In a series of 6 blogs Wim Chielens discusses the ‘forgotten front’ of Ploegsteert (Belgium) and Fromelles (France), with photos by Michaël Depestele. This is part 3: Military occupational therapy in Fromelles.
I proceed to Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery in Fromelles, a cemetery only established three years ago. At first it looks like a 1920 graveyard, but the surprise comes when I walk among the gravestones. Dozens of the graves display a name. I have often heard that bodies found at the front around Ypres were almost never identified, yet here we have an almost miraculous story.
To go back to the beginning of the story, I have to go to V.C. Corner, a special memorial for the Australian dead. At the back is a wall with the names of the 1294 fallen Australian soldiers without identified graves. That figure is the key to the names which appear on the individual graves of the new graveyard in the centre of Fromelles. Next we return to the history of this bizarre Battle of Fromelles.
In 1916 the focus was entirely on the catastrophic attack of 1st July on the Somme front. Although Fromelles is situated eighty kilometres to the north of the Somme, there was still a connection between the two fronts. Fearing that the Germans might take advantage of the failed British attack, Commander Douglas Haig anticipated a powerful counter-strike. He had to prevent the German troops withdrawing from the north and being deployed at the Somme, so he launched the attack on Fromelles. The strategic value of the German position at Fromelles was negligible. Haig simply wanted to keep the Germans occupied and create the impression that the British had enough troops to attack vigorously in multiple places on the Western Front. To put it crudely, Fromelles was a form of military occupational therapy!
Over a period of twelve hours on 19th July 1916 the British troops carried out four attacks on the German positions located higher up. The British side was largely manned by completely inexperienced Australians who had just arrived on the Western Front, of whom 1917 perished.
Of those 1917 soldiers, 1294 were not found, and those are the names you can read on the memorial wall at V.C. Corner, or could read, as, to be precise, there are now 120 fewer.
Photo: Fromelles – V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial © Michaël Depestele