This week marks 100 years since the World War I battles of Fromelles and Pozieres.
Thousands of people have attended a major commemoration in France to mark the centenary of the Battle of Fromelles.
Among those gathered in the Pheasant Wood Cemetery are families of the soldiers’ descendants, as well as French and Australian dignitaries including Veterans’ Affairs Minister Dan Tehan, Chief of Army Angus Campbell and the governors of New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia.
The headstones of six recently identified diggers, who were killed at Fromelles, were unveiled for the first time.
They included a linesman and father of two from Bundaberg, a quarryman from Sydney, a bread carter from Geelong, a Queensland miner, a Sydney barman and a South Australian labourer.
“Today we honour six men who have now been named,” Mr Tehan said to ABC.
“The work to do so is one we as a country owe these men, their families and their descendants. It is our duty to honour their duty.”
In commemoration of the significant event, ABC News has unearthed stories from Fromelles and Pozieres — two of the deadliest and most gruesome in Australia’s military history.
In an attempt to distract German forces who were battling the French and British on the Somme in the south, Australian forces were sent into Fromelles, about 100 kilometres north, at 6:00pm on July 19, 1916.
After spending months fighting in Gallipoli, this was the first time our Australian soldiers set foot at the Western Front which was the main theatre of the war and on the first day alone, some 5,500 Australian soldiers had been lost, marking the greatest loss in a single day in Australia’s history.
By 8:00am the next morning the Battle of Fromelles was over, with Australian forces forced to withdraw.
The Australian War Memorial refers to the offensive as “the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history”.
Senior officer General Harold Edward ‘Pompey’ Elliott, who described Fromelles as a “tactical abortion” said, “Practically all my best officers are dead.”
Joan Beaumont, a WWI historian at the Australian National University said that a few factors set the Western Front apart.
“One was the sophistication of the trench system and the scale of the battle compared to Gallipoli, which was much more confined,” said Ms Beaumont.
“But more notably, the Western Front was a battle that was very much determined by heavy artillery, and the Germans had a much higher level of skill and weaponry at hand.”
Apart from heavy artillery and organisation by the Germans, the Australian troops, who were almost entirely civilian volunteers with limited military training, were met with a shock due to gruesome scenes of body parts strewn across the battlefield.
The famous phrase “Don’t forget me, cobber” originated in Fromelles, when it was shouted by a wounded soldier at Sergeant Simon Fraser — who reported on the aftermath in a letter home — during a rescue mission.
It has also been established that 27-year-old Corporal Adolf Hitler was amongst the Germans in Fromelles fighting the Australians.
Just days later, at 12:30am on July 23, Australian forces were sent to join the British and French allies in the small town of Pozieres along the Somme, for another battle that would make records as one of Australia’s deadliest.
Although the six-week battle for Pozieres was somewhat a success, with allied forces taking over the town, there were some 23,000 Anzac casualties, a figure comparable to the 28,000 suffered during the eight months spent fighting in Gallipoli.
Australian WWI correspondent Charles Bean famously reported the Pozieres ridge was “more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on Earth”.
“The men were simply turned in there as into some ghastly giant mincing machine,” he later wrote.
The Australian War Memorial — which was conceived by Bean during the 1916 battles — says that “for men thrown into the fighting at Pozieres, the experience was simply hell”.
“Several of my friends are raving mad. I met three officers out in No Man’s Land the other night, all rambling and mad.”
The two battles served as a cruel introduction to the harshness of the war on the Western Front, and as word of the gruesome battles got out volunteer numbers began to fall.
Professor Beaumont explains: “there’s no doubt that Australians back home were very aware of how terrible the casualties in Fromelles and Pozieres were.”
“The scale of losses are essentially what triggered the subsequent conscription debates, and the nature of those battles made the debates extremely emotional.”
Conscription referendum of 1916 defeated
Early September, Australian divisions were removed from the main battle in Pozieres to recover and rebuild their strength.
But with volunteer numbers decreasing, Australian prime minister Billy Hughes had to hold a referendum on whether or not overseas conscription should be mandatory as until that point, only military service was mandatory for Australians.
Hughes had long wanted to introduce conscription, rather than voluntary recruitment, but could not get the support in the Government, so on October 28, 1916, Australians were asked:
“Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this War, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?”
With 51 per cent against versus 49 per cent for, the referendum was narrowly defeated leaving Australians divided and many attributed reports of the Battles of Fromelles and Pozieres as the reason.
“There were lots of reasons why Australians voted no, ranging from labour unions fearing conscription would hand jobs over to immigrants, to libertarians outright saying it’s not right to force a man to kill,” Professor Beaumont says.
“But the meetings and debates became quite violent. Everyone knew who had served and who hadn’t in their communities, and people would get on tables and name names.
“It is by far one of the fiercest debates in Australia’s history.”
Professor Beaumont says, one of the consequences of the debates that lingers in Australia today, “is the entrenched belief that you could not conscript men to fight overseas” — an issue that was touched upon again in subsequent wars.
Nonetheless, 1916 — through the Battles of Fromelles and Pozieres — is widely seen as the first year Australians played a full role in WWI, and although many of that year’s offensives did not achieve their goals, they helped deal significant blows to German forces.
Watch the video of the tribute here…