Wednesday, 22 October 2014


Years ago, I used to take my sons to France and Belgium on Great War battlefield pilgrimages. Now, they are all grown men, but one son recently decided that he would like to go back and trace our footsteps from years ago, when he was little, and I was able to walk more than a mile without the joints creaking and the lungs working overtime. In the previous blog, we returned to Ploegsteert - 'Plugstreet' to the occupying Tommies - but there was another special place which we needed to visit.

This part of our pilgrimage was to a place which, in terms of Western Front visitors, was relatively forgotten twenty years ago. This is mainly because it had become a proud but infamous name to Australian historians and veterans, but had little significance for British enthusiasts.

Fromelles is a relatively insignificant village in northern France, between the conurbations of Armentières and Lens. The land is almost unremittingly flat, apart from a gentle ridge which runs SW - NE. On this ridge sit the villages of Aubers and Fromelles. As modest as the ridge is, it gave the German defenders a commanding position once the trench lines had been established in late 1914. In two battles of 1915 - Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge -  the British tried and failed to take the high ground. 

There was also a military disaster at Loos in September 1915, and General Sir Richard Haking (1862-1945) had, in various ways, been associated with these setbacks. He was regarded as a 'thruster' - a commander who would press ahead with an attack, even if common sense and military logic weighed against it.

By the summer of 1916, plans were in an advanced stage for what was intended to be the decisive break through astride the River Ancre, north of The River Somme. It was decided that a diversionary attack should be made well to the north, in order to prevent German reserves being packed in front of the anticipated attack on The Somme. Haking was in charge of this diversion, and it was decided once again to try and assault the Aubers Ridge. This time the attack was to be by three British brigades - the 182nd, 183rd and 184th (61st Division), and three Australian - the 8th, 14th and 15th (5th Division)

The preparatory British artillery bombardment was ineffective, and when the attack began on the evening of July 19th 1916, the three British brigades were easily beaten back, but the Australians had more initial success. Unfortunately, what were depicted on captured trench maps as German support trenches were little more than indefensible water-filled ditches. With no support on the flanks, the advancing Australians become fatally isolated. The Germans came out from the safety of their dugouts and swiftly wrapped up the Australians in a deadly trap. The casualties for the Battle of Fromelles were horrendous. A total of 1547 men were killed or wounded from the 61st Division - 50% of strength. The Australian 5th Division suffered 5533 killed or wounded - a staggering 90% of total strength.

Part of the debacle was due to the amazing complex of tunnels and surface blockhouses the Germans had built. The tunnels were deep underground, and kept dry from the waterlogged land by constant pumping. In a dry summer in the 1990s, these tunnels were pumped dry and explored by local military historians. Within 24 hours, they were waterlogged again.

When we first visited Fromelles in the late 1990s, one of the entrances to the tunnel system was still open - provided you were equipped with an aqualung - and a death wish. Now, the area has been sanitised, tidied up, and made into a 'Battlefield Park'. The deep tunnels still exist. Until time and geology absorb them, they remain beneath the feet of the villagers. waterlogged and inaccessible, but a tribute to German engineering.

After July 1916, the opposing front lines at Fromelles remained static. It wasn't until the afternoon of November 11th, 1918, that Australian observers were able to wander into the narrow strip of No Man's Land beyond their parapet. They found skeletons, clothing, rusted equipment and other tragic reminders of those fatal days two years earlier. Some of the dead were to know known grave, but those who died behind German lines were buried in mass graves by the defenders. 

In 2008, archaeologists discovered a burial site in a location known as Pheasant Wood. Many of the 250 soldiers buried there were later identified by DNA analysis, and during the early months of 2010 were buried with full military honours in a new cemetery.

We were privileged to watch several of these burials on a grey and icy day in February 2010. When we visited in October 2014, the headstones had been put in place, the turf laid, and the landscape restored. After 98 years, brave men had been accorded the last resting place that their heroism warranted.

On that day, there were no headstones. Just the cold dark clay in which the soldiers had perished. 98 years earlier, their burial had been even more perfunctory. perhaps a few words in German. Perhaps a sign of the cross. There would have been no names, no blessings. No tears. No regrets. In 2010, the final resting place of those 250 brave souls was little more than a muddy field on the gentle slopes beneath a village which Britain and her allies failed to capture in four years of bitter conflict.

But time does wonderful things. It destroys, but it also creates. Four years after those cold February burials, we returned. And we saw a green field, with white marble headstones, row upon row. And we saw a young woman explaining to her daughter what a sacrifice these young men had made. What lives they had left behind. What dreams and ambitions would never be fulfilled.