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Australia’s Darkest Hour – The Battle of Fromelles I THE GREAT WAR – Week 104

Australia’s Darkest Hour – The Battle of Fromelles I THE GREAT WAR – Week 104


You have plans. Specific plans for a limited
specific battle, and you’re prepared for it. But the big day draws near and as it does,
you expand those plans, and expand them again until they are now the realm of fantasy. Careful,
because once you begin planning fantasies in wartime, you can only be disappointed. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. The Battle of the Somme continued last week,
though it was now a large and dizzying collection of small, uncoordinated assaults. The Germans
tried again and failed again at Verdun, and the Russians took a bunch more ground before
finally being halted at the Stockhod River. Here’s what came next on the world’s battlefields. Well, on a battlefield north of the Somme
there was a diversion this week. On the 19th at Fromelles with Australian troops.
Many of these men had fought last summer, autumn, and winter at Gallipoli, but this
was their first offensive action on the Western Front. The idea was to prevent the Germans
from sending reinforcements down to the Somme. Thing is, General Harold Elliott, known as
Pompey, was alarmed by the strength of the German defenses at Fromelles, and thought
the diversion would be more of a slaughter. He reported this to British Commander-in-Chief
Sir Douglas Haig along with intelligence information that the Germans were not, in fact, being
transferred to the Somme so there was no need for the attack, but the Corps commander, General
Sir Richard Haking, wanted the attack to happen anyhow, confident of success. The objective was Aubers Ridge, two miles
south of Fromelles. The attack would proceed across a low no-man’s land toward a salient
called the Sugar Loaf, which was strongly fortified by the Germans. Now, the Germans
in Fromelles had, high up in the church tower, a peephole designed for observation, and all
through the 18th they could watch the preparations for the attack, which began late in the day
on the 19th after a day long artillery barrage. But when the men went over the top it turned
out the artillery had not taken out the German machine guns. The casualties were huge and
the Sugar Loaf Salient remained in German hands, though some British and Australian
soldiers did at least manage to reach the Sugar Loaf’s outer wire. The scene was described
like this, “We found the No-mans land simply full of our dead. In the narrow sector west
of the sugar loaf salient, the skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere.
I found a bit of Australian kit lying 50 yards from the corner of the salient, and the bones
of an Australian officer and several men within 100 yards of it.” Now, that was just a brief interlude away
from the huge carnage of the Somme, but the Australians lost 1,708 men killed and almost
4,000 wounded. The British lost another 400 or so killed. German dead and wounded in total
were under 1,500. The attack was a total failure. And at the Somme itself, the attacks also
continued. As the week began, so did the fight for Delville
Wood. That battle began with the South African Brigade being ordered to take the wood. Hugh
Boustead had this to say (Gilbert), “We moved forward through an orchard in single
file, led by the platoon officer. Smith, the Second Lieutenant, got through, but the next
seven following him were shot dead in a circle of a few yards, picked off by clean shooting
without a murmur.” This whole offensive – the Battle of Bazentin
Ridge – had begun the 14th. It was to be an assault by four divisions on the enemy’s
second line between Longueval and Bazentin-le-petit wood. General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s idea.
Commander Haig thought Rawlinson would do preliminary stuff to get the front to within
a few hundred yards of the Germans, but Rawlinson thought this impractical, but this meant the
British had a no man’s land of nearly a mile of no cover to cross, which was a scenario
for disaster. But Rawlinson planned to make a night maneuver, where the divisions would
form in no man’s land undetected in the dark and close in, and then attack with the
dawn. As long as it remained undetected, it would solve the no man’s land problem, but
other night attacks, like back on the 3rd, had been detected and failed. The bombardment would be different from the
one that kicked off the battle back on the 1st; five times heavier and only against the
German front trench system; 1,000 guns on a 6km front. As the day approached, though,
the objectives were extended more and more, so from an initially modest plan to take that
one line, there were now plans to push as far as Flers and Le Sars, several miles distant
and even beyond. Rawlinson was now even planning on taking the third German line between le
Sars and Morvel. So the objective was no longer an advance of a few hundred meters on a 6
km front, but an advance of around 6 kilometers on a ten km front. Haig was actually against
the scope of this plan. It seems he was no longer as optimistic about a German collapse
as he had been last week. Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson in “The Somme”
write, “commentators have hailed the plan for July 14th as being a great advance in
tactical sophistication. It must be emphasized that a night attack in itself did not guarantee
success… only one facet of Rawlinson’s July 14th plan shows any improvement on the
first day, namely the execution of a bombardment on the front German system of a far greater
intensity than anything delivered on July 1st. Here, Rawlinson may have revealed a measure
of insight… two things tell firmly against any such notion. First… was the delusion
that that the bombardment would not only overwhelm the German front defenses, but lead to a decisive
collapse in German morale… The second is that Rawlinson… never again employed a bombardment
of the intensity of July 14th.” That last would turn out not to be entirely true, actually. But the men got in place, the attack went
off at 3:25 AM, and soon almost the entire German front trench system had fallen. This
was a major achievement. But big obstacles to further progress lay ahead. Behind the
German lines lay the three fortified towns and woods of Bazentin-le-petit, Bazentin-le-grand,
and Longueval and Delville Wood. And if these fell, High Wood on the ridge was a further
barrier. And you know what? German morale did not collapse, and Rawlinson’s large
objectives really just fantasy. He had indeed proved that the weight of his artillery could
secure the enemy’s front position, but nothing beyond that. As Peter Hart says, “the British
had indeed succeeded in breaking IN to the German system, but not in breaking THROUGH
it.” Rawlinson then had the idea of a combined
attack with the French on the 18th, which was a date French General Ferdinand Foch was
going to send his men to attack as it was, but weather postponed that. Then Rawlinson
said his men wouldn’t be ready until the 22nd, so the French went ahead and attacked
alone – and unsuccessfully – on the 20th. So the week ended there with new plans afoot
for a combined attack. And further south at Verdun, the attacks seemed
to be over for the time being. But according to Alistair Horne, between February
21st and July 15th, the French had lost over 275,000 men and 6,563 officers at Verdun,
and over 120,000 casualties in just the past two months. The Germans had lost nearly a
quarter of a million men, about twice the amount German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn
had wanted to allocate for his “limited offensive” in the first place. And an offensive that was anything but limited
was still going on far to the east. Alexei Brusilov’s enormous and enormously
successful Russian offensive was in its 7th week with no signs of slowing down, though
this week his intelligence had uncovered an Austrian plan to counterstrike the Russian
center. So on the 16th Vladimir Sakharov’s 11th Army launched a pre-emptive strike on
the Upper Styr River. He drove the Austrians back to the Lipa, taking 13,000 prisoners. Actually, Russia was on the move everywhere
this week. In Anatolia, the Russians were driving the
Ottomans back southwest of Mush, while in Persia were themselves being driven back north
of Kermanshah by Ottoman forces. And that was the week. Russian advances on
two fronts and a defeat on a third. Verdun quiet, a pointless diversion at Aubers Ridge,
and dreams of German collapse at the Somme. My conclusion last week was about Rawlinson,
and here he is again. Really believing that if they break through one German line of trenches
German morale would collapse and the cavalry could sweep in and overrun the entire German
lines. But had that happened at any point in the war? Had German morale collapsed at
Loos and Champagne? At Festubert? At Verdun. And yet Rawlinson believed it would happen
at the Somme. Pure fantasy. And the results of a general’s pure fantasy are easy enough
to predict: everyone dies. You can buy “The Somme” by Robin Prior
and Trevor Wilson in our amazon shop to support our show. If you want to find out more about Douglas
Haig, the architect of the Somme offensive, click right here for our biography episode. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Seth
Legare – please support us on Patreon, we couldn’t make this show without it. See
you next week.


