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By Paul Cobb
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Paul Cobb
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Lawyers, Bakers and Drapers
In early 1916 French army commanders urged the British High Command to launch an offensive to ease the burden on their sector of the Western Front. The location selected was the front occupied by the British Fourth Army. Weeks of intense preparation culminated in the Battle of the Somme – a 'big push' that would last 143 days. The first day, 1 July 1916, resulted in some 60,000 casualties sustained within a few hours of the infantry attack commencing. The next couple of weeks proved to be marginally more successful but to impede German resistance it was necessary to stop redeployment of resources from further north, in particular the Lille–Lens area.
A number of trench raids had been carried out in other sectors but an instruction was sent to the commanders of the First, Second and Third Armies to renew their efforts so that German units on their front might remain in position. An additional requirement was that the artillery should be economical with ammunition to ensure that the main offensive on the Somme would not be deprived of sufficient firepower.
The manpower supply on the Western Front would now also be improved. In Egypt, after withdrawal from Gallipoli, two Australian divisions had been divided and strengthened to make four divisions and another, the 3 Division, had been formed in Australia. Sailing to Marseilles from late March 1916 onwards, these troops had made the long journey by train to northern France and were now ready to take part in offensive operations.
Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British forces on the Western Front, had also ordered the other army commanders to draw up plans for more substantial attacks in case the Germans were overwhelmed on the Somme. An optimistic appraisal of the Somme offensive was provided on 12 July by Lieutenant-General Sir Launcelot Kiggell, Haig's Chief of Staff, who stated that 'steady progress is being made', though he did acknowledge that 'heavy rains, and consequent difficulties of ground, in addition to the strength and depth of the enemy's defences, have rendered rapid progress impossible and have enabled the enemy to gain time to recover from his first confusion and disorganisation – which were considerable'. Kiggell was 'confident of breaking through ... in the near future and inflicting a heavy defeat'.
General Sir Herbert Plumer, the very capable GOC Second Army, had made the requirement for seeking suitable locations for offensive action quite clear to his corps commanders on 3 July, but repeated it two days later when it was learned that the 13 Jager Battalion had been moved to the Somme vacating their position in the line opposite II Anzac Corps. Until now this corps had consisted of the New Zealand Division, and the 4 and the 5 Australian Divisions, the latter having only very recently arrived in northern France. Lt-Gen Sir Alexander Godley, the corps commander, now lost the 4 Australian Division, which was being sent to the Somme in readiness for the fighting around Pozieres.
More raids gallantly executed by the New Zealand troops were believed to have had negligible effect. Action on a far larger scale where enemy reserves were limited thus appeared to be the only real opportunity to meet Haig's requirements. Plumer's Second Army discounted an attack in the Messines Ridge area – this sector's turn would come in a spectacular way in June 1917 – or Ypres, where circumstances were not yet suited to an attack on the scale required by Haig. At the southernmost extremity of the Second Army, where it had joined the First Army at a point in the low-lying fields below the village of Fromelles, the Germans held their front line far more lightly than elsewhere on this army's front. The source of this plan, according to Australian historian Charles Bean writing in Reveille in June 1931, was General Sir Richard Haking, GOC XI Corps, who had 'suggested to his Army Commander that there existed on his front a prominent German salient, the "Sugar Loaf" near Fromelles, which offered, in his opinion, a favourable chance of capture'. Haking's view does not take into account the events in May 1915.
This very location below Aubers Ridge, in May 1915, had witnessed a singularly unsuccessful attack, a pincer movement on the enemy line, at the same time as the French attacked in the Vimy Ridge area. It was a disaster and cost three divisions some ten thousand casualties. Haking's new scheme, proposed to General Monro, was for a joint Second and First Army breakthrough in the Aubers Ridge area. With so many divisions committed to the Somme offensive, Haig's divisions to undertake any operation on Aubers Ridge were likely to include troops new to the Western Front. The two destined to carry out Haking's plan were the 61 (2 South Midland) Division and the 5 Australian Division.
The first of these, the 61 Division, was a second-line or reserve division that did not exist until 31 August 1914. While the formation was based in Northampton it was part of First Army, Central Force; in April 1915 the 1 (South Midland) Division, the corresponding first-line imperial service unit, left Chelmsford bound for France, and so the 2 (South Midland) Division moved to Essex as part of Third Army, Central Force. In February/March 1916 the division moved to Salisbury Plain and preparations for warfare in France and Flanders intensified. Their GOC, Major-General Colin Mackenzie, was appointed on 4 February 1916, Brigadier-General A.F. Gordon of 182 Brigade on 13 February, followed by Brig-Gen C.G. Stewart (183 Brigade) and Brig-Gen C.H.P. Carter (184 Brigade) on 3 and 7 May 1916 respectively.
