The worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history

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Written By Clare Wadsworth

It was a summer battle – poppies instead of mud, although the trenches were flooded. About 900 people live in Fromelles today where, between the 19th and 20th July 1916, nearly 8,500 men were killed, wounded or missing – 5,533 Australians. These are as many as the total of Australian casualties in the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam War put together, many straight from Gallipoli and 1,547 British soldiers – fighting a Bavarian division that included a 27-year-old corporal, a house painter in civilian life, called Adolf Hitler.


Brigadier General ‘Pompey’ Elliott called it a ‘tactical abortion’ and tried to have the attack cancelled, but it was only delayed. A surviving officer later wrote that he would ‘always have before my eyes the picture of ‘Pompey’… the morning after Fromelles, tears streaming down his face, shaking hands with the pitiful remnant of his brigade.’


It was a feint and a failure, concealed for years and had no impact on the Somme offensive although it was fought to stop German troops from reaching the Battle of the Somme, 50 miles to the south. The same ground had been fought over a year earlier with 11,000 British casualties.


The Germans buried the dead Australian and British soldiers behind their lines, but it was so overgrown that no one could find the burial ground after the War. However an amateur historian and art teacher from Melbourne, Lambis Englezos, was convinced he could find out what had happened there and he researched and lobbied the government until, in 2008, eight mass graves were found next to Pheasant Wood.


The bodies were exhumed the following year and in 2010 Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Cemetery, designed by Barry Edwards, was dedicated. This was the first war cemetery to be built by the War Graves Commission in 50 years. There the machine-gunned remains of 250 patriotic soldiers lie in dignity and 144 Australians now have a name.


Gerard Delannoy, now nearly 80, stops every day at the grave of 16-year-old Cecil Morgan, picturing him and imagining his own son in the slaughter. He meets and makes friends with visiting Australians and takes them home for lunch. He has just sent me the program of a concert held last night in a neighbouring village where the choir sang Advance Australia Fair, Botany Bay and By the Boab Tree.


Monsieur Delannoy has visited Australia twice himself and he told me about Martial Delebarre, OAM, a foundation member and President of the Souvenir de la Bataille de Fromelles 19/20 Juillet 1916. Delebarre’s grandfather fought at Verdun and when he was growing up used to play in the fields and bring home such a quantity of shrapnel and shells that he was nicknamed the ‘Fieldmouse’. His family has lived in the area since the 14th century and he set up the first museum in the Town Hall, until the publicly funded museum, where even the trenches and no man’s land have been recreated, opened in 2014.


In the centre of the Memorial Park stands Peter Corlett’s sculpture ‘Cobbers’, based on Sergeant Simon Fraser and dedicated to the compassion and courage of the men who fought and fell. A replica can be seen in Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance.


Every morning the village school, called ‘l’Ecole des Cobbers’, rings a Freedom Bell cast in Australia in memory of the 5th Division soldiers. The school also has two clocks, one showing the time in France and the other in Melbourne plus a kangaroo weather vane. There are poppies painted on letterboxes all over town and the Australian flag flies by the side of the French flag.


This year, as part of the Centenary Commemoration of the Battle of the Somme, the Birralee Choir sang while volunteers helped with 5000 Australian charity poppies. There was also an overwhelmingly poignant and moving installation of 26,500 hand-knitted poppies by sustainable landscape garden designer Phillip Johnson.


There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever Australia.