Australia’s Darkest Hour – The Battle of Fromelles I THE GREAT WAR – Week 104

You have plans.

Specific plans for a limitedspecific battle, and you’re prepared for it.

But the big day draws near and as it does,you expand those plans, and expand them again until they are now the realm of fantasy.

Careful,because once you begin planning fantasies in wartime, you can only be disappointed.

I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War.

The Battle of the Somme continued last week,though it was now a large and dizzying collection of small, uncoordinated assaults.

The Germanstried again and failed again at Verdun, and the Russians took a bunch more ground beforefinally being halted at the Stockhod River.

Here’s what came next on the world’s battlefields.

Well, on a battlefield north of the Sommethere was a diversion this week.

On the 19th at Fromelles with Australian troops.

Many of these men had fought last summer, autumn, and winter at Gallipoli, but thiswas their first offensive action on the Western Front.

The idea was to prevent the Germansfrom sending reinforcements down to the Somme.

Thing is, General Harold Elliott, known asPompey, was alarmed by the strength of the German defenses at Fromelles, and thoughtthe diversion would be more of a slaughter.

He reported this to British Commander-in-ChiefSir Douglas Haig along with intelligence information that the Germans were not, in fact, beingtransferred to the Somme so there was no need for the attack, but the Corps commander, GeneralSir Richard Haking, wanted the attack to happen anyhow, confident of success.

The objective was Aubers Ridge, two milessouth of Fromelles.

The attack would proceed across a low no-man’s land toward a salientcalled the Sugar Loaf, which was strongly fortified by the Germans.

Now, the Germansin Fromelles had, high up in the church tower, a peephole designed for observation, and allthrough the 18th they could watch the preparations for the attack, which began late in the dayon the 19th after a day long artillery barrage.

But when the men went over the top it turnedout the artillery had not taken out the German machine guns.

The casualties were huge andthe Sugar Loaf Salient remained in German hands, though some British and Australiansoldiers did at least manage to reach the Sugar Loaf’s outer wire.

The scene was describedlike this, “We found the No-mans land simply full of our dead.

In the narrow sector westof the sugar loaf salient, the skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere.

I found a bit of Australian kit lying 50 yards from the corner of the salient, and the bonesof an Australian officer and several men within 100 yards of it.

” Now, that was just a brief interlude awayfrom the huge carnage of the Somme, but the Australians lost 1,708 men killed and almost4,000 wounded.

The British lost another 400 or so killed.

German dead and wounded in totalwere under 1,500.

The attack was a total failure.

And at the Somme itself, the attacks alsocontinued.

As the week began, so did the fight for DelvilleWood.

That battle began with the South African Brigade being ordered to take the wood.

HughBoustead had this to say (Gilbert), “We moved forward through an orchard in singlefile, led by the platoon officer.

Smith, the Second Lieutenant, got through, but the nextseven following him were shot dead in a circle of a few yards, picked off by clean shootingwithout a murmur.

” This whole offensive – the Battle of BazentinRidge – had begun the 14th.

It was to be an assault by four divisions on the enemy’ssecond line between Longueval and Bazentin-le-petit wood.

General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s idea.

Commander Haig thought Rawlinson would do preliminary stuff to get the front to withina few hundred yards of the Germans, but Rawlinson thought this impractical, but this meant theBritish had a no man’s land of nearly a mile of no cover to cross, which was a scenariofor disaster.

But Rawlinson planned to make a night maneuver, where the divisions wouldform in no man’s land undetected in the dark and close in, and then attack with thedawn.

As long as it remained undetected, it would solve the no man’s land problem, butother night attacks, like back on the 3rd, had been detected and failed.

The bombardment would be different from theone that kicked off the battle back on the 1st; five times heavier and only against theGerman front trench system; 1,000 guns on a 6km front.

As the day approached, though,the objectives were extended more and more, so from an initially modest plan to take thatone line, there were now plans to push as far as Flers and Le Sars, several miles distantand even beyond.

