The battle is over. My poor boys have done all that man could do.
As he wrote those words to his wife on July 20, 1916, a distraught General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott of the Australian 15th brigade could probably still hear the cries of the wounded, stranded in no-mans land after the Battle of Fromelles on the Western Front.
In early July 1916, The Somme abbatoir was grinding along. Field Marshal Haig was confident of an early breakthrough, allowing him to send in the cavalry to win the war with lance and sabre – a dream he stubbornly clung to right to the war’s end.
The Somme was essentially a drawn-out battle of attrition and the Allies needed to starve the German lines of reinforcements.
It was decided that the Fromelles-Aubers line on the northern part of the front was the best place to pursue large scale diversionary tactics and keep the enemy from sending reinforcements south.
Two previous Allied failures to mount a successful assault on that part of the German lines did not appear to feature much in the high command’s thinking at this juncture.
Lieutenant-General Richard Haking, commander of the British XI Corp, was asked on July 8 to draw up plans for a major assault.
On July 10 and 11, the 17,800 men of the Australian 5th Division, the latest Australian troops to arrive in France, many of them survivors of the Gallipoli campagain, moved to the Fromelles-Aubers line.
France was a very different proposition to these veterans of the Dardenelles. The Turks had little artillery and front lines were often only a few yards away. Here in France, both sides used massive amounts of artillery intended to smash the enemy into submission (but often didn’t). The enemy made greater use of machine guns than did the Allied forces at this point in the War (Haig had initially dismissed machines guns as being of little value). No-mans land between the opposing lines of trenches was a mess of barbed wire and holes blasted by artillery, extending up to a mile in width. Even in summer they frequently had to contend with sticky, clay mud.
Haking drew up an ambitious plan which bore a striking similarity to his earlier failed attempts there, but it was initially rejected.
After the Somme breakthrough did not occur, Haig’s staff reconsidered the Fromelles situation and determined on an artillery ‘demonstration’. A total of 360 artillery pieces were to pound the German lines for at least three days over a 15,000 yard front, to deceive them into thinking a major offensive was imminent.
Around July 13, the plan was changed with infantry to now take a part in the ‘demonstration’. A revised version of Haking’s plan was to be put into effect, attacking a 6000 yard-wide front with Haking put in charge of the operation.
Troops from the Australian 5th Division, were lent to Haking for the assault. The Division’s 8th, 14th and 15th brigades were moved in to the front along the Fromelles line, replacing troops from the 4th Division who were moved south to The Somme.
British 31st and 61st Divisions were to attack either side of a slope called the Sugarloaf which was heavily fortified with German guns. The Australian troops were to attack the main German lines along the north-eastern front.
The troops assembled on paper may have looked good. The reality was starkly different. The newly arrived Australian troops were yet to acclimatise, let alone become familiar with their part of the front. The British 61st was newly arrived from England and badly undermanned, having been picked over to supply reinforcements for elsewhere. The 31st had been only recently relieved from The Somme and was exhausted.
On July 14, Haking’s plan was modified again to attack across a narrower 4,000 yard-wide front. The 61st were to take the Sugarloaf by themselves. The Australian troops were still to assault the main German lines. The 31st were removed from the assault force entirely.
Once the German lines had been taken, succeeding waves were to advance beyond the captured lines to take German supply trenches supposedly located behind 100-200 yards behind the main lines. The first wave was then to abandon the newly won positions and advance in support of the advance on the support lines. This proved to be a fatal flaw which the German troops later took full advantage of.
After the early lessons of The Somme, Haig’s headquarters had distributed a circular to all units which stated that assaulting troops were not to advance across any more than 200 yards following an artillery barrage. Any further than that and the Germans had sufficient time to emerge from their heavily fortified dugouts and reoccupy their frequently largely undamaged parapets.
Despite Haig’s circular, Haking’s plan called for the attacking troops to practically all cross more than the maximum 200 yards, with the Australian 15th brigade to advance over more than 400 yards of water-filled shell holes, ditches and barbed wire. Looming immediately to the 15th’s flank was the heavily fortified German position on the Sugarloaf.
The attack was to proceed on July 17.
Around this time, ‘Pompey’ Elliott met with a Major Howard from Haig’s headquarters. He escorted Howard along their front, examining the terrain in front of the 15th brigade. According to Elliott, he claimed that the attack could not possible succeed and states Howard agreed it would be ‘a holocaust’. Yet more doubt about the operation that appears to have had little impact.
The Australian troops had only two-and-a-half days to prepare – laying long lines of duckboards to take the foot traffic of thousands of men up to and along the front as well as laying tramways to transport heavier equipment. Large quantities of ammunition and bombs (grenades), thousands of sandbags, hundreds of picks and shovels, all to be moved forward. Telephone cables were to be laid and aid posts set up. It was a frantic and exhausting undertaking.
