BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Anzacs' bloodiest day
, April 25, 2015
THE LOST LEGIONS
The True Story of the Most Dramatic Battle in Australia’s History
by Peter Barton
(Sydney: Allen and Unwin)
Paperback: 403 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
As Australia celebrates the centenary of World War I, Gallipoli remains the iconic battle, symbolic of heroism and needless death. However, the bloodiest battles in which Australians were involved in the Great War were on the Western Front.
In the battle of Fromelles, July 19–20 1916, which lasted less than 24 hours, ironically the first major battle in which Australian troops were involved on the Western Front, 5,533 Australians were killed, captured, wounded or declared missing.
In The Lost Legions of Fromelle, British military historian Peter Barton recounts not only the battle, but also the search initiated by Lambis Englezos which successfully located a mass grave containing the bodies of British and Australian troops, a search in which the author was involved.
Although previous studies of the battle have been written — one of the most significant in framing the interpretation being C.E.W. Bean’s account in his Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 — this study makes a significant contribution to the literature. It not only details the lengthy and ultimately successful efforts of a team of people to locate the mass grave, but also for the first time it draws substantially from German primary sources, particularly documents from the major units, the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division and elements of the German 6th Army.
Barton concurs with previous studies of the battle by noting that British and Australian commanders, including senior personnel, had misgivings about the battle. The findings in the German archives, particularly those in Munich, underscore the fact that the venture was essentially doomed from the start.
Unlike the British, who fought a war of aggression and refused to surrender any territory conquered, no matter how strategically disadvantageous the siting of their trenches was, the Germans fought a war of defence.
As a consequence, they typically situated their trenches in strategically advantageous locations such as high ground. Furthermore, their trenches were generally better constructed; for example, containing deep dugouts that typically withstood British shelling.
It could thus be argued that the British commanders had learnt little from the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, barely three weeks previously. The Australian 5th Division, which fought in the battle, was at the added disadvantage of having been in trenches on the Western Front for only five days. While many members were veterans of Gallipoli, for others this was their first experience of trench warfare. By contrast, the units of the German Army they fought against were well experienced in trench warfare on the Western Front.
Similarly, commanders had failed to learn the lessons of a previous British attack on Fromelles on May 9, 1915. Barton underscores the fact that the progress of and consequences of the Battle of Fromelles were almost identical to the earlier battle fought in virtually the same place!
Furthermore, material found in German archives also indicates that, largely due to intelligence gained from prisoners captured during raids in the lead-up to the battle, such as Operation Kulmbach on July 15, the Germans had good intelligence on the troops they were fighting.
What the German archives reveal is the amount of detail the German intelligence officers were able to glean from their captives, information that was carefully analysed and synthesised before being forwarded to those commanding front-line troops. Together with intelligence from prisoners, other careful observations indicated to them that an attack by British (including Australian forces) was imminent.
After the bombardment, which damaged some of the German trenches but also alerted the Germans that an attack was imminent, the British 61st Division and the Australian 5th Division advanced at 5.30pm on July 19. The 5th Division reached the German front-line trenches, and initially enjoyed some success.
However, a major problem was that the Battalion commanders were ordered to take and hold only the front-line trenches, rather than the strategic high ground. They chose to occupy trenches abandoned by the Germans because they were too damp. The result was that despite digging deeper and constructing ramparts with sandbags, the trenches were water logged.
Some troops advanced further. Material from the German archives indicates that some got as far as the Sugar Loaf, the strategic high ground. Furthermore, the ruins of Delangré Farm also provided cover for German troops to shoot at allied troops.
Without an adequate resupply of ammunition and reinforcements, a German victory was a foregone conclusion. After dawn, troops withdrew to the allied trenches.
After describing the battle, Barton continues by examining in detail the dogged attempts to locate the mass grave. Despite extensive searches of the battle zones after World War I, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission had failed to locate the mass grave when its operations were wound back in 1921.
The search initiated and sustained by Englezos unearthed vital clues in German archives; however, key aerial photographic evidence taken in 1916 was found in British archives, and other clues were located in Australian archives. Being meticulous record keepers, the Germans noted and forwarded details of burial locations via the Red Cross.
As noted above, the chief contribution of Barton’s book is that it is the first major modern study of the Battle of Fromelles to analyse the course of events from both the British and German perspectives.
The work presumes some knowledge of military history; for example, it is presumed that the reader has some understanding of the army structure (e.g., divisions, brigades, battalions). Those relatively unfamiliar with descrip-tions of warfare may find the in-depth account and analysis of the battle too detailed. Similarly, Barton’s discussion of the locating of the British and Australian bodies in the mass grave near Pheasant Wood may be cumbersome for some readers.
Nevertheless, for the reasons given above the work is a significant contribution to Australian military history.
Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne-based writer.