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Webmatters : Battle of Fromelles July 1916
Rough Map of Area

Fromelles

Guns and bunkers

Unlike their opponents the German defenders often remained in a particular sector for long periods of time. In the case of the 6 Bavarian Reserve Division they had been looking after the sector around Fromelles for the past year and a bit.

Fromelles is a small village on the Aubers Ridge to the south of Armentières. The Germans had held the ridge from the very first moments of the war and whilst when you look at it, the rise in height is almost insignificant it is still just enough to allow an unrestricted observation of the low flat plain stretching to the west — where the Allies had their positions.

Most of the area that was held by the British (and later the Canadians, Indians and Australians) is very flat with a number of water features and streams. Invariably the trenches had to be fairly shallow and were built up with sandbags. Any attempt to dig down further met water.

The British had already attempted to take the area in May 1915 whilst supporting the French offensive against Vimy Ridge. They had been easily repulsed with heavy losses.

A less ambitious project at the southern end of the battlefield at Festubert later that month made some gains, but Aubers and Fromelles remained in German hands.

In June 1916 a diversionary attack at Richebourg (near Festubert) had been such a disaster it was never even mentioned in the British Official History.

By the Battle of Festubert the German trench system had become a formidable construction. The parapet was a couple of metres high and three to five metres thick. It could withstand (and did) pretty much everything that the British field artillery could throw at it. Shelters were included and machine gun posts abounded. After Festubert the area had quietened down and the Bavarians had not been slow in further enhancing their defences.

Rough diagram of German trenches at Aubers Ridge

In addition to strengthening the trenches they constructed dozens of concrete bunkers which acted as fortified positions, shelters, command posts and medical centres. Driving between Aubers and Fromelles today the visitor can spot a dozen or so from the comfort of their vehicle — and these are well behind the front line ! This is an important point to remember. The German second line had become so water logged that they had given it up in preference for their concrete shelters.

Bunkers within the park

The bunkers in the park are from 1917 but other, earlier bunkers abound
The damage was caused not by shelling but by farmers — who eventually gave up

The most important emplacement in their line was the Sugar Loaf, a salient (meaning that it jutted out towards the enemy position) formed almost into a point, that commanded all around it.

To deal with the wire and defences the British and Australians mustered almost three hundred field pieces and seventy-eight heavy guns with over 200,000 rounds of ammunition. Haking had built in a number of fake lifts in the barrage where the guns would lengthen their range off the front line in the hope of enticing the machine gunners to man their weapons. The barrage would then be dropped back again.

The rolling barrage, where soldiers would advance behind a curtain of falling steel had yet to be brought into practice and experience had shown that as soon as they thought the barrage had moved on the German machine-gunners rushed to their posts to meet the incoming infantry.

The Australians, new to France, were particularly impressed by the scale of the bombardment which appeared to be ploughing through the German trenches. Sadly their work was as patchy as it had been on the Somme three weeks earlier. In places the German wire had been cut to shreds and their parapet ripped apart but in other places, only caused inconvenience to the defenders.

The greatest problem was that it was almost ineffective against the bunkers. In the zone occupied by Adolf Hitler’s 16 Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment sixty of the seventy-five bunkers remained completely intact. The all important Sugar Loaf had hardly been scratched.