Hell Opened at Fromelles
contributed by Stan Hall and Michael Hall
Lightly out of Bac St. Maur
We went to Fromelles
Kissed the girl behind the bar
Gaily for Fromelles
Wended down a winding sap
Halt. A murderous thunderclap
The front platoon is off the map
Hell opened at Fromelles.
John MacCallum, 55th Battalion
By the summer of 1916 the war on the Western Front had reached a stalemate. On 1 July 1916 the British launched a major offensive on the Somme in France to try and break the deadlock. After almost two weeks of fighting on the Somme the Germans began to relieve their troops with reserves from the Lille sector near the border of France and Belgium. The British searched for a way to stop this movement of German troops.
Aubers Ridge is near the French city of Lille. Even though it is low in height, from there the Germans could overlook the frontline between the villages of Fleurbaix (on the British side) and Fromelles (on the German side). By attacking the German frontline at the Sugarloaf salient near the village of Fromelles the British hoped an advance there might seem to threaten the German possession of Aubers Ridge and prevent the transfer of troops to the Somme. However in 1915 the British had made two costly and unsuccessful attempts to take Aubers Ridge.
Central to those previous attempts had been a British General, Sir Richard Haking and it was he who devised the plan of attack at Fromelles in July 1916. The plan changed regularly in the days before the battle but in the end it was decided that a bombardment of the German lines lasting three days should give the impression of an impending offensive on a large scale. It would be followed by an attack of two untried infantry divisions. One would be the British 61st Division, and the other the newly arrived 5th Australian Division with its three brigades – the 8th, 14th and 15th Brigades.
The attack was to be supported by 258 field guns and howitzers with 215,000 shells. There would be a field gun or howitzer placed every fifteen yards of the 4000 yard front. At several intervals starting on 17 July 1916, the artillery laid down half an hour’s barrage on the German wire defences and their front line trenches causing their soldiers to take cover. Then suddenly the artillery lengthened their range and threw its shells to the support trenches beyond. It was hoped that the Germans would assume this to be a prelude to an attack and would man their parapets on their front line trenches once the barrage had moved on. The artillery would then bring its fire back to the front line trenches catching the exposed Germans. It was believed that the barrages would create uncertainty in the minds of the Germans as well as destroy their wire entanglements and front line defences giving the Australian and British infantry a chance to cross no-mans land and reach the enemy trenches when the troops eventually attacked.
The Germans were not fooled. They had observed the assembling troops from their position on Aubers Ridge.
The Australian 8th Brigade occupied the left of the front line, the 14th Brigade the middle and to their right, opposite the Sugarloaf salient, was the 15th Brigade. They had the longest distance to cross to reach the German trenches and had the British 61st Division, who would attack at the same time, on their right flank.
It was a bright summer’s day on 19 July 1916 when the British and Australian artillery again bombarded the German front line but the Germans responded, heavily shelling the infantry’s assembly area. Several hundred Australians, mostly from the 8th and 14th Brigades, were killed or wounded while waiting to advance. Among them was Clive Hopkins who had entered Duntroon in 1912 when he was only 16 years old. By the time he reached Fromelles he was a Gallipoli veteran in command of a light trench mortar battery with the rank of Captain. He was 20 years of age when he died.
Just before 6pm, with 3½ hours of daylight still remaining, the advance began. The first wave of men from the 8th Brigade crossed no-mans land and captured the first German trench but their casualties were heavy. Gregor Robertson was “hit by a bullet and just said ‘Oh’ and dropped dead”. Ian Fullarton was wounded in two places but refused to go back. He fought in the front line for fifteen hours before being severely wounded by shrapnel and evacuated. He was awarded the Military Cross.
After crossing a couple of watery ditches the advancing Australians realised a mistake had been made; the ditches were shown on their maps as trenches and the third trench shown as their objective just did not exist. Clarence Halkyard, who had led his men beyond this point, had to be called back to where a defensive position was being established in one of the ditches. So the troops filled their sand bags with mud and made the best they could of the drains even though in places the water was over their boots.
The 14th Brigade also passed the first German trench but Ted Ausburn, the former proprietor of the Kangaroo Café in Acton, was among those killed in the charge. One of the brigade’s battalions, the 53rd Battalion, soon lost its senior officers leaving 20 year old Duntroon graduate Charles Arblaster in command. Described as a “cool and resourceful commander” Arblaster, despite being severely wounded in the fighting, stayed in the front line until the end of the battle co-ordinating the defence of an undefendable position.
