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Battle of Fromelles, temporary truces


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Hi all,
First post. I am reading a book, 'Fromelles & Pozieres, in the trenches of hell' by Peter Fitzsimmons and i have read that after the battle, there was going to be a temporary truce with the Germans so the involved parties could go out into No Man's Land to retrieve their wounded. The planned truce was immediately ordered by HQ to be cancelled, thus preventing many Australians from being rescued and given the care they needed, but the order was delayed to the British division, resulting in a much greater proportion of British casualties being rescued. Why was this the case? Why were the Australians immediately ordered to cease but the British (possibly intentionally) allowed to carry on and Bring their own back in?

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I believe that the truce was requested but permission denied by the Australian Divisional Commander, McKay. Reputedly a nasty, horrible man who cared little for the men under his command.

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@Ken Lees is quite correct, the order was reportedly given by M'Cay.


Bean in The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918: Volume III - The AIF in France, on pages 439-440 provides this information:



In the meanwhile the proposal reached M'Cay. He, however, was aware that " G.H.Q. orders and all subordinate orders were extremely definite,130 to the effect that no negotiations of any kind, and on any subject, were to be had with the enemy. . . In view of the definiteness of G.H.Q. orders, as soon as my headquarters became aware of the tentative arrangement, orders were at once sent to put an end to the truce.' " Generals Haking and Monro, to whom he mentioned the matter afterwards, approved of his action. M'Cay may have thought, possibly with reason, that the Germans would use a request for a truce as propaganda to magnify the effect of their victory. In any case, even if he disagreed with the settled policy of his chiefs, he could not disobey their orders or even temporise, unless he was prepared to go back to his country and—at the risk of raising internal dissension in a perilous time—justify his action before its people.



The book is available as a PDF here: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1416847


Les Carlyon in The Great War, pp.94-5 wrote:



McCay’s headquarters (we don't know for certain McCay was there) refused the German proposal and also to have put an end to the unofficial truce. According to Miles, wounded men were lifted off stretchers in no-man's land as their would-be rescuers hurried back to the Australian line. In the Australian official history Bean writes himself into a tangle to exonerate McCay over this incident, and one must wonder what he is trying to do and why. Bean worshipped Brudenell White, Birdwood's chief-of-staff, who often looked over drafts of the official history. White, in turn, was one of a handful of people who saw military virtues in McCay, and in 1940 he made the preposterous suggestion that McCay was 'greater even than Monash'. Bean noted that orders from Haig's GHQ said no negotiations were to be held with the enemy. Bean said 'a divisional general could hardly be blamed for rigid adherence to the orders of the commander chief.' Bean surely knew that such orders were not that rigid.


Robin Corfield's Don't forget me, cobber, published the definitive account of Fromelles. Corfield says of McCay:


With about half of his division dead or wounded, on a stretch easily accessible to stretcher-bearers, and with the battle lost, think that the General in charge of the 5th Australian Division cared, or even fought a corner for his troops. He might, had he charity, be seen to at least to show posterity that he tried. McCay cared about nobody but himself ever: and all he is that two British generals later approved!


And later: 'It was McCay's neglect of the thousands of his men who lay dead, dying, wounded in no-man's land in those summer that forms the most damning case against him. Hundreds of others risked their lives to bring in the wounded, and many died at this work. Nothing can pardon McCay for that neglect. Nothing.'


Bean sent a draft of his Fromelles chapters to Brigadier-General Sr James Edmonds, the British official historian, for comment. 'The mistake made,' Edmonds wrote, 'was asking permission to arrange local suspension of arms. Many such suspensions were made, e.g., even during the battle of Loos, when, near Hulluch, both sides bound up and removed wounded. There was another on 3rd May 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux for half an hour.'




Edited by BFBSM
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  • 1 year later...

Previous answers to this question have captured the essence of the problem re recovery of the wounded from no man’s land. This aspect of the aftermath of the fighting on 19/20th July 1916 is covered in Fromelles 1916 (History Press, 2007 and second edition in 2010) with a number of references to primary sources.

Maj Gen James McCay was indeed very unpopular for not permitting a truce to recover the wounded and undoubtedly this factor contributed to his nickname amongst the AIF of ‘Butcher’ McCay and, one would assume, to his non-appearance at post-war reunions of units within the 5th (Australian) Division.

Chapter 12 ‘A Fearful Price’ distinguishes between the events in each divisional sector. In 61st Division's line, men of 2/5 Glosters were given the task of recovery of wounded and it appears the enemy co-operated. The account of Australians Pte Miles and Major Murdoch (29th Bn) is also recounted as is McCay’s instruction that “no intercourse was to be allowed under any circumstances nor could the flag of truce be entertained” (WO95 3527). The 61st Division faced a section of no man’s land that was about 120 yards wide whereas the AIF brigades had up to 400 yards before they reached the enemy wire; this, and cooperation by the enemy, may also explain why proportionately more Imperial troops may have been recovered.

AWM 38 Diary 243 B contains correspondence between Charles Bean and Major Murdoch which confirms the prohibition on truces and how McCay heard about one being negotiated but would not permit it to go ahead. Inevitably, many wounded were recovered and the Cobbers statute commemorates this deed sofar as the Australians were concerned.

Conversely, there were accounts of the enemy troops shooting or bombing wounded troops but that was not unique to Fromelles.

By the way just to pre-empt any queries about his name, McCay variously appears as McCay, MCay and M’Cay though his biography (Christopher Wray, Sir James Whiteside McCay – A Turbulent Life [Oxford University Press, 2002]) uses McCay which seems a valid benchmark.

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  • 5 weeks later...

Have just come across the source in WO95 3527 cited in my previous entry here - it gives a bit more detail:

Extract from WO95 3527 General Staff dated 21st July 1916 “Major Murdoch 29th Battalion spoke to a Bavarian officer this morning from NML. The officer told him we could collect our wounded if we first put up a flag of truce and sent out an officer blindfolded to enemy trenches. General Tivey rang up General Staff Branch who referred the question to GOC Division. Gen Godley commanding [??] was present and he rang up [??]. The MGGS telephoned about 10 minutes later that no intercourse was to be allowed under any circumstances nor could a flag of truce be entertained. Gen Tivey was informed by telephone and the question dropped. However, the Germans appeared to give our stretcher parties a good chance of collecting the wounded provided they did not expose themselves very prominently.”


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