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Remembered Today:

Fromelles


Mat McLachlan
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Hi all,

This topic has been touched on in other threads, but I wanted to raise it in one spot and gauge the reaction of the other forum members. I'd encourage everyone, old forum members and new, to throw their two cents worth in.

Since the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles in 2006, there has been a wave of indignation in Australia about this 'forgotten' battle. There's been suggestions that the whole thing was a massive cover-up, that it's been deliberately left out of history books and that some sinister movement was afoot in the 20s and 30s to ensure the battle didn't appear on our war memorials. The publishing of Patrick Lindsay's Fromelles last year added fuel to the fire, and work done by the group who have potentially uncovered the mass grave has also carried this 'cover-up' angle as a sideline to their story.

My take is this:

1. The battle was a monumental stuff-up, but there certainly doesn't seem to be much of a cover-up. Bean went straight to the site on November 11, 1918 and dedicated 120 pages of the Official History to the battle. Not bad, considering those pages only cover a 24-hour period.

2. It's true that Fromelles doesn't often appear on war memorials but, then again, massive defeats rarely do. It should be strongly noted that the most important memorial to the men who were there, the 5th Division Memorial at Polygon Wood in Belgium, lists Fromelles as the first battle honour. I also thought that under post-war nomenclature, Fromelles was usually grouped under the Battle of the Somme (because it took place at the height of that battle, and its intention was to prevent the Germans sending reinforcements south to the Somme). Therefore, any time we see 'Somme' listed on a war memorial, the creators of the war memorial intended that the term encompass many hundreds of actions, Fromelles included, that took place over a large area between July and November 1916.

3. VC Corner Cemetery (and its memorial to the missing of the Battle of Fromelles) has stood smack-bang in the middle of the Fromelles battlefield since the 1920s, and the Australian Memorial Park opened there in 1998. The museum in the town hall at Fromelles has also been there for decades. Point being, anyone who has visited the site since about 1925, and especially in the last 10-20 years, would see a number of monuments and memorials remembering the conflict. Additionally, historians have been writing about the battle since the end of the war. Knyvett gives the battle a whole chapter in his Over there with the Australians and that was published in 1918. Laffin called the battle one of the 'seven essential battlefields' for Australian visitors in his guidebook, first published in 1994. Robin Corfield's outstanding Don't forget me, Cobber was published in 2000 and I can't recall an AIF history published at any time that didn't include the battle. Point being, anyone who has read practically anything about the Australians on the Western Front would find reference to the battle.

4. Gallipoli is such a dominant battle in the Australian psyche that there's not much room for anything else. People's lack of knowledge about Fromelles is representative of their lack of knowledge about the Western Front in general. The people crying out "why didn't we learn about Fromelles in school" also didn't learn about Polygon Wood, Pozieres, Bullecourt, Mont St Quentin or any of a score of other famous Aussie battles - and there's no suggestion that any of those have been 'covered up'.

5. Dare I say it, but the whole 'forgotten' battle of Fromelles angle is a really effective way of getting the press and public interested in the topic. Nothing generates publicity like a good scandal, and this means that books get sold and governments start taking notice of you when you campaign to have a French farmers field dug up.

The whole cover-up issue is really starting to grate on me. There was an article in yesterday's Age newspaper about a re-cast of the 'Cobbers' statue from Fromelles being erected in Melbourne. No bad thing, but the story once again pushed the forgotten battle angle pretty hard. I also note that Patrick Lindsay is doing the rounds unashamedly pushing this angle. His latest presentation is actually called 'Fromelles: The AIF's Mystery Battle'.

I'm all for the battle being remembered, but when it reaches the point where, in our efforts to redress a cover-up that never existed in the first place, we start skewing history and ignoring the other important battles of the Western Front, it's time to say enough is enough.

I'd appreciate your feedback.

Cheers,

Mat

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Hi Mat

I had been starting to wonder over the continued use of the word 'forgotten' to describe Fromelles. I could understand it when Robin Corfield wrote his definitive history of the battle as at the time Gallipoli was all you seemed to hear about from the media about WW1; but for authors to continue to use the term is strange.

