Honouring the Fallen of Fromelles

One hundred years ago, Australian soldiers were fighting the desperate battle for their lives near the tiny French hamlet of Fromelles. That 24 hours from the evening of the 19th July 1916 was to be the bloodiest and most disastrous day in Australia’s military history to date (and may it so remain). And yet, when I began my research nearly 30 years ago, this battle was poorly known and rarely mentioned.

Enlistment photo of Photograph of James Gavin in The Queenslander of 2 October 1915, page 24.

Enlistment photo of Photograph of James Gavin in The Queenslander of 2 October 1915, page 24.

In the beginning hours of his first battle, my grandfather’s cousin, James Augustus Gavin, was among the early, and perhaps fortunate, fatalities in this deadly and bloody nursery of war. His would be the first death among my grandfather’s cousins in World War I.

“Not as many lost as first feared…only 5533” wrote Lt Col Walter Edmund Cass. How I fumed as I read those words in the Australian War Memorial back in 1990. How dare this officer be so glib about such horrendous loss!

This number counted the casualties (killed, wounded and missing) but not the mental anguish to the men, who were sacrificed wastefully.

Cass was an experienced officer, a career soldier who’d been on Gallipoli and in the Boer War. He had been in the thick of this battle, in a forward position, so exposed that it was a bulge in the line, surrounded by Germans and exposed to their higher position.

A studio photo of Lt Col Cass perhaps around the time of his posting to France. AWM photograph A01470, copyright expired. The photo is shown as Lt Col ERH Cass CMG so it appears the initials are a mistake.

A studio photo of Lt Col Cass perhaps around the time of his posting to France. AWM photograph A01470, copyright expired.

Despite his experience, or perhaps even because of it, this battle was the last he’d ever fight in war. He was broken by the loss of so many of his men’s lives. “My boys, my boys! They’ve murdered my boys!”.  He was talking about the actions of the more senior “British” officers, not the Germans, and in acts of insubordination that may have seen him shot in the British Army (or perhaps without the medals he already held), he argued fiercely with his superiors.

Fromelles Pheasant Wood

The Pheasant Wood cemetery 2014. The Germans had lookouts in the church tower.

The Germans had offered a short truce so that bodies could be recovered (alive or dead), but knowing the British refusal to accept even this level of accord, McCay had refused. And so the men, who had managed to fall back, could hear their mates calling for help and pleading “don’t forget me, cobber“. How many men might have returned to their families if a different decision was made? How many men might have carried a lesser mental burden had they been permitted to help their mates?

This was how the Germans came to bury some of the Australian fallen in Pheasant Wood, below Fromelles. It would be over 80 years later that the men were found – the farmer’s crops never flourished in that area. The determination of individuals revealed this forgotten burial ground, German records confirmed it, and the modern science of DNA revealed the identities of the men.

Memorial plaque on the Cobbers sculpture.

Memorial plaque on the Cobbers sculpture.

Today, those visiting Fromelles can see the new Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) memorial with its beautifully maintained war graves. The Cobbers Memorial (do read the link) honours the fallen and the mates they fought with.

Peter stands beside the memorial which stands on the German bunker where his great-uncle WEH Cass fought with his battalion.

Mr Cassmob stands beside the memorial which is where his great-uncle WEH Cass fought with the 54th battalion.

 

And yet, for me, the cemetery at Rue Petillon near Fleurbaix tells the tale more starkly. The gravestones stand like teeth, tight side by side. Surrounding the cemetery are farmhouses and the fields for which the men fought, now so tranquil.

The location of James Gavin's grave in Rue Petillon cemetery November 1992.

The location of James Gavin’s grave in Rue Petillon cemetery November 1992.

L/Cpl James Gavin's gravestone in Rue Petillon cemetery: the family's inscription can be read.

L/Cpl James Gavin’s gravestone in Rue Petillon cemetery includes the family’s inscription.

Among them lies the grave of James Augustus Gavin. It was a privilege to visit him in 1992 and it remains a privilege today to remember him. You have not been forgotten cobber.

Lest We Forget.

You might like to read these earlier posts about Fromelles, Gavin and Cass:

The Battle of Fromelles: In Memoriam L/Cpl James Augustus Gavin KIA

Fromelles, Lt Col WEH Cass and family collections

F is for the Fifteen Mile, Fromelles and Fleurbaix

Brigadier General Walter Edmund Hutchinson Cass

And a commemoration of military mate ship here.

