25 Aug

The Battle of Fromelles & the loss of The 5th Division


The Battle of Fromelles which took place along The Western Front during WW1 was a highly significant event for the Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F) soon after their arrival to France in 1916. This battle, the first major battle involving Australian troops in France was one of the bloodiest in Australian history. Also remembered as The Battle of Fleurbaix, the battle took place on the evening of July 19th, 1916. The casualties and loss of life for the Australian soldiers at this battle sent shockwaves throughout the nation and its impact on cultural life has not been lost. The battle was such a calamity that many of the bodies of the missing soldiers were never recovered.

Australian soldiers at the battle of Fromelles

Men of the 53rd Battalion waiting to don their equipment for the attack at Fromelles. Only three of the men shown here came out of the action alive, and those three were wounded.[AWM A03042]

In 2009, a mass grave was discovered at Pheasant Wood where the defending German soldiers had buried some 250 British and Australian dead. Following a joint British-Australian effort employing DNA evidence and further archival research, 144 of those initially uncovered at the grave site have been identified and reburied at The Fromelles Military Cemetery. These efforts to identify and the soldiers of Fromelles are ongoing. Throughout our research into the recently released book Murphy’s War we uncovered a first hand account of the battle from the perspective of a member of the Australian 8th Field Ambulance whose job it was to evacuate wounded soldiers at Fromelles. The arrival of The A.I.F to France coincided with a drive to increase the ranks following losses at Gallipoli. With the commencement of The Battle of The Somme on July 1st, 1916 the demand for soldiers suddenly increased.

Why did the Fromelles battle happen?

Australians prepare for The Battle of Fromelles

Men of the 53rd Battalion in a trench in their front line a few minutes before the launching of the attack in the battle of Fromelles.[AWM H16396

As fresh troops to France often with no battle experience, many of the men still had little idea what was in store for them in the coming battle. The men of The Australian 5th Division were posted to a Nursery sector, part of the line considered to be quiet and a good introduction for the new Battalions. The idea was that it would give this force, made up largely of volunteers, enough time to become conditioned to the rigours of combat on The Western Front. However this was not to be as due to the demand for some sort of success following the failures of the first day of the Somme, and the adoption of attrition warfare, The 5th Division were fated to be in the front lines for just over a week when they were ordered to assault the enemy. The following battle would see a repeat of the ill-preparedness and callousness which still defined the battlefield strategy in 1916, along with the devastating loss of life.

In contrast to the planned gradual introduction to The Western Front, The 5th Division, within just weeks of arriving in France were thrust headlong into one of the bloodiest battles of 1916, one to be remembered for its great futility. On the morning of the 12th of July in the bright sunshine of a mid-summers day, Frank Murphy and The 8th Field Ambulance turned out to watch the fighting men of his 8th Brigade marching off toward the front lines. Only a few of these men would return from the coming battle unscathed. Later that day the Field Ambulance also went forward to man the trenches. The Brigade, made up of young, untested Australians would be thrust head-first into a malestrom as they attempted to breach one of the most heavily defended sectors of the German lines.

Below is an extract from Frank Murphy’s first person narrative drawn from the book Murphy’s War. The passage describes the men of the 8th Field Ambulance preparing to follow the rest of their Brigade into battle.

“For us of the nursery sector, only our little French village seemed of any importance. But those clear summer days passed quickly and much to our displeasure we were soon to move on once more. We turned out early to watch the Brigade move off toward the line. They were looking proud and strong and marched well with all their gear and steel helmets, a fleeting image of the fighting men, whose cruel fate awaited them just a few miles away. We were the last to leave around midday and laden with yet more gear, we marched off through Nieppe Forest. As we marched the men were jolly and full of verve one and all and the weather warm and clear. To us came the first sounds of the war drawing ever nearer and we all were now convinced that we were soon to be in the line and all the while most still dreaming of settling down in a quaint little French village.”

Frank Murphy survived the battle of Fromelles, the event which he remembered as the Fleurbaix stunt. He recalled in his diaries that the men of the field ambulance worked for forty straight hours in an attempt to evacuate all the wounded, battling fatigue and exhaustion all the way through. I’ve saw more fellows go down from exhaustion in those days and nights than I have before or since. The Battle of Fromelles continues to be a focus of commemoration for Australians reflecting on the significance of the First World War. With so many men left dead or wounded in such a short space of time, the battle remains an important part of the cultural history of Australia.

Murphy's War Cover For further reading and articles on Australia in World War 1, follow the link below. You’ll also find more extracts from the soldiers of Murphy’s War here.

The book, which details a number of the key battles in Australian First World War history, is also now available at the Picnic Press bookstore.

Robert Lewis is a writer, editor and web designer. You can read more about him at his profile here.

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