In the last few years we have had books by Paul Cobb, Lindsay & the battlefield guide by Peter Pedersen plus continued coverage of the mass grave at Pheseant Wood so It's hardly forgotten.

From an Australian perspective has any battle (apart from the gallipoli campaign) seen more books written about it?

We've had Pozieres by Peter Charlton (and even he touched on Fromelles) but how about for other battles like Flers in Nov 1916, the Battle of Bullecourt in April & May 1917, Messines & Third Ypres, The Battle of Amiens 1918...................

Plus like you say the post war unit histories of the 5th Division units all mentioned Fromelles, as did Ellis's work on the 5th Division; not to forget the personal accounts that came out like 'There and Back' by Tiveychoc & Hugh Knyvett's 'Over There' With The Australians.

Possibly in the post war period, it wasn't covered as much as Pozieres as three Australian divisions were involved in Pozieres while only the 5th were involved at Fromelles.

Cheers

Andrew

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The whole cover-up issue is really starting to grate on me.

Since the end of World War II, the line pushed by most of the world's academics and many historians is that all western democracies are corrupt, warmongering, dishonest, secretive, incompetent, racist, bumbling, murderous, and engaged in endless conspiracies.

There's no better way to sell books or get on TV than to allege cover ups by governments of western democracies.

The citizens of western democracies have an apparently insatiable appetite for books, documentaries, and pundits that tell them they live in utter sewers of dark machinations and unfathomable evil.

It's a form of mass mental illness.

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Mat,

Well said. I agree entirely with you.

I can recall first reading of the battle in the 1950's in an Australian War Memorial publication Australian Chivalry dated 1933 which accompanies a painting of the battle by Charles Wheeler. The heading is "A Costly Demonstration" and there is no evidence of a "cover up" making the point it was a failure and cost us between "five and six thousand casualties". Other books have been written that portray the battle and the shambles it was without sensationalizing any of the issues the "cover up" protagonists raise and one has to wonder what the mystery is and what is being covered up. We have known for years that the battle was a disaster, the losses unacceptably heavy and that the dead who were within the German lines were buried in a mass grave by the Germans. Perhaps, a new generation of sensationalist historians and enthusiasts seeking to make their mark and have their day in the sun?

Cheers

Chris

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I'd have to agree that the references to Fromelles being the 'forgotten battle' are a little erroneous - especially in recent times. Although I don't think Fromelles is necessarily the first name most Australians think of in terms of Western Front battlefields, it's no more forgotten than some others.

However, I'd be mindful of the difference between references to the battle and those about the missing soldiers. It's fair to say that the battle itself may not be forgotten but it can arguably be suggested that the missing soldiers in Pheasant Wood have been largely ignored until now. Perhaps several of the media/author idea of calling the battle 'forgotten' is intended to be a reference to the missing soldiers rather than the battle in a historical sense. Without those who have drawn public attention to the possible grave in Pheasant Wood, the whole effort to now confirm it's existence and recover remains would likely never have happened.

Forgotten battle - no. Forgotten missing - well that's a whole other story.

Cheers,

Tim L.

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Good points Tim, and I want to be clear that I'm not casting dispersions on the good work being done by Lambis, et al, on the excavation of Pheasant Wood. I just don't see why there is this perpetual need to refer to Fromelles as somehow 'missing' from the historical record. It's simply not true.

Mat

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Sticking my head up out of a shell hole here ... don't blast me please :P

"Forgotten" is Broodseinde as opposed to Fromelles :)

I guess it was small and insignificant to many.

Bright Blessings

Sandra

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Thanks Mat,

I didn't think you were having a go at those involved in the search for the missing. However, I think some of those you mention are making their 'forgotten' point in reference to the missing and not the battle itself. That's why I felt it important to distinguish between the two school's of thought.

