On 16 July 1916 16 Squadron joined 10 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The aircraft photographed and reconnoitred the area before the attack. During the battle the RFC flew artillery-observation missions. The squadrons flew further afield and denied German reconnaissance aircraft a view of British troop movements behind the XI Corps front. On 19 July aircraft from two squadrons patrolled the area towards Lille and had numerous air fights, in which two German Fokker Eindeckers III and a British Airco D.H.2 were shot down. The RFC deployed bombing raids on German army billets, supply dumps and railways from Lille to Lens.
Preliminary Artillery Bombardment
The preliminary bombardment started on 19 July at 11.00 am and it lasted seven hours. Over the final three hours the artillery was to lift, and the infantry showed several times bayonets and dummy figures with helmets to simulate an infantry advance. From then the artillery resumed the bombardment of the front line to catch the German infantry out of cover.
Before the artillery fire was lifted from the front line, the infantry was to assemble as close to the German lines as possible, the No Man's Land being 100–400 m. wide.
At Zero hour, 6.00 p.m., the bombardment stopped. Shortly after the sappers of the 2nd Australian Tunnelling Company blew a 1,200-pound mine in the attack sector of the 5th Division north of the Delangré Farm / Tote Sau Hof, about two-thirds into No Man’s Land.
On this position in No Man’s Land the mine did not to destroy any trenches. The intention of the explosion was to create a crater lip that would screen the attacking infantry. After the mine explosion the Australian infantry assault started.
As I have said, neither division was well-prepared for the attack. Each division was to attack with its three brigades in line, with two battalions from each brigade in the attack and the other two in reserve, ready to take over captured ground or to advance further.
The 61st Division attacked the right flank and the Wick Salient from the north-west.
The Australian 5th Division was to attack the left flank of the salient by advancing south.
With all due respect to the actions of the 61st Division my story continues now focusing on the battlefield of Fromelles and the fate of the 5th Australian Division.
(For a virtual tour in the attack sector of the 61st Division, I refer to my previous photo impression, prior to this, about Aubers and the Wick Salient.)
Partly because of the confusion, caused by the mine explosion, and caused by the following Bavarian retirement to the right and left, the 14th and 8th Brigade captured the German first and second lines and three communication trenches, one at les Rouges Bancs, and two west of Delangré Farm / Tote Sau Hof.
They also occupied some ditches north-east of Delangré farm. The III. Bataillon of the Bayerische Reserve Infanterie Regiment 21 (III. / B.R.I.R. 21) was pushed back in the centre and on its right, forming a defensive flank at the “Kastenweg” and in front of Delangré Farm.
Consolidation of the captured German lines was slow, as the Diggers lacked experience.
There was no dry soil to fill sandbags; mud had to be used. Soldiers lacked clear orders, as many officers were already casualties.
In the Sugar Load Salient the right flank of the III. / B.R.I.R. 16 repelled the 15th Australian Brigade, mainly with enfilading machine-gun fire and artillery fire. Later it was reinforced by the II. Battalion from Rue de Leval, which joined with the left flank of the III. / B.R.I.R. 21.
A counter-attack of the I. / B.R.I.R. 21 at 8:00 p.m. in the Rouges Bancs and Delangré Farm sector fell into confusion under British artillery-fire. It was stopped by small-arms fire of the 8th Australian Brigade.
The Bavarians counter-attacked in the night of 20 July at 1:30 a.m. with flanking machine-gun fire forcing the Australians to retire to the German first line.
Later on, at 6:00 a.m., I. / B.R.I.R. 21 and half of B.R.I.R. 20 attacked the “Kastenweg”-sector from the flank, reaching their own, old first line. From there the Diggers were forced to withdraw next to their original jump-off lines. During the withdrawals some soldiers managed to fight their way out, but many men were cut off and captured.
The right flank of the 14th Australian Brigade was counter-attacked at Rouges Bancs by most of I. / B.R.I.R. 16, which joined the II. Battalion, and recaptured the front line step-by-step, until dawn, when a pause was ordered because of exhaustion and lack of ammunition and grenades.
At 5:40 a.m McCay ordered the 14th Brigade to be withdrawn. At 7:50 a.m. the order to retire arrived, although it was not received by some parties. Bavarian troops fired at every sign of movement, forcing the Australians to withdraw. By 9:00 a.m. the remnants of the battalions had returned; many wounded were rescued. Artillery-fire from both sides diminished. Work began on either side of No Man's Land to repair defences. The Battle of Fromelles was over. A short truce was arranged by the Bavarians and Australians to recover their wounded.
The outcome of the battle, again a Bavarian victory on Aubers Ridge, was a complete disaster for Haking’s XI Corps, and in particular for the 5th Australian Division.
The British 61st Division was already under strength before the battle. It engaged half as many men as the 5th Australian Division did and it lost 1,547 casualties.
But the Australian 5th Division lost 5 times more casualties: 5,513 casualties! Australian soldiers killed in the area re-taken by the Germans, were buried shortly after the battle. On 22 July 1916 the bodies were transported via a 60 cm. railway to a wood north of Fromelles. The Bavarians buried these Australian soldiers in eight pits on the edge of Pheasant Wood.
The German casualties of the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division were limited to 1,600–2,000 men. Some of the fallen soldiers are buried in the Illies Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof.
A German assessment of 16 December 1916 called the attack "operationally and tactically senseless" and prisoner interrogations revealed that the Australian troops were physically imposing but had "virtually no military discipline".
McCay's order not to consolidate the initial gains, poor planning, ineffective artillery support, and the Australian lack of experience of the conditions at the Western Front, all contributed to this impressive defeat. A number of senior Australian officers were removed after this debacle, but it had no negative influence on the careers of the ambitious generals, Haking and McCay. The 5th Australian Division remained incapable of any offensive action until late summer, when it began trench-raiding.
In September 1916 the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division was sent to the Somme front. ______________________________________________________________________________
Below a detail of a German trench map of 23 July 1916 showing the Australian attack of 19 July on the German first line on the site of the Australian Fromelles Memorial Park.
Sources a.o.: Australian War Memorial , Peter Barton’s very recommendable book, “The Lost Legions Of Fromelles – The Mysteries Behind One Of The Most Devastating Battles Of The Great War” (2014).