australian-soldier-melbourne-vicAnother Corner of a Forgotten Field: Fromelles, Northern France, 1916-2009

Introduction

From time to time, even today, the human remains of Great War soldiers are found on the former battlefields of the Western Front. Obviously, the chances of finding soldiers of a particular nationality are the greatest where that nationality participated in large numbers in a specific battle eg the Battle of Fromelles/Action at Fromelles.

On the night of 19 July 1916, and for part of the following day, an intense battle was fought by a joint Australian/British force of about 10,000, two-thirds Australian, one-third British.  The Germans defenders were also around 10,000 strong. The location was near a small village called Fromelles, 10 miles east of Lille in Northern France, and close to the Franco-Belgian border.

This battle was part of the diversionary actions for drawing away German reinforcements from the First Battle of the Somme, which then raged 50 miles to the south. The assault force comprised of the 5th Division of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), recently arrived from their trials in the Gallipoli Campaign, and in their first major action on the Western Front, and inexperienced Territorials of the British 61st Division (also known as the 2nd (South Midland Division) of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). In both divisions only half of their 12 battalions were initially committed to the battle; the other half were kept in reserve. The Australian battalions were at close to full strength, whilst the British were considerably below par; hence the Australian superiority in numbers on the day.

The Australians were assigned to the western flank and the centre of the attack, whilst the British were allotted to the eastern flank. Their opponents were the German 6th Bavarian Reserve Division. It was a unit with considerable experience in trench warfare and, typically, well dug-in in a salient of drier terrain, called ‘The Sugar Loaf', well fortified with several strategically-located concrete machine-gun emplacements. The entire battlefield was overlooked from the German occupied Aubers Ridge nearby.

Ausralians at FromellesAfter an intensive 11 hour preliminary bombardment, matched by an effective German counter-barrage that caused many casualties in the massed British and Australian troops even before the attack began, the troops went ‘over the top' at 1800 hours on 19 July 1916.

In the British sector of the assault, the 61st Division was severely mauled by the German machine-guns and struggled with uncut barbed wire as it crossed No Man's Land. It made no real progress, being forced to withdraw to its own trenches.

The Australian 5th Division's 14 and 8 Brigades did much better and seized parts of the German Front Line. But the attack became unstuck when the following waves of infantry tried to consolidate in what was thought to be the secondary German trench line. In fact, it had become merely a series flooded and neglected positions abandoned earlier by the Germans and offering little cover. Meanwhile, 15 Brigade in the centre was also caught in the open ground of  No Man's Land by intense machine-gun fire and suffered heavy casualties.

Australian casualties soared further when the British 61st Division failed to inform the Australian's 15 Brigade that a joint new attack planned and agreed for 9pm was cancelled. Considerable numbers of the Australians of the 58th Battalion complied with the order. Almost half were mowed down by German machine-guns and artillery during what became a futile attack.

As night fell, a German counter-attack divided the Australian forces, and German machine-gun cross-fire wreaked wide-scale slaughter as the Australians were forced to withdraw from their isolated positions

Reserves were thrown in, but by the morning of 20 July 1916, German counter-attacks had made the whole position untenable and all the surviving troops were withdrawn.

The Fromelles battle has become infamous as one of the more futile and, inexplicably, less well-known, of the Western Front operations of the Great War.

The final allied casualty toll was extremely high. A total of 5,533 Australians (90%+) were killed, wounded and captured of which 1,780 (32%) were killed, whilst the British had 1547 (50%) men killed, wounded or captured. German casualties were about 1,500 (15%). Many observers - particularly Australians - believe there was an official cover-up at the highest level to hide the full extent of the disaster.

