A Summer's Evening In Hell

Peter FitzSimons recounts the devastating battle of Fromelles where many Anzacs lost their lives.

JULY 14, 1916, SAILLY, FRANCE

Only two weeks after arriving on France's fabled Western Front, Australia"s 5th Division is suddenly ordered by its British commanders to attack heavily entrenched German positions in broad daylight.

Just a few hours after hearing the plan, the anger of the 15th Brigade's Commander, General Pompey Elliott, is so focused he realises he must do everything in his power to change the order. For it has been issued by officers who see things only on maps, who surely cannot see what he can see – that this will be something perilously close to a mass suicide, carnage on an unimaginable scale. He must get someone from the British GHQ to see sweet reason!

Luckily, one of British Commander General Haig's officers from GHQ, Major Harry Howard, has come on a visit. Elliott takes the opportunity to steer Howard towards a spot known as VC Corner, just opposite the main German bunker, the Sugar-loaf.

Do you see, Major Howard?

To get to it, to even begin to attack it, his men will have to cover 400 yards of open ground, under fire from shot and shell, shattered by shrapnel. Among the obstacles is what the maps have marked down as "the River Laies", though it is not really a river but just the deep drainage canal that slashes right across No-Man's Land in front of them. It is fordable, not formidable, but still an awkward barrier to get across. More to the point is that, once they get across it, they will still have to breach, under heavy fire, the rolls of barbed wire, the 10-feet-high parapet and the dozens of reinforced concrete shelters. All of it in bright sunlight!

And now the Australian plays his ace. Brandishing the little booklet issued by General Haig's own GHQ, containing the distilled essence of what the French and British staff had learned about fighting on the Western Front, Elliott points out what is written under the key heading of:

Trench to trench attack

Such an attack cannot possibly succeed if the enemy's front-line trench is distant more than 200 yards from the "hop-off".

Voila`. It is Elliott's strong view that the attack as planned does not have "an earthly chance of success". And surely this experienced British officer, who has the ear of none other than General Haig, must realise that!

"Major. . ." Elliott says firmly, "I want you now to tell me as man to man, in view of the fact that you have had nearly two years experience in this fighting as against my 10 days, whether this attack can succeed, for according to the axioms laid down in this pamphlet, which your staff has issued to us, we cannot succeed."

Major Howard is, frankly, a little stunned. This is not the way things are done in the British Army. One does not speak "man to man". One speaks by rank, and is sniffingly superior or cloyingly deferential, accordingly. What to do? The Englishman pauses, and turns a deep shade of red. But then he gathers himself.

"Sir," he says carefully to General Elliott, "since you have put it to me in that way I must answer, but I expect the result to be 'a bloody holocaust'."

Howard at least promises to go back to GHQ, talk to Haig, and try to have the orders changed.

DAWN, JULY 19, FROMELLES BATTLEFRONT

The day of the planned attack dawns bright, with nary a cloud in the sky. The birds, bees and butterflies are out in force, and it is obviously going to be a clear-as-crystal summer's day. It is all so perfect that soldiers such as Private Walter "Jimmy" Downing and his mates of the 57th Battalion, waking up in a mill on the outskirts of Sailly-sur-la-Lys, are reminded of the magpies back home in Australia.

Well, not quite magpies ... "Here were only twitterings under the eaves," Downing would record, "but at least it was a cheerful sound, pleasant on a lazy summer morning when the ripening corn was splashed with poppies, and the clover was pink, and the cornflowers blue under the hedges."

And so, up and at them. Clearly, with weather like this, the "big show," the attack on the German lines, at 5.43pm, will be on. There had been talk of the orders being changed, but nothing has come of it. Rightio, then. Let's get to it.

5.15 PM, JULY 19 FROMELLES

Every time Pompey Elliott looks at his watch, the big hand seems to have leaped forward, each tick pushing his men to a fate he fears with every fibre of his being but is completely powerless to stop.

