Australia’s Darkest Hour – The Battle of Fromelles I THE GREAT WAR – Week 104


You have plans. Specific plans for a limited
specific battle, and you’re prepared for it. But the big day draws near and as it does,
you expand those plans, and expand them again until they are now the realm of fantasy. Careful,
because once you begin planning fantasies in wartime, you can only be disappointed. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. The Battle of the Somme continued last week,
though it was now a large and dizzying collection of small, uncoordinated assaults. The Germans
tried again and failed again at Verdun, and the Russians took a bunch more ground before
finally being halted at the Stockhod River. Here’s what came next on the world’s battlefields. Well, on a battlefield north of the Somme
there was a diversion this week. On the 19th at Fromelles with Australian troops.
Many of these men had fought last summer, autumn, and winter at Gallipoli, but this
was their first offensive action on the Western Front. The idea was to prevent the Germans
from sending reinforcements down to the Somme. Thing is, General Harold Elliott, known as
Pompey, was alarmed by the strength of the German defenses at Fromelles, and thought
the diversion would be more of a slaughter. He reported this to British Commander-in-Chief
Sir Douglas Haig along with intelligence information that the Germans were not, in fact, being
transferred to the Somme so there was no need for the attack, but the Corps commander, General
Sir Richard Haking, wanted the attack to happen anyhow, confident of success. The objective was Aubers Ridge, two miles
south of Fromelles. The attack would proceed across a low no-man’s land toward a salient
called the Sugar Loaf, which was strongly fortified by the Germans. Now, the Germans
in Fromelles had, high up in the church tower, a peephole designed for observation, and all
through the 18th they could watch the preparations for the attack, which began late in the day
on the 19th after a day long artillery barrage. But when the men went over the top it turned
out the artillery had not taken out the German machine guns. The casualties were huge and
the Sugar Loaf Salient remained in German hands, though some British and Australian
soldiers did at least manage to reach the Sugar Loaf’s outer wire. The scene was described
like this, “We found the No-mans land simply full of our dead. In the narrow sector west
of the sugar loaf salient, the skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere.
I found a bit of Australian kit lying 50 yards from the corner of the salient, and the bones
of an Australian officer and several men within 100 yards of it.” Now, that was just a brief interlude away
from the huge carnage of the Somme, but the Australians lost 1,708 men killed and almost
4,000 wounded. The British lost another 400 or so killed. German dead and wounded in total
were under 1,500. The attack was a total failure. And at the Somme itself, the attacks also
continued. As the week began, so did the fight for Delville
Wood. That battle began with the South African Brigade being ordered to take the wood. Hugh
Boustead had this to say (Gilbert), “We moved forward through an orchard in single
file, led by the platoon officer. Smith, the Second Lieutenant, got through, but the next
seven following him were shot dead in a circle of a few yards, picked off by clean shooting
without a murmur.” This whole offensive – the Battle of Bazentin
Ridge – had begun the 14th. It was to be an assault by four divisions on the enemy’s
second line between Longueval and Bazentin-le-petit wood. General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s idea.
