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.
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.
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