“At first it was shock, then it was terror, then it was unbelief. I stepped over dead bodies, I stepped over live and smashed bodies, I stepped over pieces of what had been bodies. Wounded were crying out in agony. Shell-shocked men crawled and clung to each other. some blubbering like babies. And every few seconds another shell would burst into my nightmare.”
– Private Bert Bishop, part of a carrying party from the 30th Australian Battalion on 19 July 1916 during the Battle of Fromelles.
An aerial view of the battlefield of Fromelles, showing the German trenches captured by the 5th Australian Division. The third line of German “trenches” turned out to be nothing more than a water filled ditch and the second line trenches were also partially filled with water.
Part of the German front line after the Battle of Fromelles 20 July 1916)
The attack was made with full knowledge of the German forces in the area and was beset by problems from the corps level down. The Australian and British divisions used in the attack were neither prepared (the Australians having only arrived in France weeks earlier) nor supported well enough to succeed and the entire operation was meant to be only a feint to draw reserves away from the Somme battles further south. Over the night of 19-20 July the Australian 5th Division took 5,500 casualties, more than the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam combined. Several battalions suffered so many casualties that they effectively ceased to exist and had to be rebuilt from scratch. Of 887 personnel from the 60th Battalion, only one officer and 106 other ranks survived unwounded, the 32nd Battalion suffered 718 casualties and the 31st Battalion took 544 casualties. It took a full year before the division was back up to strength.
(Remnants of shell and bullet-torn kits of troops of the 5th Australian Division who were killed in the unsuccessful attack at Fromelles on 19 July 1916.)
The poor planning by the corps commander Haking, bad communication with the British 61st Division and mistakes by the Australian divisional commander McCay along with inexperienced Australian troops and an under-strength and demoralised British division led to a situation in which chances of success were vanishingly small.
The fallout from the battle in Australia was vicious when it was reported by GHQ that “Yesterday evening, south of Armentières, we carried out some important raids on a front of two miles in which Australian troops took part. About 140 German prisoners were captured.” Compounded by the apparent failure of the 61st Division to get forward and Haking’s poor planning this damaged Australian faith in both British troops and British command.