I also read the Age article and other than a couple of personal thoughts by the sculptor quoted in the article, I didn't think they pushed the 'forgotten' line terribly hard. In fact I don't think the word 'forgotten' was used anywhere. The quotes by Peter Corlett I refer to are:

"Corlett....hopes the statue will provide some recognition for those who lost their lives in the muddy fields of Fromelles"

"...because the nation was still in such shock about what happened in Gallipoli, there was a policy of the government to play down the disaster at Fromelles"

The first quote certainly implies a lack of recognition for the battle however the second appears to be discussing the immediate government reaction at the time rather than any post-war cover-up. Either way I didn't think it was too over the top about it.

What I did find annoying about the article was their claim, "...disasterous battle in July 1916 that killed more than 5500 Australian soldiers in little over 24 hours." When will people learn the difference between 'killed' and 'casualties'!!!

Cheers,

Tim L.

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Matt.

I believe the key aspect is that only the Fifth Division was involved. As you point out the "Battle" was covered adequately in all books dealing with that Division or its component Battalions. My pet hate is that the Fifth is described as "Green" whereas it had precicely the same percentage of Gallipoli and ANMEF veterans as did the First.

But you are right as to the revisionists trying to muddy the waters about cover ups intrigue etc.

Mary AKA Pat

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If its a cover up it must be one of the most ineffective ever! As Mat has already alluded to, in the area of Fromelles itself the Australian involvement is obvious and the Association that commemorates the battles at Fromelles has a large memorial service on 19th July (with a lower key event to commemorate the 1915 battles).

If it is a forgotten battlefield for anyone it is for the British army - the casualties on 9th May 1915 were almost twice those on 19th July 1916 (if I have read the articles on the main site correctly). But, apart from Gallipoli, the 1915 battles are much less known in general.

Neil

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I would say that the British soldiers are the ones that are forgotton at Fromelles, everyone puts emphasis on the Aussies forgetting our own chaps. Yes, I know it was a massacre for the Aussies, buts lets remember all who died there.

In 1914 my Gt Grandfather was killed in Fromelles and no record of the battles that occured then. Maybe, not a lot written as the war was supposed to be over by christmas.

There will be a brand new musuem opening in Fromelles in the next two to three years, which is going to open more frequently than the existing one. Looking forward to it.

LizM

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Sorry - I had not read the Long Long Trail correctly!!

The cassualties for the 9th May 1915 attack were almost twice those of the 1916 attack only if you combine the figures for the northern and southern attacks. The northern attack around Fromelles on its own lost slightly less men than the 1916 attack.

Neil

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Actually Mat,

I've been thinking your question through a little more and believe there is an argument to be made regarding Fromelles being 'forgotten'. Personally I think the word is incorrect, however I honestly don't think Fromelles occupies it's rightful place in Australian history.

If we ignore the 'romaticism' of Gallipoli which gives it it's rightful place in our history and discuss susequent events only, I'd say Fromelles occupies a lower rung of importance than it deserves. (although not low enough to be considered forgotten). It's very timely that the Sydney has just been discovered and perhaps if we compare the two events my point might make a little sense. The 'mystery' surrounding the sinking of the Sydney and the loss of over 600 sailors has long been high on the list of events in Australian military history and is publicly well known. However Fromelles, the greatest night of disaster in Australian military history, has never attracted that same kind of public awareness.

That being said, I don't subscribe to any theory of a cover it up, just that for some reason it hasn't gained the Australian publics attention the way it probably should.

Cheers,

Tim L.

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I've a copy of Volume 3 of the Australian Official History, which covers 1916. I'll have a look at it tonight and see what mention of Fromelles there is.

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Too many deaths in such a short time? Gallipoli had an impact because it was the blooding?

The way in which battles were reported? Don't want to upset the folks at home when looking for more men to enlist?

Just some questions that come to mind?

After Gallipoli, a cooling off period, by the media until Passchendaele and Villiers?

Not forgotten, understudied?

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Try Googling it - doing that shows loads of references and thoughts. Hardly forgotten or covered up.

