Remembering the Western Front - 1916
In 2016, we will commemorate the 100th anniversaries of the battles that took place on the Western Front in 1916. The Western Front was a narrow war zone that ran continuosly from the English Channel near Ostende to Belfort on the Swiss border, a distance of about 760 kilometeres. Units from NSW played a gallant role in the battles on the Western Front. Two of these battles, which bore witness to displays of great sacrifice by the Anzacs, were the Battle of Fromelles and the Battle of Pozières.
In July 2016, 24 Premier's Anzac Memorial Scholars will travel to the battlefields and memorial sites of the Western Front. They will commemorate the service and sacrifice of Australian soldiers during the Great War. The tour, funded by the NSW Government and managed by Veterans' Affairs, will coincide with official commemorations of the Battle of Pozières and the Battle of Fromelles, which the scholars will attend as NSW representatives.
A brief history of the two battles, along with stories of some NSW soldiers that fought on the Western Front are detailed below.
The Battle of Fromelles, on 19 July 1916, was a bloody initiation to warfare for Australian soldiers on the Western Front. Soldiers of the newly arrived 5th Australian Division, together with the British 61st Division, were ordered to attack strongly fortified German front line positions near the Aubers Ridge in French Flanders. The attack was intended as a deceptive action to hold German reserves from moving south to the Somme where a large Allied offensive had begun on 1 July. The feint was a disastrous failure. Australian and British soldiers went on the attack over open ground in broad daylight and under direct observation and heavy fire from the German lines. Over 5,500 Australians became casualties. Almost 2,000 of them were killed in action or died of wounds and some 400 were captured. This is believed to be the greatest loss by a single division in 24 hours during the entire First World War. Some consider Fromelles the most tragic event in Australia’s history.
Pozieres, a small village in the Somme Valley in France, was the scene of bitter and costly fighting for the 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions in mid 1916. The village was captured initially by the 1st Division on 23 July 1916. The division clung to its gains despite almost continuous artillery fire and repeated German counter-attacks, but suffered heavily. When the division was relieved on 27 July 1916 it had suffered 5,285 casualties during those four days of fighting. The 2nd Division took over from the 1st and mounted two further attacks - the first, on 29 July, was a costly failure; the second, on 2 August, resulted in the seizure of further German positions beyond the village. Again, the Australians suffered heavily from retaliatory bombardments. They were relieved on 6 August 1916, having suffered 6,848 casualties. The 4th Division was next into the line at Pozieres. It too endured a massive artillery bombardment, and defeated a German counter-attack on 7 August 1916; this was the last attempt by the Germans to retake Pozieres.
In less than seven weeks in the fighting at Pozières and Mouquet Farm three Australian divisions suffered 23,000 casualties. Of these, 6,800 men were killed or died of wounds. It was a loss comparable with the casualties sustained by the Australians over eight months at Gallipoli in 1915.
Soldiers of the Western Front
Private Charles Healey
Private Reginald Alfred Charles Healey, 2nd Battalion, of Manly, NSW. A painter prior to enlisting in July 1915, Pte Healey embarked from Sydney with the 11th Reinforcement onboard HMAT Euripides on 2 November 1915. The 11th Reinforcements joined up with the 2nd Battalion in Egypt in February 1916. The 54th Battalion was raised in Egypt on 16 February 1916 with half of its recruits were the 2nd Battalion reinforcements, including Private Healey, newly arrived from Australia. Private Healey arrived with the 54th Battalion in France on 29 June 1916. He was killed in action at the Battle of Fromelles, France, on 19 July 1916 and has no known grave. Private Healey was 26 years of age.
Private John Phillips
Private John Patrick (Jack) Phillips, 9th Battalion, of Marrickville, NSW. A labourer prior to enlistment on 22 August 1915, Private Phillips embarked from Sydney on HMAT Port Lincoln with the 11th Reinforcements on 13 October 1915. On 16 February 1916, in Egypt, he was transferred to the 53rd Battalion, and took the service number 3422A. He was killed in action on 19 July 1916 at Fleurbaix, at the age of 20.
Private Frank Pickering
Private Frank Hessell Pickering, 18th Battalion, of Auburn, NSW. A telegraphist prior to enlisting, he embarked from Sydney aboard HMAT Suevic on 20 November 1915. He was killed in action on 22 July 1916 at Pozieres, France, aged 23. He has no known grave and is remembered with honour on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, France.
Private Thomas Brooks
Private Thomas Brooks, 20th Battalion of Barrengarry, NSW. Son of Alfred and Anne Maria Brooks. A farmer prior to enlisting, he embarked from Sydney aboard HMAT Euripides on 2 November 1915. He was killed in action on 29 July 1916 at Pozieres, France, aged 28. He has no known grave, and is remembered with honour on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, France.
Additional information on the Battles of Pozieres and the Battle of Fromelles, along with other conflicts on the Western Front, can be found at the following websites:
- The Australian War Memorial
- The Australian Remembrance Trail
- The Australian Army - The Western Front
- Australia.gov.au - Australian's on the Western Front