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Fromelles can be found about six miles west of Lille and five miles south of Armentieres. It can be visited easily by those using Ieper or Arras as a base for battlefield touring.
Map of Fromelles area
The Australians have a close association with Fromelles, as this is one of the sites where they lost heavily during the Great War. The Australian 5th Division, along with the 61st British (South Midland) Division, attacked here on July the 19th, 1916. At this time, the main Somme battles were raging around 40 miles to the south of Fromelles, and the intention was to make a feint here to prevent the Germans from bringing reinforcements to the Somme. Originally an artillery barrage only was planned, but then an infantry assualt was also agreed. The Australian attack here was their first serious battle in France, and the only one in whcih they achieved no success.
Pheasant Wood Cemetery
In 2009, archaeologists excavated several mass burial pits at Pheasant Wood near Fromelles. The remains of 250 British and Australian soldiers were recovered from these pits, mass burials made by the Germans after the Battle of Fromelles. Considerable efforts have been made to identify these men, who remains have lain where they were buried together for more than 90 years. This has been a labour involving both the authorities and also many dedicated amateurs, working hard to try and make sure that as many graves in the new cemetery as possible bear a name, and as many families will finally know the exact resting place of their relative.
The number of remains discovered was so high that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) created a new cemetery for their reburial, the first new war graves cemetery to be created by the CWGC since the end of the Second World War. This cemertey is located at the north-west edge of the village, not far from the church and only about a quarter of a mile from Pheasant Wood itself, where the men were buried by the Germans.
The Cross of Sacrifice at the new Pheasant Wood Cemetery
At 11 a.m. on January the 30th 2010, the first of the remains were reburied at this new cemetery, which has been named Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery. Reburial ceremonies continued at 9 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during February 2010. The cemetery was completed in July 2010, and now contains 250 graves, and amazingly after all the years 97 of these have been identified. For more information on the background, including the discovery of the burial pits, the creation of the cemetery and the reburials, pleasevisit the specific Fromelles section created on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.
The new cemetery has a generous parking area, and when I visited in August 2010 there were several visitors, showing that the whole story and the new cemetery has captured the public imagination. The cars were from several countries, not just Britain, and the visitors were walking amongst the newly erected headstones. Many of these have small Australian flags placed by them.
It is an interesting experience to see a brand new CWGC cemetery; often there may be one or several new headstones to be seen, but here is an entire cemetery where all the headstones are pristine and new, and this must have been the way all the cemeteries looked once they had been made permananet in the 1920s. In the summer sun, the headstones were gleaming white, and the inscriptions on them are pin-point sharp and clear. Outside the cemetery are information boards, giving the background to how the cemetery came about, and in the entrance are a series of leaflets giving simlar information that visitors can take away with them.
Whilst it is good that 97 men have been identified, this still means that over 150 graves, like the one in the photograph above, are of unidentifed soldiers.
Fromelles Australian Memorial Park
This is the site of the action in which those now buried at Pheasant Wood Cemetery lost their lives. It is located about a mile to the north-east of Fromelles itself, and can be reached by following the D22 from the village. It is located on the right-hand side of the road as you travel north, and is a fairly small area set in a cornfield.
The Park is situated on the German front line position which was attacked by the Australians on July the 19th, 1916. This area was captured and held overnight, but the next day the Australians had to retire, and the whole attack was a failure, with great loss of life. An official communication from GHQ in France referred to this action in the following terms: "South of Armentieres we carried out some important raids, on a front of two miles, in which Australian troops took part. About 140 German prisoners were taken". German newspaper reports rightly suggested the failure here: "Considerable British (sic) forces attacked our positions north and west of Fromelles. They were repulsed, and wherever they succeeded in penetrating our trenches they were ejected by counter-attacks, in which we captured over 300 prisoners, among them being some officers". In fact, the 5th Australian Division lost more than five and a half thousand men in the attack.
At the front of the Park is an information board giving the story of the attack and also showing a montage of wartime aerial photographs, on which the site of the Park is marked.
There is also a Ross Bastiaan bronze relief here. These are found at a number of sites of significance to the Australians, such as Pozieres on the Somme and Passchendaele in Flanders. Again, this gives some information on the actions here, as well as a relief map of the area (not orientated with north to the top).
In the middle of the Park stands a bronze statue of an Australian soldier bringing in a wounded comrade. The statue is entitled " Cobbers", was sculpted by Peter Corlett and was unveiled in 1998.
Beneath the statue is a plaque stating what the statue depicts; Sergeant Simon Fraser of the 57th Battalion whose company brought in many wounded men from the battlefield here.
The plaque beneath the 'Cobbers' statue
There are many Great War bunkers scattered around the battlefields in this area, but here at the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles there are several within a very small area. The pictures below show the bunkers at the front and in the middle of the park.
The importance of concrete fortifications by this stage of the War is underlined by the concentration of bunkers here. The Holts in their Battlefield Guide to the Western Front - North report that one regiment of the 61st Division had 75 concrete protected positions in front of it, and they were largely undamaged by the preliminary bombardment. At the rear of the Park is another bunker - well preserved and with more standing above current ground level than the others.
