“We found a fine haul of wounded and brought them in, but it was not where I heard this fellow calling so I had another shot for it and came across a splendid specimen of humanity trying to wiggle into a trench with a big wound in his thigh: he was about 14 stone weight [196 pounds] and I could not lift him on 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 about 30 yards out sang out ‘Don’t forget me cobber’. I went in and got four volunteers with stretchers and we got both men in safely.” — Sgt. Simon Fraser, 57th Bn. AIF
Along highway D22C in northern France as it runs southeast towards the village of Fromelles, about ten miles west of Lille, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) maintains three sites that are special to Australians. These are the Australian Memorial Park, the VC Corner CWGC Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing and the CWGC Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Cemetery.
The Battle of Fromelles (July 19th – 20th, 1916) is often overlooked because it happened during the furor that was raging at the Battle of the Somme about fifty miles to the south, and also because it was a minor action by the WW1 standard, involving only about 18,000 soldiers.
At the time, the prevailing opinion at British headquarters was that the artillery onslaught launched preparatory to the Battle of the Somme must have inflicted horrendous casualties on the Germans, who must then have pulled massive reinforcements from their best units elsewhere in the line, and it was thought that the Fromelles sector was one of these weakened spots. Actually the line was held by the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division, a seasoned and well-regarded unit, which had among its number a certain Austrian-born Gefreiter who later became the leader of Germany.
The Australian Memorial Park honors the service of the 5th Australian Division here. This was the first Australian unit to see combat on the Western Front, because it was formed too late for Gallipoli service and so went straight to France. Keen but green, Fromelles was the 5th’s first battle, where they were paired with the British 61st (2nd South Midland) Division, a collection of under-strength second-line Territorial battalions. These chaps weren’t so keen, as they had originally been told that they wouldn’t serve overseas, and this was also to be their first fight. Retrospectively, the 61st has been rated by some as the poorest performing division in the entire British Expeditionary Force (BEF).
The plan was for a short bombardment followed by gas and a night assault, which was too tricky for the skill level of the forces employed. There were weather delays, then the gas attack was scrubbed due to unfavorable winds and the 470 gas cylinders had to be dug up and hauled back.
Both Fromelles and La Bassée, which was twenty miles south, were shelled in order to confuse the Germans. However, most of the gunners at Fromelles were Australian, unfamiliar with the Western Front.
The Australians charged through the zones of the enemy machine guns with reckless bravado, capturing sections of the German first and second lines, which they tried to hold, but the 61st had not kept pace, and worse, had lost cohesion, with only small isolated groups advancing. This left the Aussies enfiladed on the right flank, and as the battle got hotter the Territorials began to fall back to their lines. On the Australian right, the 15th (Victoria) Brigade was decimated.
The final reckoning was a total disaster: 5,533 Australian casualties (including 1,869 killed) and 1,547 British casualties for nothing accomplished. The German high command was amazed that the BEF had been willing to lose so many men in a diversionary action. British headquarters began to refer to the action as a ‘Reconnaissance in Force’ rather than an attack, and claimed success in that about 140 German soldiers were taken prisoner.
The Memorial Park was constructed by the government of Australia in 1998. The centerpiece is a sculpture, by the Melbourne artist Peter Corlett (1944 – ) which he named Cobbers, but is more familiarly known as Don’t Forget Me, Cobber. Corlett has also created seven other works depicting WW1 characters, either real or representative. Several of his pieces can be found at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, including the iconic and widely reproduced Simpson and his Donkey, which honors a hero at Gallipoli. Corlett also has series of sculptures of famous persons associated with Melbourne.
The inspiration for Cobbers is taken from the letters of Sgt. Simon Fraser (1877 – 1917), quoted at the top, who was one of the Australians who volunteered to go out into the no man’s land and bring in the wounded. This effort went on for several days, with the Germans generally holding their fire. Fraser and his fellow volunteers rescued over 250 wounded, a feat for which they received no recognition whatsoever.
A few hundred yards down the road lies the VC Corner CWGC Cemetery, which has 410 unknown Australian burials. These remains were recovered after the war and none could be identified. It was decided that, rather than have 410 graves marked ‘unknown’, to bury the remains individually in two plots with a large inlaid stone cross in the middle. This method is unique to this site amongst all CWGC WW1 cemeteries. The location is a spot where the Australians captured a section of the German Front Line, and the name ‘VC Corner’ is a trench map reference. It has nothing to do with the Victoria Cross (VC) and no VC’s were awarded for acts during the Battle of Fromelles.
The Memorial to the Missing now lists 1,185 Australians. The design is by Sir Herbert Baker (1862 – 1946), who had many other commissions from the CWGC, including Tyne Cot and Loos. His background is more fully explained here.
Baker’s design is a curved wall with Portland Stone panels and two faux end chapels in pebble and dash finish. The overall effect is reminiscent of the Tyne Cot memorial but much smaller in scale. The memorial and cemetery were dedicated in 1921.
In the village there is the CWGC Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Cemetery, designed by CWGC staff architect Barry Edwards, and dedicated in 2010. An unusual although not unique feature here is the inclusion of a Lychgate. There are buried 205 Australians, 3 British and 42 unknowns who were first interred by the Germans in a mass grave which was found by battlefield archeologists in 2008. To date The Australian Ministry of Defence has identified 96 of the Australians through DNA comparisons, and those graves are now marked. Since the 2008 pit contained exactly 250 remains, it seems likely that there are more pits yet to be found.