Australian soldiers first battle on the western front was the ill-fated Battle of Fromelles on 19-20 July 1916. their goal was to divert German attention from the main action to the south and prevent them sending reinforcements there. Planning was rushed, the soldiers lacked experience and the distance across no-mans land was as much as 400 metres in some sections. After seven hours of allied artillery fire, German machine gunners, with the added advantage of being on high ground, were well and truly ready when British and Australian troops began their attack in the evening of 19 July 1916. The Battle of Fromelles started on July 19th 1916 and lasted until the following day. The battle was an attempt to stop the Germans moving troops away from this sector to the Battle of the Somme that was being fought fifty miles to the south of Fromelles. The area around Fromelles was seen as a “quiet” sector where the Germans could move their troops around with some ease. The battle was an attempt to change this and possibly to force the German High Command to move more troops to Fromelles from the Somme battlefield in an effort to support their troops there. On July 19th Australian and British troops from two divisions (61st Division and the 5th Australian Division) attacked German positions at Fromelles. The lines had been shelled for seven hours by 200,000 artillery rounds. However, Allied intelligence had failed to pickup that the Germans had abandoned these lines and had set up new positions about 200m behind them where they had built concrete bunkers that housed machine guns. The expectation was that those in the German trenches would be killed or totally demoralised from the bombardment. The end of a bombardment was followed by an infantry attack and the Germans were well aware of this. When the Allies attacked, they were hit by a German artillery bombardment that left many dead in their own trenches. Those who got through had to face well dug in machine guns that had escaped the Allied bombardment. The 61st was badly hit and they were forced to retire to their own lines after suffering heavy casualties. The Australians did better and reached what they thought were the German front lines, only to find them flooded and indefensible. By July 20th, they like the 61st had to retreat after suffering very high casualties. The attacks were failures and very costly in terms of manpower. 5,533 Australians (about 90% of those involved) and 1,547 British troops (about 50% of those involved) were casualties. Ironically, the failure of the 61st to reach the German lines saved it from heavier casualties – as suffered by the Australians. Many men lay wounded in ‘No Mans Land’. However, a plan for a temporary truce with the Germans to allow the wounded could be collected was vetoed by senior officers. The organisation behind the battle was poor as so much planning and energy was being invested in the Somme campaign. Few would doubt that the planning was a fiasco. Fromelles was one of the worst disasters to befall the Australian Army in the whole of World War One and it did a great deal to sour relations between British and Australian senior army commanders.
In 2008 a mass grave of about 400 Allied soldiers was discovered at Pheasant Wood near to Fromelles. It is believed that the Germans quickly put as many bodies as they could into a mass grave to prevent the spread of disease. The bodies will be reburied in individual graves near to Pheasant Wood, a process that will be supervised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
For the Australians, Fromelles assumed a very much greater significance. The Australian Imperial Force [AIF] had moved to France as recently as June 1916 and while it had undertaken a number of trench raids after moving into the front line, Fromelles was its first large scale action since Gallipoli. In addition, the formation that took part - 5 Australian Division under the command of Major-General the Hon. James Whiteside McCay - was the newest element, having been created in Egypt in February 1916 and yet to enter a fight.