Now the German artillery zeroes in on the 5th Division's front and support lines, where they know the attacking troops will be closely massed.

"The first thing that struck you," one of the 14th Brigade's officers will later tell Charles Bean, "was that shells were bursting everywhere, mostly high-explosive; and you could see machine-guns knocking bits off the trees in front of the reserve line and sparking against the wire ... When men looked over the top they saw no-man's-land leaping up everywhere in showers of dust and sand ...

Are they really going to charge out into that, in broad daylight, across as much as 400 yards, just to get to still intact rolls of barbed wire? Is the plan really for them to have more men left over than the Germans have bullets?

Pretty much, but it is not just a plan; it is an order.

As all the Australian soldiers in the first wave look expectantly to their company commanders and the silver whistles they hold in their right hands, many men bow their heads and a certain muffled muttering of prayers can be heard along the line, even above the battering bullets, the roar of exploding shells and that odd grating sound that parapet sandbags penetrated by bullets make as they spill their sand. A lingering last drag on their cigarettes before they toss them underfoot. And then, in many spots all along the line:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death . . .

Meanwhile, some of the cocky ones start to sing a favourite tune:

The bells of hell go ting-aling-aling for you, but not for me

Oh death where is thy sting-aling-aling, oh grave thy victory . . .

And so it goes.

Many of them know all too well that just ahead lies the German gunner they call "Parapet Joe", notorious for the fact that he appears to be the most accurate gunner on the Western Front, and more than that besides. Not just a nameless German gunner, this bloke is a distinct individual who can play "all sorts of jazz rhythms and odd syncopations as he 'played' the parapet". Parapet Joe doesn't just scatter his shots; he has the top of their parapet down to half an inch and can spray sand over your porridge as he likes, the way you could scatter sugar back at home. They all know when he is on duty, and are all too aware that he can catch an unwary head above that parapet in half a second. And now, against such a gunner as this, they have to go over the top and give him a full body shot?

Yes.

Inevitably, inexorably, it must happen. The "hourglass of eternity", drops another tiny grain of sand into "the lap of time" – this one labelled "5.43 pm".

And now, as these soldiers of the 14th Brigade watch, mesmerised, an officer climbs the ladder leading over the parapet, blows his whistle, shouts "Come on, lads!" and goes over the top. Of course, they follow tightly on his heels, these first Australian soldiers to enter the fray on the Western Front, their jaws clenched hard enough that you could strike a match on them, their faces set, their bayonets fixed.

"As they [went over]," Sapper Smith records, "Fritz opened up with machineguns and rifles, but on they went, undaunted . . ."

Within seconds, all of them are disappearing into the heavy smoke now lying over No-Man's Land from all the shell fire. But what is that? High above them now, die roten Leuchtraketen, red flares from the German trenches soar skyward.
For the Germans, it is the long-awaited signal, and on the instant their "light and heavy artillery, which had been continuously engaged in counter-battery work against the enemy artillery since midday, went over immediately to barrage fire . . ."
In the German lines, and most particularly to those sentry observers, the vision of these brave figures starting to head through the smoke at them across No-Man's Land, their guns and bayonets thrust forward, arouses not even a flicker of personal alarm.

Safe in their bunkers, manning their machine-guns, once they look out to Niemandsland and see the figures emerging from the smoke . . . cheering breaks out among the Germans.

"Na endlich! Ihr wu¨rdiger Feind versucht es mal." At last! Their worthy enemy is going to have ein crack, a go. They even shout out, "Juhui, sie kemma!" (Yee-ha, they're comin!)

One German soldier cries out to his comrade, referring to his countrymen's love of taking the highly coveted fine English boots off dead soldiers so they can wear them themselves, "Scha¨fer, da kemma deine Schuah! Scha¨fer" ("There're your shoes comin!") And so they watch carefully as the enemy keeps advancing.

