The Battle of Fromelles
Following on from the centenary of Gallipoli, this year Australians commemorate 100 years since the Western Front and the Battle of Fromelles; the first major battle to be fought on the Western Front by Australian troops.
Dating back to 19 July 1916, after the failure of Gallipoli, the Australians followed their allies to take on the Germans in France and Belgium, which would result in bloodshed and thousands of causalities.
Directed against a strong German position known as the ‘Sugar Loaf’, the attack was intended primarily as a feint to draw German troops away from the Somme Offensive then being pursued further to the south. However, a seven-hour bombardment proved ineffective given that the Germans were well-entrenched.
When the Australian troops of the 5th Australian and 61st British Divisions attacked at 6.00 pm on that summer evening in July, they suffered heavily at the hands of German machine gunners.
While small parts of the German trenchers were captured, they were subject to fierce counter attacks and forced to withdraw.
By 8 o’clock the next morning, the battle was over, leaving the 5th Australian Division with 5,533 casualties and the 61st British Division with 1,547; a huge number in contrast to the damage suffered by the Germans, with little more than 1,000 casualties.
A complete failure for the Australians and British, the battle had very little impact upon the progress of the Somme Offensive and just days after would see the commencement of the Battle of Pozieres, primarily remembered as an Australian battle.
The Battle of Pozieres
The two-week struggle commenced on July 23 for the quaint French village and the ridge on which it stands, and was an outpost to the second defensive trench system, known to the British as the O.G. Lines.
Success on the Somme came at a cost, but there were times when that cost seemed to surpass the cost of failure, and for the Australians, Pozieres was exactly that.
Close to the highest point on the battlefield, the village eventually caught the attention of the Germans, with the command ordering that it be retaken at all costs.
Three attempts were made on 23 July but each was successfully broken up by the British, artillery or swept away by machine gun fire.
But they would eventually luck out with more casualties, the cost undoubtedly very high for both sides, and in the words of Australian official historian Charles Bean, the Pozieres ridge “is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth”.
From 16-28 July, the 48th Division lost 2,844 men, and 5,506 from 13 August.
Meanwhile, the 1st Australian Division lost 7,700 men, the 2nd Australian Division 8,100, the 4th 7,100, and from July 27 to August 13 the 12th Division lost 2,717 men.
Among the men who lost their lives at the Western Front while fighting with the Australian forces were eight Greek Australians, one of whom, Leonidas Manousos, died in action at Pozieres on 28 July, 1916.
The missing diggers and Lambis Englezos AM
The Australian debut on the Western Front was a fiasco, a charge at dusk over open ground (no man’s land) doomed to failure.
But nearly a century later, there has been a breakthrough for the missing diggers from the Battle of Fromelles, with evidence finally backing claims that many were in fact buried by German troops in unmarked mass graves.
And the discovery was in large part made thanks to the five-year indefatigable effort of Melbourne-based Greek Australian Lambis Englezos AM.
With a keen interest in military history and an executive member of Friends of the 15th Brigade, he first discovered Fromelles in a book by Peter Charlton entitled Pozieres 1916: Australians on the Somme.
It was then, in 1996, that he developed a theory that up to 200 Australian diggers killed at the Battle of Fromelles were still lying in an unmarked mass-burial on the outskirts of the French village.
Having had the chance to meet with some of survivors in the 1990s, Mr Englezos, armed with a new-found respect for their bravery, set out to prove his theory with a view to seeing the diggers recovered and honoured.
“Fromelles was a national disaster which should never be forgotten and we should do everything we can to recover our diggers from anonymous pits,” he said.
Lambis Englezos AM with his wife Susanne (L) and children Sofia and Anthony.
So after his second visit to Fromelles in 2002, with the help of a few supporters, he started looking into rumours that there were mass graves at Pheasant Wood.
At the nearby Victoria Cross Corner Cemetery, there is a list of 1,299 dead and missing Australians from the battle, though 171 bodies on the honour roll were never found.
After examining aerial photos taken by the British just days after the battle ended, which show eight large pits, Mr Englezos found out that the Damassiet family, who today own the land, had never had much luck in growing a decent crop on the site.
This discovery ignited his search even further, seeing him uncover more contemporary accounts of mass graves in the area.
While it wasn’t easy, met by a wall of discouragement, disbelief, and contempt, his persistence saw the gradual attraction of an unlikely alliance of supporters, media, and amateur historians.
But as the potential enormity of the find dawned, in 2006 a private group led by lawyer Chris Bryett emerged from Sydney, and received an expert panel’s approval to probe the surface of the site by battlefield specialist Dr Tony Pollard.
Ensuring that he would be present, Mr Englezos made his own way to France, as Dr Pollard’s team of six conducted a range of sophisticated tests, which quickly started to show support for the grave pits theory.
A metal-detector scan soon unearthed two Australian medallions. Considering the fact that no Australians fought on the site, historians deduced that they must have come from either prisoners-of-war or dead bodies. Located in close proximity to one of the pit sites, it seemed more likely that they had fallen from bodies as they were being prepared for burial.
The next phase was to dig trial trenches to establish beyond all doubt whether the bodies still remained there, and if so, how many.
In was in 2008 that archaeologists finally confirmed Mr Englezos’ long-held suspicion that the site near Pheasant Wood was indeed a mass burial ground.
Showing their respect to their enemies, the German officers had offered a brief truce to allow soldiers in no man’s land to be buried, however, when the offer was refused, the Germans gathered all the bodies, took their ID discs, individually bagged each item, and sent them home via the Red Cross.
In July 2010, the last one of the 250 bodies was buried at the new Commonwealth Cemetery near the town of Fromelles – the only new Commonwealth Cemetery to be built in 50 years.
Up to now the names of 152 of the 173 missing Australians have been identified through DNA.
Since then, Mr Englezos’ work into Fromelles has seen him awarded the Member of the Order of Australia (AM). But he hasn’t stopped there. In the last four years his interest in Australia’s missing soldiers has led him to turn his attention to the little-known Battle of Krithia of May 1915 on the Gallipoli peninsula, where he believes the remains of 143 Australians are buried in a mass grave.
* Source: Greek Australians in the Australian Forces WWI & WWII by Steve Kyritsis.