chapter  10
21 Pages

1916: the Butcher’s picnics

While military historians have written much about Fromelles 1916 as an object lesson in what not to do, in Australia this same battle has, with the passage of time, acquired a political and mythological value that survives, indeed flourishes, to this day. Early in 1916, a hard core of Anzacs came to the Western Front disillusioned by what they saw as British incompetence at Gallipoli. (The diaries of C.E.W. Bean, Australia’s official war historian are full of criticisms of British staff decisions, organizational blunders and the ‘inferior’ qualities of Tommies compared with Anzacs.) For those new chums of the 5th Australian division who were to survive Fromelles 1916, that brutal fiasco confirmed what they had been told by their more experienced mates, whose ungenerous attitude to the English Tommy many of them learned to share. By now, many of the men of the Australian

Imperial Force were no longer inclined to see themselves as Australian Britons. Fromelles 1916 was one of a chain of events – including the Imperial Preferences row of 1929, the British refusal to grant Australia a moratorium on its war debts in 1931-32, and even the ‘Bodyline’ cricket series of 1932-33 – that ensured that the relationship of Australians towards the Mother Country would rarely again be as cordial, submissive or respectful as before 1914.338

Ironically, something similar would happen to the subsequent telling of the events as experienced on other side of the hill. Fromelles 1916 was the 6th BRD’s most successful engagement of the war and is accepted as such in all the regimental histories, especially that of the 16th BRIR, the wartime ‘home’ of Corporal Adolf Hitler. This alone guaranteed that, between 1933 and 1945, this battle would have legendary status in Germany, and in Bavaria for a time, Fromelles almost matched Verdun in mythic history. Among non-Bavarian German military historians, however, the action at Fromelles did not always rate highly, if only because it was so comparatively small. Apart from an extended footnote in the Bavarian official history, German official histories all but ignore it. Not so the Australian official history. For the AIF (Australian Imperial Force), Fromelles was its first battle at divisional strength and it remains that nation’s worst military disaster, so the 120 pages devoted to it are warranted. But it also takes up a substantial 20 pages (more than is assigned to the almost concurrent operations at Pozières) in the British official history. Official histories written while most of those involved in the events described are alive, and often in positions of power and influence, are usually tactful. On Edmonds’ urgings, C.E.W. Bean, the Australian official war correspondent, softened his harsh critique of Sir Richard Haking so that British responsibility is insinuated rather than stated. Since the British official history repeats, albeit more politely, Bean’s criticisms of the tactics employed, it was left to Basil Liddell-Hart to openly question the wisdom not only of Fromelles, but of the series of British diversionary operations of June-July 1916 of which Fromelles was one.339