VC Corner, Fromelles
At home, or as you tour the twelve locations of the Australian Remembrance Trail in France and Belgium, listen to a four-minute audio-cast featuring the extraordinary stories of Australian soldiers 'on this spot'. Listen to the audio-cast from your device
This is the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles, in France. Across the flat fields is the VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial and just beyond that along the road, but not really visible unless one stands right beside it, is the Riviere de Layes, little more than a stream cutting across the landscape from the north-east to the south-west. Out in these fields on 11 November 1918 Charles Bean, Australia's official historian of World War I, discovered the remains of the Australian dead of the Battle of Fromelles: 'We found the old no-man's-land simply full of our dead … west of the Laies river … the skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere'.
Bean instructed the photographer who accompanied him to capture images of the landscape around the old battlefield, where more than 5500 men of the 5th Australian Division were killed, wounded or went missing on 19-20 July 1916 during the division's attack on the German lines at Fromelles. One photograph shows a collection of Australian kit—boots and bits of uniform—with two water bottles in the foreground. It is likely that Bean found these close to the river where, he speculated, wounded men had crawled for water. And the most terrible sight after the failed attack at Fromelles was that of the wounded out in no-man's-land. 'Around the Laies', wrote Bean in his history, 'the wounded could be seen everywhere raising their limbs in pain or turning hopelessly, hour after hour, from one side to the other'.
For their comrades watching from the front-line trench, the sight would have been appalling. Every instinct would have urged them to go out and help, but that meant exposure to German fire. Bean mentioned some, and there would have been many others, who rescued the wounded. Company Sergeant Major John Thorburn and Sergeant Alexander Ross, of the 57th Battalion; Corporals William Brown and William Davis, and Privates Edgar Williams and Paul McDonnell, of the 58th Battalion; all, in Bean's words, 'went out boldly by day'. Brown and Davis, although repeatedly fired upon, brought in six men, the last of whom was killed on a stretcher as they tried to manoeuvre him over the parapet of the trench. Brown was severely wounded. Williams and McDonnell were both awarded the Military Medal for saving three wounded and five unwounded men. On the last of these attempts Williams was hit in no-man's-land and went 'missing'. His body was never found.
At the Australian Memorial Park is a statue called 'Cobbers'. It shows Sergeant Simon Fraser, 58th Battalion, carrying in a wounded man on his back. Why 'Cobbers'? That old Australian word for mate is little heard today, but in 1916 Fraser used it in a letter describing his rescue of two men: 'Then another man about 30 yards out sang out, â€œDon't forget me, cobber". I went in and got four volunteers with stretchers, and we got both men in safely'. So it is not the memory of the military disaster of Fromelles which is remembered here, but rather the courage and compassion of those who risked their lives to help the wounded.