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France 1916: Battle of Fromelles
Fromelles, VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial
Everything is so quiet – The ‘Nursery’
The countryside to the south-west of Armentières is flat and criss-crossed by numerous French departmental roads. To navigate here, where the Australians were first sent when they arrived on the Western Front in March–April 1916, it is advisable to have a good map such as the Serie Bleue, Cart Topographique 1:25000:1cm=250m, Armentières, No2404E. The D945 leads south from Armentières and soon crosses the A25 Autoroute where it becomes the D222 to Bois Grenier. In the middle of the village a left-hand turn leads to the D22.
In early 1916 the front line for the Australian Imperial Force lay east of Bois Grenier and smaller localities to the south-east such as la Boutillerie. La Boutillerie is simply a collection of houses beyond Bois Grenier reached on the D22 by making a sharp left after Y Farm Military Cemetery. The road thereafter, still the D22, runs straight for about two kilometres to the La Boutillerie crossroads. Somewhere hereabouts Australia gained its first Victoria Cross on the Western Front on the night of 25–26 June 1916.
On that night volunteers from four Australian battalions raided a German trench. As the raiders were withdrawing several of them were seriously injured by enemy fire in no-man’s-land. After safely reaching his own lines and handing over a prisoner, Private William Jackson, 17th Battalion (New South Wales), of Merriwa, went back into heavy fire and brought one injured man in. He went out again, although the fire was even heavier, and, as he was coming back with another wounded man, shell fragments virtually severed Jackson’s right arm above the elbow. He struggled back with the wounded man he was helping and then, despite his wound, went out to search for others still lying in front of the trenches. ‘Private Jackson’s condition,’ his commanding officer wrote, ‘was serious; but throughout he showed wonderful fortitude’. At just 18 years of age William Jackson was, and remains, the youngest Australian ever to receive the Victoria Cross.
When the AIF served here between March and June 1916 this area was known as the ‘Nursery’, somewhere that was supposed to be relatively quiet where units new to the Western Front could be sent to acquire the skills of trench warfare. So low-lying and waterlogged is the ground in these fields that the trenches here were actually built-up sand bag mounds, or breastworks, and shelters were surface huts of sand bags and timber roofed with galvanised iron. On Anzac Day 1916, Lance Corporal James Belford, 1st Battalion (New South Wales), of Newcastle, New South Wales, wrote to his family about the ‘Nursery’:
It is a lovely day today, and the place where we are now is about 500–600 yards from the firing line … There is an orchard, so I guess our boys will make short work of the fruit when it gets a bit ripe. If you were here just now you wouldn’t know there was a war on, everything is so quiet.
Belford, 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.137
Sadly, Belford learnt only too quickly that there was a war on. In the early morning of 19 June 1916 Belford was hit in the stomach by the explosion of a German mortar shell and evacuated to Estaires. Major Ronald Campbell, 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station, wrote to the Australian Red Cross:
… he was admitted to this station from the 2nd Australian Field Ambulance, at 6 am on 19 June, suffering with severe bomb wounds abdomen. He was operated on immediately after admission but very little hope of recovery was given and he died at 10.45 pm the same day. I enclose a note from Chaplain Alexander who saw him during the day and conducted the funeral service.
Australian Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau file, Lance Corporal James Belford, http://www.awm.gov.au/cms_images/1DRL428/00002/
James Belford was buried in Estaires Communal Cemetery and Extension well behind the lines from where he was wounded. One of the witnesses to his death informed the Australian Red Cross that Belford received his wound shortly after he had passed along a communication trench to the front line called ‘Convent Avenue’. ‘Convent Avenue’ lay off the D175 in the fields to the right shortly after the La Boutillerie crossroads where, to the left, are the ruins of an old abbey marked on the map as the Abbaye de La Boutillerie.
Two other Australians who lost their lives in the ‘Nursery’ near La Boutillerie were Privates Albert Smith and Arthur Matthews, of the 4th Battalion (New South Wales). Charles Bean describes both their deaths in the official history as an example of how dangerous the area was because of German snipers and that ‘if a man exposed his head above the parapet for more than a few seconds, or showed himself several times at the same point, he was likely to be hit through the brain’. Entries in the 4th Battalion’s war diary reveal that Smith was ‘shot through head while looking over the parapet’ and Matthews was ‘shot through head while observing over parapet’. Both men were buried not far away in Rue Pétillon Military Cemetery, which is on the D175 about two kilometres from the La Boutillerie crossroads, not far from each other in Plot I, Row J, Graves 55 and 57.
A row of graves in Plot 1, Row H, at Rue-Pétillon is further evidence of the murderous nature of the so-called ‘Nursery’ sector. Lying side by side are 36 men of the 11th Battalion (Western Australia) all killed on 30 May 1916 about a kilometre away to the south-east near la Cordonnerie farm. On the night of 29–30 May the Germans laid down a fierce barrage on the 11th Battalion area:
The great bombs dug huge craters in the soft agricultural soil and the flimsy breastworks [of the trenches] and shelters were flung up into the air in shredded and splintered fragments.
Charles Bean, The AIF in France, 1916, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Vol 3, Sydney, 1929, p.211
According to the 11th Battalion’s historian, Captain Walter Belford, one of the old Gallipoli hands was heard to remark of this experience: ‘By cripes! We never had shelling like that on Anzac’.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010