Reader Comments

  1. Always loved Australian military slouch hats. My dad still has a couple my grandfather (his dad) got from somewhere during WWII. I know plenty of Brits and Canadians were stationed in Malta during WWII but don't really know about Australians, or Kiwis for that matter. So I am not certain where he got them. Nice to see they were already around in WWI.

  2. 2:20 – what is that? Looks like a tiny recoiless rifle or some sort of rocket launcher. Were either of these around during WWI?

  3. did you know that the tank was originally invented by an aussie but the brits turned him down because he was a colonial soldier and therefore inferior (obviously) and then a british officer saw the designs in an archive and redesigned it slightly and that is how it came to be. when the aussie bloke found out about it he partitioned the british government for either recognition or money and they gave him the money which is why you don't know that the tank is an aussie invention. don't believe me it even is on wikipedia under australian inventions

  4. Can we get a video on the Battle of Hamel and Sir John Monash?

    The Battle of Hamel involved;
    The first use of 'blitzkrieg' style tactics.
    The first offensive battle the US participated in (tho, piggy backing on the Aussies), in WW1.
    The first and only time, US troops were commanded by a foreign General.

    And it was the battle that effectively broke the trench stalemate on the Western Front!

    It should be one of the go to stories of WW1!
    WHY DOES NO ONE EVER SPEAK OF THIS BATTLE!?

    We need more on Sir John Monash "The Greatest General on the Western Front"!!

    EDIT: oh, the battle is two years away… xD

  5. u should do a ww2 channel in this same format also, I love the way this historical war is broken into small chunks by the channel to give you an idea of the length of the war and the incredible death toll it brought

  6. If, as the revisionist military historians say, Haig's brutal and costly method of fighting WW1 on the Western Front, was the only effective way of winning the war for the Allies, then any untutored, unfeeling, clueless individual could have taken his place and done an equally 'good' job. Haig started the war with the belief that the machine gun was over-rated and as late as 1917 he still believed that cavalry would win the war once the "break-through" was achieved.

  7. … and how many battles have been lost because chances were not taken..?

    The hind sight arm chair generals can carp in safety, knowing they do not have to make decisions.

  8. This is the reason Australians do not like operating under a foreign command, and later insisted upon having their own commanders.

  9. 1.04. None of these ANZACS fought at Gallipoli. The ANZACs at Fromelle, was the Australian 5th Division There first time in battle, only 2 days on the front line when this battle commenced. Poorly planned, timed etc. Another example of British inadequacy.

