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Fromelles Remembered 100 Years On At CWGC Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery

18 July 2016

The 100th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War will be remembered at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery in France on Tuesday 19 July.

The Battle of Fromelles was Australia's first major engagement in France. It was intended as a diversionary attack for the Somme offensive raging 80 kilometres to the south, but proved a costly failure. No tactical advantages resulted from the action, no lasting gains were made, and the human cost was enormous. In just 24 hours of fighting the 5th Australian and British 61st Divisions suffered more than 5,500 and 1,500 casualties (killed, wounded and missing) respectively. Fromelles remains the worst single day of loss in Australian military history.

The CWGC Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery contains the graves of 250 Australian and British soldiers who died in the battle and whose bodies were discovered in a series of mass graves in 2008. It was constructed specifically to give these newly found individuals an honoured burial and was the first new CWGC war cemetery to be built since the 1960s.

The project to recover, rebury and, where possible, identify the fallen of Fromelles was the first large-scale attempt to exhume and identify individuals of the Great War since the work of the official Graves Registration Units in the 1920s.

Through the use of DNA, artefactual and historical evidence, 149 of the 250 soldiers buried at Fromelles have been identified by name. Six new cases were accepted this year and named headstones erected.

The cemetery was formally dedicated on 19 July 2010 when, exactly 94 years after he died, the last of the 250 soldiers discovered in the mass graves at Pheasant Wood was interred alongside his comrades in a moving ceremony attended by HRH The Prince of Wales, The Duchess of Cornwall, Her Excellency the Governor-General of Australia Quentin Bryce, HRH The Duke of Kent and many of the families of those who had died.  

CWGC Commissioner, The Hon Mrs Ros Kelly said: "The CWGC Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery is a place of pilgrimage and remembrance. The trenches may have long gone, but the cemetery will forever act as a focal point for our remembrance of the tragic events of 19-20 July 1916 and those who lost their lives. It is a place to spend private time in front of the headstones - whether bearing a name or marked 'unknown' - a chance to pay our respects and remember.

"For the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, our job at Fromelles is ongoing - as it is at war cemeteries all over the world. We are proud of the role we played in laying these men to rest with respect and dignity and proud of the work we continue to do to care for their graves and memorials in perpetuity."

For more information, contact: Peter Francis on 07766 255884 or 01628 507163 or by emailpeter.francis@cwgc.org 

Ends.

Notes for editors:

1. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (www.cwgc.org)

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the graves of the 1.7 million Commonwealth servicemen and women who died during the two world wars. It also holds and updates an extensive and accessible records archive.

The Commission operates in over 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries.

For more information about the work of the CWGC visit our website at www.cwgc.org

2. The Battle of Fromelles 19-20 July 1916

The outcome of complex and muddled planning, the Battle of Fromelles, in its final form, represented a diversionary attack which aimed to distract German reserves from the great Somme offensive, some 50 miles to the south.

In the early evening of Wednesday 19 July 1916 two infantry divisions newly arrived on the Western Front, the 5th Australian and British 61st (South Midland) attacked a strongly held 4,000 yard section of the German front line near Fromelles. At its centre was the notorious Sugar Loaf strongpoint. Advancing over difficult wet ground, in clear view of German observers, the attackers faced an enemy that held all the advantages.

The German defenders were well warned and ready. For several days a heavy, but largely ineffective, bombardment had poured down on their lines shredding their wire, seeking out their strongpoints and gun positions. On 19 July, seven hours before the attack, the bombardment intensified. The Germans quickly hit back with violent shelling, pounding the waiting attackers densely packed in their trenches. At 5.30pm the first assault battalions moved out into No Man's Land. British units using access holes (called 'sally-ports') cut through the thick walls of their breastwork suffered instant casualties from German machine-gun fire trained on the gaps. The Australians went directly over the parapet.

At 6pm the general assault began. Advancing in waves the attackers met an inferno of German shells, small-arms and machine-gun fire. On the extreme right and left, where No Man's Land was shortest, entries were forced in the German lines where vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensued. In the centre, towards the un-subdued defences of the Sugar Loaf, the attackers were cut-down by annihilating machine-gun fire. The Australian 15th Brigade and British 184th Brigade took heavy casualties. Unable to hold their tenuous footholds in the German lines survivors were eventually forced back to their start lines.

Next day shattered units sought to recover their wounded and tally losses: the Australians, cruelly hit, had 5,533 killed, wounded and missing; 61st Division reported 1,547 killed, wounded and missing. No tactical advantages resulted from the action.