The men of the 15th Brigade immediately under heavy machine gun fire from the Germans in the Sugarloaf salient. Tom Elliott was another Duntroon graduate, rated so highly by the commanding officer of the 15th Brigade, H.E. ‘Pompey’ Elliott (no relation) that he tried to keep him out of the battle – he thought he could become ‘Australia’s Kitchener’. Tom convinced him otherwise and led the second wave of men from his battalion when, according to a witness, he "dropped about 80 yards from our line. We saw him go down. Shortly after he stood up and tried to get his tunic off he got it off after a little while and then pitched forward in to his face. He had a big gash in his back, as from high explosive. He remained there all bunched with his body in the air and his head on the ground as we went past in our wave.” Their attack faltered under the hail of German bullets from the Sugarloaf.
In the confusion of battle communications between the front line and headquarters was difficult – the 14th Brigade, for instance, found at Fromelles that carrier pigeons were the most effective means of communication. There were also difficulties in communicating with other units in the front line and co-ordinating attacks as Brigadier Elliott soon discovered.
He ordered Major Arthur Hutchinson, another Duntroon graduate, to lead two companies of the 58th Battalion in an assault on the Sugarloaf in support of men from the British 61st Division on his right who were to attack at the same time. Unaware that the British had changed their plans, at 9pm Hutchinson led “one of the bravest and most hopeless assaults ever undertaken by the Australian Imperial Force”. The attack was “shattered by machine gun fire” from the Sugarloaf, but while his men sought cover Hutchinson went on, searching for an opening in the German wire until he was killed. Brigadier Elliott recommended that he be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. No award of any kind was granted.
The call for grenades and more men never ceased. The 30th Battalion had been detailed to carry ammunition and supplies in support of the 8th Brigade attack. Among them was a Scot, William Inglis who was in Canberra before the war probably using his skills as a miner digging the Cotter water pipe tunnel and sewer tunnels for the new city. While part of a carrying party to the front line Inglis was hit by shrapnel and his clothes set on fire. He died a horrible death.
The only success was that of the 8th and 14th Brigades which captured 1000 yards of the enemy's front. However, because of the failure of the attack on the Sugarloaf and the exposed position on the left flank, when the Germans counter attacked later that night they were able to infiltrate into trenches behind and between the troops of the 8th and 14th Brigades. On the left flank 20 year old Kenneth Mortimer, a company commander in the 8th Brigade, held part of the old German front line trench. At about 3.15am on 20 July he was told that the Germans had penetrated between his position and that of the neighbouring battalion. Mortimer went to investigate and was never seen again.
As the night wore on the Germans were able to surround part of the 14th Brigade. Arblaster, realising the perilous position he and his men were now in, decided to charge the Germans in his rear in an attempt to reach the Australian lines. He was mortally wounded and captured by the Germans. He died of his wounds four days later.
The order to withdraw came at 5.15am on 20 July. Ultimately the Australians were forced to fight their way back to their lines but many did not make it. Of every ten men who took part in the attack barely one came back. In one night the 5th Division had lost 5533 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
Eight men on the ACT Memorial who were at Fromelles died during the fighting or shortly after from their wounds making it the single most deadly day for soldiers from the Territory in any conflict. Six of the men were graduates of the Royal Military College, Duntroon. Except for Inglis, the other seven men were only 20 to 22 years of age.
We’re back behind the parapet
Gasping from Fromelles
Many a fellow’s sun has set
Bloody mess Fromelles!
John MacCallum, 55th Battalion
Charles Bean, ‘Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18’, Vol. III, pp.328-447
Timothy Cook, ‘Snowy to the Somme – A Muddy and Bloody Campaign, 1916-1918’, p.64
Ross McMullin, ‘Pompey Elliott’, pp.199-235
John MacCallum, veteran of Fromelles and the author of the poem quoted played a critical but largely unacknowledged role in Canberra’s development. His connection with Canberra began in 1950 when he was elected as a senator for New South Wales. He could not understand why Australians were so indifferent to Canberra compared to the regard that other countries had for their capital cities. In November 1954 he asked the Senate to appoint a select committee to inquire into the development of Canberra, a committee he would chair. They reported on 29 September 1955.
“The time has come”, wrote MacCallum, “to take the responsibility of building the National Capital from the unborn backs of future generations and place it firmly and squarely on the shoulders of people alive today.” The report discussed the transfer of agencies to the capital and amongst the many recommendations made was its suggestion that a central authority be created for the development of Canberra. This became the National Capital Development Commission. (See ‘Canberra 1954-1980’ by Eric Sparke, pp.31-48)