July 19 1916, Fromelles–In the leadup to the Somme, it was envisioned that the Allies would make a major breakthrough, which could soon be followed up by attacks elsewhere on the line. Even as victory on the Somme proved quickly elusive, planning for these subsidiary attacks continued, if downgraded to an effort to prevent German reserves from being moved to the Somme. The main such planned attack was at Fromelles, along the Aubers Ridge that had been fought over more than a year prior. Here, the 5th Australian Division and the 61st Division were assigned to the attack; half of the Australians were veterans of the Gallipoli campaign and were used to trench warfare (albeit that of a dryer variety), whereas the 61st had only arrived in France in the last month and was still well understrength. They would attack in the direction of Lille, though even the attack’s planners knew they would not be able to push further than the first three German trench lines. The decision to attack had ultimately been left up to General Monro by Haig; despite the changing goals, poor weather conditions, and unlikely prospects for success, he decided to proceed anyway.
Attempting to learn from the Somme, some modified tactics were used in an attempt to fool the Germans. The barrage, after lifting from the German lines, would be brought back again, attempting to catch the Germans as they emerged from their underground shelters to repel the infantry attack; dummy soldiers were hoisted above parapets in order to aid in the illusion of an immediate attack. However, these tactics were ineffective in practice. Constant rain and mist interfered had interfered with artillery spotting. More crucially, the line they were targeting had been abandoned by the Germans long ago in favor of positions on the reverse slope of Aubers Ridge; the artillery bombardment was hitting nothing.
When the Australians advanced, around 5:30 PM on July 19th, they found no line to capture. Attempting to move further forward, they came upon the German second (now first) line, with a complete and unbroken line of wire. The British of the 61st Division left their trenches by sally ports, presenting convenient targets for German machine gunners. By 9PM, the attack had largely collapsed, except around the Sugar Loaf strongpoint in the center of the line. Reinforcements were ordered to assist in the attack there, so there would at least be a single gain to show from the day–but realizing the hopelessness of the attack, they were soon cancelled. These countermanding orders did not reach the 59th Australian Battalion in time, however, and they were cut down, unsupported, in no-man’s land. Over the course of a few hours, the Australians suffered over 5000 casualties; the British (attacking with fewer men) over 1500.
Thank you to my brothers of my generation in the Australian Royal Marines that I had the pleasure to serve and learn with. Thank you for always being the most gracious of host nations for our Marines and giving us the space to train that we no longer are permitted within our own nation. Thank you most for your sacrifices and examples of courageous leadership spanning over a century. You never backed down from a fight when we fought back to back as brothers. I’m proud of your example and steadfast support you’ve always shown my nation and particularly her Marines. Semper Fidelis, Shannon