Clearance of the battle-site

A few days after the battle, in the areas retaken by the Germans, an attempt was made by the Bavarians to clear the battlefield of the numerous allied dead: it was mid-summer. Fortuitously, a narrow-gauge railway ran through the battlefield and the Germans used it to transport the dead to various burial sites nearby. Here the identities and personal effects were collected and the bodies interred. Subsequently, the names and personal effects were forwarded to the Red Cross in accordance with the Hague Convention. The Red Cross was also informed by the German authorities of the geographical location of the burial sites including, it seems, a group of eight burial pits on the edge of Bois Faisan (hereafter Pheasant Wood), located near the village of Fromelles, along with the names of 173 Australians interred there

During the official clearance of the battlefields after the end of the Great War, the Fromelles battlefield was visited and some bodies were recovered from burial pits and other locations; but nothing was reported at Pheasant Wood by the Graves Registration unit. The recovered remains were reburied in official Imperial War Grave Commission, IWGC, (now Commonwealth War Grave Commission, CWGC) war cemeteries close by; one of them - VC Corner - was, and is, uniquely Australian.

However, for some considerable time, there have been suspicions that there were other burial pits in the Fromelles area that had not been located by the IWGC teams' post-war surveys, although aerial photographs of the group of the aforementioned eight possible mass burial pits exist in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London, UK.  (It was not uncommon during the post-war battlefield clearance process for some burials to be missed, or deliberately left undisturbed. For example, High Wood on Bazentin Ridge, on the Somme battlefield, where large numbers of the fallen remain where they fell, entrapped in the roots and undergrowth of then totally destroyed wood.) Of course, almost inevitably, some observers will propound a conspiracy theory that the Fromelles unrecorded graves were part of the denial cover-up plan of the military disaster at Fromelles of 19 and 20 July 1916 that was sanctioned at the highest level of the British and Australian military command.

A new discovery

In the early years of the twenty-first century an Australian school teacher and amateur war historian - Lambis Englezos - began some personal research on the Australian  Army's participation the Fromelles area, and discovered what he thought to be another burial site (the aforementioned group of eight pits) on the edge of  Pheasant Wood) close to the rebuilt village of Fromelles. Lambis Engelzos also found German Army records ordering the digging of the pits in this location for the rapid disposal of the enemy dead.

In 2007, after the personal and sustained intervention of Englezos, a now interested Australian Government initiated preliminary archaeological surveillance techniques and studies by a Scottish group called the Glasgow University Archaeological Research Department (GUARD), headed by Dr Tony Pollard. It confirmed the existence of what appeared to be eight pits approximately 10m x 2.2m x 5m (33ft x 7ft x 16ft) deep, some containing human remains, Australian Army metal insignia and an Australian soldier's personal medallion.

A further limited archaeology study in May 2008 showed that five out of six of the pits contained human remains arranged in the standard German head-to-toe orientation, and military artefacts such as metal cap badges and buttons of Australian and British Army origin.

On 5 May 2009, after dedication ceremonies, attended by representatives of the Australian, British and French military and governments, an excavation of the Fromelles burial site began under the auspices of CWGC with the support of these Governments. The recovery of the bodies is supervised by Dr Louise Loe, Head of Heritage Burial at Oxford Archaeology, UK, with a team of 32 forensic experts. All the latest forensic test procedures, including DNA (on teeth and bones), will be deployed to identify as many of the Great War soldiers' bodies as possible with the aim reburying them in marked individual graves following the standard CWGC format.

The graves will lie in a new purpose-built war cemetery designated as the Pheasant Wood CWGC Cemetery. If detailed identifications do prove to be impracticable, it is proposed that a suitably engraved memorial will be erected instead on the site of the Pheasant Wood burial pits.

Timelines at Fromelles

Obviously, the Fromelles dig will take time to complete. If there are as many bodies as is estimated (400), and the individual recovery and identification techniques are as productive as is hoped, the whole spectrum of the studies could take a considerable time; September 2009 is the target date for the recovery of all the bodies and the end of 2010 for the completion of the study. The drawing up of a detailed report is likely to be a lengthy affair, and even once a decision is made as to which option will be adopted - memorial or cemetery - the organisation and construction work will take months to complete.

Accordingly, it is proposed that this article will be updated as further details emerge so as to keep interested readers of the WFA website as fully in the picture as possible.

