Sunday, 12 June 2016

Fromelles and Pozières, 1916

Paying Tribute to Fallen Soldiers,
Australian War Memorial, Canberra
We are about to commemorate the Battle of the Somme, that horrendous five month period of 1916 when 1.1 million soldiers were killed or wounded on the Western Front – lives wasted, for no appreciable gain by either side.

My grandmother's two brothers (just) survived this experience, so naturally I was attracted to Peter Fitzsimons' latest publication: 'Fromelles and Pozières: in the Trenches of Hell'. These two battles were the two definitive experiences for Australian troops in 1916 and far exceeded the horrors of 1915's Gallipoli.

On 9 March 2016 at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne the author spoke at length on this topic … without notes, an impressive performance as a feat of memory. He emphasised that his goal with the book was for his team of researchers to find every possible bit of evidence which would show, not tell, what it was like to be in those trenches. My gentlemanly great uncles had often glossed over the ‘showing’ bit in an amazing set of wartime letters they wrote, so I bought a copy of the Fitzsimons book.

For someone looking for more information about an important moment in our history, the book was worth reading although frequently irritating for its over-the-top blokiness. The author tried to give a day by day account of developments, with the Australian war correspondent Charles Bean clearly the author’s personal hero and guiding light. Inclusion of German archival material added interest. It was disappointing that, as usual, the focus was almost exclusively on the exploits and experiences of various infantry units. The overall role of the artillery in that appalling was frequently mentioned but quotes from, and recounting the experiences of, individuals in the artillery units were scarce. The book’s military unit jargon, its relentless blood & gore and the 'rah rah, Aussies' content so beloved of a vehemently-Republican author, became so overwhelming that, when I reached the end of the 689 pages of text, I needed to deconstruct it.

The first 272 pages traverse the first six months of 1916. After the Australian troops were evacuated from Gallipoli (in December 1915) they were regrouped, reinforced and ‘prepared’ for service on the Western Front. Lost within the book’s myriad details is their underlying structure. This is important to understand, as Fitzsimons spends much of the book castigating senior military leaders.  To summarise, Australian forces in 1916 were organised as two armies:
  • 1 Anzac Corps, commanded by the English General Sir William Birdwood, comprising the experienced Gallipoli veterans of the 1st Division (led by Englishman General Harold Walker) and 2nd Division (led by Australian General James Legge).
  • 2 Anzac Corps commanded by another Englishman, General Alexander Godley, comprising the newly-formed 4th Division (led by Englishman Major-General Sir Herbert Cox) and 5th Division (led by Australian Major-General Sir James McCay).
(The Australian Brigadier-General John Monash’s new 3rd Division did not arrive in France until November 1916, long after the battles at Fromelles and Pozières.)

The two Australian armies were under the overall control of British High Command, the infamous British General Sir Douglas Haig and his various underlings. Their gross failures make me glad not to be a descendant of any of them. Too much blood on their hands.

On their arrival in France (from late March 1916 onwards) the Anzac forces were posted to the so-called ‘nursery sector’ near Fromelles in Flanders. Supposedly, not much fighting was happening there; both sides were just holding their lines. Meanwhile, the Battle of the Somme further south was being planned. It commenced on 1 July. Right from the start, it did not go well. Extra troops were needed. The experienced Australians of the 1st and 2nd Divisions and those in the newly-formed 4th Division were moved down to the Somme, leaving the newly-arrived 5th Division to take their place near Fromelles, around 11 July.

The next 230+ pages cover the debacle of 24 hours at Fromelles on 19 & 20 July 1916. Our rookie foot soldiers and artillery gunners had only just arrived in France, yet they were picked to attack crack German troops, well-entrenched for more than a year, intimately familiar with the territory and in an impregnable position. I reached the end of that single day & night battle feeling as angry as the author. The role played by Haig’s underling, the British Lieut-General Sir Richard Haking, in sending the raw recruits of the 5th Division on his ill-judged mission to inevitable slaughter was criminal, even worse than the orders given at Gallipoli. McCay, the Australian in charge of the 5th Division, was equally despicable for not permitting the truce offered by the Germans so that his desperately-injured men could be retrieved from No Man's Land.

Now for the Somme, where Haig's underling General Hubert Gough was calling the shots at Pozières. Frequently I found myself comparing the Fitzsimons account with that of my great uncle Stephen Boulton, whose letters show that Australia’s six week involvement in the Pozières campaign began the day after the Fromelles slaughter. Bombardier Stephen Boulton's artillery unit (within the 21st Field Artillery Brigade of the 1st Division) began bombarding the German troops at Pozières at 10pm on 20 July. The Australian infantry’s brilliant success in capturing the village of Pozières is quietly confirmed when Stephen’s letter of 23 July is headed ‘in a German trench’. Even General Haig admitted 'the capture of Pozières by the Australians would live in history.' (Fitzsimons, p 597.) Stephen and his fellow gunners participated continuously in the greatest artillery barrage of all time until 7 August when the exhausted, deaf and shell-shocked men were briefly rested away from the front line carnage. The three Australian divisions were rotated ‘in the line’, during which time Stephen received a field promotion to Corporal, until Stephen's artillery unit was relieved slightly ahead of the 1st Division's infantry and sent back to Flanders on 27 August for a 'rest'.
Unveiling the Memorial to 1st Division, Pozières, 8 July 1917. Source IWM 02598
 The Australian troops eventually won possession of the Pozières windmill, the highest ground for miles, although it ‘marks a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth’. (Fitzsimons, p 661, quoting Bean.) One Australian on this battleground accused the British Generals of murder and blamed the extreme level of casualties on ‘the incompetence, callousness and personal vanity of those high in authority’. (Fitzsimons, p 614.) Pozières was a huge strategic win for the Allies in 1916 and I wonder why so few Australians have even heard about this great victory. It seems that we prefer to celebrate our military failures. Even in Fitzsimons’ massive tome the six weeks at Pozières warranted only 150 pages. Perhaps this was because the author and his researchers were mining the voluminous literature published about the 24 hours at Fromelles.

Fitzsimons tries to follow individual soldiers so that we engage with them emotionally but it’s often hard to keep track of so many characters and so many vignettes. My own book about #WW1 (Brothers in Arms: The Great War Letters of Captain Nigel Boulton R.A.M.C. & Lieut Stephen Boulton, A.I.F.) follows only two men through the entire war. It’s less militarily detailed, less bloody, much gentler, and a much shorter first hand account (although more sweeping in its coverage, from August 1914 through to February 1919 and beyond) but equally sad and moving.

In his Epilogue of 30+ pages, Fitzsimons reviews the fate of various officers and men featured in the story. Needless to say, most of the ‘bad guys’ were honoured and most of the ‘good guys’ suffered.

The underlying story woven into 'Fromelles and Pozières: in the Trenches of Hell' is shocking. Whichever way they learn of it, more Australians need to know it – especially the story of our amazing victory at Pozières, against the odds.