There are a number of books available now on the battle of Fromelles:

Don’t forget me cobber by Robin Corfield

The Anzacs by Peter Pedersen

Fromelles and Pozieres by Peter Fitzsimons (includes quite a few quotes on Cass drawn from his letters and diaries, now held by State Library Victoria)

Our darkest day: Fromelles by Patrick Lindsay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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100 years ago: Declaration of War

BRITAIN AT WAR. INVASION OF BELGIUM. (1914, August 6). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 7. Retrieved August 5, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1552795

BRITAIN AT WAR. INVASION OF BELGIUM. (1914, August 6). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 7. Retrieved August 5, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1552795

One hundred years ago Australians woke to the news that the Britain had declared war on Germany. In 2014 it’s difficult to appreciate how enmeshed Australia’s politics and life was with Britain’s, but the summary on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald gives us a retrospective glimpse:

“An unparalleled scene in the history of the State Parliament took place in the Assembly yesterday…..Members sprang to their feet and sang the National Anthem (which was then God Save the King) and “Rule Britannia” and gave cheers for the King”. [i]

In the “home country”, the navy was already mobilised and the army was to be mobilised by midnight on 4 August, just an hour of the declaration of war (then the next morning Australian time).

Last night (UK time) many in Britain commemorated the start of this long tragic war by turning their lights out and lighting a candle in remembrance (see twitter #lightsout). In 1914 the declaration of war must truly have seemed a terrifying prospect despite assertions it would all be over before Christmas, but it was not to be in 1914, or 1915, rather more than four long years later.

Already on this first day, in Australia, motor cycle clubs were volunteering members as despatch riders, immigrants of German and Austrian descent rushed to take up Australian citizenship, the St John Ambulance had been placed at the disposal of the Defence Department and men were offering to enlist. The 8th Infantry Brigade had also been mobilised for coastal defence, along with the citizen naval forces. [ii]

Nothing would remain the same in society for decades to come, not least the impact of the loss of the talents, skills and love of the men killed in this battle for freedom. The loss of life, the impact on families, communities, and not least the men who returned was to be incalculable at a local, national and international level. Women would remain single for lack of men to marry, married women would not recognise their husbands as they returned with ferocious injuries to the bodies, and even more inexplicably to those at home, their minds. It astonishes me that more men on the Western Front didn’t lose their minds listening to the repeated noise of guns, artillery and bombs combined with the fear of imminent death or terrible injury. Mercifully the Australian Expeditionary Force, comprised of volunteers, prohibited the execution of a soldier for shell-shock, more often called cowardice.

The World War I memorial in the Darling Downs town of Crows Nest, Qld.

The World War I memorial in the Darling Downs town of Crows Nest, Qld.

Those who had lost loved sons, brothers or husbands erected memorials throughout the country to have a tangible reminder of those who had died in foreign lands, often with no known grave. Forlorn and tragically pleading letters from families can be read in the military files of the men, begging for any small item of their loved one’s belongings with no understanding that often they’d been blown to pieces, just like the person who’d owned them. These heart-wrenching letters begged for some small memento to give a child left behind, perhaps one whose father had never even seen them, when men rushed to marry before they left for war.

The names on this wall of the Menin Gate are only a fraction of the total listed.

The names on this wall of the Menin Gate are only a fraction of the total listed.

The walls of the Menin Gate evocatively lists 54,000 men from the British and Commonwealth forces[iii] whose lives were lost on the Ypres/Ieper salient during WWI and who have no known grave. It is sobering to think this is only a part of the losses to the British Empire during this horrendous period.

The ideals of war are the fight for freedom, justice, humanity and home soil and yet “the war to end all wars” with such a fierce loss of life was only to be a precursor to another greater social cataclysm a bare 20 years later with even greater losses of life, both civilian and military, and the massacre of whole communities.

Lest We Forget

Menin gatee

[i] SUMMARY. The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW 1842-1954) 5 August 1914 page 1. http://nla.gov.au/news-article 15527541.

[ii] ibid and also http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1552795 page 7, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 August 1914.

[iii] http://www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/91800/YPRES%20(MENIN%20GATE)%20MEMORIAL