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













Brigadier Walter Edmund Hutchinson Cass

Studio portrait of Lt Col WEH Cass, CMG. Photo from AWM, copyright expired.

Dedicated geneabloggers know the joys that can come from making contact with family members through our stories. Recently I wrote about F is for Fromelles and Fleurbaix and last year the Battle of Fromelles:  In Memoriam L/Cpl James Gavin KIA. In these stories I mention my husband’s great-uncle, then Lt Col WEH Cass, though the focus of my story was on my grandfather’s cousin, James Gavin. Thanks to these posts I received comments on the blog from two of my husband’s relatives and we are now also in touch with WEH Cass’s grand-daughter.

I’ve always been intrigued by WEH (as I call him), initially because he was a key player at Fromelles but over the years I’ve learned much more about him. Originally WEH was a teacher but he served in the Boer War and then took a commission with the regular Army. He spent some time on secondment in India during which he played a role (not yet clear) in the Delhi Durbar to celebrate the coronation of King George V. Once again YouTube provides enlightening videos here in black and white and here in colour with sound.

WEH was part of the mobilisation of Australia’s troops at the commencement of World War I. He took part of the Gallipoli campaign and was shot twice, then evacuated to hospital in Alexandria. While he was recuperating his mother died at home in Albury.

At the 2003 Australasian Genealogical Congress in Melbourne, the keynote speakers on Anzac Day were Roger Kershaw and Stella Colwell from The National Archives in London. Imagine my astonishment when early in their presentation they referred to two items from their repository: a haversack and notebook belonging to a Major Cass which had been found after the Gallipoli battles. In that era of early digitisation, they didn’t know what had happened to him and assumed he’d been killed. We met up during the morning tea break and I was able to fill them in a little with his story and assure them that not only was he not killed, he’d gone on to achieve the rank of Brigadier. (Correction -I’ve just had advice from The National Archives that they don’t have the haversack. I’ve obviously mis-remembered this from the 2003 talk. My mistake, sorry).

After Gallipoli, WEH found himself on the Western Front, steadily gaining rank and recognition for his performance in the field. He was mentioned in despatches and awarded the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG). WEH was well regarded not just by his fellow officers but also by the men who served under him. Perhaps this is why the carnage of Fromelles was so devastating to him: the loss of so many of his men, through what he regarded as incompetence, was something he found difficult to deal with.

Throughout these war years WEH maintained a steady correspondence with a nurse he’d met (precisely where is uncertain), Helena Holmes, from Nova Scotia. He married her after Fromelles in London in 1916. He was repatriated to Australia in early 1917 suffering from debility. On his return to Australia he remained with the Army serving in increasingly senior roles.

There is so much more I could tell you about this intriguing man but I’ll let the The Australian Dictionary of Biography provides a summary of his life story. He’s rather a researcher’s dream: there are lots of documents relating to his service at our National Archives, the ones above at TNA, photos on the AWM page and personal papers etc held by his family.

Brigadier WEH Cass died suddenly aged only 55. He was buried with full military honours in Melbourne General Cemetery.

Thanks to the family connections we’ve made through the blog, we have learned that Melbourne is currently hosting a wonderful exhibition of memorabilia relating to Walter Edmund Cass and his wife Helena including some of their letters as well as photos he took himself at Gallipoli. We’re going to make the trek from Darwin on a flying visit to see the exhibition and meet new family members. As a bonus we’ll be able to see the upcoming Kokoda exhibition as well. Bonus!

It sounds like it would be well worth a visit to Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance to see the Exhibition, especially for those in easy driving distance. So if you’re in Melbourne with nothing planned for the weekend, why not go and check out the exhibition.