 

UPDATE # 1: August 2009

  • Despite torrential rain hampering operations, progress in the excavation of the mass graves has remained on schedule. 101 bodies have been recovered so far from Graves 1 and 2. And graves 3 and 4 are already under excavation. Remains have been discovered at a depth of 1.1 to 1.4 metres. Earlier, graves 7 and 8 were found to be empty.
  • Hundreds of personal artefacts of the buried soldiers have been recovered from the site. These include: belt buckles; military buttons; assorted military insignia; a variety of coins; religious crosses; boots; socks; purses, pouches; a leather wrist strap; a phial of iodine (for the treatment of injuries) and an Australian second class train ticket for a return trip from Freemantle, in the east, to Perth on the west coast. These artefacts will be returned to the respective relatives (when identified) in due course.
  • It is now clear that both Australian and British soldiers are buried in the mass graves but, as supposed, it seems likely that the vast majority are Australians. If all the mass graves hold similar numbers of bodies, then the total could reach 300, or possibly more.  
  • The construction of the new Fromelles cemetery (Pheasant Wood), which is being built from scratch to take the Fallen, is well under way and is expected to be completed on schedule in early 2010. It is the first CWGC cemetery to be built for 50 years.
  • Preparation of the standard CWGC Portland (Broadcroft Whitbread) headstones for the war graves is well under way in England.
  • Two nurseries in France and Belgium are cultivating roses and other plants required to furnish the new cemetery in the Spring of 2010. ‘Remembrance' is the rose of choice.

 

Update #2: January 2010

  • The construction of the new CWGC new Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery is fast approaching completion and large pieces of the ornamental stone work (eg the traditional Cross of Sacrifice) have now been sculpted and erected. The necessary horticultural work is planned for completion later in 2010.
  • Planning had now been made for the reburial of the 250 Australian and British bodies that were recovered in 2009 from the original mass graves at Fromelles. The process will be carried out in stages and arrangements have been made so the general public may witness it.
  • The reinterment of the first of the 250 soldiers will take place between 11.00 hours and 12.30 hours (local time) on 30 January 2010 in the presence of representatives of the people of Fromelles and the Australian, British and French Governments. The media from the respective countries, and across the Globe, is expected to be well represented. Arrangements have been made for a viewing area outside of the cemetery itself that will be open to the general public. There will also be a ‘Contemplation Area' with an information kiosk and a Book of Remembrance that visitors can sign. And a site for personal tributes of a non-permanent nature.
  • Each of the individual reinterments in the planned series of reburials will follow the standard military funeral format with a hearse, bearer party and attendance of a padre. The reburial of the last of the soldiers will take place on the 19 July 2010 to coincide with the dedication of the new cemetery on the 94th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles. Details of this event are awaited. In the interim, the series of reburials of the other 248 soldiers will recommence from 1 February 2010 on every Monday, Wednesday and Friday of February 2010 at 11.00 hours; subject, of course, to favourable weather conditions. It is to be noted that the weather in Northern France during January/February can be severe.
  • The individual soldiers will be reburied without the standard CWWG headstone. In March 2010, an Identification Board will be convened with the specific task of considering all of the identification material, including forensic, that is available for each of the 250 soldiers. A level of reliability of identity will be established and on this basis the appropriate engravings on each headstone will be made. In April 2010, the CWGC will begin the erection of these headstones.

 

Update #3: May 2010

On 17 March 2010, the British and Australian Governments announced that the Fromelles Joint Identification Board had released its first report on the identification of the bodies of 250 soldiers that had been recovered from the mass burial pits at Fromelles village. A further announcement in May 2010, after the Second Joint Identification Board, reported that 19 additional bodies (all Australians) had been identified by name. The actual work of identification began in January 2010 and was carried out by the skilled Data Analysis Team. Even though this work still continues, these interesting initial results would appear to warrant an additional interim up-date on this web-site.

Additionally, progress in construction at the site in the mid-winter of 2009/2010 had also been so unexpectedly good as to also warrant a mention here.

Identifications

Using the latest methodologies and good practice in archaeology, anthropology, historical research and forensics (including Chromosome Y and Mitochondrial DNA techniques) the following identification results were achieved:

  • Soldiers' remains examined = 250.
  • Soldiers positively identified by nationality = 205 Australian and 3 British.
  • Soldiers identified by both name and nationality = 94 Australian (0 British).
  • Soldiers as yet unidentified = 42.

