For many years I have wanted to visit the battlefields of the Western Front to pay my respects to the brave young Anzacs who fell during the Great War. If there was one place that I wanted to visit more than any others, it was Fromelles, a small village in northern France. Because it was here at Fromelles, beginning in the evening of July 19, 1916 and going on into the next morning, that Australian soldiers entered the fighting on the Western Front for the first time, and it was here also that Australia suffered its greatest loss of life in wartime over a 24-hour period in our nation’s history.
Following the disastrous beginning to Britain’s Somme campaign on July 1, 1916, where Britain suffered over 60,000 casualties in a single day, it was decided to change tactics and try to wear the German army down by targeting one small village at a time and trying to regain control of them. The Australians were brought in to try to take Fromelles. Unfortunately they failed. It was a slaughter. The Australians suffered over 5500 casualties on July 19-20, including almost 1300 soldiers who were declared Missing in Action. They bravely ventured out into No Man’s Land and never returned. Their names adorn the Honour Wall at the VC Corner war cemetery, where sadly there are no headstones because no bodies were recovered.
In 2008, a mass grave was unearthed, and about 250 Allied soldiers’ bodies were then given a proper burial at the newly created Pheasant Wood cemetery. Where DNA or personal belongings able to assist with identification, the soldiers were buried under their own names. DNA identification continues to this day. One young lad was only 16 years old when he died on the Fromelles battlefield.
The Cobbers School in Fromelles is named in honour of the Anzacs who laid down their lives to return this village to France, and signs around the town invite Australian visitors to come to the school and meet the students.
On a short drive around a loop through farmers’ fields surrounding Fromelles, we passed several Commonwealth war cemeteries, each one located where a part of the battle had taken place. We passed a German pill box, and road signs indicating where the two sides’ front lines were located (a distance of about fifty metres separated them). At the Memorial Park, the Cobbers statue honours the Australian fallen. Just a hundred metres or so further down the road is the VC Corner cemetery. A couple of minutes from there we stopped the car again to visit the beautiful Le Trou Aid Post cemetery, where the headstones were surrounded by a moat and graceful weeping willow trees.
At every Australian memorial or war cemetery we have visited over the past two days, the lawns are freshly mown, the rose gardens are free of weeds, the headstones are in immaculate condition, and the small flowering plants that accompany the headstones are often in bloom. There is complete silence, with the exception of the twittering of birds, and a sense of peace and stillness. Picturesque French fields, farmhouses and forests are all around. It’s so hard to stand amidst this tranquility and imagine the terrible carnage that took place here just over a century ago.
Just as we honour the Anzacs back home in Australia, it’s clear that the Belgians and the French will never forget the brave young Australians who lay down their lives on these battlefields.