Rawlinson was now even planning on taking the third German line between leSars and Morvel.

So the objective was no longer an advance of a few hundred meters on a 6km front, but an advance of around 6 kilometers on a ten km front.

Haig was actually againstthe scope of this plan.

It seems he was no longer as optimistic about a German collapseas he had been last week.

Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson in “The Somme”write, “commentators have hailed the plan for July 14th as being a great advance intactical sophistication.

It must be emphasized that a night attack in itself did not guaranteesuccess.

only one facet of Rawlinson’s July 14th plan shows any improvement on thefirst day, namely the execution of a bombardment on the front German system of a far greaterintensity than anything delivered on July 1st.

Here, Rawlinson may have revealed a measureof insight.

two things tell firmly against any such notion.


was the delusionthat that the bombardment would not only overwhelm the German front defenses, but lead to a decisivecollapse in German morale.

The second is that Rawlinson.

never again employed a bombardmentof the intensity of July 14th.

” That last would turn out not to be entirely true, actually.

But the men got in place, the attack wentoff at 3:25 AM, and soon almost the entire German front trench system had fallen.

Thiswas a major achievement.

But big obstacles to further progress lay ahead.

Behind theGerman lines lay the three fortified towns and woods of Bazentin-le-petit, Bazentin-le-grand,and Longueval and Delville Wood.

And if these fell, High Wood on the ridge was a furtherbarrier.

And you know what? German morale did not collapse, and Rawlinson’s largeobjectives really just fantasy.

He had indeed proved that the weight of his artillery couldsecure the enemy’s front position, but nothing beyond that.

As Peter Hart says, “the Britishhad indeed succeeded in breaking IN to the German system, but not in breaking THROUGHit.

” Rawlinson then had the idea of a combinedattack with the French on the 18th, which was a date French General Ferdinand Foch wasgoing to send his men to attack as it was, but weather postponed that.

Then Rawlinsonsaid his men wouldn’t be ready until the 22nd, so the French went ahead and attackedalone – and unsuccessfully – on the 20th.

So the week ended there with new plans afootfor a combined attack.

And further south at Verdun, the attacks seemedto be over for the time being.

But according to Alistair Horne, between February21st and July 15th, the French had lost over 275,000 men and 6,563 officers at Verdun,and over 120,000 casualties in just the past two months.

The Germans had lost nearly aquarter of a million men, about twice the amount German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhaynhad wanted to allocate for his “limited offensive” in the first place.

And an offensive that was anything but limitedwas still going on far to the east.

Alexei Brusilov’s enormous and enormouslysuccessful Russian offensive was in its 7th week with no signs of slowing down, thoughthis week his intelligence had uncovered an Austrian plan to counterstrike the Russiancenter.

So on the 16th Vladimir Sakharov’s 11th Army launched a pre-emptive strike onthe Upper Styr River.

He drove the Austrians back to the Lipa, taking 13,000 prisoners.

Actually, Russia was on the move everywherethis week.

In Anatolia, the Russians were driving theOttomans back southwest of Mush, while in Persia were themselves being driven back northof Kermanshah by Ottoman forces.

And that was the week.

Russian advances ontwo fronts and a defeat on a third.

Verdun quiet, a pointless diversion at Aubers Ridge,and dreams of German collapse at the Somme.

My conclusion last week was about Rawlinson,and here he is again.

Really believing that if they break through one German line of trenchesGerman morale would collapse and the cavalry could sweep in and overrun the entire Germanlines.

But had that happened at any point in the war? Had German morale collapsed atLoos and Champagne? At Festubert? At Verdun.

And yet Rawlinson believed it would happenat the Somme.

Pure fantasy.

And the results of a general’s pure fantasy are easy enoughto predict: everyone dies.

You can buy “The Somme” by Robin Priorand Trevor Wilson in our amazon shop to support our show.

If you want to find out more about DouglasHaig, the architect of the Somme offensive, click right here for our biography episode.

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Seeyou next week.

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