Commander Haig thought Rawlinson would do preliminary stuff to get the front to within
a few hundred yards of the Germans, but Rawlinson thought this impractical, but this meant the
British had a no man’s land of nearly a mile of no cover to cross, which was a scenario
for disaster. But Rawlinson planned to make a night maneuver, where the divisions would
form in no man’s land undetected in the dark and close in, and then attack with the
dawn. As long as it remained undetected, it would solve the no man’s land problem, but
other night attacks, like back on the 3rd, had been detected and failed. The bombardment would be different from the
one that kicked off the battle back on the 1st; five times heavier and only against the
German front trench system; 1,000 guns on a 6km front. As the day approached, though,
the objectives were extended more and more, so from an initially modest plan to take that
one line, there were now plans to push as far as Flers and Le Sars, several miles distant
and even beyond. Rawlinson was now even planning on taking the third German line between le
Sars and Morvel. So the objective was no longer an advance of a few hundred meters on a 6
km front, but an advance of around 6 kilometers on a ten km front. Haig was actually against
the scope of this plan. It seems he was no longer as optimistic about a German collapse
as he had been last week. Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson in “The Somme”
write, “commentators have hailed the plan for July 14th as being a great advance in
tactical sophistication. It must be emphasized that a night attack in itself did not guarantee
success… only one facet of Rawlinson’s July 14th plan shows any improvement on the
first day, namely the execution of a bombardment on the front German system of a far greater
intensity than anything delivered on July 1st. Here, Rawlinson may have revealed a measure
of insight… two things tell firmly against any such notion. First… was the delusion
that that the bombardment would not only overwhelm the German front defenses, but lead to a decisive
collapse in German morale… The second is that Rawlinson… never again employed a bombardment
of the intensity of July 14th.” That last would turn out not to be entirely true, actually. But the men got in place, the attack went
off at 3:25 AM, and soon almost the entire German front trench system had fallen. This
was a major achievement. But big obstacles to further progress lay ahead. Behind the
German lines lay the three fortified towns and woods of Bazentin-le-petit, Bazentin-le-grand,
and Longueval and Delville Wood. And if these fell, High Wood on the ridge was a further
barrier. And you know what? German morale did not collapse, and Rawlinson’s large
objectives really just fantasy. He had indeed proved that the weight of his artillery could
secure the enemy’s front position, but nothing beyond that. As Peter Hart says, “the British
had indeed succeeded in breaking IN to the German system, but not in breaking THROUGH
it.” Rawlinson then had the idea of a combined
attack with the French on the 18th, which was a date French General Ferdinand Foch was
going to send his men to attack as it was, but weather postponed that. Then Rawlinson
said his men wouldn’t be ready until the 22nd, so the French went ahead and attacked
alone – and unsuccessfully – on the 20th. So the week ended there with new plans afoot
for a combined attack. And further south at Verdun, the attacks seemed
to be over for the time being. But according to Alistair Horne, between February
21st and July 15th, the French had lost over 275,000 men and 6,563 officers at Verdun,
and over 120,000 casualties in just the past two months. The Germans had lost nearly a
quarter of a million men, about twice the amount German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn
had wanted to allocate for his “limited offensive” in the first place. And an offensive that was anything but limited
was still going on far to the east. Alexei Brusilov’s enormous and enormously
successful Russian offensive was in its 7th week with no signs of slowing down, though
this week his intelligence had uncovered an Austrian plan to counterstrike the Russian
center. So on the 16th Vladimir Sakharov’s 11th Army launched a pre-emptive strike on
the Upper Styr River. He drove the Austrians back to the Lipa, taking 13,000 prisoners. Actually, Russia was on the move everywhere
this week. In Anatolia, the Russians were driving the
Ottomans back southwest of Mush, while in Persia were themselves being driven back north
of Kermanshah by Ottoman forces. And that was the week. Russian advances on
two fronts and a defeat on a third. Verdun quiet, a pointless diversion at Aubers Ridge,
and dreams of German collapse at the Somme. My conclusion last week was about Rawlinson,
and here he is again. Really believing that if they break through one German line of trenches
German morale would collapse and the cavalry could sweep in and overrun the entire German
lines. But had that happened at any point in the war? Had German morale collapsed at
Loos and Champagne? At Festubert? At Verdun. And yet Rawlinson believed it would happen
at the Somme. Pure fantasy. And the results of a general’s pure fantasy are easy enough
to predict: everyone dies. You can buy “The Somme” by Robin Prior
and Trevor Wilson in our amazon shop to support our show. If you want to find out more about Douglas
Haig, the architect of the Somme offensive, click right here for our biography episode. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Seth
Legare – please support us on Patreon, we couldn’t make this show without it. See
you next week.

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