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

Fromelles

The assault

61st Division

61st Division at Fromelles

Trenches and movements are indicated as general guides

On the right the 2/7th and 2/6th Royal Warwickshire of 182nd Brigade had moved out into no man’s land without great loss and the former, finding the wire uncut stormed into the German trenches. Next to them the 2/6th ran into uncut wire at a point known as Wick Salient and within moments had lost a third of their number.

In the centre of the Division the 183rd Brigade attacked with the 2/4th and 2/6th Gloucesters. Both battalions came under fire whilst in their own trenches and the moment they issued out of their sally ports. Suffering heavy casualties as they emerged few managed to reach the German wire let alone trenches.

On the all important left flank of the 61st Division, opposite the Sugar Loaf, the 184th Brigade led with the 2/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment on the right and the 2/1st Buckinghamshire Regiment on the left.

With the ground in front of them all but flat, the Bavarian machine-gunners could fire at waist height, scything across their field of view. Aiming was hardly necessary.

The Berkshires were hit badly as they emerged into no man’s land but managed to reach the wire — which was uncut. Those that had survived the outward journey were forced to retire.

The Bucks, finding their sally ports to be death traps had used a shallow trench to get within 200 metres of the Sugar Loaf, which was quite clearly intact. Of the three hundred men that made the assault two hundred didn’t return.

By 1830 hours it was clear to Divisional command that most of the assault had been stopped in its tracks and that losses had been heavy. As always, there was some confusion as to what had been achieved and this led to the initial assessment that a second assault would break through.

 

5th Australian Division

5th Australian Division at Fromelles

The Australian memorial Park is on the German front line as it crosses the main road at Rouges Bancs

Preferring to use ladders and clamber out of their trenches the three Australian Brigades deployed into no man’s land at 1745 hours and detonated a 500 kilo mine on their far left at Zero. It was hoped that debris from the mine would obscure their unprotected left flank : it didn’t.

The following events formed almost a mirror image to the situation on the British front. Advancing next to the Bucks was the 59th Australian Infantry. Within fifty metres they were caught by enfilading fire from the Sugar Loaf and couldn’t reach the German line.

The 60th Battalion (also from 15th Brigade) suffered heavily as they attacked and were soon being subjected to the same enfilading fire.

In the centre 14th Brigade met with some success with the 54th and 53rd Battalions not only reaching the German front line but moving on past it. The same scenario occurred on the far left where 8th Brigade’s 31st and 32nd Battalions suffered heavy casualties from the German shelling but still managed to reach the enemy line.

By 1930 hours it had become semi-clear that some success had been had on the flanks but that the centre was completely held up by the Sugar Loaf. What wasn’t clear, by a long chalk, out on the ground, in front of the Australians, was the location of the German second line to which they were supposed to advance and consolidate their gain.

Despite the network of markings on their maps, no trace of the line could be found and for good reason — it didn’t exist ! The Bavarians had given it up and where there were supposed to be trenches, lay muddy ditches.

At this stage Major General Mackenzie decided that he was going to try again for the Sugar Loaf at 2100 hours. On receipt of the order to renew the assault Brigadier General Carter of the 184th Brigade sent a message to his counterpart in the Australian 15th Brigade (Major General Elliott). Could the Australian left flank assist ?

Because of the administrative system in play, the message had to be passed via the two Divisional Headquarters. That in itself was not the problem. Elliott received the message and knowing that his 59th Battalion were pinned down in no man’s land took the decision to bring up his 58th Battalion to assist the British.

As the evening passed and more reports came in, it became apparent to Mackenzie that his Division had suffered far heavier losses than he had realised and that his right flank was being forced to withdraw from the German line. There were not enough survivors to hold it, let alone renew an attack.

Once Haking had been apprised of the situation, he countermanded the 61st Division’s attack. That done, Mackenzie informed McCay that he had been ordered to withdraw after dark. There was now a tragic breakdown in communication. The Australians failed to realise that Elliott had acted upon the previous message and by the time that the message was passed down to him it was 2125 hours and too late.

The 58th Battalion together with the remnants of the 59th threw themselves into the attack as required and were cut down in droves by the unmolested machine-gun fire from the Sugar Loaf. Those of the 58th, 59th and 60th Battalions still capable of movement drifted back to their own lines. The assault on the Sugar Loaf had been a complete failure.

 

The phantom second line

As night drew in, the situation for the Australians still in the German line became ever more difficult. Their orders had been to continue on to the second line, which did not exist. In doing so they had left the German front line either unmanned or only lightly held in the belief that the entire front had advanced with them.