The preponderance of the Australians identified over the British is to be expected given the respective numbers of the of the men of the two nations involved in the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916, and the fact that the estimated number of dead in the Battle was 1,780 Australians against 503 British (a ratio of 3.5: 1). However, the actual breakdown down so far by nationality of the 250 soldiers is not what would be anticipated by probability. This would be around 194 Australians and 56 British. Of course, the number of British among the as yet unidentified 42 soldiers may yet change the balance somewhat if these men can be subsequently identified.

Additional relatives' DNA samples were only recently received from Australia, and these and any other relevant information are being routinely processed. In any event the Identification Board will continue to convene until 2014 unless all the soldiers are identified earlier. Accordingly, it is hoped that more family members will come forward to provide comparative DNA samples and any other relevant information that may facilitate further identifications. It is to be noted that in this regard that the Australian relatives seem to have been more forthcoming than the British to date. Meanwhile, a list of the names of the known Fallen, who may have been buried at the original mass grave site in July 1916, has been published by the CWGC on its website to encourage possible relatives of these unidentified men to come forward. The British men involved in the battle most likely came from: the Gloucestershires; the Oxford and Buckinghamshires; the Royal Warwickshires and the Cameroon Highlanders, plus any support troops attached to these units during the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916. The three Australian units concerned were men from 8, 14 and 15 Brigades of the Australian 5th Division.

On-site construction

Whilst the weather in mid-winter in Northern France can be notoriously bad, in both January and February 2010 the weather was very cold but dry. This much facilitated the completion of the scheduled 248 burials by 19 February 2010, and the laying of top soil and turf over large areas of the site. Completion of the grassing process in now expected to be completed on schedule around the end of March/ beginning of April 2010, and there are also promising signs of the heavy and persistent rain that is required for the establishment of thriving lawns and walkways.

The CWGC rose, Remembrance, is now well established on-site and the required additional plantings are doing well.

Commemorative Event and Last Reburial

The dedication ceremony and reburial of the last (250th) soldier, as yet unnamed, will take place, as previously announced, at the commemorative event at the new Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery, on 19 July 2010. Free tickets to attend the ceremony are available on application from The SPVA (Service Personnel and Veteran's Agency) e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Update #4 July 2010

A recent visit by the writer confirms that the CWGC Pheasant Wood Cemetery, Fromelles, is in pristine condition and ready for the Dedication Ceremony on the 19th July 2010. A large international contingent is expected to attend the ceremony including representation by the Western Front Association led by the Honorary President, Correlli Barnett.

Two further soldiers from the Australian Army have been identified by name. They are from the 53rd Battalion, 14th Brigade and the 32nd Battalion, 8th Brigade and were identified by the re-examination of existing DNA material, clearly demonstrating that the process of identification continues with vigour.

This means that the current identification status is:

  • Soldiers' remains examined = 250.
  • Soldiers positively identified by nationality = 205 Australian and 3 British.
  • Soldiers identified by both name and nationality = 96 Australian (0 British).
  • Soldiers as yet unidentified = 42.

 

Principal source: CWGC Fromelles Newsletter.

Postscript by the author, August 2010:

Having recently visited Pheasant Wood, I am much impressedby the efforts of the CWGC and all concerned. That, after more than 90 years, such a high standard of workmanship and commitment by the CWGC is still the norm is truly extraordinary. To see the complimentary contrast of the unweathered Flemish dark red brickwork and the white French stonework is truly and impressive sight and one not seen for 50 years!

A visit to Pheasant Wood will surely be high on the priority list of both new and repeat visitors to the Commonwealth war graves of the Western Front.

CWGC Video (used with permission)

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Please see all the video reports on the CWGC Fromelles Excavations in our Great War Video Section.

The second image above shows soldiers of the 53rd Battalion, Australian 5th Division, waiting to attack during the Battle of Fromelles, 19 July, 1916. Only three of the men shown survived the attack and those three were wounded (source: Wikimedia).

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