I tried the following words in Google and got these hits:

disaster at fromelles = 1 780

australians at fromelles = 18 200

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Have to start by saying I'm not particularly familiar with the details of Fromelles but I have seen it referred to as the 'forgotten' but don't you think that generally some battles seemed to have grabbed the attention more than others irrespective of victories or defeats? Makes you wonder what else was going on in the news at the time. Dare I say it but by 1916 maybe some of the people back home were war news fatigued and the coverage didn't get the time or space it deserved. Same thing happens today. Then because it wasn't fixed in the public imagination at the time it somehow gets lost. Our modern world seems to thrive on 'conspiracy theories' - JFK, moon landing, Princesss Di to name but a memorable few and as the interest in Great War grows, stands to reason all the theories will grow too.

Big example here in Ireland when its only in recent years that 2 whole divisions are being properly recognised but bit different in that politics are involved, nuff said, but seriously how can you ignore 2 whole divisions??

If the headlines get the whole thing back in public gaze, maybe no bad thing so long as there are those to counter theories with facts.

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Thanks for all the comments so far. I agree entirely with the suggestion that the battle hasn't received the attention it deserves, but I think this could apply to the whole Western Front in general (and I'm talking from an Aussie point of view here). If you were to sample a random group of Aussies and they had heard of Broodseinde, Mont St Quentin, Hamel, Flers, Dernancourt and Polygon Wood, but NOT Fromelles, I'd suggest there was something fishy going on. But I reckon you'd have to look long and hard to find an average Joe who has heard of ANY of those places.

Lack of knowledge about Fromelles = lack of knowledge about the Western Front.

Moving on from this, it would be great if the publicity that Fromelles is generating makes people keen to learn more about the Western Front in its entirety (and I'm sure this is occurring). But there also seems to be an element that wants to commemorate Fromelles singularly. I'd hate to see a situation where people's knowledge of the First AIF encapsulates Gallipoli, Fromelles and little else.

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I have always taken VC Corner and the Australian Memorial with the marvellous Diggers statue to be as much for Fromelles as anything else. The battles in that area were very close together. It is almost impossible to walk the area and keep Aubers, Neuve Chapelle, Festubert and Fromelles separate. I guess, an hour's walk would cover all of them. They certainly overlapped at the edges. There is a very good book from the Battleground Europe series devoted to it. I think it is stretching things to describe Fromelles as forgotten.

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I would say that the British soldiers are the ones that are forgotton at Fromelles, everyone puts emphasis on the Aussies forgetting our own chaps. Yes, I know it was a massacre for the Aussies, buts lets remember all who died there.

In 1914 my Gt Grandfather was killed in Fromelles and no record of the battles that occured then. Maybe, not a lot written as the war was supposed to be over by christmas.

There will be a brand new musuem opening in Fromelles in the next two to three years, which is going to open more frequently than the existing one. Looking forward to it.

LizM

Hi Liz

Robin Corfield's history of the Fromelles Battle 'Don't Forget Me Cobber' does cover the previous attacks at Fromelles as well as the experiences of the British 61st Division which was alongside the 5th Australian Division. It also covers the view of the battle from the German perspective.

This was one book which definately deserved a much wider print run or another reprint.

Cheers

Andrew

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From my 'lets count the number of visitors' standpoint,I'd class Festubert as not only forgotten but just another French hamlet that may have had something to do with the war & maybe there is a memorial there...

Now,for those of us with family there,its obviously different.

Same goes for Fromelles.If as many Aussies died there as at the 16 Somme battle mentioned,why do more Australians visit the Thiepval region rather than Fromelles ?

Not all visitors are looking for uncle Albert.

Bullecourt has had a huge rising in popularity with visiting antipodeans largely due to Jean Letaille & a couple of very good books that have pointed visitors towards one of the most historic Aussie WW1 sites.

Any book on a non 'touristique' spot is very good news to me.

Fromelles?Its not forgotten at all,its just less popular to the visitors who have read half a book in their lives & think they know Frances WW1 history.

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Matt

I agree the concept of a cover up is grating, for as you say the details have always been there. As others have pointed out, for years Fromelles is just one of numerous battles that have been ignored by a public that thought that the First World War was mainly about Gallipoli.

