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Article  •  12 May 2016


The trenches of hell

Peter FitzSimons illuminates the horrific WW1 battles of Fromelles and Pozières.

The Australian War Memorial describes the first 24 hours of battle at Fromelles, France, as ‘not the worst in Australian military history, the worst 24 hours in Australia's entire history.’ Yet the story of the carnage at Fromelles and, days later, at Pozières is lesser known than other stories of Australian military history.

Peter FitzSimons writes in Fromelles and Pozières: In the Trenches of Hell:

‘And now the Australians . . . are hit by thunder and lightning and shells and machine-gun bullets all together! For, in an instant, a blasting blizzard of lead tears across No-Man’s Land and into the heads, torsos and legs of the charging Australians...

‘In the end, the Battle of the Somme, which was ended by the exhaustion of both sides in the winter of 1916–17, was most staggering both for its catastrophic slaughter – with the forces of the British Empire, the French and the Germans losing over 1.1 million soldiers, killed and wounded between them – and for how little those deaths translated into advances or retreats.’

FitzSimons’ book provides a stirring account that brings the battles back to life and puts the reader in the moment, illustrating both the heroism displayed and the insanity of the British plan. As very brief background, consider these facts about a story to make all Australians proud – and angry.

  • Australia’s first entry to World War One’s main battle theatre in Europe is marked by the battles of Fromelles (19-20 July, 1916) and Pozières (23 July-7August, 1916). The Battle of Fromelles was the first major battle fought by Australian troops (5th Australian Division) on the Western Front.
  • In the first 24 hours at Fromelles, the Australians suffered 5,533 casualties. Almost 2,000 were killed in action or died later from their wounds.
  • In total, the battles of Fromelles and Pozières combined, 8,800 Australians were killed, and casualties numbered 28,533.
  • ‘It was a staggering disaster,’ says the Australian War Memorial website. ‘The dismal culmination of muddled planning and reckless decision making by both British and Australian commanders.’ In the words of W.H. ‘Jimmy’ Downing of the 15th Brigade: ‘Men were cut in two by streams of bullets [that] swept like whirling knives . . .  It was the charge of the Light Brigade once more, but more terrible, more hopeless.’
  • Five Victoria Crosses were awarded to Australians for their actions at Pozières. The Victoria Cross is awarded by the Australian Government for ‘most conspicuous gallantry, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy or belligerents.’ In context, 65 Australians were awarded the VC in all of World War One and 20 in World War Two.
  • In the Australian Memorial Park in Fromelles, a statue called ‘Cobbers’ depicts Sergeant Simon Fraser of the 58th Battalion carrying a wounded man on his back. The park’s official literature says, ‘It is not the military disaster of Fromelles remembered here but the courage and compassion of those who risked their lives to help the wounded.’
  • ‘The Windmill’ site at Pozières is today owned by the Australian War Memorial. Historian Charles Bean suggested the purchase because ‘the Windmill site . . . marks a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on Earth.’

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