The battalions within the division recruited from an area of England around Birmingham, the Malverns, the Cotswolds and the Chilterns. For example, 2/5 Btn, Gloucestershire Regiment was formed in early September 1914 as a second-line battalion of 1/5 Gloucesters by Lt Col the Hon A.B. Bathurst and was designated as a Home Service Battalion. Like so many new units, membership overwhelmed the supply of uniforms and for a while its recruits wore a square of white silk inscribed '2/5th Glosters' to indicate that a man had joined up. Recruits came from a variety of backgrounds; 2/5 Gloucesters claimed that its personnel included 'members of Parliament, lawyers, bakers, accountants, drapers, musicians, conjurers, butchers, sugar magnates, farm labourers and artisans of every sort'. Similarly, 2/8 Royal Warwicks recorded that a large number of their new soldiers came from Saltley College and from Birmingham Tramways.
On 24 May the division left for France from Southampton aboard HMT 861, landing the following day at Le Havre. The Laventie sector was to provide their first taste of the front line in France and Flanders; eight casualties in the first week was a mere hint of things to come. Laventie, the main base of 61 Division at this time, was described by Major Christie-Miller as 'not a wholly wrecked town but had been a good deal knocked about. The church had been demolished and a convent or school adjoining it with a good many buildings but there was quite a sprinkling of fairly complete houses.'
While Mackenzie's division was preparing for the Western Front the formation of the 5 Australian Division was also underway, not in their home territory but midway to Europe, in Egypt.
With the evacuation from the Gallipoli peninsula completed the AIF could now concentrate upon its recuperation and expansion in Egypt. The 1 and 2 Divisions and 4 Infantry Brigade had returned from the Dardanelles, and in Egypt they joined the 8 Bde plus several thousand reinforcements. These fresh troops, mainly infantry and Light Horsemen, were to expand the two existing divisions into four, the two new ones being numbered 4 and 5 Divisions; the 3 Division was already being created in Australia. As well as the infantry battalions, other parts of the division were also formed including the artillery, the engineers, medical services and transport. A commander was on his way from Australia, Major-General the Hon James Whiteside McCay.
Despite the attractions of foreign parts, for some Egypt was a desolate spot. Robert Fulton, now in 53 Btn, wrote to his sister: 'we are in a very lonely part of the globe at present. We are in the trenches in Egypt, defending the canal. It does not take much defending either, I have not seen a Turk yet, and I don't think we are very likely to either'. With the urgent need for troops on the Western Front, the transfer started of a substantial part of the Australian Imperial Force from Egypt to France. The long transfer from the desert to the green fields of Picardy started with a train journey, a 150-mile trip from Moascar to Alexandria taking at least eight hours. The majority of the 5 Division left Egypt between 16 and 23 June 1916; some of the ships put in at Malta, but all eventually arrived in Marseilles where the troops disembarked wearing their new uniforms designed for cooler climates.
From Marseilles it would require about thirty trains to move the men and a couple of dozen to transport the equipment to their destination many miles to the north. Paris was 530 miles away and the railhead at Hazebrouck was a further 150 miles. The scenery along the way contrasted vividly not just with the deserts of Egypt but also with some of the more barren parts of Australia. The 53 Btn, known as 'The Whale Oil Guards', had their journey recorded by the Roman Catholic Chaplain Fr J.J. Kennedy, who wrote:
... our eyes feasted on the loveliness ... beautifully cultivated farms, magnificent chateaus, serpentine rivers, castled crags, gray old towns with their old-time cathedrals and abbeys, picture succeeded picture and out-rivalled it in beauty ... the towns ... were old and historic; Avignon, once the refuge of exiled Popes, Tresancon, Orange, and many other places of interest. Everywhere along the way the people cheered us and blessed us.
The 8 Brigade eventually detrained at Morbeque on 26 June, the 14 at Thiennes four days later and the 15 Brigade at Steenbecque on 27 June. McCay's division was now located close to Mackenzie's, and as Haking's plan to relieve the troops fighting on the Somme gathered momentum, the severest of tests approached.CHAPTER 2
An Adequate Supply of Guns
On 8 July at a conference of his corps commanders, Sir Charles Monro (Army Commander) stated that the battle of the Somme was 'progressing favourably' but an operation was required on the front held by the First and Second Armies near Laventie. Monro instructed Haking to develop his plans on the understanding that his corps would go into action in conjunction with one division from the neighbouring Second Army as well as some additional artillery. On this same day the 4 Australian Division was instructed to move south to the Somme but was ordered to leave behind its artillery. At this time Haking's XI Corps was holding the line from south-west of Cambrin (south of the La Bassée Canal) to Laventie, the point where the First and Second Armies joined. If the attack was to go ahead, it presented the possibility that Haking could lose the same battle twice.
