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.
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