After the Gallipoli withdrawal, the ANZACS were transported into a totally new but equally diabolical battlefield – the Western Front. Arriving in early 1916 they discovered a ruined countryside, criss-crossed with trenches and barbed wire and constantly raked by massive artillery barrages and murderous machine gun fire. Here defence was stronger than attack, and the whole front line had reached a smouldering stalemate, punctuated by short and sharp attacks that usually resulted in horrendous casualties.
The ANZACS on the Western front faced the Germans, well trained and commanded troops who knew the ground intimately and were adept at launching quick raids on enemy trenches.
Around this time the French and German Armies were locked in a life and death struggle at Verdun, and the British were asked to assist with a new summer offensive to take some of the pressure off the French.
On 1st July 1916 this summer offensive began and became infamous as the Battle of the Somme. On this first day alone, British casualties totalled 57,470 men, including 19,240 killed, representing the worst 24 hours in the history of the British Army.
In order to distract the Germans from the Somme battle, the 5th Australian Division was ordered to attack the enemy at Fromelles and a combined ANZAC and British force went “over the top” on the evening of the 19th July 1916. This attack took place across flat, open ground that provided little cover and the Allies were shot to a standstill by German machine gun fire. In a single night the Fifth Division suffered more than 5,500 casualties – including 1,917 men killed – the worst 24 hours in Australian military history up until that time.
After a murderous, see-sawing battle that lasted all night the Australians were forced back to their original positions by the morning, an action that was a disaster for the ANZACs.
10 Key Facts:
- The Anzacs arrived at the Western Front in early 1916
- The enemy here were the Germans, in the place of the Ottomans of Gallipoli
- The British had been asked to launch a major summer offensive to provide some relief for the French who were locked in battle with the Germans at Verdun.
- This summer offensive, launched on 1st July 1916, was to become infamous in history as the Battle of the Somme. The first day was the bloodiest in the history of the British Army but no ANZACS were involved at this stage.
- An Australian attack was planned as a diversion and this was scheduled for the 19th July.
- This was the Battle of Fromelles in which the Australian 5th Division was cut to pieces by German machine gun fire.
- This overnight battle lasted only a little more than 12 hours but in that time the Australian 5th Division suffered over 5500 casualties – the worst 24 hours in Australian military history until then.
- Many Australian dead were buried in unmarked pits by the Germans after the battle.
- A mass grave containing some 337 soldiers, including 173 Australians, was discovered in the area in 2008.
- Most of these bodies were re-interred, with full military honours, at a newly created cemetery at nearby Pheasant Wood during 2010. This cemetery is today known as the Fromelles Military Cemetery.
Image: Portion of the German lines seized and then lost by Australian forces at the Battle of Fromelles, 19–20 July 1916. [AWM A01562] (Photo: Australian War Memorial)