And now all the German machineguns open fire, mowing down all the figures charging forward, pausing only an instant in their sweep when an officer is spied and they follow specific orders, "Diese zuerst zu to¨ten" (Kill these first).

Belt after belt is fired: 250 rounds, 1000 rounds, 3000 rounds. Mehr! Mehr! Mehr! (More! More! More!)

"Pass up the spare barrels!" shouts the Gewehrfu¨hrer (gun commander). The barrels are alternated, so that the firing can be continuous, and soon all the guns are trained once more – 5000 rounds gone now. Though a formidable weapon, the MG08 is prone to overheating as it spits out its eight bullets a second. When fired continuously, which is what is happening now, it can become red hot, even boiling the water used to cool it.

The hands of the machinegunners are now so badly scorched that the smell of burning skin fills the interior of the bunker, but still there is no relief. "Keep firing!" orders the Unteroffizier, just as the boiling water turns to steam.

"Wo ist Wasser? (Where's the water?" bawls der Richtschu¨tze (the gunner).
"Nichts mehr da, Herr Unteroffizier! (There's none left)

Still the waves keep coming from the far trenches, and still the guns must keep mowing them down. From where can the Germans get the cooling water they need? The obvious. They piss into the water container and feed that into the system.
The gun is working again!

And now bullets from the enemy are hitting them, and grenades exploding and shrapnel whistling past, and sometimes shards of concrete drive into them, but still the gunners keep going.

Soon, skin is hanging in ribbons from the fingers of the burned hands of the German gunners, and the left thumbs that hold down the triggers are swollen lumps of seared flesh, but still they don't relent as they keep their heavily chattering guns firing. One soldier alone is said to have fired 14,000 rounds at the Australians.

19 July 1916: Men of the 53rd Battalion waiting to don their equipment for the attack at Fromelles. Only three of the men shown here came out of the action alive, and those three were wounded.

The battle goes through the night. By 9 the next morning, of the 7000 Australian soldiers who have gone forward, 5500 are casualties, of whom 1900 have been killed – more lost in a single night than in the Boer War, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan put together. No German trenches have been taken and held.

The battle now well over, hundreds of Australian soldiers still lie there, many missing limbs, some the tops of their skulls, others fearfully shot through the abdomen, with their intestines spilling through their bloodied hands and into the mud. Elsewhere there are simply body parts – an arm, a leg, a head – pieces of soldiers who have been blown to bits by a direct mortar hit the night before.

"The sight of our trenches that next morning is burned into my brain," one Australian corporal would recount. "Here and there a man could stand upright, but in most places if you did not wish to be exposed to a sniper's bullet you had to progress on hands and knees. In places the parapet was repaired with bodies – bodies that but yesterday had housed the personality of a friend by whom we had warmed ourselves. 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."

Slowly moving among the shattered remnants of the proud unit that the 15th Brigade had been, is the shattered General Elliott. He is beyond being merely devastated, as he has "a word for a wounded man here, a pat of approbation for a bleary-eyed tired digger there", shaking hands with those who still have hands. Haunted that he could have done something more to prevent it – for he had clearly foreseen exactly this catastrophe but had been unequal to the task of persuading the generals to call it off – he is trying to provide some solace for survivors but is also in the unaccustomed position of pleading for their understanding.

"Don't blame me for this," he begs soldier after soldier, "this is wrong, it's not my fault."

Still, however, Elliott labours for some control, and tries not to trip over all the dead and wounded men, keeping his rough composure right up until the moment he gets back to his advanced Brigade HQ in the company of his Signal Officer, Captain John Donald Schroder, at which point there is no further need.

As Schroder would recount, once arrived, General Elliott, the famed hard man of the 5th Division, "went straight inside, put his head in his hands, and sobbed his heart out".

This is an edited extract of Fromelles and Pozie`res: In the Trenches of Hell, by Peter FitzSimons. Published by William Heinemann, November 2015.

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