Expecting to have found a trench system the Australians were equipped with sand bags and tools, but instead of simply moving sand bags from one side of the trench to the other — to turn it around — they were forced to try to construct a new position. Without earth available the soldiers had to revert to mud and clay which clung to everything forcing them to fill the bags by hand.

Their plight had not been helped by the carriers who were supposed to be re-supplying them having joined in the fighting instead of returning for more equipment.

The Australians on the 20th July 1916

Approximate locations of the original attacking units
Some reserves were also sent forward to assist

On the 14th Brigade’s right (and by nightfall, effectively the right flank of the battlefield), Lt Colonel Ignatius Norris had been killed and command of his 53rd Battalion fell to Captain Charles Arblaster.

Lt Colonel Norris remained one of the missing until his body was identified during the Pheasant Wood archaeological dig. He is now buried in Pheasant Wood Cemetery: Grave III A 3.
Link Below.

To Arblaster’s left, Lt Colonel Walter Cass’s 54th Battalion had lost almost all of its officers and although he had found a ‘comfortable’ German dugout in their front line none of his men had managed to find any second line.

Lt Colonel Frederick Toll’s 31st Battalion (8th Brigade) had gone a good three hundred metres beyond the German front line but having only found waterlogged ditches had pulled back to the front line.

Lt Colonel Donald Coghill’s 32nd Battalion were alongside a German communications trench that had been created using crates (Kastenweg). They managed to barricade the trench but remained under constant pressure from enemy bombing parties (The term bomb was used for grenade).

During the night the four Australian battalions constituted individual islands across the landscape, some in the old front line, others further forward in the non-existent second line. The Bavarians having recovered from the initial shock of the assault had re-organised and soon found that there were exploitable gaps in the new Australian line both of whose flanks were open to the world.

Saps were driven out towards both Brigades by the Australian engineers allowing supplies and reinforcements to be brought forward but requests were being sent back for thousands of sand bags. Those bringing them up were now being shot in the back by Bavarian patrols who were finding their old front line unoccupied.

The Bavarians, gaining in confidence, moved their machine guns forward, counter-attacks began bombing their way down the trenches. The 32nd Battalion and some of the 29th Battalion, the Brigade reserve, were soon surrounded and the only escape possible was to charge their way back through the enemy front line. Few made it back to safety.

Lt Colonel Toll’s men had the meagre advantage in that he had set up his headquarters in the front line offering a start off point from which to retire. He himself was the last to leave, bleeding from a head wound.

Lt Colonel Cass who also had his headquarters in the old German front line knew that somewhere on his flanks were other Australians but that they must also be in as dire straights as he was. The Bavarians were closing in on him from both flanks and his men were out of grenades. His messages to the rear described his position as ‘serious’ then ‘very serious’. By 0420 hours (20th July) it was : ‘almost desperate’.

On his right, Captain Arblaster and his men could see movement. Should they open fire or not. The shadows turned out to Bavarians coming from where the 15th Brigade were supposed to have been — according to the plans. Deciding that the only way out was to charge the enemy behind him, Arblaster led the way. Like many of those with him he was injured and made prisoner (he died a few days later). Cass and his men were all that was left.

Captain Charles Arblaster died in captivity and is buried in Douai Communal Cemetery. Grave D 6.
Link Below.

Numerous messages were sent to Cass telling him to retire but up until 0750 hours none got through. The order finally received, Cass organised a rearguard and his men drifted back to their own line. By 0900 the last able Australians were out of the German lines. The Battle of Fromelles was over.

Bringing in the wounded

Sergeant Simon Fraser bringing in a wounded soldier

Now the recovery of the wounded was to begin. The Germans proposed a temporary truce but McCay refused. Nevertheless, Australians who went out to bring in wounded remained pretty much unmolested.

 

The aftermath

The British issued a statement saying that a number of raids had taken place to the south of Armentières: about 140 German prisoners had been taken. It made no mention of the 1,547 British casualties and the destruction of the Australian 5th Division.

In a single night the Division had suffered 5,333 casualties 400 of whom had been captured, Australia’s worst ever military defeat (More than Vietnam and Korea put together).

In his summing up afterwards Haking stated that though the Australians had gone forward with great spirit they lacked the training to consolidate the ground captured. As for the hapless and under strength 61st Division : it was not sufficiently imbued with the offensive spirit. With two trained Divisions, Haking continued, the position would have been a gift. Although it had been a failure, the attack had done both formations a lot of good ! It would take both of them a year to recover from Haking’s lesson in warfare.