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‘The Worst Day in Australian Military History’ - blog post image

‘The Worst Day in Australian Military History’

Posted On: Tuesday, September 20, 2016  By:  
Review of Peter FitzSimons, "Fromelles and Pozieres: in The Trenches of Hell"

World War I and Australia’s part in it are well covered on the @History website.

As this is the centenary of the Battles of Fromelles and Pozieres we would like to draw your attention to an excellent book on these battles.

Peter FitzSimons, Fromelles and Pozieres: In the Trenches of Hell, Random House, Australia, 2015.

Peter FitzSimons, journalist and author is arguably one of Australia's most successful popular historians. He has to his credit such bestsellers as: Eureka, Ned Kelly, Kokoda, Tobruk and Gallipoli.

Australia's involvement in the two World Wars commands much of his attention and talents. His focus is always on the first-hand experiences of the men and women in the front lines as opposed to the Generals and their grand strategies. Setting aside the debates surrounding the status of academic history as opposed to popular history, what Peter FitzSimons achieves is to make historical events accessible to the general reader. He intuitively grasps what will engage and interest the general reader and those with a passing interest in the conflict of war. He carefully selects material that makes for a lively and engaging read.

In this latest offering the focus is on the bloodbath at Fromelles which took place on 19th July 1916.

The Australian troops who were involved in this military disaster and at Pozieres some time later were newly arrived in France with the experiences at Gallipoli still etched into their minds.

The objective was to act as a diversion to prevent the Germans from reinforcing their troops on the Somme.

When the assault at Fromelles began at 6p.m. on that fateful evening the Australians were unaware that the Germans were ready for them. As the young men launched the attack across no man's land, which was 400 meters wide, they were cut to pieces by machine gun fire. On that one night the Australians suffered 5,500 casualties 2,000 of whom died.

IMAGE: Soldiers waiting in a trench for the signal to attack at Fromelles. Only 3 of the men in this picture survived the attack and those 3 were all wounded. Australian War Memorial, A03042

Peter FitzSimons takes us there through the eyes of the infantryman. We experience his training, we journey with him to Gallipoli and thence to France. We experience the sense of mateship and the keenness to engage the enemy; and we are there with him as he leaps out of the trench. But we also look over the shoulders of the British officers as the play with men's lives and we are taken inside the German trenches and share their feelings of anxiety which are similar to those of the Australians.

We are left in no doubt who was responsible for the disasters at Fromelles and Poziers which cost the Australians 23,000 casualties.

IMAGE: The aftermath of the battle two years later. Australian War Memorial

Academic historians may nit-pick with regards to the research methodologies employed by the author and the selective way he chooses what to focus on. However, his books are thankfully successful with a general readership because he brings history to life, with all its dark side and demonstrates a capacity to empathise with the infantryman who just followed orders and displayed those characteristics which the correspondent and official historian of Australian in World War 1, C.E.W.Bean identified as embodying the ANZAC spirit. If you are looking for something a little less daunting than 800 pages then the ‘Disaster at Fromelles’ article on the Australian War Memorial site is recommended.

Also a 35 minute ABC radio interview with Peter Barton, ‘Fromelles: An Australian Tragedy’ is well worth listening to. 

 

Short Cuts

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of historical material to get through when preparing for a class.

Instead of last minute reading, what about listening to a relevant podcast while driving to school or doing other tasks.

The ABC radio interview about Fromelles, mentioned above, is just one example of how to get your head quickly around a complex topic. Download the interview onto one of your digital devices and listen to it when you can. The ABC is an excellent source of quality history programs, specially Hindsight (now Earshotand Rearvision. Historical topics are also frequently discussed on Saturday Extra and Background Briefing.

We will draw your attention to some of these programs in the coming months.

 

What’s Next

The next blog will look at the controversial historical question in Australian history: ‘Invasion v’s Settlement’ with a review of Stan Grant’s Book, ‘Talking to My Country’.