The day before the attack, July 16, a surprising development occurred. Haking’s deputy chief of staff advised Haking and his superiors that the attack need not go ahead. However, Haking convinced his commanding officer, General Munro, that the attack had to go ahead or damage the troops’ morale.
It is doubtful that any of the exhausted diggers would have agreed with him.
The day of the intended assault, the 17th, was clouded with a heavy mist. Haking reluctantly proposed postponing the assault to the following day.
Munro, who only a day earlier had supported Haking, now refused permission for the postponed assault to proceed.
Haig and his staff now did yet another about-face of their own. Munro was directed that the attack was to proceed ‘as soon as possible’. But the order had an important qualification. Munro was permitted to call the assault off entirely if he thought conditions were unfavourable or his resources inadequate.
After being given this escape clause by Haig, despite his earlier doubts, Munro now quite inexplicably decided that the assault should proceed after all.
The Allied artillery barrage commenced at 11am on July 19, preceeding the 6pm jump off. After days of obvious troop movements and preparations, plus a heavy artillery barrage, the coming assault was anything but a secret to the enemy. Occupying the higher ground, they had a bird’s eye view of everything. The assaulting troops were to be sent across no-mans land in daylight onto the waiting and ready enemy guns.
A little after 2pm, as the trenches filled with waiting Allied soldiers, the German artillery began to reply. The carnage among the tightly packed troops was terrible. Ammunition dumps exploded. Fires started. Communication lines were destroyed.
The 8th brigade on the Australian flank not only had to contend with the enemy artillery, they were badly hit by their own artillery falling short.
On the other side of the Sugarloaf, the British 61st Division, already badly undermanned, was savaged by the enemy artillery. These additional losses made their vital task of taking the Sugarloaf all but impossible. Their attack failed.
The German guns atop the Sugarloaf were now able to concentrate their fire on Elliott’s advancing 15th brigade. The assaulting troops became pinned down only half-way across no-mans land. Yet some returning wounded reported breaking into the German lines. Mislead into believing the assault was succeeding, Elliott ordered his forces to continue the assault.
The 14th brigade in the centre of the Australian line, only had some 250 yards to cover. But with the 15th pinned down, the Sugarloaf guns were able to turn their attack onto the centre line. Despite horrific casualties, elements of the 14th reached the German lines and established a foothold. The following waves pressed on, searching for the rear support lines. The original assaulting wave now left their positions in the captured enemy lines to support the later waves, as ordered.
Meanwhile, the fighting strength of the 8th brigade on the other Australian flank had been depleted the double blows of German and misdirected Allied artillery.
The Allied artillery had failed to achieve its overall objectives. Barbed wire had survived in most places. Parapets had not been destroyed. German troops had survived the barrage in their strong dugouts. The increasingly undermanned 8th brigade had to advance across no-mans land in the face of much greater enemy fire than the plan had anticipated. Yet, a slim foothold was established in the enemy lines. Latter waves pressed on in search of the supposed German support lines.
But where were these support lines? All that could be found were old, abandoned trenches, half-filled with water. The Australian troops had to hastily set up sand bag defences, trying to shovel awkward, thick, sticky clay.
The piecemeal success of the Australian units meant that there were major sections of the line still occupied by enemy troops. With Haking’s plan requiring vacation of newly won territory, German troops were able to slip back to reoccupy their positions. Enemy fire now poured out from the sides, from retaliating German troops to the front and from the abandoned lines to their rear.
By the early hours of the morning of July 20, the truth began to emerge at the various headquarters. The attack was failing - badly.
The remaining forces from the 8th and 14th brigades were eventually forced to abandon their poor positions behind the enemy lines and charge into the German guns in the reoccupied trenches, before the final dash back across no-mans land with the enemy guns to their rear.
By 9am, the battle was well and truly over. Only hours in duration, but one of the most significant disasters in Australian military history. Australian casualties tallied 5,500 along with a further 1,500 British. Survivors of both the Dardenelles campaign claimed Fromelles was far worse than anything they had faced in the Gallipoli landings.
Fatalities were especially high among the wounded left stranded in no-mans land. Days after the battle, wounded were still struggling in, their wounds untreated and flyblown.
A truce was negotiated so both sides could retrieve and treat their wounded. However it was abandoned on orders from 5th Division headquarters.
The aftermath: thousands of lives, most of them Australian, were thrown away for no real good reason, in an attack that seemingly everyone bar Haking had doubts about. Senior command elements appeared unable to settle on a final plan of attack or even whether to attack at all. Haking’s demand for deliberate abandoning of newly won trenches without control of the German lines, was suicidal insanity. And the advancing troops were sent in search of enemy support lines that didn’t actually exist.
As Elliott sat writing to his wife, he was a shattered man. Letters and diaries talk of him being openly in tears at what had been done to his ‘poor boys’. As for the primary architect of this disaster, Lieutenant-General Richard Haking, he was later recommended for promotion.
Well might Pompey Elliott have wept.