Australia’s Bloodiest Battle

Early evening, 100 years ago today, men of the AIF sat in trenches waiting for the command to move from the trenches to attack the German line at Fromelles / Fleurbaix. It was the first major battle fought by Australian troops on the Western Front. It was a disaster. The British bombardment of the area prior to the offensive warned the Germans of a likely attack. The Germans watched the troops move into position, heavily shelling the assembly area and communications trenches, causing hundreds of Australian and British casualties before the attack even started.

At 6.00pm, the assault began with three hours of daylight remaining. Some Australian units quickly crossed no-man’s-land, seized the German front line, and then pushed on for 140 metres in search of a supposed third and last line of the German trench system. No such line existed and the Australians began forming a thin disjointed series of posts in the intended position. Other Australians attacked from another direction. The Germans had survived the shelling and manned their machine guns. Within 15 minutes they had decimated the attacking waves of Australians, forcing the survivors to find shelter.

Albert Clery

Albert Clery

The next morning the Australians that had breached the enemy’s lines were forced to withdraw to their own lines. The Australians suffered 5,533 casualties in one night, the worst 24 hours in Australia’s military history. One of these victims was Albert Clery, a Connewarre labourer, and member of the newly formed 60th Battalion. Having only arrived in France on 28 June, the Australians became embroiled in this first major battle without the benefit of an introduction to the trenches in a “quiet” sector. The battalion, in a single day, was virtually wiped out, suffering 757 casualties. Albert was initially reported missing during this battle, and with no evidence he became a POW, he was reported as being killed in action on 19 July 1916. His body has never been identified, so he is commemorated on the Fromelles V.C. Corner Memorial.

From across the Shire, Robert Smithers, Charles Smith, Ray Trigg and John Lamb also met their death during this early evening battle. Only Robert’s body was ever found.
The Australian toll at Fromelles was equivalent to the total Australian casualties in the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam War put together. It was a staggering disaster that had no redeeming tactical justification whatsoever. It was, in the words of a senior participant, Brigadier General H.E. “Pompey” Elliott, a “tactical abortion”.

Lest We Forget.

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