Considering the lack of success of British attacks on the Western Front in 1915 and thus far in 1916, Haking's enhanced plan, that he put to Monro the following day, was ambitious. His scheme was intended to capture a section of the Aubers–Fromelles ridge a mile or so behind the German front line from which the British had withdrawn in late October 1914; the attack would be a two-division assault on a front of 4,200 yards. Monro rejected it. According to Brig-Gen Harold Elliott (OC 15 Bde) in an address to the RSSILA,'Monro, however, turned down this proposal in favour of an attack in the Vimy Ridge Sector, later carried out by the Canadians, as being more likely to be of use to Haig, being much nearer the Somme'.
Circumstances soon caused the resurrection of a variation of Haking's plan. Progress in capturing enemy-held territory on the Somme had been slower than expected and a number of German battalions had arrived on the Somme from the Lille area. The General Staff was of the opinion that an 'artillery demonstration' for a period of some three days on a front of 15,000 yards on the First and Second Army fronts would convince the Germans that a significant offensive was about to be launched.
On 13 July Monro informed Haking that the GOC Second Army would place a division at the disposal of the First Army for an offensive operation in the Picantin area on the boundary of the two armies. A senior officers' conference took place that day at Chocques. In attendance were Haig's deputy chief of the general staff, Major-General Sir R.H.K. Butler, accompanied by Major H. Howard, Major-General Sir G. Barrow and Major-General C. Harington, chiefs-of-staff of the First and Second Armies respectively, as well as the army commander Sir Charles Monro and Colonel Wilson of GHQ First Army. It was agreed that each army could provide not only sufficient artillery for a demonstration but also three divisions, two from the First Army and one from the Second Army, for infantry participation in a scheme based upon Haking's plan. Haking would be in charge of the whole operation.
Butler then met Sir Herbert Plumer at La Motte-au-Bois (II Anzac Corps HQ) at 4.30p.m. where Plumer expressed his overall approval of the scheme. A further conference was held attended by Plumer, Godley, Harington, Franks, Gwynn, Howard and Butler to discuss some of the detail. It was agreed that the divisional artillery of five to six divisions was to be collected at the junction of First and Second Armies; wire cutting would commence on the morning of 14 July with whatever guns were available and others would join the bombardment once they had moved into position; and the infantry attack was to take place about 17 July 'with a view to seizing and holding the German front system of trenches'.
A First Army order (No. 100) issued on the 15 July confirmed the overall purpose of the action:
... to prevent the enemy from moving troops southwards to take part in the main battle. For this purpose the preliminary operations, so far as it is possible, will give the impression of an impending offensive operation on a large scale, and the bombardment which commenced on the morning of the 14th inst. will be continued with increasing intensity up till the moment of the assault.
As well as the troops moving into the front trenches on 12 July, Major-General McCay was also taking over the accommodation occupied by his predecessor in a chateau in Sailly-sur-la-Lys a short distance behind the front line. On the morning of the 13 July he travelled to La Motte-au-Bois to be informed that no sooner had they settled into their new positions than his division was to be placed on loan to Haking's XI Corps of the First Army. McCay seemed pleased that his division, so recently arrived in France, was about to become the first Australian division to participate in a significant action on the Western Front.
McCay was given details of the plan for an attack on enemy lines in fulfilment of Haig's instructions. The plan at this stage was to assault and capture approximately 6,000 yards of the enemy's front line lying below the northern slopes of Aubers Ridge; the north-easternmost point was opposite the site of a religious settlement (now identified by a monument by the side of the lane) marked as 'La Boutillerie' on trench maps, while the extreme right of the proposed battlefield was to be the country lane running between the hamlets of Fauquissart, on the British side of the line, and Trivelet on the German side.
Initially three divisions were allocated for the attack. The 5 Australian Division and the British 61 (2 South Midland) Division were to be joined by the British 31 Division; the latter occupied the section of line from La Cordonnerie, to the right of the Australians, to a point opposite the Sugar Loaf Salient, located on the left of the 61 Division. This operation was deemed within the capability of all three divisions but none were believed to be of sufficient strength or capability to be sent into action on the Somme. The Australians were freshly arrived from Egypt, the 31 Division had already received a mauling on the Somme, and the 61 Division was a recently arrived second-line Territorial division which had already lost a number of its men through transfers to other divisions.
At this juncture the chosen day was 17 July, but no sooner had McCay been informed of this than Haking discovered to his dismay that only two divisions' worth of artillery (4 and 5 Australian Divisions) had been allocated to him by the Second Army rather than the three he was expecting. Three further factors compounded his predicament: the shortcomings in training and battle experience of the Australian gunners, the fact that the 5 Australian Division had no trained 2-inch mortar personnel, and a much reduced supply of shells. Consequently, the front was reduced to a section running from the Fauquissart–Trivelet road to Delangre Farm. This narrowing of the front appears to be the basis of the corps commander's opinion that he had adequate artillery.
Excerpted from Fromelles 1916 by Paul Cobb. Copyright © 2012 Paul Cobb. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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