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Fromelles R/H British Sector

On 19th and 20th July 1916 further attacks began on the Somme sector. In order to exploit any weaknesses in the German defences caused by the transfer of troops to reinforce the Somme, the British pressed home attacks elsewhere...At Fauquissart near Aubers Ridge, about 50 miles north of the Somme, 182nd Brigade took up a position in a small section of the front line in the June prior along side the Australians. The 182nd Brigade on the right flank, began to move into no man's land at 5:30 p.m. through sally-ports but some were under German machine-gun fire and became death traps. Two companies of the right-hand battalion managed to get within 50 yd (46 m) of the German parapet with few losses and rushed the breastwork as the artillery lifted, finding the wire cut and the Germans incapable of resistance. Uncut wire held up the advance to the second line and German machine-gun fire from the right flank caused many casualties as the survivors reached the objective. Reinforcements reached the front trench but German flanking fire caused many losses and German artillery began to bombard the captured area. The left-hand battalions lost more men in no man's land and then found that the wire at the Wick salient was uncut. The few infantry to get through the wire were shot down in front of the front trench; reinforcements were also caught in no man's land and pinned down. The 61st Division was already under strength before the battle, engaged half as many men as the 5th Australian Division and lost 1,547 casualties.The attacks across the front were a disaster, operationally and tactically senseless!

Fromelles Australian Sector

The attack on Fromelles on 19 July 1916 was the first major battle fought by Australian troops on the Western Front. It was a feint designed to prevent the Germans reinforcing their troops on the Somme, where the Allies had launched a major offensive on 1 July. The ruse, however, was unsuccessful.

Towards the evening of 19 July 1916, the Australian 5th and British 61st Divisions attempted to seize 4000 yards of front line centred on the ‘Sugar Loaf’. However, the British bombardment, which commenced on 16 July, had warned the Germans that an attack was likely. As the troops moved into position on 19 July, they were unaware that they were being watched by German observers a mile away. The Germans heavily shelled the assembly area and communications trenches, causing hundreds of Australian and British casualties before the attack even started.

The assault began at 6 pm with three and a half hours of daylight remaining. The front line to the north of the ‘Sugar Loaf’ was on average 200 metres wide and the Australians quickly crossed no-man’s-land, seized the German front line, and then pushed on for 140 metres in search of a supposed third and last line of the German trench system. No such line existed and the Australians began forming a thin disjointed series of posts in the intended position.

Other Australians attacked opposite the ‘Sugar Loaf’ where no-man’s-land was 400 metres wide. The Germans had survived the British shelling and quickly manned their machine guns. Within 15 minutes they had decimated the attacking waves of Australians, forcing the survivors to find shelter. British troops attacking south of the ‘Sugar Loaf’ suffered a similar fate and made no progress. The British planned a second attempt to capture the ‘Sugar Loaf’ salient and asked the Australians for help. This plan was cancelled but the news arrived too late to stop the Australians mounting another attack with equally disastrous results

The next morning the Australians that had breached the enemy’s lines were forced to withdraw to their own lines. The Australians suffered 5,533 casualties in one night, the worst 24 hours in Australia’s military history. Many fell victim to German machine-guns. The Australian toll at Fromelles was equivalent to the total Australian casualties in the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam War put together. It was a staggering disaster that had no redeeming tactical justification whatsoever. It was, in the words of a senior participant, Brigadier General H.E. “Pompey” Elliott, a “tactical abortion”.

Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery is the first new war cemetery to be built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in fifty years. The cemetery contains a total of 250 Australian and British soldiers. 220 are Australians, of which 61 are unidentified, 2 are unidentified British soldiers and 28 are entirely unidentified Commonwealth soldiers. The 250 were recovered in 2009 from a number of mass graves located behind nearby Pheasant Wood, where they had been buried by the Germans following the disastrous battle of Fromelles on 19 and 20 July 1916. The Pheasant Wood burials were originally discovered by Lambis Englezos. 

Lambis, a schoolteacher and amateur historian from Melbourne started his own investigations into Australia’s missing first world war soldiers in 2002. He and his team found German accounts and Red Cross records suggesting that soldiers had been buried near Pheasant Wood. It took years to gather enough evidence and apply for government funding to start preliminary excavations, but in May 2009 the Fromelles project started in earnest.

With backing from the British and Australian governments, a state-of-the-art lab was built right next to the mass graves. The team of 30 included archaeologists, anthropologists, a forensic radiographer and a scene of crime officer from Gwent police, and over the next four months the team painstakingly excavated and examined the graves, skeletons and artefacts.

What first struck them was how ordered the graves were. The bodies were wrapped in blankets or tarpaulins and laid out north-south in two layers, one above the other with a layer of soil in between. “The Germans did take a lot of care over the burials,” says Peter Jones, vice-chair of the identification committee and a molecular geneticist who oversaw the team’s DNA work. “They were done with due respect.”

When soliders were originally buried, the Germans had removed the soldiers’ identity tags and sent them to the Red Cross. So the researchers needed other ways to identify the men. DNA was the answer...

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