Autumn Battlefields 2019 - Day One: Fromelles

Having stayed in Dover last night, I was up bright and early this morning for the 8am ferry to Dunkirk. My first destination was Fromelles, about an hour south of the ferry port and halfway to the Somme.

I briefly visited Fromelles during my Spring trip, on the back of a day at Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge, but I was keen to return and see it in more depth, as well as to visit the Australian museum which was (typically) closed the last time.

I'm glad that I did, as the museum was really interesting and well worth a visit. It wasn't very big, but did give a good insight into both the Battle of Fromelles and the more recent archaeological excavations from the area. This work located and exhumed the bodies of 250 soldiers who had been buried in mass graves by German soldiers after the battle in 1916. Pheasant Wood Cemetery, which neighbours the museum, was inaugurated in 2010 and provides a resting place for these men.

Most of the museum is explained through a handy audioguide (available in four languages), which I much prefer over having to read long captions. There were also a number of classic mannequin scenes of trenches, now looking rather outdated next to the modern screens and displays.

One of my favourite artifacts in the museum was this little font. It's a piece of trench art made from a shell case, and would have been very light and easy to carry for a chaplain. Unfortunately, no provenance accompanied it so I don't know if or where it was used, but is nonetheless a nifty piece someone thought to make.

Outside the museum, there is very little to give away the fact that the CWGC cemetery is barely a decade old, unlike the century-old plots that scatter this region. Disabled access is somewhat better than the norm, but aside from that the same white headstones are lined up to form neat arched rows, all facing towards the Cross of Sacrifice.

I do wonder, though, how different the headstones' epitaphs are from the originals. Some obliquely reference 'World War I', while others take inspiration from Amazing Grace to describe how they were once lost but 'now found'. Yet others still, with their sentiments of remembrance and duty, appear to strike subtly different chords from many of the original choices. It's something I need to think more about.

From here, I drove up to the northern side of the village and parked outside the Australian Memorial Park to begin my afternoon's walk. My guide for today's visit was Jon Cooksey and Jerry Murland's book The Battles of French Flanders (published by Pen and Sword). This is a new book for me, which I purchased following recommendations on Twitter (I think the first was from Simon Worrall - thank you!). I followed Route 4 'Fromelles and Pheasant Wood' and found it a useful guide with both good walking instructions and an interesting narrative.

The starting point is at the Australian 'Cobbers' statue, unveiled here in the 1990s. I had visited here back on my Spring trip, but it was good to come back in better weather, and with the aid of the Linesman Great War Digital maps. The row of concrete fortification remnants that have been preserved in the park mark the line of the German front here throughout much of the war.

It was from here that I set off on foot, following the route first through the German line and then across to the British. One thing I hadn't realised before about this battlefield was that not only was it fought over in the Battle of Fromelles on 19/20th July 1916, as a diversionary attack from the Somme, but that it had also formed part of the line for the Battle of Aubers Ridge on 9th May 1915. The book pointed out the similarities in this attack, both of which achieved remarkably little.

To reinforce this fact, the trench maps I was using for this walk dated from 05/12/1915, 14/06/1916, and 19/12/1917. There is very little difference between any of them, aside from some of the names given to the trenches.

The first cemetery on the walk was the beautiful Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery, another that I had previously visited. There is a wonderful peace in this cemetery, surrounded as it is by a moat and willow trees. The path leading into the cemetery is on the line of a British trench that connected the junctions of Bee Post and Le Trou Post, a short distance behind the front line. This is a concentration cemetery, with burials brought in from throughout the war, but many are from the 1915 and 1916 battles.

Next I continued up Rue Petillon, which had been a track during the war, off of which the main British communications trenches ran to the front, in addition to a tramway running from 'Cellar Farm'. Just beyond this a small farm has been rebuilt in the location of the Eaton Hall dressing station, next to which is the Rue-Petillon Military Cemetery. While many buried here during the war would have died of their wounds, the cemetery was expanded after the Armistice with bodies from across the battlefield, meaning that now almost half the graves are to unknown soldiers.

Lots of the headstones here are tightly packed in, meaning that the Australian soldiers from the Battle of Fromelles are buried 'shoulder to shoulder' with one another.

Round the corner from here I walked along the road back towards the British front. There wasn't really much to be seen on this stretch, although in a way, that makes a point for itself. The battlefield here is so flat that there would have been no shelter at all within the British positions. With the bean crop recently harvested, the fields are empty, exaggerating the plainness of the landscape.

It was soon after this that I came to one of the narrowest points between the British and German front lines, which have been helpfully marked by road signs (these match up with what is on GWD). At a leisurely pace on the tarmac road, it took me about 100 seconds to walk between them. Three years of fighting, and the British Army were still struggling to capture positions less than two minutes' walk away from them. In the modern landscape, even with all of the aids given by books and maps, it's impossible to imagine the challenge of that, the difficulty of crossing No Man's Land, avoiding machine gun fire and cutting the barbed wire.

On the road back to the car, again near the German front line, there is a private memorial cross to Captain Paul Adrian Kennedy of the Rifle Brigade. It was placed here by his mother after the war on the site where it was thought that he had died in the Battle of Aubers Ridge, just within German territory. He had no known grave, so this was his mother's way of giving him that resting place tribute. The plaque on the front also bears the names of three of his 'brother officers' from his unit, as well as the epitaph 'Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God'. Taken from Revelation 3:12, it connects the dutiful service of Kennedy with the building of the New Jerusalem, demonstrating his place in fulfilling God's work.

Back at the car, I cheated and drove up the road to VC Corner Cemetery, as the weather was beginning to turn (as you flick through the photos in this blog notice how the weather deteriorates). I only paid a brief stop here as I came here back in the Spring, but it was an important piece of the Fromelles front I had just walked, so I couldn't not stop in. The names here are arranged as if on a memorial to the missing, being written on the back wall. This is a mass grave, exclusively to the Australian soldiers whose bodies were found, largely fragmented, in this area after the 1916 battle.

It symbolises the final resting place of the legacy of Fromelles in the Australian mind, the great war sacrifice that has come to sit alongside Pozieres in national memory, and maybe second only to Gallipoli. And for me, today, it was my final stop before driving south to the Somme to check into my bed and breakfast.

As usual, I'll be writing these blog posts everyday of the next week while I'm on my battlefields trip. I've left my schedule a little vague at the moment as the weather seems a bit changeable, so please do get in touch if you think there's anywhere I really must visit around the Somme or Arras that I'm likely not to have been to before. Leave a comment down below, or follow me on twitter, where I'll also be posting more frequent updates.


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