I suspect the cover up angle served a useful purpose in getting the story into the media in the first place as lets face it a conspiracy is so much more interesting than a case of historical amnesia. The fact that individuals can point out that Fromelles is not listed on some war memorials (while ignoring the fact that dozens of others actions are similarly uncommemorated) just seems to confirm the conspiracy angle. Unfortunately it has now got a level of acceptance by a media that has at best a patchy understanding of WW1 and who think, or want to believe this is the truth.

Im certainly not criticising the groups that have been behind the push to have the Pheasant Wood site investigated for taking this line as I think they have done a fabulous job of getting a difficult subject into the public conciseness and the Government to do something. In fact the name Fromelles I suspect currently has a higher recognition by the Australian public than just about any western front battle apart from the amorphous Somme and Passachendale.

The only real mystery is what is in the pits and hopefully we will find that out soon.

Tim B

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Mates,

I tend to agree I can find no cover up or Forgotten as reguards to this battle.

I fact the only known cover up was of the leadership of General McKay the Austrailan commander of the 5th Div by Bean and others.

Cornstalk covers most of the story behind the sceans of which we all know?

The term Forgotton War is also used to that of Korea but I can say in our family in which my dad served, Korea was never forgotten.

Purhaps the word overlooked would be better when we just came out of the ten years in Vietnam and the six years of WWII the two to three years in Korea seem small as were our forces there when compered to other conficts, but then again It wouldn't sell as well by the media.

S.B

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Im certainly not criticising the groups that have been behind the push to have the Pheasant Wood site investigated for taking this line (My emphasis)

Sorry Tim, but I do.

I don't think there is any excuse for falsifying events or claiming a "cover up" simply to get your own way. I think such an approach is scurrilous. One of the protagonists has misrepresented the views of at least one person simply to gain publicity for the project. One should be able to argue a case without resorting to conspiracy theories, cover up, misrepresentation, etc. All they do is add to a body of allegations and sensationalism that have no basis of fact. As such they don't deserve to be given even a modicum of credibility or respect if they take such a line.

I find it quite morbid that a very small minority of people, most of whom have no connection with the men who are missing, want to dig these bodies up. Are we just satisfying the minority's curiosity? At least one person I know who has a relative missing from the battle is not impressed with their efforts or the approach they are taking. In fact, others view their efforts as self serving, so we shouldn't assume that the exhumation of the bodies is a well supported view.

Can't we let the guys rest in peace and create a cemetery at Pheasant Wood without disturbing the 500 odd bodies believed to be there, rather than pushing to satisfy the curiosity of a few Great War enthusiasts?

Chris

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Mates

The nature of "conspiracy" is relative to time and place with the emphasis upon the respective audience.

If we wish to make a case for a conspiracy of silence, one could be made for the period prior to the conclusion of the Great War. Let me illustrate. Here is the front page story in the New York Times of 22 July 1916:

http://tinyurl.com/39gosv

This is an accurate summary of the Battle of Fromelles, even down to the casualty count. We can conclude that the source, the German military information bureau, put quite a deal of effort into producing the story which was picked up by the New York Times. It will be of no surprise to see that no newspaper in Australia picked up the story at all. Not a squeak between 1916-19. Other battles are mentioned but the name Fromelles is absent.

Do we make a conclusion that, in Australia during this period, there was a conspiracy of silence? Or how would you characterise this period where there is an absence of information? Bear in mind that since this information was published and freely available in the USA so there were no military secrets to hide. It was not as if mentioning Fromells was somehow going to give the Germans information they didn't have and thus grant them an additional advantage on the battlefield.

One could see how the term "conspiracy" can be applied to the management of information regarding Fromelles during this time period.

After the Great War, as has been pointed out, Bean devoted 120 pages to the battle and is far from flattering regarding McKay although constrained by political problems experienced by him at the time. So this does not appear to be a conspiracy. Historical neglect can never be equated to conspiracy.

Then we come to the proposed dig. From the information I have received, I am under the impression that this is a mass grave containing not only Australians but also British soldiers numbering some 500 men. Also I am informed that the British Government is opposed to the dig. There are economic and social problems attached to this activity which forms the basis of the opposition.

Personally I agree with Chris in his sentiments on this matter. There is nothing to be gained by the excavation.

Cheers

Bill

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