Webmatters Title
Webmatters : Battle of Fromelles July 1916
Rough Map of Area

Fromelles

The opposing forces

On the Allied front from south to north was the 61st Division (182nd, 183rd and 184th Brigades) and the 5th Australian Division (15th, 14th and 8th Australian Brigades).

On the ‘German’ front was the 6 Bavarian Reserve Division with its 17th, 16th, 21st and 20th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiments.

A German regiment, like its French counterpart was composed of three battalions which all fought together. At this stage of the war a German Division of two Brigades of two Regiments each totalled twelve battalions. A British Division of three Brigades of four Battalions each came to the same number of men — on paper at least, the British 61st Division being under strength.

A fatal flaw in the Allied planning was to have the Sugar Loaf salient traversed by the Divisional boundary making neither staff wholly responsible and overly complicating co-ordination.

The two lines were from 100 to 400 metres apart with the widest section in front of the Sugar Loaf. To increase their chances of reaching the German line the troops were ordered to get as close to the enemy lines as possible during the last moments of the bombardment and before their assault at 1800 hours.

61st (2nd South Midland) Division

The 61st Division, commanded by Major General Colin Mackenzie, was a second line Territorial Division which meant, amongst other things, that it was required to reinforce its parent unit the 48th Division with soldiers. A lack of training and equipment kept the Division in England until the end of May 1916.

The drain on its recruits to other units meant that the battalions were well under strength — less than six hundred men.

It took over trenches for the first time on 13th June and in the run up to Fromelles conducted eight raids on the German lines and moved 1,500 cylinders of gas up to the front. Many were never used and between the 16th and 19th July every man not intended for the assault was employed in heaving the cylinders back out again.

5th Australian Division

The 5th Australian Division under Major General James McCay (Rhyming with sky) had begun arriving in France at the end of June 1916. Completely new to France and its trench warfare the Division was being asked to launch the Australian Imperial Force’s first major attack on the Western Front. The other Australian Divisions having been sent down to the Somme.

VC Corner Cemetery was in no man's land

VC Corner Cemetery was in no man’s land at the time
It is the only all Australian cemetery and includes the memorial to the missing

By the time Haking’s offensive was launched about half of the Division had still not even seen the front line. Some of the men had served at Gallipoli but not a soul in the 8th Brigade had ever been in action. If the 4th Australian Division’s artillery was deemed to be too inexperienced to be sent to the Somme (they would assist in the coming action), they were almost old hands in comparison to those of the 5th whose lack of experience resulted in a number of drop shorts causing casualties amongst their own troops.

McCay was obviously aware of all this but was content with the idea that his boys would be the first Aussies to go into battle : many of them still in their felt hats, because steel helmets had yet to be on general issue.

The 61st Division instructed its units to create sally ports in their own defences through which to emerge onto no man’s land. These could be seen by the waiting Bavarians and when given the chance they concentrated their fire on them. The Australians preferred to hop the bags as they called going over the top.

At about 1300 hours the Bavarians on the ridge could sense that an attack was imminent and could see from their albeit slight advantage in elevation that troops were massing in the Allied trenches. They immediately summoned their own artillery to open a counter-bombardment.