VC Corner Cemetery
Just a short distance from the Memorial Park, continuing north on the D22, is VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial. This is an interesting and unusual cemetery, for several reasons. Firstly, it is the only wholly Australian cemetery in France, and the name at the entrance way reflects this (shown below).
The name itself is also interesting - "VC Corner". There was a spot on the battlefields, about another three-quarters of a mile north-east, which was known as VC Corner. Today this can be found where the D175 crosses the D171 - not far from Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery (see further down on this page). The origin of the name VC Corner (the cemetery itself is not at VC Corner) probably dates from May 1915 - with four VCs being won on the 9th of May, 1915, and another on the 16th of May. However, the awards do not relate directly to action near the Cemetery itself, and the origin of the name remains unclear.
Perhaps the most interesting point about this cemetery is that there are no headstones here. The plan of the cemetery on the Commonwealth Wargraves Commission website shows a regular layout of graves, in four plots with 10 graves in each of the rows within each of these plots. There are 410 graves here, but when the bodies were recovered from the battlefield at Fromelles, which only happened more than two years later, after the Armistice, none could be identified.
Rather than mark these graves with the usual "known Unto God" headstones for unidentified soldiers, the names of all the Australian soldiers killed in the Fromelles attack but with no known grave were instead inscribed on the wall at the rear of the cemetery. Over the centre of the plots of graves on each side of the cemetery is a large stone cross inlaid in the lawn, as shown below.
The Memorial to the Australian Missing of Fromelles covers stone tablets in the wall at the rear, behind the Cross of Sacrifice, and there are 1294 names inscribed here. Simple arithmetic shows that, if 410 of these men are buried here, there must be another 884 who are either buried elsewhere in "Unknown" graves, or else whose bodies were destroyed during the fighting, or have never been recovered.
As with other memorials to the missing, one can look at the names listed on one panel, and see other names fade into the distance, bringing a sense of proportion of losses during the war. This is one memorial, for the soldiers of one nation who took part in an attack that lasted just two days - a "sideshow" in the parlance of the time, not a main event. And these names are those of have no kn own graves, not all who died in the battle. And yet - all these names, nearly 1300 of them - and behind every one is a man's story, and a family who grieved many thousands of miles away on the other side of the world.
Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery
This cemetery can be found by following the road north-west from VC Corner Cemetery and taking the D175 turn to the right shortly after the road crosses a stream - Layes Brook, which was a feature of the 1916 battlefield near Fromelles, and also important earlier in the War and further south near Neuve Chapelle. It is reached by a path that crosses a moat and one enters the cemetery through a small entrance house. The moat runs all around the cemetery, and a bench at the rear left is a good spot to sit and enjoy the tranquility here. Ducks live in the moat and can be seen wandering among the graves here.
Started very early in the War, in October 1914, this cemetery was used until July 1915, and at the time of the Armistice contained just 123 burials. After the Armistice more burials were brought here, from other small cemeteries and the battlefields nearby, including Aubers Ridge, Loos and also Fromelles.
These later graves more than doubled the total number of burials here; there are now 356 burials here, with 207 of these unknown. Many of the graves of unknown soldiers from the Great War in war cemeteries simply state "A Soldier of the Great War: Known Unto God". Occasionally there was sufficient information to identify the unit the soldier had served with, in which case this was included on his headstone, or else his rank or just the fact he was an officer (as with this grave at Le Trou, shown below).
There are five special memorials to men known or believed to be buried here, and these are located at the rear of the cemetery. The cemetery register and the CWGC website record one French burial here; in fact there are two - one known and one unknown burial. They are both shown on the cemetery plan on the CWGC website.
Memorial to Captain Paul Kennedy
Further to the south, in fact just outside the village of Fromelles, and again on the D22 heading north out of the village is one of many private memorials on the Western Front. This one was erected to commemorate the memory of Captain Paul Adrian Kennedy, of the 4th Rifle Brigade, who was killed during the battle of Aubers Ridge whilst attached to the 2nd Rifle Brigade.
Captain Kennedy has no known grave, and is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing, which is located in Belgium but not far north of here. The memorial to Captain Kennedy also commemorates three of his fellow officers as well as all the others who fell at Aubers Ridge on the 9th of May 1915.
The other three officers mentioned on the memorial are Lieutenants Talbot Stanhope and Edward Liegh, and Second Lientenant The Honourable Henry Hardinge. Like Kennedy, they have no known graves and like him they are commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial.
Just a little further south on the same road is another private memorial, this time to Sergeant Kenneth Bramble, a pilot in the Second World War, who was shot down in his Spitfire near here.
From here, a road leads west towards Aubers (the D141, Route D'Aubers), and after about 500 yards there is a large bunker to the north side of the road. This is sometimes known as the 'Hitler bunker', as Hitler is supposed to have visited this spot in 1940. He fought in this area in the Great War. This bunker was, as a sign in front states, in the 5th German line during the battle of Fromelles.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Major & Mrs Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Western Front - North
Commonwealths Wargraves Commission website