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Monday, 7 March 2005
Page: 146

Senator MARK BISHOP (10:17 PM) —During the last sittings I spoke of the battle of Fromelles on 19 July 1916. This bloody battle remains the most costly engagement of all in Australia’s military history. Unfortunately, as a tragedy it seems to be unknown by many. I repeat that on this fateful night 1,917 young Australians were killed in just 12 hours, and 3,146 were wounded. Of course, many of these died of wounds later. Four hundred and seventy became prisoners of war of the Germans for the remainder of World War I. The 5th Division was absolutely decimated—all due to what has always been regarded as massive command incompetence. To emphasise the tragedy of that night, 12 sets of brothers were killed, as well as two sets of fathers and sons.

Officially, it barely rated a mention and in fact was covered up. It was described as a ‘minor skirmish’. Recriminations persisted for many years, and families mourned for decades. As a nation we have experienced many national tragedies involving great loss of life. Gallipoli was a tragedy in its own right, like Fromelles—a pointless and ill-conceived waste of humanity. Others such as Kokoda, Buna, Sanananda, Gona and Milne Bay were tragic also but are separately revered because of their meaning in the last-ditch defence of our shores from the Japanese. Nor do we forget the fall of Singapore, the fate of those taken prisoner of war and the suffering and loss of so many others in all theatres of war. The sinking of the HMAS Sydney was another massive shock to a small nation during the early 1940s. Yet Fromelles far exceeds all of these in its scope and its senseless horror. The battle was no accident—it was, as it is properly described now, a planned slaughter.

Since I last spoke on this matter, I have been gratified by the heartfelt thanks of those who share a passion for remembering and commemorating the battle of Fromelles. Some share the need to highlight the battle as perhaps the greatest single disaster in our history. Others simply want to know where a grandfather or a great-uncle—or great-uncles—might be buried. Perhaps the single greatest tragedy of Fromelles was the refusal of the Australian command to accept an offer of truce from the Germans to clear the dead from the battlefield. This truce would have seen our dead, dying and many wounded rescued from no-man’s-land, where they remained and perished. Instead, 1,298 of the 1,917 killed that night were posted as ‘missing’, not to be recovered until the war was over. Collectively their identities were known, but the bodies were unidentifiable and were eventually buried as ‘known only to God’—that is, all except 163 whose bodies were never found. We now know the German troops removed the Australians’ identity discs and personal effects and sent them to the Red Cross in Berlin.

It is those records which have now been discovered. Every name corresponds in detail with the roll of honour for 19 July 1916, as engraved on the wall of the memorial at VC Corner, Fromelles. Further confirmation of these events is the possession by some Australian families of those identifying discs. It is also worth noting that the scale of such a tragedy as Fromelles, like the sinking of HMAS Sydney, had a profound effect on small communities. I mention in particular the Hunter Valley of New South Wales and the coalmining community located there.

I am grateful for the advice of a local military historian, Mr David Dial, that 1,000 Hunter Valley men fought at Fromelles and that 59 of them were killed or died of wounds. Of those 59 men, 53 were among the missing. Nine of their names appear on the Red Cross list. It seems to me, therefore, that the mystery of 160 missing has been solved. The second part of the riddle is this: where were they buried? There is strong evidence that the Germans used a number of mass graves near the town of Fromelles. The principal sites are on the edge of Pheasant Wood and at Manlaque farm close by. It is also believed there may have been another mass grave outside the cemetery at Fournes, also then behind German lines.

Let me summarise the evidence of the existence of these sites. Put simply—as an obvious starting point—they must have been buried somewhere. As there were hundreds of dead recovered by the Germans, including 316 British, large grave sites would have been the obvious and quickest means of burial. There is, in fact, a telling eyewitness account and I will quote it, not just because it is compelling evidence but also because it is so moving. This is from the memoirs of Private William Barry of the 29th Battalion AIF, taken prisoner of war on 19 or 20 July 1916. It reads:

… It was the 21st July and the sun was shining brightly and being left to myself for fully an hour I was able to look around me and to my horror I was in a place where the dead men were being stacked for I was sitting on the edge of a hole fully forty feet long, twenty feet wide and fifteen feet deep and into this the killed were being thrown without any respect or fuss, friends and foe being treated alike and it was pitiful to see the different expressions on their faces, some with a peaceful smile while others showed they had passed away in agony ...

What more can be said? This is a sorrowful account and no work of fiction. Aerial photographs taken before and after the Battle of Fromelles show clearly the existence of large pits at these sites. The clearest are those of the pits beside Pheasant Wood, beside which ran a German light railway. This line serviced the front and was used to transport bodies to the rear.

At an official level in Canberra, the existence of the Pheasant Wood site has been denied by the Office of Australian War Graves, but now, over time, the evidence has been building. On Monday, 21 February, a story by Neil Wilson revealed that one of then 160 missing on the German Red Cross list was Lieutenant John Bowden of the 15th Brigade, 59th Battalion. Red Cross records from Berlin have also been discovered, wherein advice was provided that it could be assumed that Lieutenant Bowden:

... was buried in one of five large British collective graves before the Fasanen Waldohen (Pheasant Wood) near Fromelles or in the collective grave ... at Fournes.

The only evidence which can contradict this is further evidence that these sites were recovered after the war—and that evidence does not exist. I believe a strong prima facie case now exists for a technical examination of these sites. It is pleasing, therefore, to report that the Chief of Army, Major General Leahy, agreed at the last Senate estimates to examine the material I was able to provide. We sincerely hope that agreement on the strength of this evidence will lead to a formal approach to the French government and to local authorities. We might then also hope that the sites could be formally recognised and commemorated.