  10. Pozières, is the place that honours Australia's loss. There may be others, I don't know.
    Visiting Europe from Feb to May this year.
    Hurry up January

  11. 🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺 my father was there and was awarded the Military Medal for Bravery…he survived the four years of WW1 in France and Belgium and returned home…would never talk about it! 🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺

  12. Australian ode to the fallen played at 6 p.m. in every returned services club across the country: At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them…lest we forget…lest we forget. 🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺

  13. Do you have a video covering Beersheba and the Australian Light horse? If you do can someone please link it for me? Thanks

  14. So we are to assume the strategy at the Somme was to kill everyone and everything except General Haig, Mrs. Haig and their pet tortoise Milton

  15. I just discovered your channel! I've always been interested in WW1 however I could never find anything to keep my interest so to speak! keep it up you guys rock!!

  16. Indy, why & how was Persia involved in the war? were they (Shia) supporting their Sunni Ottoman friends against the bad Orthodox men from the North? were they like Greece & Belgium, forced to cede territory? had they not an army to defend their frontiers?

  17. Funnily enough regarding the kangaroo at 1:00 (altho it looks like a wallaby), the big reds in the outback grow to 6 foot and have a large claw on their foot, not to mention their kick can crush bone. (they lean back on their tails and wham!). It's not unheard of for someone to hit one at high speed (100mph) in a car, and the roo will come through the windscreen (alive and probably angry) and then kick in panic and kill the driver. This isn't some urban legend, a tradesman at my first company died that way.
    So war kangaroos aren't a bad idea really 🙂

  18. Battlecry of the french that they developed. Ils ne passeront pas. (They shall not pass.) but what was the battlecry of the medieval age's? YOUUU SHALL NOT PASSSS!

  19. Hey Indy can we get more videos about the aussies on the western front, everyone knows about the ANZAC's in Gallipoli and what not, but would be nice to see some more stuff about them on the western front.

  20. After the war Pompey was haunted by what his men went through & how they were treated at home afterwards & committed suicide. Once Aussie General Sir John Monash took over managing Aussie troops, things started to improve. My dad was there at Ypres etc.

  21. Senseless waste of life! millions of people both civilian and military died in the name of land grabbing. And what do the leaders do to honor the soldiers and civilians that were killed in the most horrible way you can possibly imagine, send more off to the meat grinder.

  22. Just found this, very interesting. My great uncle was wounded in this Battle. GSW to the face. He was a member of the 60th Battalion.

    He was sent to UK for treatment and recover, only to be returned the following year to the Battalion. He was killed in action one month later.

    He served from 1914 in the veterinary corp and was kicked out in 1915 and returned to Australia. He reenlisted and joined the 60th in Egypt and there move to France. The rest is history.

    In researching my great uncle, this task was made so much easier as the his papers and battalion, brigade and Division war diaries are all on line. Thanks to the Australia’s wanting to make these documents available to all.

  23. A decent documentary on the Pheasant Wood Commonwealth War Grave established in 2009 for 250 soldiers killed in the Battle of Fromelles is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wY4u6QzBjyU

  24. Hey Indy is there any truth to the movie the lost battalion about an American unit getting cut off and held out against the Germans during the great war

  25. As we all should know it now better: it was naval blockade which gave Entente the victory. Not their relatively mediocre and sometimes even pathetic land warfare. With perhaps exception of Verdun (which was perhaps most stupid German decision in Western Front) and last 6 months of the war the French forces had mostly 2 or even 3 times higher losses than Germans they faced. With that 1:2 exchange rate facing Germany with 70% bigger population French would have lost that war.

  26. So the Germans, Brits, and Americans have dogs, the Poles have bears, and the Aussies have kangaroos?

  27. Did officers and command just not care about the mass of life they were sending to death? I’m so confused how you could send 5,000 fathers, brothers, husbands and sons to there gruesome death. Don’t know why they didn’t switch up tactics. I’m trained in modern trench warfare, there are ways around it. The problem was there was far to many combatants.

  28. Its wild that they missed some major things that would have made trench warfare a lot easier and they had the tech just not the ideas. Something as simple as a "line charge" they use today to clear landmines or IED"s. A simple cable with explosives attached to it and a way to launch one end over no man's land (I'm thinking a mortar round of some type). It would cut wire like butter and clear a path. Napalm, they had airplanes. Planes dropping napalm on trenches would have done a lot more then hand grenades. Then there is thermobaric bombs. Fuel-Air Explosives are just conventional thermobaric explosions. They had gas and they had delayed fuses.

  29. British generals were some of the most incompetent of their time.
    So many lost their lives unnecessarily through bad planning.
    Is it any wonder the Australians viewed them with such disdain.

  30. Bombardment never works when your enemy knows it's coming. That has been proven over and over again. Whether you are talking about D-Day, Iwo Jima or Okinawa covering yourself with dirt usually protects you from the blast.

  31. I love your sign offs. For the channel, “This” disgusted look “is modern war”. It “That’s the week” makes me think of Walter Cronkite’s “That’s the way it was on (this date) I’m curious if Indy was influenced by Cronkite?

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