A forgotten front of the Great War (5): Scene of disgrace or martyrdom?

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 5: Scene of disgrace or martyrdom?

The Museum of the Battle of Fromelles tells the story of the remarkable discovery of the mass graves and the quest for identification, as well as the battle itself. The narrative does not beat about the bush: the battle was a military blunder, useless slaughter. I express my surprise at the high-minded, perhaps even hypocritical, tenor of the graveyard. The guide points out the big difference between European and Australian views on Fromelles. The slaughter was so unreal, the loss so great, the sacrifice so absurd, that for a nation the options are either to persist in seeing it as a disgrace, implicitly pointing the finger of blame at London, or to make it a place of martyrdom. The latter option preserves “The Cause”, the Great War, as a just, worthwhile war, and, a point which may carry more weight, it enables the families of the dead of Fromelles to place those deaths in a greater context. This vision of the First World War in general, and of Fromelles in particular, remains strong in Australia.

A visit to the museum ends with a bronze memorial statue made for John Joseph Goulding, who was missing for ninety years and now has a real grave in Pheasant Wood. The memorial statue is moving in its simplicity: a mother holds a piece of paper, perhaps a photo or letter, to her breast as if it were a baby.

The statue was made by the Australian artist Peter Corlett; he also created another fitting statue, which stands a little to the south of Fromelles, with the title Cobbers, an Australian word for “buddies”. It is a stirringly realistic statue of an Australian soldier carrying a wounded comrade on his back.

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