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France 1916: Battle of Fromelles
Fromelles, VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial
Don’t forget me cobber – Sergeant Simon Fraser
After describing the death of Norman Gibbins in his official history, Charles Bean wrote: ‘So ended the ill-starred action at Fromelles’. But for many their agony was just beginning. Hundreds of wounded and dying men lay out in the fields where VC Corner and the Australian Memorial Park now stand. The approach trenches to the front line were packed with wounded and at the Regimental Aid Posts doctors worked frantically to cope with the deluge. Captain Frederick Collier, the Regimental Medical Officer of the 60th Battalion, who had his aid post close to where the River Laies crosses the Rue Delvas, directly behind the line from which his battalion started their fatal advance towards the ‘Sugar Loaf’, wrote:
We worked all that afternoon (the 19th) that night and all next day without ceasing. We could not show a light and when we came to a wounded man we would ask him where he was hit and feel for his wound with hands covered with dried blood and mud. There was no time and no water to wash hands.
Captain Collier, quoted in quoted in Colonel A G Butler, The Western Front, The Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914–1918, Vol II, Canberra, 1940, p.46
When the 60th Battalion mustered for roll call after Fromelles only 106 men answered their names out of 887 who had gone into battle on 19 July.
For three days and nights men ventured into no-man’s-land, despite potential enemy fire, to bring in the wounded paying them, in Charles Bean’s words, ‘that magnificent tribute of devotion which the Australian soldier never failed to pay to his mates’. The scene was a dreadful one, particulary opposite the ‘Sugar Loaf’ where the wounded could be seen moving, especially one man, ‘blinded and distraught’, who kept walking in circles, falling and walking on again. Eventually, along with other wounded, the enemy shot him dead.
Many were rescued at night. A man’s position would be marked in daylight hours and he would then be fetched in under cover of darkness. Charles Bean, in the official history also listed a string of men who ‘went out boldly by day’. This boldness cost Private Edgar Williams, 58th Battalion, of Ouyen, Victoria, his life. He had gone out on 22 July at 8 am, nearly three days after the attack, and brought in three wounded and five unwounded men. Going out later that day he was seen to be wounded in no-man’s-land and he disappeared. Williams’ body was never recovered for burial and he is commemorated on Panel 14 at VC Corner.
Prominent in his efforts to save the wounded was Sergeant Simon Fraser, 57th Battalion, of Byaduk, Victoria. In a letter, a lengthy extract of which Charles Bean quoted in his official history, Fraser described something of the process of bringing in the wounded in the face of the enemy at Fromelles. The Germans, he felt, treated them fairly well although ‘a few were shot at the work’. It was no easy task picking up and carrying a man on one’s back particularly if he had a serious wound or a broken limb. Where no stretcher was available to hoist a man up it was necessary to lie down, manoeuvre him onto your shoulders and then stand up in full view of the enemy and possible flying bullets. Fraser described the cries of the wounded and how impossible it was for those who heard them not to respond despite the danger to the rescuers’ own lives. One man he heard calling was 14 stone [88 kilos] in weight:
… and I could not lift him on my back; but I managed to get him into an old trench and told him to lie quiet while I got a stretcher. Then another man … sang out ‘Don’t forget me cobber’. I went in and got four volunteers with stretchers and we got both men in safely.
Fraser, quoted in Charles Bean, The AIF in France, 1916, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Vol 3, Sydney, 1929, p.441
The bravery of those who went out to rescue the wounded of Fromelles is commemorated at the Australian Memorial Park. In the middle of the Park is a statue, sculpted by Peter Corlett of Melbourne, and erected here in 1998. It depicts Sergeant Simon Fraser with a wounded man of the 60th Battalion on his shoulders, carrying him to safety and the work is appropriately entitled ‘Cobbers’. It cannot be the soldier who Fraser heard calling out ‘Don’t forget me, cobber’ as that man, Fraser said, was fetched in on a stretcher. Nonetheless, ‘Cobbers’ is a fitting tribute to all those Australians who scoured no-man’s-land in the aftermath of the Battle of Fromelles, a battle which cost the Fifth Australian Division 5,553 dead and wounded in its first operation on the Western Front.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010