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‘The stock of a thousand butcher-shops’

A suicidal attack, ill-conceived and senselessly ordered, at Fromelles was a catastrophe, marking 19-20 July 1916 as the worst 24 hours in Australian history.

Australia’s 5th Division, mown down by a ‘lattice of death’, suffered 5533 casualties in one night – a staggering carnage almost equal to the total Australian casualties in the Boer, Korean and Vietnam wars.

The Fromelles attack was a feint on the strong German salient known as the Sugar Loaf, designed to draw Germans away from the Somme attack 80km to the south.

The Australians had arrived on the front line only days earlier and had no experience of Western Front conditions when they received the startling news that they would be sent into a full-scale attack. They were joined by an equally ill-prepared British 61st Division.

Ordered to charge at 6 pm across 200 yards (180m) of open ground under direct enemy fire, the Australians faced a struggle through the boggy ground to breach thick 2m to 3m parapets, reinforced with concrete shelters. Behind them were deep bomb shelters that gave the German defenders cover in the bombardments that usually preceded attacks.

W.H. ‘Jimmy’ Downing of the 15th Brigade: ‘Stammering scores of German machine-guns spluttered violently, drowning the noise of the cannonade. The air was thick with bullets, swishing in a flat crisscrossed lattice of death … Hundreds were mown down in the flicker of an eyelid, like great rows of teeth knocked from a comb … Men were cut in two by streams of bullets [that] swept like whirling knives …’
Attacks and withdrawals of brigades were ordered through the night.

Author Ross Coulthart: ‘Even after Lt Gen. Haking called off the (initial) attack just over two hours later, communications failures meant one battalion of the 15th (Brigade) did not know their attack had been cancelled. They made a forlorn but heroic charge of the formidable Sugar Loaf fortress that Bean later described as ‘one of the bravest and most hopeless assaults ever undertaken by the Australian Imperial Force’. Charles Bean, Ross Coulthart.

The 59th and 60th Battalions advanced in four waves five minutes apart, each line surging forward to be cut down in its turn. Lieutenant Tom Kerr climbed the parapet as part of the third wave expecting to see the first two waves fighting ahead. He was stunned to see no movement. Hundreds of Australians lay still. Wounded and shocked by the loss of his friends, he was astonished to find himself acting commander of a battalion that had almost disappeared.

Hugh Knyvett 59th Battalion corporal: ‘If you had gathered the stock of a thousand butcher-shops, cut it into small pieces and strewn it about, it would give you a faint conception of the shambles those trenches were.’

Many of the wounded had been shot in the lower body, leaving them unable to crawl back to safety. A short truce was arranged after 9 am to allow both sides to recover their wounded.

The British 61st Division lost about 1500 men and the Germans little more than 1000. The Australian 5th Division was incapable of offensive action for many months. British propaganda tried to project the disaster as a ‘temporary success’ but the enormity of the disaster soon filtered back to Australia.