Battle of Fromelles 19 to 20 July 1916
The diversionary attack on German positions at Fromelles was the first major battle fought by Australian troops on the Western Front. It was planned to stop the Germans from reinforcing their unit on the Somme, where the Allies had launched a major offensive earlier that month. The feint was unsuccessful. The attack was a disaster for the British and the worst 24 hours in Australian military history.
Australia suffered over 5500 casualties in a night, almost equivalent to the country's combined losses in the Second South African (Boer) War, Korean War and Vietnam War.
On 19 July 1916, the Australian 5th and British 61st Divisions tried to seize 4000 yards (3.7km) of German front. The German positions centred on the ‘Sugar Loaf’, a heavily fortified strongpoint bristling with machine-guns, with clear fields of fire over much of the ground that an attacking force on that part of the line would have to cross. The Germans spotted the troops as they moved into position. They shelled the Allied positions, causing hundreds of Australian and British casualties before the attack commenced.
The assault began at 5:30pm with 3.5 hours of daylight remaining. The Australians quickly crossed no-man’s-land, seizing the German front, and then pushed on for another 140m in search of a third and last line of the German trench system. No third line existed. The Australians began forming a thin disjointed series of posts in the the German line. Other Australians attacked opposite the Sugar Loaf, where the Germans had survived the British shelling. Within 15 minutes, the Germans had destroyed the attacking waves of Australians, as well as the British soldiers attacking to the south of the Sugar Loaf.
The British planned a second attempt to capture the Sugar Loaf and asked for Australian help. The plan was cancelled, but the Australians didn't receive notice. They mounted another attack with equally disastrous results. The next morning the Australians who had breached the enemy’s lines withdrew.
The battle was an unmitigated disaster for the British.
In 2008, 92 years after the battle, a mass grave of Australians killed at Fromelles and buried by the German victors was located. The soldiers were reburied in Commonwealth War Graves near Fromelles.