Raising The Standard At Fromelles - Part 1
By LT COL (RETD) Mick Berrill OBE - Branch Vice Chairman
The worst 24 hours in Australian history occurred 90 years ago at Fromelles. Not the worst in Australian military history, the worst 24 hours in Australia's entire history. The Australians suffered 5,533 casualties in one night. The Australian toll at Fromelles was equivalent to the total Australian casualties in the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam War put together. It was a staggering disaster. (Ross McMullin's, Disaster at Fromelles)
Stammering scores of German machine-guns spluttered violently, drowning the noise of the cannonade. The air was thick with bullets, swishing in a flat criss-crossed lattice of death ... Hundreds were mown down in the flicker of an eyelid, like great rows of teeth knocked from a comb ... Men were cut in two by streams of bullets [that] swept like whirling knives ... It was the charge of the Light Brigade once more, but more terrible, more hopeless. (W H Downing)
The Battle of Fromelles (near Lille) was a combined attack by British and Australian troops on 19-20 July 1916. This action was intended to divert German resources away from the Battle of the Somme, 80kms to the south. The British and Australians had very little time to prepare (this was to be the first offensive operation by the Australian 5th Division) and the odds greatly favoured the well-entrenched Germans. After a night and day of fierce fighting the German defensive line remained intact and the attack was called off on the morning of 20 July with over 7,000 Australian and British troops killed, wounded, captured or missing.
In May 2008 six communal graves dating from the battle were identified at Fromelles on the edge of Pheasant Wood. The British and Australian governments appointed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to oversee the recovery of the remains and to create a new cemetery where they would finally be laid to rest.
On Saturday 30 January 2010, at 11h00, the first of 250 Australian and British soldiers was reburied at Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery. This was the start of the reburial stage, which will see around 30 burials taking place each Monday, Wednesday and Friday in February 2010. I was privileged to attend with Rodney Curtis (Branch Chairman) this first reburial service. I was also honoured to have carried our own Branch Standard on parade at this service with another 17 RBL branches based in the UK, France and Germany.
Standards on Parade - Mick Berrill, far left, and Rodney Curtis on the far right
Each reburial service will be conducted with military honours, with bearer parties from the Australian and British armies carefully returning their fallen forebears to the earth. All services are public events, and those visiting Fromelles will be able to view proceedings from an area overlooking the cemetery. (If any Branch member wishes to visit the cemetery and attend a reburial service please notify the Chairman or Vice Chairman prior to your journey)
There is a small covered visitor’s area at the cemetery, where members of the public can sign the visitor’s book, find literature on the new cemetery and the wider aspects of the Fromelles project, and leave floral tributes and wreaths.
The journey to Fromelles from Central Brittany is a long and tiring seven to eight hours; we set off on Friday 29 January, I was accompanied by my wife Angie and Rodney by his wife Kate, Rodney also picked up Yves Le Cuziat MBE, Chairman of the 3rd Para Normandy Veterans Association from Caen. We all arrived at almost the same time at our Premier Hotel accommodation near Lille and just minutes before the snow fell and covered the whole area in a white blanket. On the morning of the 30th we set off on a, thankfully, short drive through the snow to the prearranged RV point near the town of Fromelles; we were then put on a bus under the organisation and guidance of Rod Bedford, Chairman of the RBL Somme Branch.
On arrival at Fromelles, Rod Bedford gave us a briefing on the day’s events and invited us to “Get-On-Parade!”. The Rheindahlen Branch doesn't have a Standard Bearer at present and had agreed with Rod to bring along it's standard and find someone to carry it on the day. Rodney volunteered and, after a double quick ‘changing parade’ and getting into line, was just in time to march off to the cemetery.
RBL Standards get on Parade (where's Rodney?)
On arrival at the cemetery the Standard Bearers lined up along the last row of prepared graves. The snow once again started to fall and the temperature dropped to -2°C