Disastrous Battle of Fromelles remembered


Barbara Martin says her father didn’t talk about the Great War and it was only by reading his letters after he died that she realised the horrific experience he went through.

That included surviving the disastrous Australian action at Fromelles on July 19, 1916 – the worst day in Australian military history.

The 82-year-old Ms Martin was at the Pheasant Wood War Cemetery in the northern French village on Monday on the eve of a commemorative service marking the centenary of the 14-hour battle that cost more than 1900 Australian lives.

It was the first major action involving Australian troops on the Western Front in World War I and the Australian death toll was almost a quarter of that lost over eight months at Gallipoli.

Ms Martin, from Camberwell in Victoria, said it really hit home when she walked the ground where her father fought and was injured during the Australian offensive against well-prepared German defenders.

Her father lost an arm in later fighting and after he died in 1978 at the age of 88 the family found a letter to his brother describing the battle at Fromelles and instructing him not to show it to their mother.

“It was a very graphic letter of what happened, the slaughter that occurred,” Ms Martin told AAP.

“He described it with great feeling, the men who were coming back crying for their mothers.

“He said physical wounds will heal but these wounds won’t.”

She said she hadn’t realised how much empathy and understanding he had, given that the war appeared to have added “a bit of hardness and lack of emotion” to him.

At Fromelles, Australian troops advancing against experienced German troops alerted to the attack were cut to pieces by shellfire and mowed down by machine-gun fire, with no real gains made.

The Pheasant Wood cemetery was the first created by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission since World War II after a graveyard of 250 mainly Australian troops was discovered in the area in 2009-10 and their remains recovered and reburied.

Of those, the remains of 149 Australian soldiers have been identified thanks to personal items found and DNA testing involving living relatives.

Tuesday’s commemorative event will include the rededication of six headstones at the cemetery following the latest identifications.

Commission spokesman Peter Francis was involved in the recovery and told AAP that as archaeologists carefully removed the bodies it was clear they had been carefully buried by the Germans.

“They hadn’t been thrown into these graves, they’d been buried by their German foes side by side, certainly with some reverence.

“It was something that really touched me, it broke down the statistics of the battle and gave it a human face.”

Mr Francis said the artefacts recovered during the excavation included personal items such as good-luck charms and French phrase books including such terms as ‘Don’t shoot, I’m an Australian”.

“One thing that had us all in tears was a return train ticket, which one soldier tucked into the rubber bit of his gas mask.

“It was a return ticket from Fremantle to Perth and of course that young man never got to use that ticket.”



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