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France 1916: Battle of Fromelles
Fromelles, VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial
Something of the horrors of war – VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial
The purpose of the attack at Fromelles was to prevent the Germans from dispatching reinforcements south to the Somme front where the great British offensive, which began on 1 July 1916, was in full swing. The German front line over a 3.6 kilometre stretch on either side of the ‘Sugar Loaf’ was to be captured and held and a short advance from there undertaken to a supposed ‘third’ German line.
The consequences for the Australians of the Battle of Fromelles can be seen at VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial which is a little further along the Rue Delvas from the river.
At VC Corner there are no headstones. Under two large concrete crosses set flat on the ground, to the left and right near the cemetery entrance, are the remains of more than 400 Australians who were killed in action or died of wounds. They died all around here. The cemetery is in the middle of the old no-man’s-land between the Australian and German trenches of 19 July 1916.
Beyond the cemetery is a memorial wall commemorating by name 1,299 Australians who died in the Battle of Fromelles and who have no known grave.
Together, the wall and the cemetery mark the location of perhaps the greatest disaster to befall the AIF on the Western Front in World War I. Of the fighting at Fromelles Lieutenant Ronald McInnis, 53rd Battalion (New South Wales), wrote:
We thought we knew something of the horrors of war, but we were mere recruits, and have had our full education in one day.
McInnis, diary, 19 July 1916, quoted in Bill Gammage, The Broken Years, 1990, p175
Something of the ‘horrors of war’ alluded to by McInnis can be seen on the memorial wall. Of the 1,299 Australians listed there, 595 (46 percent) were from three of the four battalions of the 15th Brigade – the 58th, 59th and 60th – from Victoria commanded by Brigadier General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliot.
Artillery fire was supposed to have silenced the Germans and their machine guns in the ‘Sugar Loaf’ before the attack. ‘Boys, you won’t find a German when you get there’, Brigadier Elliot told his men. He was wrong and by the time the Australians advanced, the Germans were manning their machine guns. Moreover, at the point of advance of the 15th Brigade, no-man’s-land was more than 365 metres wide compared to 90 metres on the left where other Australian battalions attacked. As the 59th and 60th Battalions left their positions and proceeded across no-man’s-land they were shot to pieces. Hundreds were killed and wounded and those unharmed took cover.
Shortly after 7 pm Elliot learnt that the attack was a dismal failure and that ‘every man who rises is shot down’. Most of the leaders had quickly been killed or wounded after leaving the Australian lines. Captain Aubrey Liddelow, 59th Battalion, was wounded but he told one of his men who urged him to go back to seek medical attention: ‘I’ll never walk back into safety and leave the men I have led into such grave danger – we’ll wait for reinforcements’. Liddelow was later killed by shellfire. His name is on Panel 14 at VC Corner along with 235 other soldiers of the 59th Battalion.
Reinforcements were sent. Many Australians, through the film ‘Gallipoli’, have heard of the charge of the 8th and 10th Light Horse at the Nek on Gallipoli; few know of the assault by two companies of the 58th Battalion towards the ‘Sugar Loaf’ at Fromelles in support of the 59th and 60th Battalions. Charles Bean described it as ‘one of the bravest and most hopeless assaults ever undertaken by the Australian Imperial Force.’ He described Major Arthur Hutchinson, a Duntroon graduate who led the assault, as a ‘boy of the finest type this country produces’. The result of the attack, Bean said, was that ‘the two companies of the 58th were practically annihilated’.
The Victorians had been shot to ground by heavy machine gun fire after some had managed to get two thirds of the way across towards the ‘Sugar Loaf’. Hutchinson, trying to encourage them, was riddled with bullets close to the German line. One of his men, Private George Smythe, later described how Hutchinson had ‘cheered them all up on the way over on the charge’. Hutchinson’s fiancée, Gladys Forrest, later wrote to the authorities trying to find out what had happened to him:
Being engaged to Major AJS Hutchinson I am naturally very worried at having received a telegram forwarded on home to Reverend Hutchinson saying ‘Officially reported missing twentieth July, Major AJS Hutchinson Ninth Light Horse Regiment’ … I am writing to ask if you would be kind enough and can tell me? Is Major Hutchinson now in the 58th in France? Or in Egypt back in the 9th LH? … It would help so much in every way, if you would be able to find out any particulars as to if he is still missing, as the anxiety is so great.
Undated letter, Gladys Forrest, Arthur Justin Sandford Hutchinson, personal dossier, http://naa12.naa.gov.au/
Describing Hutchinson, Brigadier Elliot, his commanding officer, wrote of his energy, competence and enthusiasm combined with a modest and unassuming manner. Hutchinson had led his men forward against the ‘Sugar Loaf’ into ‘murderous machine gun fire’ with ‘great dash and resolution’. Indeed, Elliot had considered Hutchinson’s conduct as worthy of a Victoria Cross but his recommendation for this award was denied. Major Arthur Hutchinson’s name is remembered on Panel 13 at VC Corner along with 52 other men of the 58th Battalion killed, in the main, in the assault on the ‘Sugar Loaf’ on 19 July 1916.
On 11 November 1918, the day the guns finally fell silent along the Western Front, Charles Bean stood somewhere in the old no-man’s-land beyond VC Corner where those companies of the 58th were shot down . The whole area was full of unburied Australian dead and bits of their uniforms. ‘I found’, Bean wrote, ‘a bit of Australian kit lying fifty yards from the corner of the salient [the ‘Sugar Loaf’] and the bones of an Australian officer and several men within 100 yards [91 metres] of it’.
When the remnants of the 58th, 59th and 60th Battalions had struggled back to their own lines on 19 July 1916, they were met by Brigadier Elliot who, with tears in his eyes, shook hands with them. When Elliot returned to his headquarters, according to one witness he ‘went straight inside, put his head in his hands, and sobbed his heart out’.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010