the bat­tle­fields of france

With the cen­te­nary of gal­lipoli be­hind us, at­ten­tion is now turn­ing to the Western front and the com­mem­o­ra­tion of the first of the hor­ren­dous bat­tles in mid-1916. his­to­rian Will davies shares what Aus­tralians will find amid the fields of north­ern france.

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A jour­ney to the Western Front 100 years af­ter the bat­tles of 1916.

the Western front has never had the pro­file or in­ter­est of the gal­lipoli cam­paign, but this is chang­ing in 2016 as an in­flux of Aus­tralian tourists heads for the french and Bel­gian bat­tle­fields.

Af­ter the evac­u­a­tion of gal­lipoli in late de­cem­ber 1915, the Aus­tralian Im­pe­rial force (AIf) re­turned to egypt, re­built their bat­tal­ions and un­der­took hard desert train­ing. from April to June, 1916, the bat­tal­ions trav­elled across the Mediter­ranean to Mar­seille, where they took the train to the north of france and the ‘nurs­ery ar­eas’ around Ar­men­tières.

the first ma­jor en­gage­ment was at fromelles on 19 July 1916, in a ‘di­ver­sion­ary at­tack’ that re­sulted in 5553 Aus­tralian ca­su­al­ties in two days. this was fol­lowed by the as­sault on poz­ières on 23 July, just four days later, another hor­ren­dous ac­tion where, in six weeks of fight­ing, the AIf had 23,000 ca­su­al­ties in­clud­ing nearly 7000 killed.

these two ac­tions will be the fo­cus of Aus­tralian com­mem­o­ra­tion on the Western front dur­ing 2016.

of­fi­cial ser­vices will be per­formed at both lo­ca­tions but those propos­ing to at­tend fromelles and poz­ières need to get a ‘ticket’ from the de­part­ment of Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs.

the bat­tle­fields to­day

so what do you see when you go to the Western front 100 years af­ter the bat­tles?

In most cases, these bat­tle­fields are just rolling farm­land, of­ten be­nign green fields of wheat, rape­seed or sugar beet. It is of­ten hard to rec­on­cile our im­ages from the time: stark, black-and-white pho­to­graphs of up­turned wag­ons, dead horses, churned-up des­o­late bat­tle­fields and the re­mains of trenches.

of course, none of this re­mains to­day though there are pre­served sec­tions of trench that can be vis­ited, forested ar­eas where the re­mains of trench lines and shell craters can be seen, and a num­ber of mu­se­ums (see flan­ders fields and the pass­chen­daele Mu­se­ums on the Ypres salient and the Al­bert and Bul­le­court Mu­se­ums on the somme) which give vis­i­tors a very good idea of the weapons, uni­forms and tac­tics, some with replica trenches and un­der­ground tun­nels.

how­ever, the best way to see and un­der­stand what hap­pened is to em­ploy the ser­vices of a bat­tle­field guide. While Aus­tralian his­to­ri­ans travel to the Western front to lead large tours, par­tic­u­larly in the An­zac day pe­riod, Bri­tish guides, many of whom live on the ac­tual bat­tle­fields, can help trans­form the fields and sunken roads into fas­ci­nat­ing bat­tle­field his­tory. they pro­vide trans­port, can take vis­i­tors to Com­mon­wealth War ceme­ter­ies to visit graves and lay wreathes, or can of­ten point out where old trench lines were, where an at­tack went in or where a Vic­to­ria Cross was won.

the bat­tle­fields a cen­tury ago

so what of these two bat­tles? on 19 July 1916, the 5th Aus­tralian di­vi­sion, with lit­tle prepa­ra­tion and poor plan­ning, was thrown against the ger­man front­line near the vil­lage of fromelles.

some bat­tal­ions had to cross 500 me­tres of flat, open field where they were mowed down.

one soldier later wrote how, “the bul­lets skimmed low, from knee to groin, rid­dling the tum­bling bod­ies be­fore they touched the ground. still the line kept on. hun­dreds were mowed down in the flicker of an eye­lid, like great rows of teeth knocked from a comb”.

By dawn the fol­low­ing morn­ing, the ground was lit­tered with bod­ies, with many men risk­ing their lives to col­lect the wounded.

to­day at a po­si­tion on the ger­man front­line is the bronze sculp­ture of an Aus­tralian car­ry­ing a mate. Known as the ‘Cob­bers Me­mo­rial’, its in­spi­ra­tion comes from a let­ter writ­ten by sergeant fraser to his wife. In it he stated, “I could not lift him onto my back; but I man­aged to get him into an old trench

and told him to lie quiet while I got a stretcher. then another man … sang out, “don’t for­get me, cob­ber.” I went in and got four vol­un­teers with stretch­ers and we got both men in safely”. this bat­tle be­came the worst day in Aus­tralian his­tory. A visit to VC Cor­ner ceme­tery, the fromelles (pheas­ant Wood) Mil­i­tary Ceme­tery and the newly opened mu­seum, help vis­i­tors un­der­stand this aw­ful chap­ter in our his­tory.

four days later the Aus­tralians at­tacked the ger­man-for­ti­fied vil­lage of poz­ières. Quickly over­run­ning the front­line and the block­house ‘gi­bral­tar’, they were sub­jected to a hor­ren­dous bom­bard­ment that shat­tered the ini­tial at­tack. When the 1st di­vi­sion came out of the line, sergeant rule of the 14th Bat­tal­ion wrote, “they looked like men who had been in hell... each man looked down and hag­gard, and so dazed they ap­peared to be walk­ing in a dream, and their eyes looked glassy and starey. Quite a few were silly, and these were the only noisy ones in the crowd. In all my ex­pe­ri­ence, I have never seen men so shaken up as these.”

over the next six weeks, the Aus­tralians pushed up to the wind­mill site where, as stated by Charles Bean, “Aus­tralian troops fell more thickly on this ridge than on any other bat­tle­field of the war”. As the fight­ing moved to the nearby Mou­quet farm, ca­su­al­ties steadily mounted. By the time the Aus­tralians with­drew in septem­ber, of nearly 7000 dead, two-thirds had no known grave.

so as you walk these sa­cred fields, stare at the lines of white head­stones and the names of young lost Aus­tralians, shed a tear of pride in their hon­our. Lest we for­get.

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01 Cob­bers Me­mo­rial at Aus­tralian Me­mo­rial park, fromelles Anne-so­phie fla­ment 02 VC Cor­ner Aus­tralian Ceme­tery and Me­mo­rial, fromelles 03 fromelles (pheas­ant Wood) Mil­i­tary Ceme­tery. Im­ages 02 and 03 Will davies

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