities have opened a walk that will help visitors appreciate the ground over which the Battle of Fromelles was fought. It covers 10 sites that form a Remembrance Trail covering 8.5km, that takes around 2 hours 30 minutes to complete. Accompanying the Fromelles trail is a free guide with maps available as a printed booklet from Weppes Tourist Office www.weppes-tourisme.fr

The signposted hike joins a host of other walking routes created across Northern France as part of The Great War Remembered project. You can take a virtual tour of all the Rembrance Trails via www.remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com

While in Seclin keep a couple of hours free to visit the wonderful Fort de Seclin Museum near Lille that’s a stone’s throw from the Front, and a short drive from Seclin.

TheLouvre Museum can be visited close by in the town of Lens, the architecture  is as much as masterpiece as the fabulous artworks inside.

Read more about the Louvre-Lens

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